A cairn we found on the intercontinental divide.
There's nothing quite like James Salter for slicing a soul to pieces with a plastic picnic fork. What follows are excerpts from his short story, "Via Negativa", published in the Paris Review.
Salter depicts the well-read writer whose life exists as the failure of having lived a normal life- a life others might allow him to claim. He listens to people argue over his childhood- his favorite poems, hair colors, behaviors- and then lays on the couch as the dishes are cleared.
They did not hear him. They were arguing about his childhood, various details of it, poems he had memorized, his beautiful hair. What a good student he had been. How grown-up when he ate, the fork too large for his hand. His chin was like his father's, they said. The shape of his head.
“In the back,” his aunt said.
“A beautiful head,” his mother confirmed. “You have a perfect head, did you know that?”
Afterwards he lay on the couch and listened as they cleared the dishes. He closed his eyes. Everything was familiar to him, phrases he had heard before, quarrels about the past, even the smell of the cushions beneath his head. In the bedroom was a collection of photographs in ill-fitting frames. In them, if one traced the progression, was a face growing older and older, more and more unpromising. Had he really written all those earnest letters preserved in shoe boxes together with school books and folded programs? He was sleeping in the museum of his life.
He marvels over the past of a woman whose body leaves no memory of it. Then he acts destructively, heads onto the night street to clear his head, regain a sense of self surrendered to competing narratives of family life or romance.
In the street he saw on every side, in darkening windows, in reflections, as if suddenly it were visible to him, a kind of chaos. It welcomed, it acclaimed him. The huge tires of buses roared past. It was the last hour of light. He felt the solitude of crime. He stopped, like an addict, in a phone booth. His legs were weak. No, beneath the weakness was something else. For a moment he saw unknown depths to himself, he glittered with images. It seemed he was attracting the glances of women who passed. They recognize me, he thought, they smell me in the dark like mares. He smiled at them with the cracked lips of an incorrigible. He cared nothing for them, only for the power to disturb. He was bending their love towards him, a stupid love, a love without which he could not breathe.
He plays the piano, dreams of driving anywhere else.
In Bach there was not only order and coherence but more, a code, a repetition which everything depended on. After a while he felt a pounding beneath his feet, the broom of the idiot on the floor below. He continued to play. The pounding grew louder.
Stories emerge from chance events, uncomfortable intersections which demand words to move us from one joint to the next.
All is chance or nothing is chance. At dinner Jeanine met a man who longed, he said, to perform an act of great and unending generosity, like Genet's in giving his house to a former lover.
“Generosity purifies,” he said. He was later to tell her that words were no accident, their arrangement and choice was like another voice speaking, a voice which revealed everything. Vocabulary was like fingerprints, he said, like handwriting, like the body which revealed the invisible soul, which expressed it.
To be seen for the self that develops rather than the self that other minds (and their memories) make us.
She asked no questions. She recognized him.