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[540] Light Years – James Salter


” He knew he had talent, intelligence, that he was not going to perish like a mollusk washed up on shore. All the past, he told himself, all that had been so difficult, that he had struggled with like a traveler with too many bags—idealism, loyalty, all your virtues, your decency—they will be needed when you are old, they will preserve you, keep you alive . . . ” (271)

Light Years is a very quiet novel that chronicles the uncoupling of Nedra and Viri, a golden couple living in a gilded, countrified life of incessant, candle-lit dinner parties, interesting friends and beautiful children. Viri is a faltering architect who commutes to Manhattan and wishes he is famous, instead of wishing he’s a better one. Nedra is his beautiful, decorative wife who shops in the city, gives lavish parties, and sleeps with the neighbor. Despite her lack of remorse and self-pity, she is at least to her husband the pledge of sanctity and order.

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 . . . (23)

Salter has a jeweler’s eye for human frailties. Depicted in this moody and tender book is the inexorable passing of years in a troubled marriage. Fragility is not limited to the many cracks that spread in the marriage; Salter writes about vulnerability in life’s every facet: families, love, sexuality and personal achievement. While the Berlands are basically good people, who, adulteries set aside, claim a fugitive happiness, Salter is not lenient with them. Beneath their affluence’s surfaces are also frustrated ambitions, enervated passions and a bagging fretfulness that life should be richer still, though neither of the Berlands possesses the clear-sightedness to make that life happen. As their marriage slowly disintegrates, they become disengaged and glib, knowing that they live life of no serious consequence.

The lay in the dark like two victims. They had nothing to give one another, they were bound by a pure, inexplicable love. (125)

But this love doesn’t bind them together, because Nedra doesn’t believes in happy couples. The novel, therefore, is a decrying against a casulness in the face of truth. It’s no mystery that of what it considers ill—trivializing and exploiting life. The Berlands are confused about what will make them happy or unhappy in life, and they mis-identify superfluity as progress, bad as good, until the marriage is beyond repair. James Salter is the master of a mandarin style that is not a whit less virile for being exquisite. His prose is lyrical and provocative, with never a word too many or too few. Salter’s subject, which is human desire in its many manifestations—strongly reminds me of my last read, Linda Grant’s We Had It So Good: erotic longing, jealousy, ambition, curiosity, obsession, the needs to triumph, to achieve perfection, to experience life, to be loved, to merely belong—except Salter’s execution is all the more superior.

308 pp. Vintage International. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]


3 Responses

  1. Great take on a great novel. He has his first new novel since Light Years coming out in April.

  2. Books like this that study and/or highlight the complexities of relationships are always fascinating for me.

  3. […] Light Years by James Salter. Very poetic language, actually overly poetic for my taste. But I was having problem after problem with it. The 3rd person omniscient narration that occasionally lapsed into first person for a bit of authorial intrusion. It’s really meant to be read in increments and very slowly—unfortunately not when I was on vacation. […]

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