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Saturday, 6 August 2011

Light Years




by James Salter


What makes you return to a particular book again and again? If I had to choose one novel for my desert island, ‘Light Years’ by James Salter would be it. It’s a luminous portrait of a marriage, (and as we know, nobody really knows what goes on inside other people’s marriages). Here Salter shows us how something seemingly perfect falls apart and unravels over the years.

I first read it hungrily, in one sitting. The prose – or perhaps prose-poetry is a better description is some of the finest I’ve ever read. When the novel was reissued recently as a Penguin Modern Classic, the introductory essay by Richard Ford began: “It is an article of faith among readers of fiction that James Salter writes American sentences better than anybody writing today.” I couldn’t agree more.

Salter himself said: “a page should seem effortless … as if the page wrote itself”. And this is how the book feels – full of light, lean and natural. Each time I go back to it, some new jewel of a phrase or sentence sparkles out. Take this section:
"Their life is mysterious, it is like a forest; from far off it seems a unity, it can be comprehended, described, but closer it begins to separate, to break into light and shadow, the density blinds one. Within there is no form, only prodigious detail that reaches everywhere: exotic sounds, spills of sunlight, foliage, fallen trees, small beasts that flee at the sound of a twig-snap, insects, silence, flowers.

And all of this, dependent, closely woven, all of it is deceiving. There are really two kinds of life. There is, as Viri says, 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."

Salter’s writing is so good, that as a writer it either makes you want to put the lid on your pen – or it makes you want to raise your game. I love his work – he can be tough (this is the man who wrote: "Women fall in love when they get to know you. Men are the opposite. When they finally know you they're ready to leave"), and he can be tender. Just as whether an artist can ‘do’ hands, I’ve always thought whether a writer can write about sex is a good test of their skill. And no one can do it like James Salter.

Reviewed by Kate Lord Brown


Kate Lord Brown’s debut, ‘The Beauty Chorus’ is available here.

You can read more about Kate on her website here, and you can read my review of the fabulous 'The Beauty Chorus' here.

1 comment:

Carole Anne Carr said...

Sounds a fascinating and thought provoking read.