The Beautiful Life Is Empty

On rereading James Salter’s Light Years.

The Beautiful Life Is Empty

Have you ever returned to a favorite book, hoping to revisit an atmosphere you treasured, only to find that something has shifted? The world has changed around the book, and you’ve changed as well. James Salter’s Light Years is, for me, one such novel.

I once thought Light Years was perfect. Salter’s language shimmered. His sentences were precise and beautifully crafted. The bygone world he’d created was elegant and beautiful. But when I reread it recently, I was shocked by the misogyny at its core.

Light Years is the portrait of a marriage and family life from the late 1950s to the mid-1970s. Viri and Nedra are a privileged couple who raise two daughters in the Hudson Valley. The story follows the arc of their marriage through its eventual breakup, while domestic intimacies hold them together.

Cracks begin to show when Viri has an affair with a younger woman. Not that he’s unhappily married; he just feels entitled to two lives. After cheating for the first time, he comes home to find Nedra absorbed in drawing eels and writing a book for their children. The scene is heartbreaking.

But everyone here has a double life, and Nedra also has an affair, with their friend Jivan. Their relationship is the strongest in the novel — apart from the one between Nedra and her daughter Franca. “You think when you have love that love is easy to find,” Jivan tells her, “that everyone has it. It’s not true. It’s very hard to find.”

Nedra’s elegant loveliness permeates the novel. Only, somehow, I’d never noticed before that Salter’s female characters are purely aesthetic. They are beautiful ornaments in the lives of accomplished men — writers, architects, and painters. We see Nedra in the rings she leaves on the bedside table, in her wrists while she is cooking, in her camel-colored skirt and the back of her neck.

Nedra and Viri have money and leisure time. They travel, go to the theater, host wonderful dinner parties by the fire. “Getting what we want — is that happiness?” Viri asks. “I don’t know,” she replies. “I know that not getting what you want is certainly unhappiness.”

What’s missing from such carefully curated lives? Nedra loses interest in marriage. “There was nothing else to say. It was a prison.” Viri believes in greatness and wants to be famous. Salter doesn’t say so, but from my perspective, there’s too much pose. When you live a double life, you don’t come into focus. What is missing? Integrity, for one.

When Viri’s affair ends, although he’s gutted, he doesn’t show it. “It was true,” Salter writes, “he seemed the same, precisely the same, but that is often all one sees. Collapse is hidden, it must reach a certain stage before it breaks the surface, the pillars begin to yield, facades pour down...” He describes Viri with his heart elsewhere, engaging his children in an amusing conversation about their new chickens.

Other couples also drift apart in lovely surroundings, drinking kirs and talking about art in houses that will stand long after the people have gone. The fear of aging and of death hang over everything. Nedra is only in her 40s when she feels washed up and undesirable. She asks Viri, “Isn’t it better to be someone who follows her true life and is happy and generous, than an embittered woman who is loyal?”

Only, what true life? Despite her cultural interests, Nedra is always a beauty on the fringes of more consequential endeavors. She fails at her attempt to train with a theater group. Then, like a consolation prize, the lead actor stops by and — surprise, surprise — has sex with her.

How had this novel I once considered perfect suddenly become so insufferable? Even Viri drove me nuts with his lover and all his mansplaining: There was just so much he wanted to teach her!

I wondered if Salter wrote the character of Franca, the elder daughter, as a torchbearer for a more empowered generation of women. Except he also describes her only in terms of physical appeal. Toward the end, Nedra tells her she must live a bigger life. This is followed by a pretty amazing statement:

“The freedom she meant was self-conquest. It was not the natural state. It was meant only for those who would risk everything for it, who were aware that without it life is only appetites.”

Living independently in her spectacular garden flat, Nedra is a mentor to younger women in her orbit. But what does she do for the heartbroken girl who comes round looking for advice? She paints her eyes so that she “transformed a plain defeated face into a kind of Nefertiti able to smile”!

The sexism, I realized, wasn’t merely a reflection of the times. That could be forgiven. Instead, Salter was doubling down on a misogynist worldview. Writing the novel in 1975, he was nostalgic for the sexual power dynamics of an era already light years away. Incredibly, he never so much as acknowledges the transformative cultural shifts of the period.

Viri winds up in a second marriage to a woman who sucks up his energy. In other words, she demands something of him. In their opulent Roman apartment, he realizes that “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.”

Wow! That observation about people hoarding themselves really struck a chord. It also illuminated the book’s title. Light years pass brightly. An era has certainly come to an end. But life lived in the shallows, amusement by amusement, no matter how beautiful or privileged, has no weight, nor ultimately any real meaning.

Amanda Holmes Duffy, author of the novel I Know Where I Am When I’m Falling, is a book-club facilitator for Fairfax County Public Library and hosts the weekly podcast Read Me a Poem for the American Scholar.

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