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.