Home > 2010, 21st Century, Abandoned books, American Literature, Novel, Salter James > All That Is by James Salter. Much ado about nothing

All That Is by James Salter. Much ado about nothing

All That Is by James Salter (2013) French title: Et rien d’autre. Translated by Marc Amfreville

This blog is my reading journal and I’m committed to write about the books I loved but also the ones I abandoned. So, here’s another negative billet that I’ll keep short because I have a backlog of billets about books I actually loved. And my blogging time is limited…

I had some expectations about All That Is by James Salter, given the fuss around this book. I guess that from a literary point of view, the title is really apt.

To be honest, the blurb is appealing. We’re at the end of WWII and Philip Bowman, a young man has come back from the war in the Pacific. He goes to Harvard and ends up working for a publisher in New York. The novel is about his life. Simple enough. The blurb of the French edition says:

This beautiful novel is like a testimony of a generation of writers, last witnesses, without their knowing, of a world promised to disappear. Because art is the only place where opposites live side by side without destroying each other, it ties in a single gesture the lust for life of youth and the melancholy of maturity, frantic eroticism and need of sooth, the quest for fame and the acute awareness of its insignificance.

Salter_rien_d'autreSounds good, no? How disappointed I was. I found Bowman’s story lacking of depth. The novel sits on the middle of a bridge between the shore of State of the Nation literature and State of the Self literature. I waited for an analysis of the American society of that time. I waited for a description of Bowman’s thoughts and feelings. I tried until page 129 out of 364. The novel feels scattered. Each time I start to get attached to a character, the focus shifts on someone else and I think, “Hey, I want to know what happens next!” There’s no description of the publishing world beyond brushes that left me thirsty for more. During these 129 pages, I was waiting for substance and depth: get into the mind of the character or write us a fresco of New York in the 50s. It wasn’t coming.

Then I stumbled upon Lisa’s review of All That Is on Goodreads and discovered that she hated it for the same reasons I couldn’t engage with it. Her review is worth reading. So I saved myself a few hours of reading and abandoned it. So, thanks, Lisa.

To me That Is All.

PS: That cover! *exasperated eye-roll*

  1. Tredynas Days
    July 2, 2016 at 4:28 pm

    I had mixed feelings about this novel when I wrote about it a few years ago (link here: http://tredynasdays.co.uk/2013/09/a-review-of-james-salter-all-that-is-opera-and-tortoises/), but liked it more than you seem to have done, Emma.


    • July 2, 2016 at 7:30 pm

      Thanks for the link.
      It reminded me of Une vie française by Jean-Paul Dubois. It was very praised when it came out and I found it a bit bland.
      I expected better.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. July 2, 2016 at 5:06 pm

    I haven’t read Salter although I think I have one of his books sitting on the shelf somewhere.


    • July 2, 2016 at 7:31 pm

      I have to read Caroline’s review of The Hunters. It’s sitting in my inbox.
      Which one do you have?

      Liked by 1 person

  3. July 2, 2016 at 5:10 pm

    I’ve also heard lots of praise for Salter and was thinking of reading him, but couldn’t find any books. May wait a while longer, then.


    • July 2, 2016 at 7:33 pm

      I don’t think you can judge his whole work just on this book. It was written a long time after the others.


  4. July 2, 2016 at 5:19 pm

    I’ve read and reviewed The Hunters for my readalong last month and it was outstanding. Style, theme, topics. I also got Light Years of which I’ve heard only good things, so I’m disappointed this one didn’t deliver. I’m not going to grab this. It sounds rather weird. Too many great books out there to try this one.


    • July 2, 2016 at 7:36 pm

      The Hunters dates back to 1957 and this one was published in 2013. Perhaps he lost his touch in between. Your review is currently in my inbox. June is over, the kids are off to summer camp or travelling, I should have time to catch up on reviews.


  5. July 2, 2016 at 5:23 pm

    I have wanted to read Salter but have not done so.

    I agree the description of the book sounds very good. With that, I agree that a lack of depth when it comes to character and theme can be so disappointing in a book.


    • July 2, 2016 at 7:37 pm

      The blurb is really promising, isn’t it?
      Lisa’s review is really spot on and describes how I felt while reading. That’s why it convinced me it was useless to persevere.


  6. July 2, 2016 at 8:44 pm

    This one of those authors I have never read and have, for some reason, sensed that I would not like. When I have encountered positive reviews I have wondered if… , but then I read thoughts like yours and remember that I have heard this reaction before. Perhaps he is simply a very polarizing author, or maybe this book is not one of his best. Who knows? But I must say the title sounds so much more appealing than in English!


    • July 2, 2016 at 9:38 pm

      What you write reminds me of my thoughts about Alessandro Barrico. I wasn’t blown away by Silk and I wonder if I missed the point or if he’s overated.

      I also have similar experiences with writers I think I should read and don’t feel like reading. I take their books in my hands in a bookstore, read the blurb, don’t feel it, hesitate because it’s a “must-read” and I almost always put them down. There are so many many book that do appeal to me, so why bother with some that raise only lukewarm feelings?

      Liked by 1 person

  7. July 3, 2016 at 8:40 am

    I’m sorry you didn’t click with this one, Emma. I liked it (mainly for Salter’s prose), but it’s not his best novel by any means. The Hunters is excellent – a very compelling story, plus it has some of the depth and personal insight that you were searching for here.


    • July 3, 2016 at 11:22 am

      We can’t like them all, right? I think The Pursuit of Happiness by Douglas Kennedy is a better book about the US in the 1950s.
      I read Caroline’s review of The Hunters. It seems really good.


  8. July 4, 2016 at 3:31 pm

    I liked this, with two provisos – I am a nut for Salter, and as a result very biased; and I also recognise that there’s a lot wrong with the book and understand why it has attracted head-scratches and outright derision from some readers.

    As he was writing it in his 80s there is undoubtedly an elegiac overlay which I suppose could be seen to excuse some faults. But Salter is always extremely serious, not someone you look to for the playful or ironic. That can easily slide into a kind of po-faced quality that recalls the worst of Mailer or Hemingway – which is why I think All That Is is a bad place to start out on reading him. As Caroline points out in her review, The Hunters is everything this book isn’t – it’s focused, tense, detailed – and I think it helps to have followed Salter’s other work from there to here to make this one more palatable, or understandable.

    My main theory is that, prior to this, his last novel was published in 1979. An extraordinary gap. in the meantime he seems to have written stories, screenplays, poetry – everything *except* another novel. I think that explains the fragmentary nature of the book, and why some scenes (at least to me) worked so powerfully well, while others seemed awkward. The impressionistic approach is of course poison to a reader expecting characters, plot, the anatomy of the times. But he’s always had that element in his writing, which I think is why he remains a “cult” writer (according to one obituary) or “a writer’s writer” in that dreadful phrase.

    As a final point, if you want to read about the real person and times, I’d suggest his memoir Burning the Days, which is just one of the most beautifully written things I’ve come across in years.


    • July 6, 2016 at 9:08 pm

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment.
      It’s my first Salter and I don’t dismiss him as a writer I should stay away from. I know this novel is different because he was an old man. My dear Romain Gary wrote “La vérité meurt jeune” He was convinced that someone’s creative abilities were stronger at a young age. I’m not so sure about that but in Salter’s case, it seems true.


  9. July 8, 2016 at 12:32 am

    Tu as tenu plus longtemps que moi. Pourtant, j’avais trouvé le deuxième chapitre génial.


    • July 8, 2016 at 7:03 am

      Je vois que je ne suis pas la seule. Il y avait de bons passages mais chaque fois que j’avais l’impression que c’était bien parti, ça s’arrêtait pour repartir dans une autre direction.


  10. July 8, 2016 at 6:22 pm

    I’ve not seen much praise for this one. I’ve read and loved some Salter (particularly The Hunters) but I plan to give this one a miss.


    • July 8, 2016 at 10:13 pm

      Good to have it confirmed again that The Hunters is worth reading and is a lot better than this one.
      No need to rush to it, really.


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