James Salter: Light Years
A short description of this book might call it a portrait of a marriage or, rather, a portrait of a marriage that failed. Fortunately for us, it is more than that, though, the marriage and its failure are the key themes of the book.
Viri (only later do we learn that his name comes from Vladimir and that he has Russian ancestry) is married to Nedra. At the start of the novel – the year is 1958 – they have two daughters, Franca, aged seven and Diane, known as Danny, aged five. They seem to have a fairly idyllic existence. Viri is an architect and fairly successful. The family live in upstate New York. They have a nanny and a dog. Nedra travels into New York for shopping, theatre, friends, etc. They seem to have a range of friends – intellectual, well-read – and entertain and are entertained frequently. Indeed, much of the early part of the novel is simply about this life, with nothing special really happening. In the hands of a lesser writer, this could have been boring but Salter has a skill in writing which shows the moods, the background and the barely perceptible changes in life, which make these pages anything but boring.
Nedra had left home when sixteen. She is from a working-class background. We later meet her father, a man who smoked and still smokes three packs of cigarettes a day. She married Viri when only twenty-one. We gradually get the feeling that, while appreciating her existence and her generally happy family life, there is something not quite right, something perhaps that she is looking for but cannot find, not least because she is not sure what exactly it is that she is looking for.
We learn that one of their friends is cheating on his wife and then we learn that Viri has fallen for a woman at work. His passion for her is intense but not reciprocated. Nedra seems to be happy in her marriage. There are things I love about marriage. I love the familiarity of it,” Nedra said. “It’s like a tattoo. You wanted it at the time, you have it, it’s implanted in your skin, you can’t get rid of it. You’re hardly even aware of it any more. I suppose I’m very conventional. However, sometime later the cracks are definitely showing. I’m indifferent to it. I’m bored with happy couples. I don’t believe in them. They’re false. They’re deceiving themselves. Viri and I are friends, good friends. I think we’ll always be. But the rest, the rest is dead. We both know it. There’s no use pretending. It’s decorated like a corpse, but it’s already rotten. When Viri and I are divorced …. She does not finish the sentence. She has a fling with a friend. She wants to go and live in Europe. They are less inhibited, she maintains. They start to disagree on guests to invite. He starts making a list of events in his life. The last entry is Loses everything.
But it is not just Viri and Nedra. There is the little girl who gets cancer, loses a leg and then dies. Her father dies. The pet rabbit dies and they are all remorseful. One of their friends is mugged in New York and loses an eye in the attack. Her friend Nora is so bitter about her marriage. I spent my life looking after him, she cries. And then the children grow up and they have their troubles. In short, virtually everyone ends up miserable in some way.
That the marriage is doomed has been apparent for some time. It’s [i.e. their marriage] like a burned photograph,” she said calmly. “Some portions of it are there. The main part is gone forever.” Viri smiled slightly. He did not reply. They try to make it right by having a holiday in England. They return. They divorce. But divorce is not the answer for either of them. He finds someone else but it is quite apparent that she is not right for him and she flits here and there, still looking for she knows not what. One of the last great realizations is that life will not be what you dreamed.
This is frankly a thoroughly depressing book. The basic message seems to be that marriages/relationships are doomed to failure and that we are all looking for something but we do not know what it is and we do not find it. It starts off cheerfully enough with what seems a happy marriage, a happy family and a comfortable, enjoyable life, before inexorably sliding downhill. No-one comes out happy and no-one finds what they want, not least because they do not know what they want. Despite all that, I really enjoyed this book, as it is so delicately and carefully written and because I was able to distance myself from the main characters but I do hope Salter’s life was happier than the ones portrayed in this book.
First published 1975 by Random House