17 Oct 2013

Light Years, by James Salter

This is the cover of the Penguin Classics edition of James Salter's masterpiece (yes, I can and will call it that), Light Years. It was first published in 1975 and has perhaps had a kind of "slow-burner" career ever since, gaining Salter the often voiced reputation of a "writer"s writer", whatever that may mean. I am not a writer (at least I don't publish litterature), yet I consider this to be one of the very best novels that I have read in a long time. So where does this leave us? Well let's get back to the essence, which is of course the book itself.

James Salter

Light Years, whose French title, "Un Bonheur Parfait" (A Perfect Happiness") is, as so often, a bit offkey and in fact adds an ironical touch that I cannot really detect in the book itself or in its original title, is a book about the gradual decline and dissolution of a relationship, in this case a marital one. It is totally masterly in its incredibly evocative and often slightly allusory descriptions, but it is also quite relentless in the development of its story as the faults, weaknesses and self-delusions of the protagonists wear through the Fitzgerald-like veneer of their apparent happiness. I have read one other book by Salter so far (and I won't be stopping there), which is a cruel tail of an highly erotic but otherwise empty relationship, and is called A Sport and a Pastime. Salter's biographical details as a former US airforce fighter-pilot (in the Korean war) has been well documented and seem to me irrelevant to judgements on his writing, which is simply brilliant.

James Salter as a young man

Salter is a writing craftsman, in the best sense of that term, but is also someone who tackles, head-on but with immense subtlety, the facts of life. Nothing lasts, but, while things do do, life is worth living. Yet one should always beware of appearances that can lull one into taking things for granted. Salter mixes factual descriptions, almost matter-of-fact in their manner, with hugely evocative phrases that just resound inside the reader.I find myself frequently thinking "yes, thats just how it is", whilst discovering a new angle on events, scenes and situations that have a taste of familiarity about them. There is a strange and fascinating mixture of down-to-earth reality and a dream-lile atmosphere through which the protagonists wander and which, in my opinion, is echoed and introduced by the fact that their first names are rather strange. In Light Years, the otherwise fairly ordinary central couple are named Viri (him) and Nedra (her). Not exactly your everyday all-american names for an apparently ordinary middle-class couple (he an architect, she not working) living in a well-to-do suburb north of New York. It is as if their frst names were symbols of their aspirations to something exceptional and unusual, wheras their lives are really quite banal. Viri and Nedra live, in a sense, in a dream world along with their names that come from who-knows-where. The apparent mist of happiness in which they bask gradually dissipates as they age. And yet they continue to dream, and live, and love somehow outside of themselves. To the point where the reader never really knows who they are. They remain absent presences all through the book.

Yes, the story is sad, in a sense. But it is also filled with beauty and the constant reminder that life can be very full, and that emptiness, delusions and missed opportunities are also part of that story.

Read on....  

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