“Silence is mysterious, but stories fill us like the sun”
“Light Years” by James Salter, 1975
One of my earliest childhood memories is lying in a gigantic oak bed under heavy feather covers on a farm somewhere in Bavaria, listening to my father reading The Wizard of Oz to me, long before I ever even looked at the pictures in a children’s book. Back then it never occurred to me, that maybe one day our roles could be reversed and that it would be me reading to him. During the last weeks of his life I sat by his bed and read. Sometimes to him, sometimes to myself. Poetry mostly, concise and brief, in keeping with his fading attention span. We would take long breaks between poems to nap and talk about them. The last thing I read to him was Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio illustrated so wonderfully by Roberto Innocenti. It seems to me now as if, when we were not reading, we spent most of our time talking about it. Everything else had already been said. A novel that came up many times during this period was James Salter’s Light Years. He was upset that I hadn’t read it despite my alleged interest in literature, not quite as furious as the time when he realized that I had never touched any Cormac McCarthy, but still upset, but then I had seen him get overly excited about novels that were just utter crap before and so I never thought about it much.
Little did I know that it would magically appear before me on top of the bargain pile in a used bookstore just as I had completely forgotten about it. And when it did, I of course immediately located it within a series of posthumous miracles of which so many had been haunting me at the time. I spent most of the following months not reading it. And when I finally started to, I read the first chapter, put it away and then reread it the following week. I didn’t want to start it, because I didn’t want to have to finish it. As if after a few pages I was already upset that it would have to end 300 pages later, knowing that it would not provide any answers. Finishing the novel took forever. I spent many afternoons rereading passages, sometimes reading them out loud to myself or to those who I felt deserved to hear them.
So there is one good reason to look at this novel 35 years past its original publishing date. An emotional one. But more importantly, nobody knows about this novel and it is probably one of the best novels I have ever read. Period. I know more Germans that have read Salter translated into German than North Americans that have ever even heard his name. That writers don’t always get the recognition they deserve, especially in their country of origin, is no secret. The German reception of W.G. Sebald speaks volumes. But how a novel like this can go almost unnoticed for such a long period of time, is a complete mystery to me.
The novel’s subject matter is nothing out of the ordinary. It follows, with no visible plot, the development of an upper-middle class marriage in the late 50s over the course of maybe 20 years, their fairy tale house on the banks of the Hudson River somewhere in Upstate New York, their two daughters, their artist friends, dinners, lovers, vacations, etc., a plethora of life’s ephemeral pains and pleasures. This might sound boring, but here exactly lies the novel’s strength. It isn’t. Salter manages to stylistically capture a rare essence. The reader can appreciate the mundane, so poignantly captured in the author’s rich and poetic prose. It is impressionist in a more visual than literary sense of the term. His composition and selection of detail, his spare language like visible brush strokes. The illusion of reality paired with the knowledge of its ineffability, relying on the reader’s experience to transcend the ordinary, like the audience at a magic show.
Light Years is a generous novel about time, its passing, the traces it leaves and its ever-changing pace like the mood of the Hudson by which it is set, sometimes rapid, sometimes placid. It is a novel about life’s pleasures and achievements, art, sex, dinners, lunches, and light of course, about decisions and the beauty and fragility of life and love and our ultimate loneliness in the face of death. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.
“There is no complete life. There are only fragments. We are born to have nothing, to have it pour through our hands. […] One must be resolute, blind. For whatever we do, even whatever we do not do prevents us from doing the opposite. Acts demolish their alternatives, that is the paradox. So that life is a matter of choices, each one final and of little consequence, like dropping stones into the sea.”