Showing posts with label James Salter. Show all posts
Showing posts with label James Salter. Show all posts

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Hunters

How many men start out as an F-86 pilot during the Korean War and then become a writer over the next 50 years?  James Salter wasn’t prolific, but great nonetheless.  I had already read what has been considered his best works, Light Years,  All That Is and A Sport and a Pastime

I’m generally not “into” war novels (although will never forget reading Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, tears streaming down my face reading the concentration camp chapters), so to this point I had avoided Salter’s first novel, The Hunters.  Perhaps this is also because I had seen the movie version on Turner Classic Movies, staring my favorite film noir actor, Robert Mitchum (also with Robert Wagner and May Britt).  The novel is very different from the film, hardly bearing any resemblance, other than a story of F-86 fighter pilots during the Korean War.  Salter’s novel is so superior, but of course it’s literature, not Hollywood.  Salter must have agonized over the changes that were made to his novel for the screen version.

Cleve Connell arrives at Kimpo air base at the height of the Korean War.  There, the F-86 pilots do a dance of death with their MIG-15 enemies.  Connell learns this dance means to hunt or be hunted, kill or be killed, a path to fame or ignominy.

The wonder of flying, only decades after flight itself was pioneered by the Wright Brothers, is encapsulated by Salter, an experienced F-86 pilot.  This novel could not have been written without that credential or by a person indifferent to the joys of flying.  Cleve is ready for one of his early missions, congregating with the other pilots while waiting to go out to his “ship” as they referred to their F-86’s:  He was not fully at ease. It was still like being a guest at a family reunion, with all the unfamiliar references. He felt relieved when finally they rode out to their ships. Then it was intoxicating. The smooth takeoff, and the free feeling of having the world drop away. Soon after leaving the ground, they were crossing patches of stratus that lay in the valleys as heavy and white as glaciers. North for the fifth time. It was still all adventure, as exciting as love, as frightening. Cleve rejoiced in it.

Cleve fantasizes about turning his flying skills into a sport, becoming an ace (5 kills).  He romanticizes to his wingman, while being aware that it’s not necessarily the best prepared pilots who become aces:  Odd. Everything about this ought to be perfect for you and me. Here we are, by sheer accident, in the most natural of worlds, and of course that means the most artificial, because we're very civilized. We're in a child's dream and a man's heaven, living a medieval life under sanitary conditions, flying the last shreds of something irreplaceable, I don't know what, in a sport too kingly even for kings. Nothing is missing, and yet it's the men who don't understand it at all that become its heroes.

By then, though, he is already transitioning into some self doubt, even after a brief burst of confidence after his first kill.  Soon he sinks into an even larger sinkhole of remorse, and finally finding an acceptance of his self worth in the end.  He is tormented, directly or indirectly by his arch rival, Pell, a man he learns would claim unsubstantiated kills or even put his wing-man in harm’s way to get a kill….he hated Pell. He hated him in a way that allowed no other emotion. It seemed he was born to, and that he had done it from the earliest days of his life, before he ever knew him, before he even existed. Of all the absolutes, Pell was the archetype, confronting him with the unreality and diabolical force of a medieval play, the deathlike, grinning angel risen to claim the very souls of men. When he dwelt upon that, Cleve felt the cool touch of fear. There was no way out. He knew that if Pell were to win, he himself could not survive.

But these opportunities for wins frequently were the consequence of just sheer luck.  The squadron flew three or four missions a day and pilots are not assigned to all.  Some came back their noses blackened, the fuel tanks dropped, indicating a dog fight while others do not see MIGs during the entire mission.  Cleve’s pick of the litter tended to be in the latter category while Pell’s were in the former, so no wonder.

The Hunters is a well developed novel, gathering momentum to the end, becoming so compelling one can’t put the book down the deeper you get into it.  Although a war novel, it is written by a then young writer whose prose, you can tell, would lead him to greatness, not in the air, but on the page.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

A Sport and a Pastime; A James Salter Masterpiece

Salter chisels precise sentences, ones Hemingway himself would envy.  And there are flashes of Fitzgerald as well, colorful and lyrical.  It’s long been said that Salter is a writer’s writer and in A Sport and a Pastime (“Remember that the life of this world is but a sport and a pastime…” from The Koran) he spins the tale of three people, one the narrator, and then the story of the 24 year old Philip Dean and his young lover, an 18 year old French shop girl, Anne-Marie.  We follow their pleasures of eating, abandoned sex, motoring about the French countryside, from hotel to hotel and restaurant to restaurant, all related through the imagination and recollection of our voyeur narrator.  Sexually, every major position from the Kama Sutra is explicitly explored and yet the novel is not pornographic, Salter weaving eroticism into his panoply of French provincial images and the strange relationship of the narrator to the two main characters.

The narrator warns the reader that his tale is as much fabricated as it is real.  What is real and imagined is left to the reader.  We know little about the unnamed narrator who is staying at his friends’ country home in Autun, France (the Wheatlands, who live in Paris) as he has done many times before.  It is here that he befriends Dean.  He is fond of the French countryside and he imagines a love interest in a woman there, Claude, who he only glimpses from afar.  He fantasizes about her and here is the genius of Salter who skillfully foreshadows the narrator’s interest in Dean and Anne-Marie.  Salter’s writing is exquisite:

I have discarded my identity. I am still at large, free of my old self until the first encounters, and now I imagine, very clearly, meeting Claude Picquet. For a moment I have the sure premonition I am about to, that I am really going to see her at the next corner and, made confident by the cognacs, begin quite naturally to talk. We walk along together. I watch her closely as she speaks. I can tell she is interested in me, I am circling her like a shark. Suddenly I realize: it will be her. Yes, I'm sure of it. I'm going to meet her. Of course, I'm a little drunk, a little reckless, and in an amiable condition that lets me see myself destined as her lover, cutting into her life with perfect ease. I've noticed you passing in the street many times, I tell her. Yes? She pretends that surprises her. Do you know the Wheatlands, I ask. The Wheatlands? Monsieur and Madame Wheatland, I say. Ah, oui. Well, I tell her, I'm staying in their house. What comes next? I don't know-it will be easy once I am actually talking to her. I want her to come and see it, of course. I want to hear the door close behind her. She stands over by the window. She's not afraid to turn her back to me, to let me move close. I am going to just touch her lightly on the arm … Claude … She looks at me and smiles.

Ultimately, his inner life becomes consumed by his thoughts and observations of Dean and Anne-Marie, Salter making the point that memory is not a photograph but a construct:

Certain things I remember exactly as they were. They are merely discolored a bit by time, like coins in the pocket of a forgotten suit. Most of the details, though, have long since been transformed or rearranged to bring others of them forward. Some, in fact, are obviously counterfeit; they are no less important. One alters the past to form the future. But there is a real significance to the pattern which finally appears, which resists all further change. In fact, there is the danger that if I continue to try, the whole concert of events will begin to fall apart in my hands like old newspaper, I can't bear to think of that. The myriad past, it enters us and disappears. Except that within it, somewhere, like diamonds, exist the fragments that refuse to be consumed. Sifting through, if one dares, and collecting them, one discovers the true design.

The narrator is awed by Dean, knowing he can never experience his ease in matters of love and profligacy:

I am only the servant of life. He is an inhabitant. And above all, I cannot confront him. I cannot even imagine such a thing. The reason is simple: I am afraid of him, of all men who are successful in love. That is the source of his power.

This is eerily similar in its conceit to Salter’s last novel, All that Is. Its main character, Bowman, tries to imagine the sexual life of a person he once admired, Kimmel, and goes on to try to recreate that life for himself. 

Dean subsists on money from his father.  He is a Yale drop out.  He knows that it will end but meanwhile this intense relationship with Ann-Marie blocks out all light about choices and planning for the future.  Dean is a blind man to it all.  Is it no wonder our narrator ruminates:

Now, at twenty-four, he has come to the time of choice. I know quite well how all that is. And then, I read his letters. His father writes to him in the most beautiful, educated hand, the born hand of a copyist. Admonitions to confront life, to think a little more seriously about this or that. I could have laughed. Words that meant nothing to him. He has already set out on a dazzling voyage which is more like an illness, becoming ever more distant, more legendary. His life will be filled with those daring impulses which cause him to disappear and next be heard of in Dublin, in Veracruz… I am not telling the truth about Dean, I am inventing him. I am creating him out of my own inadequacies, you must always remember that.

After a while, the second phase begins: the time of few choices. Uncertainties, strange fears of the past. Finally, of course, comes the third phase, the closing, and one must begin shutting out the world as if by panels because the strength to consider everything in all its shattering diversity is gone and the shape of life-but he will be in a poet's grave by then-finally appears, like a drop about to fall.

Dean doesn't quite understand this yet. It doesn't mean anything in particular to him. He is, after all, not discontented. Her breasts are hard. Her cunt is sopping. He fucks her gracefully, impelled by pure joy. He arches up to see her and to look at his prick plunging in, his balls tight beneath it. Mythology has accepted him, images he cannot really believe in, images brief as dreams. The sweat rolls down his arms. He tumbles into the damp leaves of love, he rises clean as air. There is nothing about her he does not adore. When they are finished, she lies quiet and limp, exhausted by it all. She has become entirely his, and they lie like drunkards, their bare limbs crossed. In the cold distance the bells begin, filling the darkness, clear as psalms.

We all know how this must end, much like Dean’s rare sports car, a Delage, one he abandons, which immediately atrophies with Dean’s departure.  I think of Dean as a Gatsby and the narrator as his Nick Carraway.  Perhaps this is intended all along by Salter, his hat tip to Fitzgerald…

We are all at his mercy. We are subject to his friendship, his love. It is the principles of his world to which we respond, which we seek to find in ourselves. It is his power which I cannot even identify, which is flickering, sometimes present and sometimes not – without it he is empty, a body without breath, as ordinary as my own reflection in the mirror – it is this power which guarantees his existence, even afterwards, even when he is gone.

Although Salter wrote six novels as well as a number of screenplays, A Sport and a Pastime, Light Years, and All that Is are probably his finest.  All that Is was published only two years before his death at the age of 90. His first novel, which I have on my shelf to read is considered a masterpiece of war-time aviation fiction, The Hunters published in 1956 (Salter was a West Point graduate and a jet pilot during the Korean conflict, a remarkable background for a writer of his stature).  That is a span of 57 years during which he wrote his few novels.  His output was not great, but his writing is.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

All That Is

Having read James Salter’s Light Years I was eager to read his last work, one that was written and published only two years before his death at the age of 90.  Why does a person nearing the end of his life take one last plunge into writing a novel after such a long absence (the previous one was written more than 30 years earlier)?  

That is immediately answered in the epigraph preceding the half title page:  “There comes a time when you / realize that everything is a dream, / and only those things preserved in writing / have any possibility of being real.”  Salter has important things to say about that “dream,” and thus this novel.

Light Years is poetic whereas All That Is is more episodic, covering the events of the entire adult life of Philip Bowman, a naval officer in WW II, Harvard educated.  He takes a circuitous route to becoming one of the leading editors in a well-known New York City literary publishing house, one that could be a veiled version of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The novel contains a number of publishing references that are familiar to me, particularly the London and Frankfurt Bookfairs and ABA in Chicago.  So reminiscence was an added layer of meaning while reading this tale.  Alan Bennett’s quote from The History Boys resonates:  “The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you.  Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead.  And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”

The novel opens during WWII. Bowman is a navigator aboard a destroyer in the Pacific.  The man he most admires is his bunkmate, Kimmel, who is known for his sexual exploits.  Bowman is completely inexperienced with women.  During a ferocious kamikaze battle, Kimmel jumped into the water during the attack, abandoning ship as he was convinced the ship’s magazine would blow, only to be picked up by another destroyer that was then almost immediately sunk.  “Kimmel ended up in a naval hospital.  He became a kind of legend.  He’d jump off his ship by mistake and in one day had seen more action than the rest of them would see in the entire war.  Afterwards, Bowman lost track of him.”

I make a point of this as the life Bowman imagined of Kimmel, he eventually tries to create for himself, seeking sexual experience (first through a totally inappropriate marriage to a wealthy and inexperienced young women from a wealthy Virginia family, a marriage which rapidly ends in divorce) and then through what constitutes a slowly revolving door of sexual partners.  These women were all well educated, some married, attracted to Bowman no doubt as he matured into a New York City sophisticate, well connected to artists and writers in particular, the names of which are dropped freely throughout the novel.

Yet, there is the strong theme of Bowman leading essentially a solitary life populated by the activities of his profession and his dalliances.  A couple of these relationships become quite serious, even leading to the thought of a second marriage.  One in particular seems to be heading right there until it explodes into deception and even more startling in the context of this tale, revenge.  It is the only moment in the novel that truly takes the reader by surprise.

It reminds me in many ways of Stoner by John Williams, although that is a much darker tale. There is a sense of “aloneness” in each novel.  These men have their work, work they love, but relationships break down or are fleeting.  Each protagonist marries only once. 

Bowman and Stoner move in different circles, Bowman’s world being the well-traveled, the affluent and sophisticated.  Salter’s characters move in and out of the novel not unlike life itself where acquaintances reappear in the most unlikely places or at the most unlikely times. 

Two such characters (and there are scores of such minor players) in the novel are Neil Eddins, “the other editor,…a southerner, smooth faced and mannerly, who wore striped shirts and made friends easily,” and Charles Delovet a literary agent.  Salter describes a meeting between Eddins and Delovet, and the description is typical of Salter’s prose and the kind of people he writes about:  “In the city one day Eddins had lunch at the Century Club, in the distinguished surroundings of portraits and books, with a successful literary agent named Charles Delovet, who was well-dressed and walked with a slight limp said to be from a ski accident.  One of his shoes had a thick heel though it was not obvious.  Delovet was a man of style and attractive to women.  He had some major clients, Noel Coward, it was rumored, and also a yacht in Westport on which he gave parties in the summer.  In his office he had a ceramic ashtray from the Folies Bergere with a dancer's long legs in relief and, imprinted around the rim: Pour plaisir aux femmes, ca coute cher-women are expensive.  He'd been an editor at one time and he liked writers, loved them, in fact.  He rarely met a writer he didn't like or who didn't have some quality he liked. But there were a few.  He hated plagiarists.”

Salter’s prose – as was the case of Light Years – can be lyrical, evocative, and nostalgic, such as this description of Bowman going to see his ailing mother, leaving New York City by train:  “Bowman came by train, looking out at the haze of the Jersey meadows, marshes really.  He had a deep memory of these meadows, they seemed a part of his blood like the lone gray silhouette of the Empire State Building on the horizon, floating as in a dream.  He knew the route, beginning with the desolate rivers and inlets dark with the years.  Like some ancient industrial skeleton, the Pulaski Skyway rose in the distance and looped across the waters.  Nearer, in a rush, blank factories of brick with broken windows went past.  Then there was Newark, the grim, lost city of Philip Roth, and churches with trees growing from the base of neglected spires.  Endless quiet streets of houses, asylums, schools, all of an emptiness it seemed, intermixed with bland suburban happiness and wholesome names, Maplewood, Brick Church.  The great, smooth golf courses with immaculate greens.  He was of it, from it, and as he rode, unconnected to it.”  I know those sites too, but it takes a special writer to connect the reader to the feelings (“as if a hand has come out and taken yours”).

Salter takes the opportunity to opine on literature’s place in contemporary culture (or lack of place to be more precise) and the decline of publishing (something I felt very acutely at the end my own career):  “The power of the novel in the nation’s culture had weakened.  It had happened gradually.  It was something everyone recognized and ignored.  All went on exactly as before, that was the beauty of it.  The glory had faded but fresh faces kept appearing, wanting to be part of it, to be in publishing which had retained a suggestion of elegance like a pair of beautiful, bone-shined shoes owned by a bankrupt man.  Those who had been in it for some years….were like nails driven long ago into a tree that then grew around them.  They were part of it by now, embedded.” 

The novel’s dialogue is as first-rate as the narrative (he has a good eye and ear for detail), so natural, and sometimes going on for pages.  I will not quote it here, but, as I suspected, Kimmel comes back into the novel, almost like a coda and that dialogue between he and Bowman is as good as it gets.  Real people.  And at times the novel reaches the level of eroticism, unusual for a man of his age, but remembering the “beauty of fire from the beauty of embers.” [John Masefield] 

At the conclusion all things come together, the sea, a woman, a future, even an amusing expression of vanity, shocked by his own aging appearance:  “He had been weeding in the garden that afternoon and looked down to see, beneath his tennis shorts, a pair of legs that seemed to belong to an older man.  He mustn’t he realized, be going around the house in shorts like that….he had to be careful about such things.”

And finally thoughts about death, not too far removed from those anyone his age (or mine) might have:  “He had always seen it as the dark river and the long lines of those waiting for the boatman, waiting in resignation and the patience that eternity required, stripped of all but a single, last possession, a ring, a photograph, or letter that represented everything dearest and forever left behind that they somehow hoped, it being so small, they would be able to take with them.  What if there should be no river but only the endless lines of unknown people, people absolutely without hope, as there had been in the war?  He would be made to join them, to wait forever.  He wondered then, as he often did, how much of life remained for him.  He was certain of only one thing, whatever was to come was the same for everyone who had ever lived.  He would be going where they all had gone and-it was difficult to believe-all he had known would go with him, the war, the butler pouring coffee…names, houses, the sea, all he had known and things he had never known but were there nevertheless, things of his time, all the years, the great liners with their invincible glamour readying to sail, the band playing as they were backed away, the green water widening… and the small boats streaming, following behind.  The first voice he ever knew, his mother's, was beyond memory, but he could recall the bliss of being close to her as a child.  He could remember his first schoolmates, the names of everyone, the classrooms, the teachers, the details of his own room at home-the life beyond reckoning, the life that had been opened to him and that he had owned.”

Essentially this is a work of closure, a statement that life passes quickly and before one knows it there is little to the future and the past cannot be undone.  Yet in his inherent aloneness, Bowman’s life is one of content.

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.