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A Disappointing Mess
on 28 May 2013
Ignore the gushing reviews. This novel is awful. Salter is, or rather was, a wonderful writer and has produced several memorable books, but this is really nothing like his best work. It is unfocussed, uneven and devoted to an outlook which is likely to make many readers cringe with embarrassment.
On the surface, the novel is about the life of a man searching for love. It sounds promising enough, but actually we know so little about him that we don't really care one way or the other. Also, the search is mainly about sex. He has sex with various beautiful women and then, when things go wrong, he has sex with someone else. The dominant tone is elegaic and the supreme moments of his life take place either immediately before or immediately after sex with someone he doesn't know that well. Otherwise, his life appears to be completely blank, almost as if he has been lobotomised. He goes go Spain, for instance, and has sex with someone called Enid. Salter writes: "The light in the Ritz made her beautiful. The sound of her high heals. There is no other, there will never be another." That, for Salter, is the existential pinnacle of a man's life: a man watching a beautiful woman he has just has sex with, while reflecting on her irreplaceability and/or the ephemerality of things in general. We are told, ad nauseum, that we always lose what he have and can never recapture our moments of splendour.
The sex writing itself is among the worst I have ever encountered and often flirts with incomprehensibility.
"They made love as if it were a violent crime, he holding her by the waist, half woman, half vase, adding weight to the act. She was crying in agony like a dog near death."
That is pretty bad, but it does make sense, just about. But what about this:
"Her buttocks were glorious, it was like being in a bakery, and when she cried out it was like a dying woman......."
A bakery? Why? Because it was hot? Because her buttocks resemble crusty rolls? Because the atmosphere is appetisingly fragrant? Note, again, the trite "dying" motif - a typical Salterian attempt at profundity.
"He gathered and went in slowly, sinking like a ship, a little cry escaping her, the cry of a hare.........."
Like a ship?! Sinking under the waves? Or "sinking" in a narrow port?
Finally, how about: "There was no sound but the float of traffic distant and below. There was not even that. The silence was everywhere and he came like a drinking horse......."
I don't even know how to begin commenting on this. First of all, the ambiguity: is his coming being likened to the coming of a drinking horse, or to the drinking of a (non-coming) horse? Neither really makes any sense. Horses, as far as I know, don't ejaculate when they drink and when they do drink, the act doesn't really have all that much in common with a male orgasm. But I am open to suggestions.......
Sex is, of course, notoriously difficult to write about (did the earth move for thee?) but to be frank, a lot of the writing in All That Is is just as bad and looks as if he had been lifted from a fourth-rate romance. Salter was 87 when he published this, so it is a very late work indeed. It is not impossible to write a fine novel at that age - there are a couple of precedents - but it is probably very difficult. My guess, and it is only a guess, is that the "novel" goes back a long way (some of the writing is quite good) and was patched together from unfinished stories, character sketches, bits of travel writing and possibly even incomplete novels. It is just too incoherent and too uneven.
The real problem, however, it not the sex or the prose (which is usually serviceable and sometimes excellent), but the fact that Salter has chosen to spread his narrative web over far too many individuals. The "story" unfolds in a sequence of loosely related scenes or vignettes and everything happens much too quickly and with too little development. The narrative point of view is preposterously unstable. We follow the main protagonist to a party - which is fair enough, as he is the main protagonist; then we follow someone he meets; then a fellow publisher; then the publisher's mother; then someone's daughter; then the protagonists mother; then a lover's husband.......and so on. Eventually, sixty pages later, we come back to the protagonist and find that he has aged ten years. Interesting at first, but it soon becomes very dull and irritating. People fall in love and you don't care. People die and you don't care. People divorce and you yawn. Some scenes are rendered with genuine skill and wit, but on the whole, they feel like a second-rate parody of Salter's best writing.
A simple comparison with Salter's other, earlier works couldn't be more unflattering. There, each and every word feels as as if it has been scrubbed and polished and then placed into position with a pair of tweezers. Sentence after sentence rings in your mind; individual words - perfectly plain and lifeless in other novels - reverberate with stunning power. Characters are sharply etched and the dialogue is flawless. Scene follows scene with impeccable logic. The control is astounding. If you want to read Salter, try Cassada. Or The Hunters. Or the stories in Last Night. But give this is a miss or at least wait until you can get it from the library for free......