It is not often that a novel leaves me cold – particularly one written by a man described as being “the writer’s writer.” All That Is, though, left me feeling very little for any of its characters, particularly the protagonist.
Leaving my emotional response to one side for a moment, I can certainly see how accomplished a novel this is, and how talented James Salter is as a writer. The story follows Philip Bowman through his long life – from his 1920s childhood, through his experiences in the Navy during the War, and finally the many years he spends touring the world as a book editor. Bowman’s story is interlaced with vignettes showing the lives of the people who pass through or touch his own life, and many of them are exquisite little capsules – portraying unhappy marriages, infidelities and grief with deft brush strokes. For me, though, it is a body of stories without a spine, let down by the fact that Bowman himself is strangely shapeless. In scale and context it reminded me of William Boyd’s “Any Human Heart” – but whereas Boyd’s fictional journals literally wring the emotion out of you, Salter’s felt like more of an intellectual exercise. The problem was that there is something fundamentally unappealing about Bowman; not because he is often faintly sexist or shallow – Boyd’s Logan Mountstuart is frequently repellent – but because he felt rather faceless. It was like walking around a beautiful mansion without any paint or furniture – I could see that it was finely built, but I didn’t want to spend any time there.
When I say that I felt slightly cool towards it all in the end, I must say that it was in part because I got the sense that neither Bowman nor Salter felt a great deal of fondness for the female characters. In many ways this is a novel with a rather unkind vision of sex: the women in Bowman’s life are variously soulless, greedy, naïve or fundamentally lacking in some way, and whilst his sexual encounters might be exhilarating, they seemed to me to lack a kind of warmth. And whereas Salter seems to expect you to respect Bowman as the urbane bachelor, he also seems fairly indifferent to readers’ reaction to his women. After a Christmas holiday spent articulating my own feminist credo in the face of the scepticism of various friends/members of my family, I am pretty sensitive to the fact that I don’t just want to write this novel off because I caught a whiff of sexism from a few of the characters. After all, I don’t love James Bond any less just because his attitude towards women is hilariously prehistoric; and even darling Bertie Wooster views his female contemporaries with a kind of mystified horror. I can cope with some generational differences of opinion, and I also appreciate that there is clearly a distinction to be drawn between the views of fictional characters and their creator. I’m also not a fan of literary critics who look at everything through a feminist prism – I had contemporaries at university who analysed every text from a specific politicised perspective, be it feminist, Marxist or whatever else – and I don’t think it’s a particularly useful or enjoyable way or viewing art. So it’s not that I disliked this novel because it felt sexist – more that I disliked it and it felt rather sexist. The attitude towards women simply appeared to be symptomatic of a general kind of coldness that pervades the story – there is little love lost here in any sense, other, perhaps, than for a beautifully turned sentence.
I might have been able to move beyond that more easily if Bowman had been portrayed as a kind of everyman – an image of his time, built to reflect the society in which he lived. But that is not what I drew from this – he might be intended to be an archetype of a particular kind of man, but I did not get a feeling of that kind of universality. He felt specific, but very much in the shadows – enjoying his books and his whisky and his moderate wealth, but without any distinct personality. And whereas “Any Human Heart” feels so rooted in the last century, and distinctly linear in the way that it merges a single life and the passage of a particular period of time, All That Is felt strangely rootless – I could see Bowman aging, but the world did not really seem to change with him.
I’m disappointed that I didn’t like this more – and as I say, I certainly don’t want to link my reaction to the treatment of female characters in isolation – it simply didn’t engage my heart in any way. I enjoyed the crisp beauty of Salter’s language, and some of the lesser characters are very finely drawn, but this wasn’t my kind of novel. That being said, most of the other reviews I have read have been extremely positive, so I’m very open to being told that I’ve missed something….