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James Salter: Light Years

I had not heard of James Salter until I came across a review of Solo Faces on John Self’s Asylum.  After looking into him a bit, I realized that once again here was an author I should have read already – let alone heard of.  My ignorance is forever on display on this blog!  But that’s okay since my ignorance is also lessening – ever so slightly.  I have now introduced myself to Salter through Light Years (1975).

light-years

The first chapter set my expectations high.  With virtuosity Salter moves from the harsh nature of the Hudson (“The Hudson is vast here, vast and unmoving.  A dark country, a country of sturgeon and carp.”)  to a man in a bathtub – all naturally, with little transition - from myth (“The Indians sought, they say, a river that ‘ran both ways.’  Here they found it.”) to modern New York.  Time and space seem to flash by in an instant, and Salter sets up his motifs of light and darkness, time and space, myth and history (“It’s in the darkness that myths are born”).

Here we meet Viri and Nedra Berland and their two daughters Franca and Danny.  Much like Revolutionary Road, this book is about the dissolution of a marriage in the outskirts of modern New York.  Viri and Nedra (in the beginning) are in their late twenties.  Viri commutes daily into the City.  Their friends have their own motives.  Also, the book references the play The Petrified Forest, which is the play that April Weaver is performing at the beginning of Yates’s book (coincidence?).  But Light Years itself is much different than Revolutionary Road.  For one thing, where Yates prose is clear and precise, Salter’s prose spits at you, often in oblique abstractions.  The sentences are abrupt, short.  Transitions are minimal.  All of this gives the text an urgency, and time slips by, even when Salter’s slowing the flow down to linger in a moment with the characters.

She is nine.  Danny is seven.  These years are endless, but they cannot be remembered.

Viri sleeps in the sun.  He is tan, his fingernails are bleached.  On Mondays he goes to the city on the train and returns on Thursday night.  He is shuttling between one happiness and another.  He has a new secretary.  They work together in a kind of excitement, as if there were nothing else in their lives.  The isolation and indifference of the city in summer, like a long vacation, like a voyage, cast its spell on them.  He cannot get over her niceness, the beauty of her name: Kaya Doutreau.

As can be gleaned from that sample paragraph, the Berlands are not faithful to each other in their minds, and it is not a spoiler to say they are not faithful at all.  Though they seem an ideal family on the surface – they are creative with their family activities, they have many friends, and they spend many days at leisure on the ice or the beach – Viri and Nedra are friendly but passionless.  Salter has a brutal eye for details that show this side of their life.

“Are you happy, Viri?”  She asked.

They were in traffic, driving across town at five in the afternoon.  The great mechanical river of which they were part moved slowly at the intersections and then more freely on the long transverse blocks.  Nedra was doing her nails.  At each red light, without a word, she handed him the bottle and painted one nail.

In Light Years Salter presents a portrait of their life from their late twenties to their late forties – the years of light - in long exposure.  In discreet, wonderfully detailed episodes that flow naturally from one to the next – much like life – Viri and Nedra age, break apart, come together, forget their intimate friends who come and go with little fanfare, and watch their children grow into young women about to enter the light years of their own lives.

By far the most compelling aspect of this book, to me, was the unique and effective stylistic method of depicting these lives.  Salter must have thought about this technique to a great extent, and while he executes it perfectly he also perfectly and poetically describes it:

Their life is mysterious, it is like a forest; from far off it seems a unity, it can be comprehended, described, but closer it begins to separate, to break into light and shadow, the density blinds one.  Within there is no form, only prodigious detail that reaches everywhere: exotic sounds, spills of sunlight, foliage, fallen trees, small beasts that flee at the sound of a twig-snap, insects, silence, flowers.

Though I’m usually a fan of clear, formal writing in the tradition of Cheever, Yates, and Roth, Salter’s fragmented or runon prose is some of the best writing I’ve experienced this year.  At once developing a story, it also develops a philosophy of life.  And the style’s impact on me was actually more intense than the story itself. 

In fact, the story of Viri and Nedra appealed to me only in sporadic intervals.  I never quite connected to them in the way I kept expecting.  Despite the almost cruel intimacy Salter gives us with these characters (line taken from James Wood’s idea about Yates) once an episode passed they returned to being blurry characters as the less interesting aspects of their life flashed before my eyes.  But even as I write that, and know it’s true, I know it also is not true.  I truly felt for Viri when his pathetic emptiness was displayed before me in such sharp light, several times.  And even when Nedra, whom I never truly sympathized with, has her face to the floor, there’s some longing there that made me feel deeply for her.  This especially became true when she drives across the state to Philadelphia to watch her father’s elongated death (a brilliant bit of writing).  Perhaps, in a way, this is Salter’s device.  Life is blurry.  Some moments – moments of immense emotion – stand out in distinct relief from others.  But in the end, the life dissipates.  The light goes out, and the relief collapses in on itself.  Even the people who were there don’t quite believe it was real.

13 thoughts on “James Salter: Light Years

  1. John Self says:

    Very excited to see you read this, Trevor, as it was my favourite book of last year. I think you have it exactly right in your closing paragraph (indeed, through your excellent review) – that life is a blur, and that (in Salter’s words, paraphrasing Jean Renoir) “the only things that are important in life are those you remember.”

    I do think that Light Years is Salter’s best book by some way, though I haven’t yet read his second novel The Arm of Flesh (rewritten by him as Cassada) or his first book of stories Dusk. It’s also a decade or more since I read what I believe he considers to be his best work, A Sport and a Pastime, so I have those to look forward to. I do recommend his debut novel The Hunters strongly also.

  2. Out of curiosity, John, how does this book hold up over time? I can imagine the story itself completely evaporating while the impact itself remains strong.

    I am anxious to try some more Salter, but I think it’ll be a while. Too much else to read!

  3. John Self says:

    I can imagine the story itself completely evaporating while the impact itself remains strong.

    Not necessarily, Trevor. I can remember specific scenes, such as the one where Viri orders some shirts – because it was a rare example of Salter showing he can do humour (and then having proved the point, never does it again in the book) – or the death scene of Nedra’s father, or Viri’s liaisons with Kaya Doutreau. All these are sealed in my memory because they were so beautifully written. Of course, lots of other details fade, as they do with all books, but that’s apt enough in this instance, in an impressionistic book which makes a virtue of its lack of natural sequencing.

  4. Excellent review Trevor, I look forward to reading this one.

    I second John’s recommendation of The Hunters, I thought I’d written it up on my blog also but it seems I must have read it shortly before starting the blog. Anyway, it’s also excellent and I fully agree with John’s review of it.

    Salter is I think an underrated writer, your review flags why and I thought it a great piece and one that really excited me about Light Years.

    We’re all ignorant by the way, if I’ve found anything it’s that the more I read the more conscious I am of how little I’ve read and how much there is I haven’t.

  5. KevinfromCanada says:

    Your review, and John’s enthusiastic endorsement, has motivated me to revisit this book. I read it about four years ago, was not very impressed and remember very little about it. I look forward to discovering what I missed the first time through. Stay tuned.

  6. I think Impressionistic is the perfect word for this book – probably one that others have given it but that I missed. I can’t think of another book that has quite fit that label as well as this one does. Any thoughts?

    And I look forward to your thoughts on the book, Kevin and Max. I’m particularly interested to see if it is better this time through, Kevin. I have to admit, a lot of my appreciation with the book came at sporadic moments and then with the overall feel of the book, and not with a sense of enjoyment each time I opened it.

  7. Also, speaking of the comedy in the book. Here is a funny part – maybe not to the level of comedy – that I thought should be remembered. I don’t have the quote before me, so I’ll paraphrase:

    It’s the part where the snow has blocked all of the roads, and Nedra wants to go home. She says she’ll drive herself but the host won’t let her, says she would never make it so he’ll drive her home. He runs into the post at the end of the driveway and says, “See, you’d have never made it.”

  8. KevinfromCanada says:

    I’m afraid that after my revisit to this book, Salter continues to elude me.

    I think the theme of the book gets captured in the paragraph that ends the chapter on Page 224. It concludes “…he had not wanted enough. He saw that clearly. When all was said, he had wanted one thing, it was far too small: he had wanted them to grow up in the happiest of homes.”

    For me, that pretty much captures what this book was about and I don’t think that is enough.

    Like you, I engaged with Viri and Nedra as characters only sporadically, even though I wanted much more. For example, we know Viri’s mediocrity as an architect effects both his self image and his relationship. Yet all available evidence suggests that, at least financially, he is quite successful. At 30, he has a house on the Hudson within a driving commute of the City. He has clients who come to dinner. His wife shops at a selection of boutiques in the city. When they divorce, she can afford to set up shop in Davos — boring it may be, cheap it is not. Okay, he isn’t I.M. Pei or Frank Lloyd Wright, but if this isn’t success, what is? So just where does the mediocrity that is so important lie? Preoccupation with family? Lack of commitment? Salter doesn’t even tells us what Viri does design (homes? office buildings? churches? schools? warehouses?). One has to believe the omission is deliberate — the reason for it is opaque.

    Nedra is even more empty. She looks after her daughters, gives and goes to dinners and has affairs. She is trapped in her marriage — yet we are given no indication that her life would have been any less desolate without it, since there doesn’t seem to be anything else to her. Again, I guess this must be the point — that young women of the 50s had no other choice. I think other novelists have shown that in a much more interesting way. (Jane Austen, George Eliot and Edith Wharton actually made careers of it in far better books.)

    By the middle of the book, I was dreading the arrival of the next dinner party, and they did keep arriving, with its totally implausible conversations. Everytime Salter wants to say something, a dinner party is written into the plot and words inserted into character’s mouths. For me, a classic example of telling, not showing.

    You found the impressionistic writing overcame problems like this. If I can extend the artistic metaphor, I found it more pointilistic than impressionistic — incredibly fine detail, as opposed to a blur. There is no doubt Salter captures scenes in very fine detail, often to excess (consider all the descriptions of drinks and wine that proceed those damn dinner parties). The problem for me was that when you take a step back to see what the overall picture is about, it is humdrum and uninteresting.

    When I am so out of tune in my impression with readers I respect (like you and John) and a lot of the professional critics, I feel I should at least try to figure out why. I have two explanations with this book.

    One is that I am too old for it. I’ve lived through my 30s and 40s and they were pretty good decades. The uncertainty and indecision that are central to Viri’s character simply don’t land with me — were I in my 30s, intuitively they might well be there.

    More important, I suspect, is that I am not a parent. If “the happiest of homes” was his only desire (which would make bringing up his daughters his major motivation, despite the empty marriage), I again miss out on the intuitive understanding that others might have. Then again, perhaps the author could try to enrol me in that understanding.

    Sorry to be so grumpy about a book you like. By way of trying to offset that, I will offer an early tout on another example of impressionistic writing that I think has some similarities (and which I found more interesting, even if I also found it somewhat wanting). Anne Michaels’ new novel, The Winter Vault, is due for release in April — I’ve read a proof copy and was reasonably impressed (the publisher’s summary on Amazon.com is an accurate description of the story). Her first novel, Fugitive Pieces, won the 1997 Orange Prize. This one, like the Salter, also explores the withering of a relationship (in very impressionistic language) but, for me, does it against a much more engaging context — the building of the Aswan Dam and the St. Lawrence seaway, destruction in wartime Warsaw. Keep an eye out for it.

  9. I’ve been out of town and without internet for a couple of days, and was glad to be greeted upon return by your two great comments, Kevin. I think the degree of thought you gave this novel – and all novels – is one of the main reasons I love having this blog. It’s exellent for me to get my thoughts articulated, but maybe even better to get varying perspectives.

    Also, thanks for the suggestions at the end of this comment. I am very intrigued by Fugitive Pieces, and must keep that one in my mind when I look at my reading schedule for the next few months.

  10. KevinfromCanada says:

    Welcome back — I figured you were probably out of internet touch.

    I quite liked Fugitive Pieces and that is probably a tribute to the book. Michaels is a poet and when poets turn to fiction their language is often a little too much for me. That wasn’t the case for me with this book (although I know a number of people who felt it was overwritten) and I found the two stories that form the novel to be very well told, with well-developed characters. The Winter Vault shares that with it in that Michaels locates her two central characters in two quite different stories. My guess is that you would quite like Fugitive Pieces.

  11. John Self says:

    Michaels is a poet and when poets turn to fiction their language is often a little too much for me.

    You can add another to the number of people you know who felt it was overwritten, Kevin! So much so, that when the publisher tried to interest me in an early copy of The Winter Vault, I declined. However I will watch it with interest and may try it yet; my tastes have changed in the time since I read Fugitive Pieces – though it has to be said, generally away from ‘fine writing’ – so who knows?

    Speaking of fine writing, I do agree with your take on the shortcomings of Light Years, Kevin, and can only say that they weren’t shortcomings for me. The aesthetic pleasure I got from Salter’s exquisite prose was more than enough to offset any lack of interest or sympathy with the characters or feeling of implausibility at their success or otherwise.

  12. KevinfromCanada says:

    John: I do find it interesting how for some people “fine writing” overcomes other shortcomings in a book, while for others it starts to make it the book even more of a problem. I suspect my background as a journalist sometimes gets reflected in my opinions on this front — we used to have a rule that if you got to a fourth comma in a sentence, there was probably something wrong with the sentence. Then again, I’ve read all six volumes of Proust and liked them and Mann is one of my favorites, so I am not a total cretin when it comes to this.

    And you probably made the right decision of The Winter Vault, given your tastes. I found it extremely tough sledding because of the writing style — actually, had to go back to the start after 120 pages with a new attitude. It has, however, become one of those books where the better parts keep coming back to mind and the lesser parts seem to be fading in memory. I may give it another go when it appears.

  13. workingwords100 says:

    Trevor – you don’t have ignorance on literature. It’s just that there is too much out there!

    There seem to be more books being published or reissued. There is no way anyone can keep up, unless you win the lottery or get money from a rich author, quit your job, and hire a couple of lit professors to guide you through the maze!

    I’ve given up on keeping up with the latest and greatest and reissues. I concentrate only on what I can do.

    Keep up your great job in reviews.

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