Posted on | October 20, 2011 | 1 Comment
I’m in the throes of a renewed love affair with James Salter. Every time I read Salter, I conclude all over again that he’s the best living stylist in English—and apparently I’m not alone. In his introduction to Light Years, Richard Ford writes, “It is an article of faith among readers of fiction that James Salter writes American sentences better than anybody writing today.” With A Sport and a Pastime, he secured his place in the small pantheon of novelists who can write about sex without seeming grotesque or pornographic or pathetic.
But more than a great writer of sex, Salter seems to me the great writer of intimacy. Not sexual intimacy—though that too, of course—but the intimacies of the everyday, the intense relationships with objects, habits, and meals that give life to time. “Life is weather. Life is meals,” Salter writes in Light Years. “Lunches on a blue checked cloth on which salt has spilled. Brie, yellow apples, wood-handled knives.” In Light Years, even as the marriage of Nedra and Viri begins to show signs of wear, these small, tactile relationships remain—in their way no less important: “The days were cut from a quarry that would never be emptied. Into them there came books, errands, the seashore, occasional pieces of mail. She read them slowly and carefully, sitting in the sunshine, as if they were newspapers from abroad.”
I recently read Light Years over the course of almost two months. Initially embarrassed by my slowness, I have come to understand it—it is a book for savoring. For a novel so fixated on the worldly—Viri and Nedra are a model of the aspirational from before aspirational was a word, their inchoate ambition never quite certain of its object—Light Years has an ethereal quality. Salter’s sense of time manages to be both compressed and languorous. He covers multiple decades in three hundred pages. It’s as if he happened to wander into the room for the most essential moments of his characters’ lives and is content to let the rest remain a mystery, even to himself. Here is Salter describing Light Years in his 1992 interview with the Paris Review:
The book is the worn stones of conjugal life. All that is beautiful, all that is plain, everything that nourishes or causes to wither. It goes on for years, decades, and in the end seems to have passed like things glimpsed from the train—a meadow here, a stand of trees, houses with lit windows in the dusk, darkened towns, stations flashing by—everything that is not written down disappears except for certain imperishable moments, people, and scenes.
There appears, now and again, a phantom “I.” “I am going to describe her life from the inside outward, from its core, the house as well, rooms in which life was gathered, rooms in the morning sunlight, the floors spread with Oriental rugs that had been her mother-in-law’s, apricot, rouge and tan, rugs which though worn, seemed to drink sun, to collect its warmth…” Salter is not afraid to be the voyeur of his own characters. Their world is there for him to find. And yet it doesn’t come naturally to him, this sideways relationship to time. When the Paris Review posted a scan of his outline for the first six chapters, it was touching to see his own authorial self-commandments: “Be discursive, oblique, storytelling.”
There’s a reason this post is mostly a sequence of quotations and stray impressions: picking away at Light Years too much feels like a form of sacrilege. It’s the kind of novel that makes people talk about literature as a secular religion—a sacred communion charged with meaning by something beyond itself.
The image that accompanies this post, which I have taken from the MoMA site, is “Dining Room Overlooking the Garden (The Breakfast Room)” by Pierre Bonnard. In the Paris Review interview, Salter says that he was thinking of Bonnard as he wrote Light Years.