Essays - Spring 2009

Dawn of a Literary Friendship

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In 1969 the writer Robert Phelps first wrote to the novelist James Salter. Here are the letters that forged a bond of two decades.

By John McIntyre


At the very end of 1969, A Sport and a Pastime having been published with sales of a few thousand copies, I received a fan letter, long, intelligent and admiring…

—James Salter, Burning the Days

The author of the fan letter to the novelist James Salter was Robert Phelps, a writer who himself had written one novel, hundreds of book reviews, and a number of singular books of bricolage that employed the knowledge and insight of a biographer. Composer and author Ned Rorem has characterized Phelps as a “frantic Francophile”; naturally, A Sport and a Pastime won Phelps’s admiration, for it is a novel that follows a love affair between a young American man and a French shop girl in “green, bourgeois France.” In addition to the French setting, Salter uses techniques from the French nouveau roman, such as repetition and fly-on-the-wall narration. But it was not until the release of Three, a 1969 film Salter directed, starring Charlotte Rampling and Sam Waterston, that Phelps actually initiated their correspondence.

At the time, two years after A Sport and a Pastime had been published, Salter was building the reputation he still holds as a writer who “writes American sentences better than anybody writing today,” to quote the novelist Richard Ford. By 1970, though, Salter was struggling with a movie script he was having trouble getting produced. It must have galled him to think he might have been writing fiction instead, but there was the consolation of good money for the film assignments.

The correspondence that follows, which grew out of Phelps’s first letter, reflects only one year of a 20-year exchange of roughly 200 letters, ending with Phelps’s death in 1989. The letters from 1970 offer glimpses of Salter’s work habits. In the correspondence as a whole, a fuller picture of Salter as a writer emerges, as in late 1975 when he describes this (for him) highly appropriate arrangement: “I’m writing on the same table on which I eat. Wonderful, warm confusion. Bits of Stilton, stains of tea.”

After reading Heroes and Orators, Phelps’s 1958 novel, Salter wrote that, “Of course, this was a youthful book. You had not yet found the stream-bed that runs from within to the page . . . you were only beginning to understand how to focus the enormous forces, the knowledge, and the anti-knowledge, within you.” Salter’s own youthful books (The Hunters and The Arm of Flesh) were behind him by that time. A Sport and a Pastime clearly proceeded from Salter’s own “stream-bed,” and so did other things he wrote during the two decades of the correspondence, his novel Light Years in particular.

Now, more than a decade after Heroes and Orators, Phelps was struggling to produce another novel. Like Salter, he was devoting much of his time to work for immediate pay, in his case writing book reviews and journalism. The writer Dan Wakefield remembers Phelps talking of his novels-in-progress, “speaking of them as fondly as if they were the names of lovers.” It is puzzling that Phelps never finished any of them. In his landmark book, Love and Death in the American Novel (1960), the critic Leslie Fiedler calls Phelps “a serious new writer” and Heroes and Orators “a complex and troubling study of homosexuality.” Despite the good notices, Phelps did not publish a word of fiction in the final three decades of his life. The question of why yields complex answers.

Phelps’s novel did explore homosexuality—although glancingly. He thought of himself as bisexual, and he was married to a painter named Rosemarie Beck. Phelps was uncomfortable with the identity he would have been assigned if his successive books also had homosexual themes, especially if they were more explicit. It’s unclear whether this was due to his fear that being labeled a gay novelist would limit him as a writer or whether he was simply uncomfortable with being seen as gay. In a 1965 journal entry, he considered becoming the world’s “first bisexual novelist,” but in other instances he referred to himself as a monster, and saw his life as divided. Perhaps most unfortunate, Phelps believed that a trembling of his hand (later diagnosed as Parkinson’s disease) was the result of this ambivalence. In a 1972 letter to Salter, he wrote, “My hand continues to shake. It’s all neurotic, I’m sure. Il faut payer—but in my case, it’s mostly for sins of omission, I’m afraid.”

His inability, or unwillingness, to complete later works of fiction has left Phelps’s name dimly recognized by readers today, though friends in the literary world (among them, Richard Howard and Michael Dirda, whose appreciation of Phelps follows) speak of him reverently. Instead of fiction, Phelps compiled “autobiographies” of Colette (Earthly Paradise) and Jean Cocteau (Professional Secrets) by assembling selections from their writings, rather than using the available texts to fashion standard biographies. Rorem has written that, in such books, Phelps’s “elucidation was creation,” but the reality is that Phelps’s willingness to let these authors’ works speak for them has consigned him to the margins.

Rorem has described Phelps’s letters as “witty, lewd, sage, generous, gossipy, aggressively self-effacing, monstrously opinionated without bitchery, engrossed by the literary life in general while being always directed to a unique recipient, and generally weaving something extraordinary out of something ordinary.” Phelps and Salter quickly formed a genuine bond, one that survived 20 years of professional and personal changes of fortune. These letters, like Salter’s reflections on Phelps in his 1997 memoir, Burning the Days, are testament to that bond, as well as a reminder that Phelps was a passionate literary man, prematurely forgotten by readers.

December 24, 1969
New York

Dear Mr. Salter,

I have had your Nyack address (from Geo. Plimpton’s Maggie Paley) for well over a year now, and during all this time, I have been intending to write you about A Sport and a Pastime, which—let’s say—is my own favorite American novel of the ’60s. Then, a couple of weeks ago, I came out of Downhill Racer in a trance of enthusiasm (at the script, I mean) and burbled a letter as I dodged Third Ave traffic, but found a bar and talked myself out before getting home to the typewriter. Now I’ve seen Three, and I must make you some sort of sign, however hasty and inadequate to my multiple occasions…

Of course another American can’t talk about your work without mentioning the quality of your sensuous response to the good earthly life—food, clothing, flesh, cars, water, hotels. The wistful Puritan is probably the only soul who can be so romantic and precise at the same time when contemplating or partaking in the earthly paradise…

I have no idea where you are at present, here or abroad, but if you’re ever in town, I’d like to buy you a drink and ply you with questions.

January 2, 1970
Aspen

Dear Robert Phelps,

I’m a great admirer of your book of Colette [Earthly Paradise]. I’ve given many copies away. Everything about it is beautiful. I love to pick it up. I’m out here working for the winter. Don’t know when I’ll be in New York but I look forward very much to meeting you.

Three, unfortunately, has not been drawing audiences, anyway not big enough for it to keep playing and the end may come by the time this reaches you.

Your letter gave me great pleasure.
James Salter

They met for the first time in mid-January 1970, at El Quijote, a Spanish restaurant in the Chelsea Hotel. Phelps was waiting at the bar. The talk was immediately comfortable, and though Salter noted that Phelps was better read than he, it wasn’t something Phelps flaunted, but an intrinsic part of his conversation, of his life. Other dinners followed, at Phelps’s apartment on 12th Street, and at restaurants in the neighborhood. A growing fondness is evident in the letters following that first meeting, a fondness that did not die, as suggested by Salter’s remark in Burning the Days that he has never passed the Chelsea “without remembering, in the manner of a love affair.”

February 1
New York

Dear Jim,

A pro-tem report:

It’s now just about set that I’ll go to London on March 17th; to Paris March 29th; and come back April 9th. I can’t stay away any longer because I’m committed to a New School workshop this semester and three successive classes is all I can justifiably skip. But what I am most eager to do is get to Zurich in October, with a week of the vendange in France in September…

Give Yvonne a bearhug. Mr. Salter, too. He’s displacing an enormous part of my daily thoughts, wonderings, questionings, etc.

Robert

Roger Straus [the book publisher and head of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux] was very impressed by your visit; in fact, it put the whole office in a flap, and assorted young ladies are still complaining that I didn’t escort you around and present you in person!

The “Yvonne” Phelps refers to is the painter Yvonne Thomas, who was part of the New York group that so changed American and world art between the 1940s and 1960s. She was French, quite beautiful, and had lived a glamorous life; she counted a dance with the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII) among the memorable evenings of her life. Both Salter and Phelps knew her, Salter because she was one of the prominent figures in the early days of Aspen, where Salter had lived for part of each year for the past four decades. She owned a large property there, inherited from her husband, who died in a fire. Phelps had lived in New York for years, and knew her through his wife, who was part of the same influential group of artists.

February 20
New York

Dear James,

This past week has been parceled up, or broken down, into so many unrelated parts that I feel like Humpty Dumpty. Suddenly it’s Friday and I sit here baffled, sulky and wanting a refund, a re-run, a recount. Did I tell you on the phone that my European junket is temporarily off? The decision came two weeks ago, when a dear friend of mine died, a poet named Louise Bogan; and as I sat in one of those grotesque little “sitting rooms” at the Campbell Funeral Home, with Bill Maxwell on one side and Louise’s daughter on the other (she writes the copy for the Chiquita banana ads!), a Voice told me I’d better finish a book of my own toot-tweet! Then the same week my Rockefeller dough arrived, more dollars than I’ve ever had at once in my life before; and I decided that I didn’t really need to spend the weekend in Sussex with Cyril Connolly, nor have a vegetarian lunch with Brigid Brophy, nor even dine on eels with Janet Flanner, nor accompany 82-year-old Marcel Jouhandeau on one of his regular Thursday visits to a male whorehouse near the place Pigalle.

I have your laundry, by the way. Do you want me to file it on my bookshelf under “S”?

April 10
Aspen

Robert, my,

A great, a day-long storm of snow here. I love bad weather. That was a wonderful night at Luchow’s. Your stories pour over me; I am in a different world, one where I recognize myself. And the dinner chez-toi as well. I read all the [Edward] Field poems the next morning; I don’t know if I really like them that much, perhaps one or two.

Aspen is dry, both atmospherically and otherwise. Yvonne is coming to dinner tonight, together with a failed painter named David Michael. I’m going to ask some questions, we have a Ouija board that all these women believe in utterly…

I am in a state of calm, even of serenity. I am without distractions, without amusements even. The town is empty. My pulse from New York will take two weeks to run down, perhaps a month. We spent an hour with young Mr. [Edgar] Bronfman, large holder of mgm, now ousted, who is making films independently. His offices, of course, are in the Seagram Building. A white-coated waiter from the Four Seasons, oh, all right, the Brasserie, brought coffee in a manner one finds only in Europe. In the kitchen everyone is quarreling. The snow floods down

Dear Robert,
J.

April 18
New York

Dear Jim,
This morning came a 3-page letter from Philip Guston—all about A Sport and a Pastime, which he loves. “It’s a work I will re-read more & more . . .” We had dinner together last week and I gave him my extra copy, inscribed “from the author by way of Phelps.” Excuse the gall. I’m helplessly proprietary about whatever I love. It’s a wonder I haven’t told people Salter is one of my pseudonyms. We must go to Chinatown, the three of us. Philip is a robust gourmand, even a gourmet. I’ve known him since 1947. His new work is fantastic—Piero della Francesca-cum-Bud Fisher (Mutt & Jeff). He’ll have a huge show here in October, then go to Russia and Israel (where he is a great cultural hero) and spend the winter in Rome.

I sit here trying to write exactly 650 words for Life about a show of 19th century American painting, furniture, etc. at the Met. There is a 1796 Salem chest of drawers which was recently found in an attic, with its nine drawers being used for ripening pears!

Over the weekend I almost died of food-poisoning, having gone with Colette’s daughter and Susan Sontag and her Neapolitan girl friend Carlotta something (looks like a skinny Monica Vitti) to an abominable Chinese restaurant somewhere on the upper West Side…

April 30
En route to Warsaw


Dear Robert,

I love your letters. Philip Guston’s aren’t bad either, I return it herewith. I’ve finished my work for the moment; I’m speaking of work I have to do, a long film treatment, and mailed it off to New York. I expect, I hope, to be summoned to appear, perhaps in a week or so. In the meantime I’m reading Choses Vues [a collection of first-person pieces by Victor Hugo that Phelps introduced Salter to]. The print is very small and I’m only using one eye so it takes time. I’m not reading it; I’m translating it into English. I’m also reading a couple of other books trying to gather the last of the necessary material for a play, I don’t suppose it will ever be produced but I want to do something that’s interesting to read.

The story in the Paris Review (strange, I have the impression of telling you everything) is about—hello, Robert Phelps, hello, Edward Field—movies. As a matter of fact, it’s called “The Cinema” and it’s filled with imperfect people though not as imperfect as I’d like. It may be a little too romantic, finally, I don’t know. 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.
Today, again, driving snows here. I’ve had a fire burning all afternoon, I have the beautiful feeling of winters in Italy (I’ve never spent one). I’m drinking tea without sugar and planning to live 20 or 30 more years with everything falling away from me but my notebooks and work (in my family, teeth and hair are yours to the grave)…

July 6
Aspen
Thunderstorms and hot weather. I am reading Tolstoy.


Dear Robert,

Why don’t you work here? I miss you and there’s nobody to speak avec. I may come to New York this coming Sunday (July 12th) or Monday, depending on whether [director Stanley] Donen summons me or not, I’ve had one call but not the important one. If so, I definitely want to stay at your place, can you leave the key with the lady first floor rear? I’ll likely be there Sunday–Thursday or something….

I’ve written upon and expanded (especially the opening) To Warsaw. Also double-spaced it because people say it seems too short. It’s 147 pages now. These are the last days/weeks of hope for doing it this fall.

Love,
J.

I’m tired of my life, my clothes, the things I say. I’m hacking away at the surface, as at some kind of gray ice, trying to break through to what is underneath or I am dead. I can feel the surface trembling—it seems ready to give but it never does. I am uninterested in current events. How can I justify this? How can I explain it? I don’t want to have the same vocabulary I’ve always had. I want something richer, broader, more penetrating and powerful. If I could only forget myself and work! That’s how things are.

The remainder of Salter’s summer was divided between London and Corsica, at the invitation of Stanley Donen (Two for the Road, Singing in the Rain, Bedazzled). He worked on a film script in London, and traveled to Corsica with Donen and his girlfriend Barbara Aptekman. Phelps, meanwhile, took a cottage on Fire Island with the intention of working on a novel tentatively known as “The Silent Partner,” only to end up devoting his summer months to the care of his ailing mother-in-law, and writing journalism instead. To Warsaw was a script Salter had written the previous year and was trying to advance.

August 25
Aspen


Dear Robert,

The perfect small hotel [Hotel Saint-Simon, Paris], I’ve found it for you and have a description of every room. The prices are as lovely as the little courtyard in front, they start at $3.50 and go to $14.50 for the two small apartments, I think they’re 43 and 44; I’m not looking at my notes.

I didn’t stop in New York on the way home. I transferred from Japan Airlines to twa and went straight through to Denver. That was Sunday. Of course, I’m still beat. Will I ever see Europe again? I’m already thinking that, I have the guilt and insecurity of the rich…

Where is my Professional Secrets? Can you send me one? I want to have it in my hands, what does it look like? I’m going to slip into it during the cool autumn evenings as if it were a bath.
What things I have seen! Genoa at dawn—I arrived on the boat from Corsica, the sea was like a pond, the sun not even up. I had the terrace of a little hotel high above the harbor. There were chickens strolling among the chairs and ducks nested in the garden. I have the rooms cased in this hotel, too (the Basilica). I had a room with the walls a pale blue; I felt I was in Tunisia.

My rotten tenants inform me they are leaving my Nyack house in mid-September. It will need considerable cleaning and repair; perhaps I’ll do that and work in solitude, afloat in the green trees, for a month. You must see this house. I miss you.

October 2
New York


Dear James,

Exactly 10 years ago today I moved to New York. I hereby declare mon apprentissage over. As of today, I must become a professional or perish.

Finally, yesterday, at the 8th Street Bookshop, I found a copy of the Paris Review. The story is ravishing, echt Salter. I have read it twice; Becki has read it once…The thing that most gratifies me (and I mean gratify literally, as good cheese gratifies me, or a well-hung line of laundry snapping in the wind, or a Cavafy poem) is that if I stop at the end of almost any given sentence, I cannot guess what will come next—neither substance nor syntax. With most writers, there is maximum predictability. You can skim whole paragraphs. Like Isaac Babel, Salter arcs and makes right-angle turns. It is a little like riding in a flying saucer, or on the tail of a hummingbird.

But the story itself—the ambience, the details, what you tell me, is so entirely your own, and no one else’s, that I find it hard to make a merely aesthetic judgment. You are a minority of one; a new herb in the cabinet; and, at the least, the most romantic writer we have. You enhance. You restore a sacredness to profaned aspects and relations. Whatever corner you are in is brightened in a grave, wistful, but unsentimental way that is sui generis. With wholly different temperaments, Genet and Pasolini do something of the same thing. But you are tender, and unperverse. You are pure, and in the European sense of the word, American.

The documentary director Jim Case’s film The Artist in America focused on Salter. Phelps appeared in Case’s documentary to discuss Salter’s work.

October 25
New York


Dear James,

Jim Case & crew were here Friday. We tried to reach you in Piermont, but apparently you had already left. The upstairs room looked marvelous with the lights and fat cables and camera set up. Puddy (cat) was especially pleased. But I’m afraid I was lame. A camera makes me desperately uncomfortable, and besides I was pooped from two days in Boston: meeting editors, staying with friends’ abundant children, getting drunk at the Ritz, walking around Walden Pond (which has an oil slick at the end where Thoreau’s cottage once stood), boarding the jet shuttle in Fear & Trembling. This week I’m typing up a chapter of my novel for the Atlantic to consider (called “Tar Beach”); and I have a commission to do a longish piece called “In Praise of Billy Beaularis: Notes on Bisexuality.” But I need material; stories. Do you know any anecdotes?

It’s a good working day here, with a dark, uneventful sky and just enough rain to make the passing tires hiss on the pavement. A snug, indoor, innerlich day. I only wish I had a fireplace…

November 4
Aspen


“To take the edge off his tension [Phelps] started nipping Walker’s Red Label (9:30 am). By the time we were set up his ‘ths’ and ‘eds’ weren’t there. Took him to the corner Italian place and filled him full of pasta. In the afternoon he was marvelous…”

—Jim Case

Well, Robert, there’s your first, I presume, experience. You’ll soon be on the Dick Cavett show like Vladimir Nabokov and it will all seem a childish memory. Case is coming here once more at the end of the month and I’ll find out more about it then.

This afternoon I’m going out to chop wood in the finger-biting cold. Winter is hovering above us, a week or two away. I’m struggling with one or two (absent) sentences in my Goetheaneum story which was due in September but fortunately there’s no way to be late for the Paris Review. Next week—I have a beautiful, fresh sketch book for the purpose, one with a hard black cover—I’m finally going to start on my play. God grant it be better than some we have seen together (Why did she shoot him? Because he couldn’t get a hard-on with all those (all those 20) people watching?).

I did talk to Susan Sontag, did I tell you? I said you had seen her looking dazzling at Farrar Straus—I could feel the warmth of her reaction…

Would you like to visit in Aspen this winter, you Becki and Puddy? You know I have a separate house with a library, bath, fireplace, and bed on a balcony where the first light appears in small, scattered windows. Consider it.

November 23
New York


Dear James,

I have turned down $50,000 to write a biography of Mrs. McCullers, but accepted $500 to write 625 words on an ex-press agent who makes very bad sculptures of literary people. In a small way I guess I’m a whore. Becki disapproves…

Janet Flanner is here, drinking less and looking like a chic cockatoo. She used to look like a beautiful frog prince.

No more room. I hope the play is coming. I envy you your wood-chopping.

November 25
Aspen


What a flood of light a letter brings, a letter of yours. I cannot read one sentence, something about the play, oh, wait, now I see. I hope the play [which would come to be known as The Death Star] is coming. Well, rather painfully, it is. I have a wonderful Japanese sketchbook to write in and that’s the best of it. Every morning I take off my wristwatch, read an old copy of Le Monde (I have hundreds) especially the literature page, and then set to work, resisting all the way, but the beginning is always difficult.

My play (it’s an act of rashness and a temptation to all destructive forces to begin anything without a title—the title forms the work, it’s the source of endless ideas) is not quite another Orlando Furioso….It’s a play with much that’s verbal and perhaps even more that’s not. If you like silences and curious passages almost like ballet, you’ll like it. I’m trying to write it so it can be done with or without a stage and all the technological apparatus of modern theatre; as I said, it’s appearing reluctantly at the moment, though I see before me certain stretches I am eager to reach, I hope I’m ready when the time comes…

December 27
New York


Dear James,

Did you see that yourself and Three were immortalized by Mr. Rex Reed in this morning’s Times? I have written him a letter of thanks.

This is the week of the year that most shames and aggravates me. Every time around, I promise myself that I shall treat it like a siege of pneumonia, and take proper measures. But then I lapse into ordinariness, and let myself be overwhelmed. No one to blame but Robert if I get a sulky heartburn. Life must be plotted like a Hardy novel.

Faute de mieux, I am reading eight to 10 hours a day. I am even rereading Tolkien’s trilogy about hobbits. When I originally read it aloud to my son, circa 1959, I wept at the end of almost every chapter. It’s about courage, being chosen, the mystery of vocations; I love it. Last night, at the end of the scene in which Frodo races the Black Riders to the ford at Rivendell, I wept again. Mysterious, since I cannot read most allegorical books, especially when they are “for children.” I have never gotten through Lewis Carroll, for instance, and I loathe Kafka, except in the form of his shortest parables (“A cage went in search of a bird…”). In Tolkien, I think it’s partly the landscaping and weather which seduce me. They are as exactly and sensuously observed as in Pavese or Colette. I can believe in the weather, even.

I’m also struggling to read some essays of [Carlo Emilio] Gadda, in Italian. What I love here is the abundance of footnotes. Someone once said that every writer has his given form, and if he never finds it, he is lost. I sometimes think mine is the footnote. For years I have dreamed of a very short story, with hundreds of footnotes appended; and when I was 10, I adored S. S. Van Dine’s detective stories because they had elegantly asterisked fine print at the bottom of almost every page.

Scrapbooks, footnotes, almanacs, letters, diaries, questionnaires, marginalia, memos, alphabets…how I love them. Pasolini once called himself a “pasticheur.” I think I am an annotator. The story exists for the scribbled notes in the margin.

How is your play?

December 30
Aspen


Dear Robert,

I’ve been out in the snow, my feet are freezing. I can’t get the Times here. What did Reed say, don’t tell me if it was some tossed-off, derogatory clause in an article praising Natalie Wood. I’m too dead to be revived by a flutter of his long eyelashes, but if it’s any good, send it. Could you possibly send the Christmas (Jeanne Moreau, editor) edition of the French Vogue, too? There’s no way for me to lay hands on it. In return I will send you the forthcoming Paris Review so you don’t have to go to the 8th Street bookstore on icy days. I’m also sending a copy of Professional Secrets. Would you sign the flyleaf? I want to give it to Barbara Rosenthal as a Christmas present, you know she liked you so much. Just autograph it and return it to me. I’ll wrap it, etc.

I really feel I’ve spent this year with you, at least with your spirit, which is deathless and fills me with excitement. Your existence, even in an impersonal sense, seems very important to me. When I think of you writing questions in your palms to ask the famous [James] Agee, and reading the Italians in their own language…

My play, I wish I had a title, is about a third finished; not finished, but rather written down for the first time. I don’t know anything about it yet except there are parts I don’t detest. It has some things which astonish and some which are majestic. Anyway, as I’ve told you, I have a beautiful, big sketchbook in which I’m working and that’s a joy.

We must 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…

Read on for Michael Dirda’s essay: “I Wanted to Be Robert Phelps”

John McIntyre is the editor of Memorable Days: The Selected Letters of James Salter and Robert Phelps.


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