Saturday, November 14, 2015

Light Years

Can it be?  Eight years writing this blog.  That’s the amount of time I spent in grammar school. Those eight years in PS 90 seem to be light years in the distant past, but at the time they were an eternity.  And four years in high school were equally drawn out, anticipating adulthood, the point at which I could leave the turmoil of my parent’s home.  Time accelerated in college, came on full speed during my career and raising a family, and now it’s a year in a blink.

I think I’ve been true to my “mission statement” in this space -- essentially an eclectic, kaleidoscopic diary. There have been 480 entries thus far, enough to fill at least five printed volumes.  Content has morphed into more about theatre, literature and still some politics and economics, but less about family history.  I’ve pretty much covered that, and the older I get the more I’d like to move on. 

Nonetheless, I still write about things which are fairly personal, always hesitating about what I “put out there.”  As this blog has evolved, so has the digital world, data mining for all sorts of nefarious reasons.  And the digital world has moved way beyond blogs to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumbler, social networks where a momentary impulse can be just thrown out as a developed thought.  Not here.   Traffic building has not been my intent.  According to Google, in eight years there have been 86,021 page views. Some web sites do that in a minute. Most land here via searches (not for me, but topics I write about) and frequently those are image searches as I’ve incorporated countless photographs in this space

Without going into details of the latter, it is truly a twist of fate that I made it through that voyage without ending up in the freezer with the flowers (a favorite repository for those who die on cruises).  Of course I didn’t realize that I was so vulnerable at the time (although we’re all vulnerable all the time). I suppose that is another reason I write this blog:  it is a record and it allows me to reflect on my life and matters of living, to have a documented trail.  I go to it when memory fails.

This is a natural segue into a book I recently read, Light Years by James Slater. We’re talking about elegant masterpiece writing here -- an author I should have read long ago, known as a “writer’s writer” by many, a prose stylist.  Perhaps I failed to come to his writing as his earlier work was based on his years as a fighter pilot in the Korean War.  His novel The Hunters was made into a movie starring one of my favorite film noir actors, Robert Mitchum.  Little did I know when I saw the film, it was based on James Salter’s novel of the same title. It is so incongruous that the same person wrote both novels.

Salter died only recently, having just turned 90, in Sag Harbor, where I spent part of the summers of my childhood.  The New Yorker published an elegant eulogistic essay on his passing.
So I am very late to discovering Salter, although his Light Years is closely related to other authors I have admired, ones who have written  about marital implosion (the subject of Salter’s great work), Updike, Cheever, Yates, Ford, to name but a few.

Lapidary, ethereal, poetic prose fills the pages of Light Years.  The plot almost exists out of time and place – although it’s set in the 70s, mostly in the northern suburbs of New York.  The dissolution of a marriage is presented as a case of everyday entropy, but in stunning language and descriptions.  Think Hemingway’s short, rhythmic sentences and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s lyricism. .  It’s unlike anything else I’ve read.

It is the story of Viri Berland, a moderately successful architect, and Nedra his beautiful free-spirited wife.  Mind you, this was written in the nascent days of feminism.  Much of the novel is viewed from Nedra’s viewpoint.  They live in the Hudson Valley, with their children.  Days pass, light into darkness, darkness becomes new days, years.  Light years.  (The light imagery is omnipresent.) They have a social life, parties, each have dalliances, quiet ones, not the kind which lead to nasty marital confrontations. Time passes until they find they are empty nesters and now what? 

Nedra is the one who makes the break but it is Viri, confounded by the change in his life who moves on to another marriage, one he regrets.  To indulge in more detail about the plot, though, is senseless as it is the feeling that one derives from reading Light Years which is the point.  We’re all just brief flickers of light in the annals of time, eternity of nothingness before we are born and a similar eternity when we are gone.  We believe in endless tomorrows while living out our younger years, the sum of countless moments, most not remembered later, but near the end, the hour-glass so one sided, we look back and wonder where it all went.

Salter tells his story in lush language.  Of  those parties in their early years of marriage: “Country dinners, the table dense with glasses, flowers, all the food one can eat, dinners ending in tobacco smoke, a feeling of ease.  Leisurely dinners.  The conversation never lapses. Their life is special, devout, they prefer to spend time with their children, they have only a few friends.”

Or, when Nedra goes to the city to shop:  “Life is weather, Life is meals.  Lunches on a blue checked cloth on which salt has spilled.  The smell of tobacco.  Brie, yellow apples, wood-handled knives.  It is trips to the city, daily trips.  She is like a farm woman who goes to the market.  She drove to the city for everything, its streets excited her, winter streets leaking smoke. She drove along Broadway.  The sidewalks were white with stains.  There were only certain places where she bought food; she was loyal to them, demanding.  She parked her car wherever it was convenient, in bus stops, prohibited zones; the urgency of her errands protected her.”

In his prime, Viri thinks about his career as an architect:  “I must make one building, even if it’s small, that everyone will notice.  Then a bigger one.  I must ascend by steps….He wanted one thing, the possibility of one thing: to be famous.  He wanted to be central to the human family, what else is there to long for, to hope?  Already he walked modestly along the streets, as if certain of what was coming.  He had nothing.  He had only the carefully laid out luggage of bourgeois life, his scalp beginning to show beneath the hair, his immaculate hands.  And the knowledge; yes, he had knowledge….But knowledge does not protect one.  Life is contemptuous of knowledge; it forces it to sit in the anterooms, to wait outside.  Passion, energy, likes: these are what life admires.  Still, anything can be endured if all humanity is watching.  The martyrs prove it.  We live in the attention of others.  We turn to it as flower to the sun….There is no complete life.  There are only fragments.  We are born to have nothing, to have it pour through our hands.  And yet, this pouring, this flood of encounters, struggles, dreams …one must be unthinking, like a tortoise.  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 on final and of little consequence, like dropping stones into the sea.”

Viri’s and Nedra’s time with their children is precious:  “Children are our crop, our fields, our earth.  They are the birds let loose into darkness.  They are errors renewed.  Still, they are the only source from which may be drawn a life more successful, more knowing than our own.  Somehow they will do one thing, take one step further, they will see the summit.  We believe in it, the radiance that streams from the future, from days we will not see.  Children must live, must triumph.  Children must die; that is an idea we cannot accept….There is no happiness like this happiness: quiet mornings, light from the river, the weekend ahead.  They lived a Russian life, a rich life, interwoven, in which the misfortune of one, a failure, illness, would stagger them all.  It was like a garment, this life.  Its beauty was outside, its warmth within.”

After one of their parties, later in their marriage, Salter writes:  “Nights of marriage, conjugal nights, the house still at last, the cushions indented where people had sat, the ashes warm.  Nights that ended at two o’clock, the snow falling, the last guest gone.  The dinner plates were left unwashed, the bed icy cold…They lay in the dark like two victims.  They had nothing to give to one another, they were bound by a pure, inexplicable love….He was asleep, she could tell without looking.  He slept like a child, soundlessly, deep.  His thinning hair was disheveled; his hand lay extended and soft.  If they had been another couple she would have been attracted to them; she would have loved them, even – they were so miserable.”

When Nedra begins to hint at leaving, Viri is stunned, especially now that he was approaching late middle age:  “He was reaching that age, he was at the edge of it, when the world becomes suddenly more beautiful, when it reveals itself in a special way, in every detail, roof and wall, in the leaves of trees fluttering faintly before a rain.  The world was opening itself, as if to allow, now that life was shortening, one long, passionate look, and all that had been withheld would finally be given.”

And when she is gone, he is left in the house: “Dead flies on the sills of sunny windows, weeds along the pathway, the kitchen empty.  The house was melancholy, deceiving; it was like a cathedral where, amid the serenity, something is false, the saints are made of florist’s wax, the organ has been gutted.  Viri did not have the spirit to do anything about it.  He lived in it helplessly as we live in our bodies when we are older.”

“...alone in this city, alone on this sea. The days were strewn about him, he was a drunkard of days. He had achieved nothing. He had his life--it was not worth much--not like a life that, though ended, had truly been something. If I had had courage, he thought, if I had had faith. We preserve ourselves as if that were important, and always at the expense of others. We hoard ourselves. We succeed if they fail, we are wise if they are foolish, and we go onward, clutching, until there is no one--we are left with no companion save God. In whom we do not believe. Who we know does not exist.”

As one might imagine from the last quote alone, the novel comes to a profoundly sad ending, disturbing in so many ways.  And I’ll let it go at that.