Monday, November 16, 2009

Light Years, by James Salter

I can still remember a time when drinking was an unmitigated delight. Rightly or wrongly, I felt freed by it of my worst qualities (which were all, I imagined, the product of a Mormon upbringing): humorlessness, abject obedience to authority, a fascination with passing judgment, morbid self-control.

Drinking, I became less narrow. I became, for myself, finally, unpredictable. At the age of twenty-nine, I had found a path into the open meadow, or the great teeming city, of life.

Let me put that another way: suddenly, for the first time, I was having fun being an adult.

It was around that time that I read Under the Volcano. I loved the book and I liked to read it aloud.

But I didn't understand it. In addition to its exotic locale, it described an exotic experience: alcohol as an act of suicide. Alcohol as a flight not to life but from it.

If I were to read Under the Volcano today, it wouldn't be the same book. (Re-read books are never the same, which is why there is no such thing as re-reading.) Lowry would now be describing an experience that has become a possibility, perhaps even an inevitability—an experience that, however faintly (or probably not very faintly) I now recognize.

So too does Light Years, by James Salter, a book I've just finished and which has shaken me as few works of art ever have.

Its account of the beauty of marriage, and of its pleasures, and of its terrible and insidious forms of loneliness, would once have been incomprehensible to me. I suppose I would have recognized—but without nostalgia, which makes recognition matter—its account of marriage as a form of refuge. And as a sight of sudden, permanent moments of beauty. But I wouldn't have recognized its account of marriage as catastrophically, terribly lonely, and as always, at some level, doomed.

So I wouldn't have understood the book, as I couldn't understand Under the Volcano.

I'm saying that I would have loved Light Years, as I loved Under the Volcano, but I would have experienced its primary theme, its motivating truth, as exotic, charming, and irrelevant.

I think that Light Years can't be wholly felt unless the reader has been married and a parent for a while—probably for years. That fact (and I believe it's a fact) might explain the book's otherwise inexcusable lack of fame.

(There is no corresponding excuse for the neglect of Salter's A Sport and a Pastime, which is one of very few post-war American masterpieces of erotica—are there any others?—and which, like all of Salter's work, continues to be suspiciously un-read.)

Light Years describes with unsurpassed delicacy the mysteries of domestic suburban married life. It gives a heartwrenching account of parenthood—as heartwrenching (by which I mean true) as any I know. This book could not have been written by a person who didn't love marriage and parenthood and who hadn't known great happiness as a husband and a father.

But also great unhappiness; and it's always in unhappiness, as Tolstoy famously noted, where the story lies.

I don't feel inclined to summarize the plot. Its basic elements are relatively predictable, as all plots are, or eventually become, for anyone who passes his or her life among novels.

Anyway, they don't matter—not in this book; not ever. What matters in literature are formal accomplishment, strangeness, and honesty.

Light Years possesses all three of those qualities in abundance. Reading it, I often had to stop after a few pages, as if to re-assemble myself. The novel seemed to be—it was—smashing me into pieces. It often left me breathless. I confess that as it drew to a close (although I didn't love its final pages) I wept bitterly, helplessly.

Salter has divided Light Years into five parts, each built around what he frames as discreet stages of adult married life. Passing through each stage, one recognizes their truthfulness. More generally, one recognizes that there is great cruelty in truth. That we recognize truth by its cruelty.

The book's celebration of the basic pleasures of life acquires as it a proceeds a kind of indisputable force. No American writer since Hemingway evokes the pleasures of food and drink, the experience of preparing food and eating it, as exquisitely as Salter. In fact, his evocations are better than Hemingway's. (It's no coincidence, I'm sure, that both men spent a great deal of time in France.)

Salter is equally gifted at using setting to construct the emotional content of his art. His eye for the nuance and significance of light is unparalleled in modern American literature, perhaps in all of American literature.

My copy of the book, on loan to me from the Chabot College library, was published by North Point Press and has on its cover a painting by Pierre Bonnard. This choice seems exactly right. Both Salter and Bonnard articulate the truth—the truth as I've experienced it, anyway—of domestic life: They see its colors, its light, its stillness, its sadness and joy, its tendency to dissolve into something which can't be thought about and so can't be contained.

One realizes reading Salter that of course all politics are local because all life is local. We can't feel beyond ourselves. And what causes us to feel? Landscape, weather, nearby bodies, other animals, physical activity, the voices and the words of those we love, human—especially female—beauty, wit, the intelligence and dignity of children. Food and drink. Now and then, too rarely, a work of art. And the sanctuaries of sleep and bedding and the bewilderment of beloved flesh in close proximity to our own. The bewilderment of touch and scent. The boundless province of sex and its indigenous despair.

It is a book about aging and the primary act of resistance we have against aging, which is falling in love.

We see, if we are ready, that beyond those things nothing else matters. The rest is not silence but noise.

I suspect this book will be impossible to read if you don't understand that women are real and have emotional lives that are completely, permanently their own.

Which might make it impossible for most men to read and probably explains why I found reading it so difficult and why it is generally, unjustly unknown.

I think Light Years is one of the great American novels of the 20th century and I'll read it again when I have the strength to face it.

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