Selected quotes from the letters of James Salter & Robert Phelps
Memorable Days: The Selected Letters of James Salter and Robert Phelps, edited by John McIntyre (with a foreword by Michael Dirda), is a narrow but pleasing window into the lives of both Salter and Phelps, as well as a picture of their quotidian struggles. The letters cover about 1969 - 1980.
I revere Salter’s work. A friend of mine mentioned that the letters were sort of boring, and I think that’s true if you come looking for page after page of incandescent literary insight. There is something that buoys me up when I catch glimpses of Salter working on Light Years around the hustle of filling the funnel with money. If you like Light Years, there are many stray source seeds to enjoy here.
Phelps, whom I have not read and was not familiar with, finds his life and voice sustained because of this deep friendship with Salter. Phelps died in 1989 of colon cancer, though his letters detail his “shaky paw,” a condition which is diagnosed eventually as Parkinson’s Disease. In many ways, it is Phelps voice that is most alive in the letters, though it is Salter who still lives today.
Below are quotes from the letters, selected only because they spoke to me in the process of reading the book, and presented in roughly the order they appear chronologically.
"She looks very well and seems to be going through that crisis of irresolution that proceeds getting to work." (JS)
"I yearn for the structural presence, the conception and architecture that only invention makes possible." (RP)
"I can’t seem to forget myself long enough to get something written." (RP)
"More and more I want to write about people who cannot modify themselves to reality, whose life looks like no one else’s, people who stain your life." (JS)
"We consume whole worlds to write a single sentence and yet we never use up a part of what is available. I love the infinities, the endlessness involved…" (JS)
"New York is only good for being robbed. Almost everyone I know wants to leave." (RP)
“‘It will be an age of journals’ said Emerson, one hundred years ago.” (RP, 1971)
“‘Success would ruin me.’ But if success doesn’t, something else will. Why not give success a chance?” (RP)
"Saturday morning. The weather saves us and the weather kills us. Today is grey, inert, a little too warm. How awful it is to wake up in the same old life." (JS)
"(Andrew Lytle) says I have committed a violation by shifting the point of view in the story and that he has found when an author violates the point of view ‘he is backing off from the crisis of his action.’ He says the ‘enveloping action of any kind of universal or archetypal truth is obscure’ in the story. This and more. It’s true, most stories do have a single point of view: that of the writer. In my opinion, he is free to go wherever he lifes, so long as he compels, or at least, interests. The rest is merely dry theory and one writes with one’s instincts." (JS)
"Yesterday someone I had to listen to urged me to read The Day of the Jackal, marvelous book they said, I was licking my dry lips trying to make my mind wander, you couldn’t put it down they said. Well if you read Tolstoy or Proust or Dickens, I said, you will find just the opposite, that you have to put them down.” (JS)
"It’s depressing to read minor talents writing about themselves with the conceit that they are as important as anyone. Almost nobody is as important as anyone." (JS)
"It takes a lifetime to fall but only a single stroke to rise." (JS)
"The other night, drunk and naked, we waded out into the crashing waves at two in the morning." (JS, 1978. Interesting to note this moment is also found in All That Is )
In collecting these, it seems I’ve had a bias for Salter, though it might be a mark of some quality that it’s harder to excerpt Phelps into one of those Internet-friendly aphorisms. He must be taken in whole.