The details of love

BY LEILA BLOCH

Love affairs that transpire in the euphoria of post-war are perceived to be some of the most meaningful, desperate and celebratory. At the core of All That Is, rests some of the greatest romances — between lovers and in passing moments.

Throughout his novel, PEN/Faulkner winner James Salter proves that the romantic is not limited to a singular event or person. His vignettes of everyday life capture a post-World War Two society with precision and flair. No waiter, writer, friend or enemy is missed by his pen.  Not one depiction of a bank teller nor figure of a waitress goes unnoticed. Characters are treated with as much detail and care as a description of a broken marriage or illness.

From the moment the leading character Bowman arrives back after war to begin a career in publishing, we are absorbed in the all-consuming comings and goings of everyday life — from empty bars and crowded rooms, to words exchanged in chance encounters and during secret pillow talk.

As Fitzgerald once said, “He was simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.” Some of Salter’s literary dinner scenes are reminiscent of Paris in the early twenties. The presence of artistic and literary figures such as Pound, Mozart, Shelley, Cavafy and Sartre haunt the pages both casually and with intimate familiarity. Tolstoy’s Childhood, Boyhood and Youth is mentioned, the structure loosely mirrored as Bowman ages through the novel. Comparable to Hemmingway’s A Moveable Feast, Salter’s prose combines the nuances of everyday exploration with self-reflection, underscored by an appreciation for the solitary found in Phillip Roth’s later works.

While centred on America, the momentum that comes with the possibility of travel is ever-present. The narrative transports us to many countries. He navigates the turbulent post-war years with hope and a sense of possibility. He approaches life with a resilient acceptance of the collapse and restoration of human experience and relationships. While remaining loyal to his interests in woman and writing, Bowman finds ways to regenerate his sense of self.

While the romances are grandiose and sweeping, the language is evocative, restrained and easy to follow. This is a novel to be enjoyed. The reader can slip in and out at various moments. The novel has a historical backdrop of war which may shape the context of the characters lives but it does not distract from the timeless traditions of human exchanges and the relentless desire to document, in writing, experiences as it happens.

All That Is is published by Picador, R225, and is one of AERODROME’s WinterReads.

GIVEAWAY: Win one of two copies of All That Is by James Salter. To enter, email competition(at)aerodrome.co.za, with the book’s title in the subject line. In the body of the email please include your full name, contact number and physical address (including area code). Only readers resident in South Africa are eligible. Entries close on 30 August 2013.

EXTRACT: All That Is by James Salter

James Salter

In the mood of euphoria that was everywhere after the war it was still necessary to find a place for oneself. He applied at the Times but there was nothing, and it was the same at the other papers. Fortunately he had a contact, a classmate’s father who was in public relations and who had virtually invented the business. He could arrange anything in newspapers and magazines—for ten thousand dollars, it was said, he could put someone on the cover of Time. He could pick up the phone and call anyone, the secretaries immediately put him through.
Bowman was to go and see him at his house, in the morning. He always ate breakfast at nine.
“Will he expect me?”
“Yes, yes. He knows you’re coming.”
Having hardly slept the night before, Bowman stood on the street in front of the house at eight-thirty. It was a mild autumn morning. The house was in the Sixties, just off Central Park West. It was broad and imposing, with tall windows and the facade almost completely covered with a deep gown of ivy. At a quarter to nine he rang at the door, which was glass with heavy iron grillwork.
He was shown into a sun-filled room on the garden. Along one wall was a long, English-style buffet with two silver trays, a crystal pitcher of orange juice, and a large silver coffee pot covered with a cloth, also butter, rolls, and jam. The butler asked how he would like his eggs. Bowman declined the eggs. He had a cup of coffee and nervously waited. He knew what Mr. Kindrigen would look like, a well-tailored man with a somewhat sinewy face and gray hair.
It was silent. There were occasional soft voices in the kitchen. He drank the coffee and went to get another cup. The garden windows were vanishing in the light.
At nine-fifteen, Kindrigen came into the room. Bowman said good morning. Kindrigen did not reply or even appear to notice him. He was in shirtsleeves, an expensive shirt with wide French cuffs. The butler brought coffee and a plate with some toast. Kindrigen stirred the coffee, opened the newspaper, and began reading it, sitting sideways to the table. Bowman had seen villains in Westerns sit this way. He said nothing and waited. Finally Kindrigen said,
“You are . . . ?”
“Philip Bowman,” Bowman said. “Kevin may have mentioned me . . .”
“Are you a friend of Kevin’s?”
“Yes. From school.”
Kindrigen still had not looked up.
“You’re from . . . ?”
“New Jersey, I live in Summit.”
“What is it you want?” Kindrigen said.
“I’d like to work for the New York Times,” Bowman said, matching the directness.
Kindrigen glanced at him for a brief moment.
“Go home,” he said.

Extracted from All That Is by James Salter, published by Picador, R225. The book is one of AERODROME’s WinterReads.

GIVEAWAY: Win one of two copies of All That Is by James Salter. To enter, email competition(at)aerodrome.co.za, with the book’s title in the subject line. In the body of the email please include your full name, contact number and physical address (including area code). Only readers resident in South Africa are eligible. Entries close on 30 August 2013.

Drainpipes and chimney pots

“Never ignore a possible,” exhorts Charles, the guardian of 12-year-old Sophie. It’s a piece of advice she will often return to as she embarks on the search for the mother she is convinced is still alive.

As a baby, Sophie was rescued from a sinking ship in the English Channel (she was found floating in a cello case) and taken in by the eccentric Charles, whose unorthodox views on parenting stoke the ire of the prim social worker Miss Eliot. The National Childcare Agency finally tires of Charles, deciding Sophie must be put in a children’s home – governments, it seems, do not approve of irregular home schooling or little girls wearing red trousers. Before the swoop, though, Sophie and Charles abscond – to Paris, where she embarks on a search for her mother. There’ll she meet the mysterious Matteo, also no fan of government-sponsored care, who only lives on rooftops. Using the flimsiest evidence (let’s not ignore a possible, after all) they begin the hunt for Sophie’s mum.

Rooftoppers is Katherine Rundell’s second children’s novel, and it has all the makings of a classic. The book is elegantly written: whimsical, charming, and intelligent, and sometimes very funny. From rainy London to starlit Paris, the freshly descriptive prose conjures up a sublime world of adventure. Rooftoppers celebrates resourcefulness, gumption and faith that adults would do well to embrace. It is a reminder that sometimes in having hope, we can reap remarkable rewards.

Rooftoppers is published by Faber and Faber, R119, and is one of AERODROME’s WinterReads.

Small people, wide storms

BY JENNIFER MALEC

White Dog Fell from the Sky is a vivid and moving novel set in Botswana in the late 1970s. The novel is Eleanor Morse’s third, and her first set in Africa. Morse hails from Maine in the USA, but spent a number of years in Botswana in the 1970s, travelling and teaching. As a South African, I felt the usual stab of protectiveness for southern Africa, and an ignoble sense of pique at an African story told by an American. However, White Dog is deftly written, and the descriptions of the landscape are evocative and truthful, thankfully lacking in the cloying symbolism that often haunts the African novel:

The pan was terrifying, the horizon white and fathomless, a savage, demonic, eerie place. So hot you couldn’t breathe. […] One gets used to a landscape that’s human in scale. There’s a future because it can be seen, just over the horizon if we choose to walk there, or ride there. But there was no future or past here. The horizon was unreachable, unknowable, swallowed in white.

Isaac Muthethe, a black medical student, is forced to flee South Africa and take up menial work as a gardener for a young American woman, Alice Mendelssohn, and her unpleasant husband, Lawrence. Tragedy hits both Isaac and Alice, and in places the book is almost unbearably sad, but it is sustained by a faint sense of upliftment.

In an interview with Timothy Gillis, Morse says she deliberately chose to use third-person narration for the character of Isaac, as she felt “arrogant being a white woman telling a black man’s story in first person”. But leaving aside arguments about who has the right to write whose story, the problems Alice faces – divorce, the death of a partner, an infestation of lice – seem almost ridiculous when compared to what Isaac and his family suffer under the apartheid government.

Ultimately, however, problems of theory or literary etiquette are rebuffed by the eponymous White Dog. The animal appears on the first page of the novel, as Isaac is dumped, half alive on a dusty street in the middle of nowhere, and steadfastly remains by his side. Even during Isaac’s period of disappearance at the hands of the South African security police, White Dog patiently and soundlessly waits for him, nearly dying of starvation in its devotion. But the dog’s mute loyalty is not endearing. Isaac mistakes it for a ghost the first time he sees it and it retains a ghostly lack of personality throughout, requiring nothing (except the occasional scrap of food) and giving nothing in return.

White Dog Fell from the Sky is a novel that demonstrates the difficulty of developing meaningful human relationships, and the near-impossiblity of doing so across racial boundaries in the context of 1970s southern Africa. Through the novel, Isaac and Alice prove – to themselves and us – that integrity, on however insignificant a scale, still exists.

White Dog Fell from the Sky is published by Penguin, R200, and is one of AERODROME’s WinterReads.

JENNIFER MALEC is the assistant digital editor of Kick Off.