By Harvey Freedenberg
Book By James Salter (Vintage International, $16, 308 pages, Paperback)
If there were any justice in the literary world, James Salter’s name would be at least as well-recognized as other post-World War II giants like John Updike, Philip Roth and Norman Mailer.
Despite critically praised novels like A Sport and a Pastime and The Hunters (the latter based on his distinguished service as a Korean War fighter pilot), short story collections (Dusk and Other Stories and Last Night) and a well-received memoir, Burning the Days, he’s dimly known, at best, to many otherwise knowledgeable readers.
He’s remained prolific into his ninth decade, with a new novel, All That Is, scheduled for publication this month on the eve of his 88th birthday.
In the hope that a brief introduction to Salter may inspire you to investigate his work, I’m devoting this month’s column to his psychologically acute and gorgeously written 1975 novel, Light Years.
From its opening in 1958, the novel follows some two decades in the lives of Viri and Nedra Berland, an upper-middle-class couple with two daughters, living in a striking home in the Hudson River Valley.
Outwardly, their lives – the elegant dinner parties, nights at the theater and trendy Manhattan restaurants, summers at Amagansett – seem little short of perfect.
Over the course of the novel, as the story effortlessly slips forward and back in time, Salter relentlessly probes beneath the surface to expose the fault lines that eventually will fracture and bring down the Berlands’ marriage, in all its fragile beauty.
Of the two characters, Nedra’s story is the more interesting, and it’s a credit to Salter’s skill that he seems to inhabit her life much more fully than he does her husband’s.
“Men’s lives bore me,” one minor character comments late in the novel, and in that respect, he seems a surrogate for Salter’s point of view.
Nedra, a prototype of early feminism, is the one who initiates the breakup after both she and Viri have engaged in desultory affairs that seem more a symptom of their failing relationship than its cause.
She’s driven by a desire for self-fulfillment that’s sadly unrealized by the novel’s end. Viri, a modestly successful architect, grasps that he is a man who “had not wanted enough.”
Light Years is both an incandescent and an unsentimental portrait of the relationships between men and women, of the ways we support and defeat each other. If it’s the first work of James Salter you read, I feel safe in predicting it will not be the last.
He understands, with regret but also an inability to do much more than mourn it, that the vision he held for their lives together was “far too small,” while the restless Nedra confesses, “The only thing I’m afraid of are the words ‘ordinary life.’”
Salter displays a genius for measuring, with clinical detachment, the emotional temperature of the Berlands’ marriage as it moves through the years.
For all its pleasures as pure storytelling and character study, Light Years is also distinctive for the distilled grace of Salter’s writing.
At its most spare, it hints at the work of Ernest Hemingway, but there is richness to his prose that’s almost hypnotic in its beauty.
As might be expected from the novel’s title, there are frequent allusions to light, a day described as “white as paper” or sunlight that “fell like cymbals through the flats of glass.”
Observing sumptuous meals, glances exchanged between lovers, the faces of sleeping children, we sense that in capturing some key detail Salter has succeeded in rendering the essence of each of these fleeting moments.
As these word pictures begin to accumulate, we become convinced of the truth of Nedra’s belief that, “The power to change one’s life comes from a paragraph, a lone remark.”
Though it appears early in the novel, this arresting passage, characteristic both of Salter’s penetrating asides and his beautiful prose, could serve as a benediction for the Berlands’ melancholy story:
“There is no complete life. There are only fragments. We are born to have nothing, to have it pour through our hands. And yet, this pouring, this flood of encounters, struggles, dreams … one must be unthinking, like a tortoise. One must be resolute, blind. For whatever we do, even whatever we do not do prevents us from doing the opposite. Acts demolish their alternatives, that is the paradox. So that life is a matter of choices, each one final and of little consequence, like dropping stones into the sea. We had children, he thought; we can never be childless. We were moderate, we will never know what it is to spill out our lives …”
Light Years is both an incandescent and an unsentimental portrait of the relationships between men and women, of the ways we support and defeat each other.
If it’s the first work of James Salter you read, I feel safe in predicting it will not be the last.