Desperation unfolds like a luminous dream
My favourite novel
WHILE the Great Works — Anna Karenina or Middlemarch, Moby-dick or Sentimental Education — await every serious reader of fiction, other titles come to us by chance. There are others, still, that someone whispers like a secret induction.
Nedra Berland discovers such a book, unexpected and life-altering, in James Salter’s 1975 novel, Light Years: ‘‘ The power to change one’s life comes from a paragraph, a lone remark . . . The polished sentences had arrived, it seemed, like so many other things, at just the right time.
‘‘ How can we imagine what our lives should be without the illumination of the lives of others?’’
Long neglected, long praised by writers, Light Years is a novel of profuse richness. It is a ceaseless surprise, this renegade book whose ‘‘ paragraphs’’ and ‘‘ lone remarks’’ we read, reread and then ache to share with others. On the surface, it chronicles the dissolution of a marriage.
Unlike other novels of American suburbia where every page devastates (Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, say), Light Years — the story of Nedra (‘‘The only thing I’m afraid of are the words ‘ ordinary life’ ’’) and her husband Viri, an architect in his 30s who is growing painfully aware that his ambitions outweigh his talent — unfolds like a luminous dream.
It opens in 1958, when Viri returns home in upstate New York from work in the city to discover the family’s pony has escaped. ‘‘ Her eyes are black, lustrous, with the long, crazy lashes of a drunken woman,’’ writes Salter.
Nothing is lost on him. The Berlands’ precocious daughters are aged seven and five. In their house with its river view, Viri and Nedra invite friends for long and elaborate dinners. For them, ‘‘ Life is weather. Life is meals.’’
Through 305 pages and two decades, Salter, ever meticulous, unveils the desperation behind their facade: ‘‘ There are really two kinds of life. There is, as Viri says, the one people believe you are living, and there