james salter’s twentieth century paradise lost

James Salter’s novel Light Years is the story of a married couple, Viri and Nedra Berland, who enjoy—for a time, at least—a charmed life in upstate New York.

Reading Salter’s prose is a bit like watching a painter paint or a poet write: he has the eye for the necessary detail, the ear for the rhythm and cadence of American English, and the instinct for the essential image. An artist of the beauty that is to be found in everyday life, Salter has been praised by writers as varied as Susan Sontag and Reynolds Price. I cannot help but think that if Pierre Bonnard worked with a pen and not a brush, this is the kind of prose he would produce:

"The leaves came down, it seemed, in a single night. The prodigious arcade of trees in the village gave them up quickly; they fell like rain. … They would again, in addition to their beauty, to the roof they made beneath the sky, to their whispering, their slow, inarticulate sounds, the riches they poured down, they would, besides all this, give scale to everything, a true scale, reassuring, wise. We do not live as long, we do not know as much."


Light Years


We dash the black river, its flats smooth as stone. Not a ship, not a dinghy, not one cry of white. The water lies broken, cracked from the wind. This great estuary is wide, endless. The river is brackish, blue with the cold. It passes beneath us blurring. The sea birds hang above it, they wheel, disappear. We flash the wide river, a dream of the past. The deeps fall behind, the bottom is paling the surface, we rush by the shallows, boats beached for winter, desolate piers. And on wings like the gulls, soar up, turn, look back.

The day is white as paper. The windows are chilled. The quarries lie empty, the silver mine drowned. The Hudson is vast here, vast and unmoving. A dark country, a country of sturgeon and carp. In the fall it was silver with shad. The geese flew overhead in their long, shifting V’s. The tide flows in from the sea.

The Indians sought, they say, a river that "ran both ways." Here they found it. The salt wedge penetrates as far in as fifty miles; sometimes it reaches Poughkeepsie. There were huge beds of oysters here, seals in the harbor, in the woods inexhaustible game. This great glacial cut with its nuptial bays, the coves of wild celery and rice, this majestic river. The birds, like punctuation, are crossing in level flight. They seem to approach slowly, accelerate, pass overhead like arrows. The sky has no color. A feeling of rain.

All this was Dutch. Then, like so much else, it was English. The river is a reflection. It bears only silence, a glittering cold. The trees are naked. The eels sleep. The channel is deep enough for ocean liners; they could, if they wished, astonish the inner towns. There are turtles and crabs in the marshes, herons, Bonaparte gulls. The sewage pours from the cities further up. The river is filthy, but cleanses itself. The fish are numbed; they drift with the tide.

Along the banks there are houses of stone, no longer fashionable, and wooden houses, drafty and bare. There are still estates that exist, remnants of the great land parcels of the past. Near the water, a large Victorian, the brick painted white, trees high above it, a walled garden, a decaying greenhouse with ironwork along the roof. A house by the river, too low for the afternoon sun. It was flooded instead with the light of morning, with the eastern light. It was in glory at noon. There are spots where the paint has turned dark, bare spots. The gravel paths are dissolving; birds nest in the sheds.

We strolled in the garden, eating the small, bitter apples. The trees were dry and gnarled. The lights in the kitchen were on.

A car comes up the driveway, back from the city. The driver goes inside, only for a moment until he’s heard the news: the pony has gotten loose.

He is furious. "Where is she? Who left the door unlatched?"

"Oh God, Viri. I don’t know."

In a room with many plants, a kind of solarium, there is a lizard, a brown snake, a box turtle asleep. The entry step is deep, the turtle cannot leave. He sleeps on the gravel, his feet drawn up close. His nails are the color of ivory, they curl, they are long. The snake sleeps, the lizard sleeps.

Viri has his coat collar up and is trudging uphill. "Ursula!" he calls. He whistles.

The light has gone. The grass is dry; it creaks underfoot. There was no sun all day. Calling the pony’s name, he advances toward the far corners, the road, the adjoining fields. A stillness everywhere. It begins to rain. He sees the one-eyed dog that belongs to a neighbor, a kind of husky, his muzzle gray. The eye is closed completely, sealed, covered with fur so long ago was it lost, as if it never existed.

"Ursula!" he cries.

"She’s here," his wife says when he returns.

The pony is near the kitchen door, tranquil, dark, eating an apple. He touches her lips. She bites him absent-mindedly on the wrist. Her eyes are black, lustrous, with the long, crazy lashes of a drunken woman. Her coat is thick, her breath very sweet.

"Ursula," he says. Her ears turn slightly, then forget. "Where have you been? Who unlocked your stall?"

She has no interest in him.

"Have you learned to do that?" He touches an ear; it is warm, strong as a shoe. He leads her to the shed, whose door is ajar. Outside the kitchen he stamps dirt from his shoes.

The lights are on everywhere: a vast, illuminated house. Dead flies the size of beans lie behind the velvet curtains, the wallpaper has corner bulges, the window glass distorts. It is an aviary they live in, a honeycomb. The roofs are thick slate, the rooms are like shops. It gives off no sound, this house; in the darkness it is like a ship. Within, if one listens, there is everything: water, faint voices, the slow, measured rending of grain.

In the principal bath, with its stains, sponges, soaps the color of tea, books, water-curled copies of Vogue, he steams in peace. The water is above his knees; it penetrates to the bone. There is carpeting on the floor, a basket of smooth stones, an empty glass of the deepest blue.

"Papa," they call through the door.

"Yes." He is reading the Times.

"Where was Ursula?"


"Where was she?"

"I don’t know," he says. "She went out for a walk."

They wait for something further. He is a storyteller, a man of wonders. They listen for sounds, expecting the door to open.

"But where was she?"

"Her legs were wet," he announces.

"Her legs?"

"I think she was swimming."

"No, Daddy, really."

"She was trying to get the onions on the bottom."

"There are no onions there."

"Oh, yes."

"There are?"

"That’s where they grow."

They explain it to each other outside the door. It’s true, they decide. They wait for him, two little girls squatting like beggars.

"Papa, come out," they say. "We want to talk to you."

He puts aside the paper and sinks one last time into the embrace of the bath.



"Are you coming out?"

The pony fascinates them. It frightens them. They are ready to run if it makes an unexpected sound. Patient, silent, it stands in its stall; a grazing animal, it eats for hours. Its muzzle has a nimbus of fine hair, its teeth are browned.

"Their teeth never stop growing," the man who sold her to them said. He was a drunkard, his clothes were torn. "They keep growing out and getting wore down."

"What would happen if she didn’t eat?"

"If she didn’t eat?"

"What would happen to her teeth?"

"Make sure she eats," he said.

They often watch her; they listen to her jaws. This mythical beast, fragrant in the darkness, is greater than they are, stronger, more clever. They long to approach her, to win her love.


IT WAS THE AUTUMN OF 1958. Their children were seven and five. On the river, the color of slate, the light poured down. A soft light, God’s idleness. In the distance the new bridge gleamed like a statement, like a line in a letter which makes one stop.

Nedra was working in the kitchen, her rings set aside. She was tall, preoccupied; her neck was bare. When she paused to read a recipe, her head bent, she was stunning in her concentration, her air of obedience. She wore her wrist watch, her best shoes. Beneath the apron, she was dressed for the evening. People were coming for dinner.

She had trimmed the stems of flowers spread on the wood of the counter and begun to arrange them. Before her were scissors, paper-thin boxes of cheese, French knives. On her shoulders there was perfume. 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 the sun, to collect its warmth; books, potpourris, cushions in colors of Matisse, objects glistening like evidence, many of which might, had they been possessed by ancient peoples, have been placed in tombs for another life: clear crystal dice, pieces of staghorn, amber beads, boxes, sculptures, wooden balls, magazines in which were photographs of women to whom she compared herself.

Who cleans this large house, who scrubs the floors? She does everything, this woman, she does nothing. She is dressed in her oat-colored sweater, slim as a pike, her long hair fastened, the fire crackling. Her real concern is the heart of existence: meals, bed linen, clothing. The rest means nothing; it is managed somehow. She has a wide mouth, the mouth of an actress, thrilling, bright. Dark smudges in her armpits, mint on her breath. Her nature is extravagant. She buys on impulse, she visits Bendel’s as she would a friend’s, gathering up five or six dresses and entering a booth, not bothering to draw the curtain fully, a glimpse of her undressing, lean arms, lean trunk, bikini underpants. Yes, she scrubs floors, collects dirty clothes. She is twenty-eight. Her dreams still cling to her, adorn her; she is confident, composed, she is related to long-necked creatures, ruminants, abandoned saints. She is careful, hard to approach. Her life is concealed. It is through the smoke and conversation of many dinners that one sees her: country dinners, dinners at the Russian Tea Room, the Caf? Chauveron with Viri’s clients, the St. Regis, the Minotaur.

Guests were driving from the city, Peter Daro and his wife. "What time are they coming?"

"About seven," Viri said.

"Have you opened the wine?"

"Not yet."

The water was running, her hands were wet.

"Here, take this tray," she said. "The children want to eat by the fire. Tell them a story."

She stood for a moment surveying her preparations. She glanced at her watch.

The Daros arrived in darkness. The doors of their car slammed faintly. A few moments later they appeared at the entrance, their faces bright.

"Here’s a small gift," Peter said.

"Viri, Peter’s brought wine."

"Let me take your coats."

The evening was cold. In the rooms, the feel of autumn.

"That’s a beautiful drive," Peter said, smoothing his clothes. "I love to take that drive. As soon as you cross the bridge, you’re in trees, in darkness, the city is gone."

"It’s almost primeval," Catherine said.

"And you’re on your way to the beautiful house of the Berlands." He smiled. What confidence, what success there is in a man’s face at thirty.

"You look wonderful, both of you," Viri told them.

"Catherine really loves this house."

"So do I." Nedra smiled.

November evening, immemorial, clear. Smoked brook trout, mutton, an endive salad, a Margaux open on the sideboard. The dinner was served beneath a print of Chagall, the mermaid over the bay of Nice. The signature was probably false, but as Peter had said before, what difference did it make, it was as good as Chagall’s own, perhaps even better, with just the right degree of carelessness. And the poster, after all, was an issue of thousands, this angel afloat in pure night, the great majority of them not even distinguished by a signature of any kind, however fraudulent.

"Do you like trout?" Nedra asked, holding the dish.

"I don’t know which I like more, catching or eating them."

"Do you really know how to catch them?"

"There are times I’ve wondered," he said. He was helping himself generously. "You know, I’ve fished everywhere. The trout fisherman is a very special fellow, solitary, perverse. Nedra, this is delicious."

He had hair that was thinning, and a smooth, full face, the face of an heir, of someone who works in the trust department of a bank. He spent his days on his feet, however, fishing for Gauloises from a crumpled package. He had a gallery.

"That’s how I won Catherine," he said. "I took her fishing. Actually, I took her reading; she sat on the bank with a book while I fished for trout. Did I ever tell you the story about fishing in England? I went to a little river, perfect. It wasn’t the Test, that’s the famous one presided over for so many years by a man named Lunn. Marvelous old man, typically English. There’s a wonderful photograph of him with tweezers, sorting out insects. He’s a legend.

"This was near an inn, one of the oldest inEngland. It’s called the Old Bell. I came to this absolutely beautiful spot, and there were two men sitting on the bank, not too happy to have someone else appear, but of course, being English, they acted as if they hadn’t even seen me."

"Peter, pardon me," Nedra said. "Have some more."

He served himself.

"Anyway, I said, ‘How is it?’ ‘Lovely day,’ one of them said. ‘I mean, how is the fishing?’ Long silence. Finally one of them said, ‘Trout here.’ More silence. ‘One over by that rock,’ he said. ‘Really?’ ‘I saw him about an hour ago,’ he said. Long silence again. ‘Big bugger, too.’"

"Did you catch it?" she asked.

"Oh, no. This was a trout they knew. You know how it is; you’ve been to England."

"I’ve never been anywhere."

"Come on."

"But I’ve done everything," she said. "That’s more important." A wide smile over her wineglass. "Oh, Viri," she said, "the wine is marvelous."

"It is good, isn’t it? You know, there are some small shops-it’s surprising-where you can get quite good wines, and not expensively."

"Where did you get this?" Peter asked.

"Well, you know Fifty-sixth Street . . ."

"Next to Carnegie Hall."

"That’s it."

"On the corner there."

"They have some very good wines."

"Yes, I know. Who is the salesman again? There’s one particular salesman . . ."

"Yes, he’s bald."

"It’s not only that he knows wines; he knows the poetry of them."

"He’s terrific. His name is Jack."

"That’s right," Peter said. "Nice man."

"Viri, tell that conversation you overheard," Nedra said.

"That wasn’t in there."

"I know."

"It was in the bookstore."

"Come on, Viri," she said.

"It’s just something I overheard," he explained. "I was looking for a book, and there were these two men. One said to the other," his imitation was lisping and perfect, "’Sartre was right, you know.’

"’Oh, yeah?’" He imitated the other. "’About what?’

"’Genet’s a saint,’ he said. ‘The man’s a saint.’"

Nedra laughed. She had a rich, naked laugh. "You do that so well," she told him.

"No," he protested vaguely.

"You do it perfectly," she said.

Country dinners, the table dense with glasses, flowers, all the food one can eat, dinners ending in tobacco smoke, a feeling of ease. Leisurely dinners. The conversation never lapses. Their life is special, devout, they prefer to spend time with their children, they have only a few friends.


[From later in the novel:]


Danny is less obedient; she has a stubborn quality. She is less beautiful. In the summer her leanness and tan skin conceal it. She goes out in the deep water in a rubber tube, daring, kicking like an insect. It is morning, the surf fallingforward, its white teeth hissing on the shore. Viri watches, sitting on the sand. She waves at him, her shouts carried off by the wind. He understands suddenly what love of a child is. It overwhelms him like the line from a song.

Morning; the sea sound faint on the wind. His sunburned daughters walk on creaking floors. They pass their life together, in a compact that will never end. They go to the circus, to stores, the market shed in Amagansett with its laden shelves and fruits, to picnics, pageants, concerts in wooden churches among the trees. They enter Philharmonic Hall. The audience is hushed. They are seated, the program is in their laps. To listen to a symphony is to open the book of faces. The maestro arrives. He collects himself, stands poised. The great, exotic opening chords of Chabrier. They go to performances of Swan Lake, their faces pale in the darkness of the Grand Tier. The vast curve of seats is lighted like the Ritz. A huge orchestra pit, big as a ship, a ceiling of gold, hung with bursts of light, with pendants that glitter like ice. The great Nureyev comes out after, bowing like an angel, like a prince. They beg each other for the glasses; his neck, his chest are gleaming with sweat, even the ends of his hair. His hands, like those of a child, play with the cape tassels. The end of performances, the end of Mozart, of Bach. The solo violinist stands with her face raised, utterly drained, the last chords still sounding, as if from a great love. The conductor applauds her, the audience, the beautiful women, their hands held high.

They pass their life together, they pass boys fishing, walking to the end of the pier with a small eel tied, doubled up, on the hook. The mute eye of the eel calls out, a black dot in his plain, silver face. They sit at the table where their grandfather eats, Nedra’s father, a salesman, a man from small towns, his cough yellow, the Camel cigarettes always near his hand. His voice is out of focus, his eyes are filmed, he hardly seems to notice them. He brings death with him into the kitchen; a long, wasted life, the chrysalis of Nedra’s, its dry covering, its forgotten source. He has cheap shoes, a suitcase filled with samples of aluminum window frames.

Their life is formed together, woven together, they are like actors, a group of devoted actors who know nothing beyond themselves, beyond the pile of roles from old, from immortal plays.

The summer ends. There are misty, chilly days, the sea is quiet and white. The waves break far out with a slow, majestic sound. The beach is deserted. Occasional strollers along the water’s edge. The children lie on Viri’s back like possums; the sand is warm beneath him.

Peter and Catherine join them, together with their little boy. The families sit separated, in the solitude and mist. Peter has a folding chair and wears a yachting cap and a shirt. Beside him is a bucket filled with ice, bottles of Dubonnet and rum. An eerie and beautiful day. The fine points of mist drift over them. August has passed.

At a pause in the conversation, Peter rises and walks slowly, without a word, into the sea, a solitary bather, swimming far out in his blue shirt. His strokes are powerful and even. He swims with assurance, strong as an iceman. Finally Viri joins him. The water is cool. There is mist all about them, the swelling rhythm of the waves. No one is in sight except their families sitting on shore.

"It’s like swimming in the Irish Sea," Peter says. "Never any sun."

Franca and Danny come out to them.

"It’s deep here," Viri warns.

Each of the men holds a child. They huddle close.

"The Irish sailors," Peter tells them, "never learn to swim. Not even a stroke. The sea is too strong."

"But what if the boat sinks?"

"They cross their hands on their chests and say a prayer," Peter says. He performs it. Like the carved lid of a coffin he sinks from sight.

"Is it true?" they ask Viri later.


"They drown?"

"They deliver themselves to God."

"How does he know that?"

"He knows."

"Peter is very strange," Franca says.

And he reads to them, as he does every night, as if watering them, as if turning the earth at their feet. There are stories he has never heard of, and others he has known as a child, these stepping stones that are there for everyone. What is the real meaning of these stories, he wonders, of creatures that no longer exist even in the imagination princes, woodcutters, honest fishermen who live in hovels. He wants his children to have an old life and a new life, a life that is indivisible from all lives past, that grows from them, exceeds them, and another that is original, pure, free, that is beyond the prejudice which protects us, the habit which gives us shape. He wants them to know both degradation and sainthood, the one without humiliation, the other without ignorance. He is preparing them for this voyage. It is as if there is only a single hour, and in that hour all the provender must be gathered, all the advice offered. He longs for the one line to give them that they will always remember, that will embrace everything, that will point the way, but he cannot find the line, he cannot recognize it. It is more precious, he knows, than anything else they might own, but he does not have it. Instead, in his even, sensuous voice he laves them in the petty myths of Europe, of snowy Russia, the East. The best education comes from knowing only one book, he tells Nedra. Purity comes from that, and proportion, and the comfort of always having an example close at hand.

"Which book?" she says.

"There are a number of them."

"Viri," she says, "it’s a charming idea."



Leave a comment

No comments yet.

Comments RSS TrackBack Identifier URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s