Light Years by James Salter

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Like life which is seldom a pacy movie plot, but a patient walk, Light Years crawls through the couple’s lives with detail. Viri and Nedra are a happily married couple living on the banks of Hudson. Different from what’s on the surface, much is happening within. The passion fades, the domesticity lingers. The two daughters grow. We see the years roll by. The long idle afternoon hours, all gay, the dinners with friends, the wine, the abundant food. The chilly turns, the bitter feelings, the unspoken words. James Salter writes prose more like poetry. But not very flowery. Mostly, sparse and exact.

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.

Tavel is nonsense. The only thing you see is what’s already inside you.

How can we imagine what our lives should be without the illumination of the lives of others?

To her husband, she was understanding, even affectionate, though they slept as if there were an agreement between them; not so much as a foot ever touched. There was an agreement, it was marriage.

This one captures the fissures of the couple’s relationship quite astutely.

She didn’t explain it; she couldn’t. It was not a matter of living alone, though in her own case this had been necessary. The freedom she meant was self-conquest. It was not a natural state. It was meant only for those who would risk everything for it, who were aware that without it life is only appetites until the teeth are gone.

Sample this, when Viri in Rome is unable to fully savor love after a phase of devastation.

He was in turmoil; was he being tested? Was anything more than this swooping from a semblance of happiness to boredom and fear still possible for him? Or perhaps, in the way of someone blind to his own weaknesses, he was about to enact again a hopeless domesticity, to repeat those things which had already brought him here, to a strange country far from home.

There were passages in the book I couldn’t comprehend in totality. Maybe I will get it better when I see and experience more of companionship. While the book might have evaded the comprehension in me in parts, it never stopped offering beautiful prose. The debris of marriage, the small details of ruins that sprout quite early but is invisible to the eye, the inexactness of words to describe what’s missing – it all strangely fascinates me. I want to know a couple intimately, see them naked without the robes of a ‘happy’ face. How the companionship evolves? What’s the true meaning of it all? This has led me to watch two terrific movies- Blue Valentine, The Revolutionary Road. I am yet to watch Marriage Story.

Read this book if you want to unravel the less spoken threads of an individual’s feelings in marriage.

In Jhumpa Lahiri’s words-

In the beginning, it was the light, the warmth of the novel that enchanted me. Afternoon trysts, evenings by the fire, languorous days by the sea. I was about the age of the daughters at one point in the story. Nedra and Viri were more remote, traveling toward middle age. I understood that the couple betrayed one another and separated, that the family lost its center, that death came. But in the beginning, coming to the book in a state of innocence, I was less affected by its outcome than I was captivated by what had come before. I was still at an age when the passage of time felt predominantly generous, benevolent. In the course of nearly thirty years, I have come to read the book differently. I fell in love, married, became a writer, a mother. I am now older than Nedra when she leaves Viri, approaching the age when she grows ill and dies. Now I respond, as I did not before, to Salter’s moving reflections on parenthood, on solitude, on the earth’s beauty. Pleasure is something I continue to associate with the book; it is a novel that taught me the profundity of it. But I have grown vulnerable to its darker currents: the breach between family and autonomy, between possessing and renouncing, between being and nothingness.


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