James Salter: Light Years

Before now, James Salter was known to me only as the author of the slim novel A Sport and a Pastime which, in one of those odd cross-pollinations, came to my attention through being praised by a character in a John Irving novel (maybe A Son of the Circus). A Sport and a Pastime had the reputation of being ‘erotic,’ and if erotic comprises memorable phrases such as “he comes like a bull,” then it had that. But I recall not much more of it, and it was less Salter’s reputation than my feeble addiction to Penguin Modern Classics that made me pick up his 1975 novel Light Years when it was reissued this month.

Midway through the book the female lead, Nedra, who reads biographies of great achievers, reflects that “the power to change one’s life comes from a paragraph, a lone remark.”

The lines that penetrate us are slender, like the flukes that live in river water and enter the bodies of swimmers. She was excited, filled with strength. The polished sentences had arrived, it seemed, like so many other things, at just the right time. How can we imagine what our lives should be without the illumination of the lives of others?

And while reading Light Years may not be a life-changing event (but then again), illumination of the lives of others is precisely its achievement. The light of the title is present everywhere, and few chapters open without a reference to the light: of Rome, of New York, of Paris (“In the morning the light came in silence” … “The room filled with light” … “the river is spilling light”). And Salter illuminates the lives of his characters, the happily-unhappily married Viri and Nedra, with astonishing stylistic brilliance.

Viri and Nedra, prosperous and envied, are not faithful to one another, and their move from marital bliss to domestic blitz and beyond carries echoes of Yates (and has his ultimate tragedy), with prose less plain than his but equally unflinching and honest. The characters are not always sympathetic but when an author can set them wriggling on a pin like this, who cares? So relentlessly seductive is Light Years that each time I returned to it I felt like a teenage suitor: giggling, nervous, hot-faced with intimidation.

Salter’s ability to despatch a character in a few lines is extraordinary. Here he is (through Nedra’s biographies again) on Barcelona’s celebrated architect Gaudi, “who lived to that old age which is sainthood”:

In the end he was struck by a streetcar and left unattended. In the bareness and odor of the charity ward amid the children and poor relations a single eccentric life was ending, a life that was more clamorous than the sea, an everlasting life, a life which was easy to abandon since it was only a husk; it had already metamorphosed, escaped into buildings, cathedrals, legend.

Elsewhere, the writing put me in mind of Updike or Bellow without that restless density which can make their stuff a chore at times. However beautiful Salter’s flexuous prose (and it pretty much always is), the story remains open and fluent, full of air – and light. The narrative proceeds in jumps, impressionistically: a scene here, a set piece there, covering twenty years. Salter seems keen to show what he can do, demonstrating his wit early on with an exchange between Viri and a bespoke shirtmaker, then switching to reflective mood, social satire, and making some scenes impressively erotic without being explicit (particularly in Viri’s horribly realistic obsession with his sometime mistress, Kaya Doutreau).

Most impressive of all, perhaps, is a scene where a character’s father dies in a wrenching and arduous two-page stretch. It puts the tin hat on any questions about Salter’s ability and virtuosic brilliance, or about this being my book of the year so far. It begins like this.

It took a long time, it took forever; days and nights, the smell of antiseptic, the hush of rubber wheels. This frail engine, we think, and yet what murder is needed to take it down. The heart is in darkness, unknowing, like those animals in mines that have never seen the day. It has no loyalties, no hopes; it has its task.


  1. “It is an article of faith among readers of fiction that James Salter writes American sentences better than anybody writing today.” This is the opening line of Richard Ford’s great essay which forewords the Penguin Classic edition. Ford’s complement contains an implicit problem: if we are to read above the atomic level of the sentence, which the author obviously wishes us to do, then the reader of Salter must surmount the happy challenge of not arresting several times on a page to admire in wonder one brilliant ordering of words after another. Salter said in an interview that “a page should seem effortless … as if the page wrote itself”. Reading Salter’s pages, I felt at times I was staring at the sun, dazzled by his descriptions, stopping to gawp and blink, then forcing myself to look away and continue the page. Every review I have read (of an author who until a month was unknown to me) has quotation marks sprinkled throughout. It feels like an obligation: “In bed, he lay like a man in a prison, dreaming of life.”; “She had hungers only an orphan could know.” One could make displays of these plucked jewels, enter competitions for your top three James Salter sentences, evangelically shout them in Piccadilly Circus even if the passers-by could only lip read. That would be to do Salter a disservice to his craft.

    Ford admires in his essay, rather pompously, “…Salter’s sovereignty over the materiels of his vocation – his word choices, his exquisite phrasings, his resorts to imagery – his genius with his means, by which he projects the inner lives and outward behaviour of these specimen humans and follows out their consequence to points of clarity.” To extract this part-sentence is to do Ford’s essay a disservice, touché. Ford shows how easy it is to step out of the flow and admire. Yet, it is Salter’s “genius with his means” which exalts him to greatness. While the narrative momentum is chronological, the construction of the frail, recognisably complex lives of Nedra and Viri is sequential, consequential and fragmented, perhaps as if their lives were presented in connected short stories. That is not to imply that Light Years is an aggregation of discrete set pieces. It is Salter’s control of the connectedness of his characters’ lives and selves, their intermittances as Proust would have it (and I, pompously), the small kaleidoscopic universe he creates for them, that underpins the deserved superlatives. And within Salter’s subtle torque there is all the room the characters require to damn themselves fully.
    “There is no complete life. There are only fragments. We are born to have nothing, to have it pour though 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.”

    Ford summarises accurately when he says that “Salter will allow us no patented, superior line on them”. It is evidence of Salter’s skill as a writer that amongst the disequilibrium of Nedra’s and Viri’s lives he tests our equivocation and inconstancy as they turn away from the mirrors of their mortality. And tests us all the way to that last ambiguous line. He allows the reader little indeed.

    There are several points in the book where Salter the author joins us briefly in the flow. At the beginning of Section Four, two startling sentences: “They were divorced in the fall. I wish it could have been otherwise.” (p.203). Earlier in the book in the second chapter where we are introduced to Nedra, the main force of the book, there is: “I am going to describe her life from the inside outward, from its core….” (p.7). But it is the “We” of the opening pages that I found the most enigmatic authorial intrusion (The book’s opening sentence: “We dash the black river, its flats smooth as stone” (p.3); and then on the following page: “We strolled in the garden, eating the small bitter apples…… A car comes up the driveway, back from the city.”) Amongst the many pleasures of the Light Years is the question of the distance of the author himself: is he there sitting at a distant desk, turning over the same pages as you; or is he on your shoulder tapping it when he knows you won’t expect it ?

    As I gradually recovered from finishing Light Years (in the case of great books, joy tempered by the sadness of knowing we will never come anew to them), which involved a dazed walk and then a re-reading of Ford’s essay, I wanted to re-read it. I thought perhaps the next time I could wear wrap-round sunglasses to deal with sentence-glare (although my (new) book is so underlined, annotated and dog-eared that these new distractions may help).

    In the way that Yates’ bandwagon deservedly grew in recent years I hope that Salter receives the recognition he merits, if only to accompany being one of the few living authors to be re-issued under Penguin’s Modern Classics imprimatur. Light Years is a book I am pressing into the hands of friends, like a mad prophet. It is a supreme work of elegiac beauty.

    In Radio 3’s interview on Night Waves (with the irritatingly interrupting gas bag, Philip Dodds) Salter wondered if his was a style (in Light Years in contrast to the spare style of Last Night) that had had its day. An interesting question and who can say if there is a fashion of style. I would comment for my own part that I found that Salter’s style is uncommon, that it is noticeable in its adjectival sentences of description only, its switch of narrative line within paragraphs, its jolting sentences in chapter openings. I often wonder about writers, good writers, being described as a “great stylist” and what that label is actually saying – is it simply lit-speak for the distinctive voice that all great writers have ?

    Between the two books Light Years and Last Night Salter has, markedly, changed his “style” but the intelligence is all there, like newspaper print rubbing off on your hand. The ten stories of Last Night are intricate contour maps showing us the way to life’s fuckedupness (to translate the wonderfully accurate Afrikaans word “opbefocked”).
    “He had done everything wrong, he realized, in the wrong order. He had scuttled his life.
    – Anyway there’s one thing I can say truthfully. I’d do it all over again if I had the chance.”
    Comet, p.10

    And the feature which Salter circles around in many of the stories is infidelity: explicit (Comet, Platinum), foreplayed (Eyes of the Stars), rejected (Such Fun, Bangkok), regretted (Palm Court), suspected (Give), anthropomorphised (My Lord You) and shatteringly discovered in the title story (Last Night).

    He was clear in the R3 interview that his change in style was deliberate, that he had chipped and chiselled until he had unpicked the jewels from the pages. It is, as it always is, not about the carats, but about the quality of the writing and the writing technique. Salter’s writing in this collection is subtle and, at times, mesmeric.

    Salter challenges short story point of view approaches. In Such Fun, he switches in the last paragraph from the main character Jane to the taxi-driver who appears only in that paragraph; in Platinum the POV moves, again in the last paragraph, to Tahar, the boyfriend of the main character’s girlfriend (yes, it does sound confusing); and in My Lord You, the POV switches between the wife and the husband. I saw that in the Acknowledgments to the collection Salter expresses gratitude to Rust Hills, the long-time fiction editor of Esquire magazine. Rust Hills (as if from an Amis novel) has written a book called Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular. In this book, Hills is strongly, almost obsessively, of the view that a short story works only if the main character “moves”, or “shows movement”. Applying this test to a number of the Salter short stories, I am uncertain, if not unconvinced, that Hills would approve of the Old Master’s work.

    Technicalities, misunderstandings and misreadings aside, I thought that Last Night was a powerful collection of short stories. Sparingly told, Salter does not flinch from our capacity for unhappiness, from our delusion that life can be one of consequencelessness. Salter, however, does give us a glimpse of redemption: in Bangkok, when the past intrudes and is trying to steal a life’s future, the story ends with the character rejecting the opportunity of infidelity and returning, grateful, to his work. “It was not a pretend life.”


  2. Had never read Salter, but bought Light Years and Dusk in a used book store in Johannesburg a few weeks ago. Started Light Years on Saturday morning and had hungrily devoured both by midday on Sunday. A fighter pilot! A fellow American! How could he have existed in this world without me being aware? How many other treasures are out there? It fills me with hope!

  3. Hi altair, Great to see someone else discovering Salter! The bad news is there aren’t that many more treasures out there: four novels (The Hunters, Cassada, A Sport and a Pastime, and Solo Faces), another collection of stories (Last Night) and a memoir (Burning the Days). I am spreading them out so carefully that I haven’t read any more of his stuff in almost a year!

  4. It’s great to discover such erudite Salter enthusiasts. I’m still puzzled why he’s relatively unknown–despite the praise by such a heavyweight as Richard Ford and cavorting with the New York literati.

    I initially discovered Salter through Dusk and then Last Night, and although I knew he wrote novels, I just couldn’t quite imagine it because his impressionistic prose lends itself to short works more than long ones. Then I read a few reviews praising Light Years (which I’m about to read) as a classic, and I just finished A Sport and a Pastime, which despite being satisfying on a certain sentence level akin to Ford’s comment, and being great as an erotic novel (it would have to be given Salter’s worship of women, his love of surfaces), it essentially read as a series of images, scenes, more than as a story.

    I wrote about Sport and Burning the Days on my blog, Lit Matters, and want to add commentary on his other books to the list. I included a good clip of Salter talking with Charlie Rose about Burning the Days that you might be interested in.

    At 82, I hope he lives and writes a lot longer. Last Night was one of his best books–again, the short story being the form he was born for. I think he still has a lot of stories to tell, and despite whatever faults he has, he tells a story in a singular way, and even when he’s off, there’s something absolutely compelling about his sensibility.

  5. Thanks Grant, as you say, it can be a lonely time as a Salter fan, so always good to discover others! I’ve changed the URL in your comment into a clickable link.

    I haven’t read Dusk and indeed it’s the only book of his I don’t have (it’s out of print in the UK and expensive to obtain second hand), but I was delighted to see recently on Penguin Books’ Australian website (for some reason), the publisher of Penguin Classics, Adam Freudenheim, nominate Salter’s debut The Hunters as his favourite Penguin Modern Classic title. (Scroll halfway down the page in the link I’ve provided, and click Clip 2.)

    His lack of fame might be to do with his relatively sparse output – his last novel Solo Faces was published almost 30 years ago (and is being reissued in the UK by Penguin Modern Classics this summer). I urge everyone here to read your excellent post on A Sport and a Pastime, which I really must reread soon (having read it years ago, before I became a fan). Click the link in Grant’s message.

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