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‘Light Years’ by James Salter

I recently read Light Years by James Salter, written in 1975, and I really liked it. It tells of the family and relationship of husband and wife, Viri and Nedra, over the course of fifteen or so years, from 1958, in upstate New York.

I find it hard to describe what it is that I like about a way of writing. Thankfully I read Light Years because of this article in the London Review of Books by James Meek in 2013 and so I can use his descriptions of Salter’s writing. The article is a review of two other books by Salter but spends a lot of time on Light Years (which was reviewed in the LRB by Fatema Ahmed in 2004, before my time). Here’s Meek:

It isn’t Salter’s language alone that numbers him among the masters, but it is what strikes you first. From Light Years of 1975: ‘On the stands in nearby orchards were hard, yellow apples filled with powerful juice. They exploded against the teeth, they spat white flecks like arguments.’ From the story ‘Am Strande von Tanger’, on the death of a bird: ‘A heart no bigger than an orange seed has ceased to beat.’ From his first novel, The Hunters of 1957, a description of fuel tanks jettisoned by fighters, falling from high altitude over Korea: ‘There were a dozen or more, going down like thin cries fading in silence.’

This imagery is one of the few things immediate enough for me to think, “I like how he does that.” It’s something I also love about Nicholas Mosley’s writing, a way of writing similes and metaphors that makes me realise, seemingly effortlessly, what writing can do. Here’s a bit from Light Years:

He sailed on the France in the noisy, sad afternoon. Nedra came to see him off, like a sister, an old friend. There was a huge crowd, a crowd that would stand at the end of the pier finally, jammed together, waving, a crowd of the twenties, of revolutions in Mexico, threats of war.

The description of the crowd feels very like Mosley too, to me, calling up grander, older, more ominous meanings than a a simpler one would.

Both writers also have a tendency to use short sentences. Not necessarily in a way that implies speed or urgency, but more that this is all there is to say. The sentences couldn’t carry any more weight than they already do.

James Meek also puts his finger on something in the writing that I felt was there but couldn’t put into words, which is alluded to by that description of the waving crowd:

There is a Salterian unit of time that partakes of a moment (when you live it, intensely), a season (it is that time of year), and eternity (there have been such seasons, and always will be).

Even while Salter’s describing the mundane events of a character’s day you’re aware that these actions are also part of the character’s entire life, and part of something other people are doing and always will. Maybe this makes characters feel smaller, like they have less control than they think or want. People like this, despite how important their concerns feel to them, are a tiny part of history, swept along helplessly.

And then there’s the way Salter often avoids transitions between, say, a character’s memory of a past event and what they’re doing right now. Or, in this quote from Light Years in Meek’s article about the husband, Viri, that jumps from filling in details about his life directly into a scene:

His friends were Arnaud, Peter, Larry Vern. All friends are friends in a different way. Arnaud was his closest friend; Peter, his oldest.

He lingered before the counter, his eye passing over coloured bolts of cloth.

‘Have we made shirts for you before, sir?’ a voice asked, an assured voice, immensely wise.

The story in Light Years itself is mostly slight — the progression of Viri and Nedra’s relationship, their growing daughters, their hopes and elusive dreams — but it feels more weighty. Both characters are unsatisfied in different ways but to friends and strangers all is well, as Meek describes:

That’s the tragedy described in Light Years, that one cannot live the appearance one presents to other people. The appearance of happiness in Viri and Nedra’s marriage is enjoyed by others in a way they can’t enjoy it themselves.

Insert your own parallels to our social media world here.

Finally, here are a couple of longer passages that grabbed me, that happen to focus on things the characters feel they’re lacking. Nedra wants something more, but never seems quite sure what, or who, although she tries to find it.

Where does it go, she thought, where has it gone?

She was struck by the distances of life, by all that was lost in them. She could not even remember — she kept no journal — what she had said to Jivan the day of their first lunch together. She remembered only the sunlight that made her amorous, the certainty she felt, the emptiness of the restaurant as they talked. All the rest had eroded, it existed no more.

Things she had known imperishably — images, smells, the way in which he put on his clothes, the profane acts which had staggered her — all of them were fading now, becoming false. She seldom wrote letters, she kept almost none.

“You think it’s there, but it isn’t. You can’t even remember feelings,” she said to Eve. “Try to remember Neil and how you felt about him.”

“It’s hard to believe, but I was crazy about him.”

“Yes, you can say that but you can’t feel it. Can you even remember what he looked like?”

“Only from photographs.”

“The strange thing is, after a while you don’t even believe them.”

“Everything has changed so.”

“I always just assumed the important things would stay somehow,” Nedra said. “But they don’t.”

“I remember my wedding,” Eve said.

“I don’t think so.”

As well as having his own affair, Viri is also realising that he’ll never be what he thought he might. He’s an architect, he’s alright, but he’ll never be a great one. As Meek describes it, “a recurring Salterian idea is of a peak in a man or woman’s life, usually in their early thirties, after which action is tainted by age.” Hello!

Afterwards he sat with the paper, the Sunday edition, immense and sleek, which had lain unopened in the hall. In it were articles, interviews, everything fresh, unimagined; it was like a great ship, its decks filled with passengers, a directory in which was entered everything that had made any difference to the city, the world. A great vessel sailing each day, he longed to be on it, to enter its salons, to stand near the rail.

You are not obscure, they told him. You have friends. People admire your work. He was, after all, a good father — that is to say, an ineffective man. Real goodness was different, it was irresistible, murderous, it had victims like any other aggression; in short, it conquered. We must be vague, we must be gentle, we are killing people otherwise, whatever our intentions, we are crushing them beneath a vision of light. It is the idiot, the weakling, he thought, the son who has failed; once beyond that there is no virtue possible.

Night falls. The cold lies in the fields. The grass turns to stone.

In bed, he lay like a man in prison, dreaming of life.