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  • Written by James Salter
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  • Written by James Salter
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Written by James SalterAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by James Salter

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On Sale: February 09, 2011
Pages: 320 | ISBN: 978-0-307-78172-7
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

This exquisite, resonant novel by PEN/Faulkner winner James Salter is a brilliant portrait of a marriage by a contemporary American master. It is the story of Nedra and Viri, whose favored life is centered around dinners, ingenious games with their children, enviable friends, and near-perfect days passed skating on a frozen river or sunning on the beach. But even as he lingers over the surface of their marriage, Salter lets us see the fine cracks that are spreading through it, flaws that will eventually mar the lovely picture beyond repair. Seductive, witty, and elegantly nuanced, Light Years is a classic novel of an entire generation that discovered the limits of its own happiness—and then felt compelled to destroy it.

Excerpt

One

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?"

"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.

"Papa?"

"Yes."

"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.

2

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 in England. 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.
James Salter

About James Salter

James Salter - Light Years

Photo © Corina Arranz

James Salter is the author of the novels Solo Faces, Light Years, A Sport and a Pastime, The Arm of Flesh (revised as Cassada), and The Hunters; the memoirs Gods of Tin and Burning the Days; and the collection, Dusk and Other Stories which won the 1989 PEN/Faulkner Award. He lives in Colorado and on Long Island.
Praise

Praise

“Extraordinary . . . at once tender, exultant, unabashedly sexual, sensual, and profoundly sad. Light Years is a masterpiece.”
—Elizabeth Benedict, Philadelphia Inquirer
 
“Remarkable. . . . Salter celebrates the silver-and-golden bitterness of life. Light Years . . . becomes an unexpectedly moving ode to beautiful lives frayed by time.”
—James Wolcott, Esquire
 
“[A] twentieth-century masterpiece. At once iridescent, lyrical, mystical and magnetic.”
Bloomsbury Review
 
“An absolutely beautiful, monstrous, important book.”
—Joy Williams
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Discussion Questions

About the Book

The discussion topics, author biography, and bibliography that follow are meant to enhance your group's reading of James Salter's Light Years. We hope that they will provide you with new ways of looking at--and talking about--a novel that has engrossed readers since its original publication in 1975 and that has contributed to its author's reputation as one of the most radiant prose stylists at work in the English language. Even the most cursory reading of this book makes it clear that Salter is also a supernaturally acute observer of the subatomic fields that flicker between men and women as they fall in and out of love. He is a novelist with the unblinking gaze of a scientist.

About the Guide

Light Years is not so much the story of a marriage (it may not be a story at all, in the familiar sense of that word) as it is a time-lapse portrait of one, the kind of portrait that might have been painted by Seurat. Its protagonists, Viri and Nedra Berland, are observed over a period of some twenty years. We see them hosting dinners at their house in the Hudson River valley, shopping at the finest stores in New York, playing with their children on the beach at Amagansett, in bed with each other and with their lovers. Salter follows them through contentment, disillusionment, and bereavement, and into the black hole of divorce. From that hole Nedra emerges energized, traveling, taking lovers and shrugging them off, basking finally in the true love of her children before her early death. But Viri never fully surfaces; without Nedra he becomes the failure he always feared he might be: gets humiliatingly drunk at the home of friends who once envied him, marries, badly, an Italian woman who can hold him only through guilt and pity.

This is not to suggest that Viri is Nedra's victim, any more than Nedra is someone else's. Salter's view of marriage is informed by an aesthetic that is utterly at odds with fashionable psychologies of blame. Each protagonist's life is "mysterious, it is like a forest; from far off it . . . can be comprehended, described, but closer it begins to separate, to break into light and shadow, the density blinds one" (p. 23). And that life may be changed in a moment, as Nedra's is when she reads a single paragraph in a biography of the painter Kandinsky and decides to leave Viri. Given such a view of life, how can we attempt to weigh its actions on any moral scale? Light Years does not invite judgment or even easy empathy with its flawed human beings. It asks us to watch them with the sort of compassion that Nedra herself feels one night, as she surveys herself in bed with the husband she no longer loves: "If they had been another couple she would have been attracted to them, she would have loved them, even--they were so miserable" (p. 125).

Discussion Guides

1. From its opening description of the Hudson River valley, Light Years is very much a novel of place: the west bank of the Hudson, New York City, Amagansett, Rome. What sort of details establish these various settings? How does the author endow each location with a different mood and associate it with a different phase or aspect of his characters' lives?

2. James Salter has written screenplays, so it's no coincidence that Light Years is a highly cinematic book. It is filled with the prose equivalent of montage, wide-shots, and jump cuts, as in the scene on pages 60-66, in which alternating paragraphs depict Jivan dining with the Berlands and--later?--earlier?--making love with Nedra. How do such cinematic techniques contribute to the novel's effect? How do they heighten or play against Salter's unabashedly poetic language?

3. How does Salter develop the characters of his protagonists? Contrast the description of Nedra on page 8 with the one of Viri on page 1

4. In what ways do they parallel each other? (We are told, for example, that Nedra has "mint on her breath" while Viri's breath is "faintly bad.") How are these initial impressions reinforced or contradicted by what we later see of Viri and Nedra's behavior? 4. Are the Berlands a well-matched couple? In what ways do they seem compatible? In what way are their personalities at odds? How would you compare them to couples such as Peter and Catherine Daro, the Marcel-Maases, or Eve and Arnaud? Why might Salter have included these other couples in his narrative?

5. Viri is haunted by the fear of obscurity and failure. Nedra dreads age, poverty, and, above all, ordinariness. ("The only thing I'm afraid of are the words 'ordinary life'" (p. 174). How central are these fears to their characters? Does Salter give us any clues about their origins? In what ways do they help bring about Viri and Nedra's divorce?

6. Are you surprised to learn that the Berlands are unfaithful to each other? In what way do their extramarital liaisons--and, particularly, the manner of their ending--foreshadow their divorce and the different directions their lives take in its aftermath? Does Salter give us any evidence that Viri and Nedra know about each other's affairs? Is infidelity the thing that tears them apart? Paradoxically, might it be the thing that holds them together for so many years?

7. What other indications do we have that Viri and Nedra are heading toward a breakup? Why do so many years elapse between the time that Nedra acknowledges that her marriage is dead (p. 107) and her decision to leave it?

8. Ultimately, is there an explanation for the Berlands' rupture? Is either partner to blame and is "blame," in the sense of moral responsibility, an appropriate term within this novel's context? Are we meant to judge either Viri or Nedra? Ought we view their marriage as a "failure"?

9. What kind of parents are the Berlands? What do we learn about their feelings for their daughters and their children's feelings for them? At what points in the novel do their relationships with their children change? How do Franca and Danny react to their parents' divorce? Does Salter give us any reason to believe that the girls' later lives are shaped by their parents' example?

10. In an interview (in The Paris Review, CXXXIII, p. 81), Salter has said, "In my books, the woman is always the stronger." In what ways is Nedra stronger than Viri?

11. In Nedra, Salter has created not only a convincing woman character but a convincing feminine subjectivity. How do Nedra's imagination and perceptions--and particularly her sensuality--differ from Viri's?

12. Even as the threads that hold Viri and Nedra together fray, people around them are dying: the little girl whose father once towed her on the ice; Nedra's father; Peter Daro (of a bizarre ailment that literally turns his flesh to wood). Even the dapper and irrepressible Arnaud Roth is maimed during a mugging, after which he vanishes from the Berlands' circle. What role does death play in Light Years? What relation does Salter posit between the death of love and death itself?

13. Light Years covers a span of almost twenty years, beginning when Nedra is twenty-eight (p. 8) and ending with her death at the age of forty-seven (p. 296): the reckoning is easy to make, since Salter regularly updates us on the year or the ages of his characters. Why might he do this? In what other ways does he mark the passage of time?

14. Against these precise chronological reckonings Salter establishes another sort of time, one that is impressionistic, almost pointillistic. As Viri observes of life at the novel's end, "It happens in an instant. It is all one long day, one endless afternoon, friends leave, we stand on the shore" (p. 308). Where in Light Years is time dilated or compressed and to what end? How might the theory of relativity--which posits that time passes more swiftly as one approaches the speed of light--inform this novel, beginning with its title?

15. At different points in the narrative we see Nedra consulting a dream book, reading Arnaud's tarot cards, and reading her own palm. How accurate are these readings? Where in this novel does Salter deliberately mislead the reader, introducing characters who appear significant but disappear from the action, signaling turns of plot that never materialize? Is the future in Light Years something that can be predicted? Do events in this novel feel inevitable or arbitrary? If we accept the idea that a novel's plot consists of the causal relation among its events, can Light Years be said to possess a plot?

16. The characters in Light Years communicate obliquely. Nedra doesn't tell Viri that she wants to leave him; she says, "I don't want to go back to our old life" (p. 200). In spite of Viri's entreaties, she never explains what she means by that old life or if she does, we do not hear her. What other things in Light Years remain unsaid, both by the characters and by the author? How does this silence determine events in the novel?

17. The narrator announces that he will reveal Nedra's life "from the inside outward" (p. 7), but what follows is a description of the house where she and Viri live and the objects with which they have furnished it. What do these people's possessions reveal about them? To what extent can we read Light Years as a novel of property and possessions or, more broadly, as a novel of surfaces?

18. "There are really two kinds of life," Salter writes. "There is...the one people believe you are living, and there is the other. It is this other which causes the trouble, this other we long to see" (p. 24). And: "Their life was two things: it was a life, more or less--at least it was the preparation for one--and it was an illustration of life for their children" (p. 69). In what way is the Berlands' life divided? How might it be described as the "preparation" for a life? What is hidden beneath its appearances, and how do their life's hidden aspects contribute to the destruction of the façade? Is the notion of a hidden life obsolete in an age when people air every wish, fantasy, and resentment, not only in their bedrooms but on daytime talk shows?

19. When Viri tries to see the blemishes in his contentment, its surfaces blind him (p. 197). Yet earlier Salter writes: "Life is weather. Life is meals. Lunches on a blue checked cloth on which salt has spilled. The smell of tobacco. Brie, yellow apples, wood-handled knives" (p. 25). Do the domestic surfaces that fill this novel, and which Salter describes with such evident love, conceal some mysterious inner truth? Or do they constitute that truth itself? Is that truth any less mysterious for being made up of surfaces?


  • Light Years by James Salter
  • January 31, 1995
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Vintage
  • $16.00
  • 9780679740735

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