Briefly Noted: Two James Salter Novels

“But knowledge does not protect one. Life is contemptuous of knowledge; it forces it to sit in the anterooms, to wait outside. Passion, energy, lies: these are what life admires.”

I’m on a Salter binge that began after reading his new novel All That Is, a summing up, I imagine.

The sentences are short, the mood is clear, and the scenes shift unpredictably. Salter is 87. Perhaps he is looking back as it seems most people do when they reach old age.

Philip Bowman remembers his life as a pilot during World War II, then as an editor of a publishing house, his first marriage that was wrong from the beginning, and the various loves of his life, some who betray him, some who were already married. All the disappointments that followed the pleasures. The times in France, the days in the sun, and hours in bed.

Bowman liked people, liked talking with them, eating with them. And he liked reading, an inexhaustible pleasure, he said.

“There was all that happened in the world during one’s life.” And that is what we learn about the life of Philip Bowman from James Salter in his easy to enjoy novel, All That Is.

Then I read Solo Faces and I wrote about it earlier this year. I followed that by rereading Light Years. Recently I’ve been reading Dusk, a collection of his short stories.

I don’t remember when I first read Light Years. About 40 passages are recorded in my commonplace book. This time I recorded 137 passages. Why so many more?

“I don’t believe in marriage, and I have no time for it. It’s a concept from another age, another way of living. If you do what you really should do, you will have what you want.”

Light Years describes the gradual erosion of a marriage, a marriage like most that began with passion, continued with increasing routine, and ended with disappointment. I first read the book relatively early in my long marriage and read it again, some 25 years later. The book I read 25 years ago is not the same one I read most recently, as my marriage approaches its 56th anniversary.

The first time I read the book it was in a printed version; this time I read it on an e-book. The ease of highlighting and then saving passages in Kindle books no doubt played a role in contributing to the greater number of saved passages.

Regardless, Light Years is written with all the style and vigor, the compelling short, sentences and quick cutting between scenes of Salter’s novels. Its moods darken gradually as Viri and Nedra’s grow further apart. There are infidelities, never voiced, desire for independence, rituals barely sustained, parties where everything is concealed.

“Things had somehow changed between them. She would always have affection for him, but the summer had passed.”

Eventually there is the break up, wanderings, failures, aimless relationships. They remain devoted to one another and to their children. Nedra succumbs to an early death, Viri to a marriage with a clinging woman in Rome.

“It happens in an instant. It is all one long day, one endless afternoon, friends leave, we sand on the shore. Yes, he thought, I am ready, I have always been ready, I am ready at last.”