Blame it on Jhumpa Lahiri and James Salter
I wasn’t planning on blogging today. I thought it was time to take a break. I wanted to stay in bed and not have to wake up or get up or do any more of the routines, the maintenance jobs, the pep talk to myself, the supposedly therapeutic distractions. But life happens anyway. Bad weather happens. And the meals that mark intervals between anticipation and frustration. The meals to keep the body and mind going.
I didn’t plan on posting yet another excerpt, another series of “literary” photos. But Jhumpa Lahiri made me do it. Yes, blame it on her. Last month, I posted excerpts from her book Unaccustomed Earth and her New Yorker essay about her beginnings as a writer. Last week, I reread her introduction to the latest edition of Bernard Malamud’s first book of stories, The Magic Barrel. No disrespect meant to Mr. Malamud, but Lahiri’s essay is as memorable, as beautifully crafted, as the stories to which she’s inviting the reader. Today, I reread her essay “Spellbound” in The Paris Review, her thoughts on James Salter’s novel Light Years (first published in 1975). And I tell myself: I can live on this. I can get up every morning for this. A piece of Lahiri. A piece of anything this writer turns her attention to and revives me with. It’s my dope, my fix. Yes, I’m a Lahiri junkie. I can do a whole blog of excerpts of her, of every Lahiri sentence I can sniff, feast on, be sustained by.
Not until today did I realize that the 1982 North Point Press edition of Light Years that she describes in “Spellbound,” the one she read in 1985, when she was an 18-year-old college freshman, is exactly the same paperback edition I’m holding now (the cover with the yellow border and the Bonnard painting). I bought my copy at a used-books shop last year, and (as with so many others I got piled or shelved somewhere) I’ve been promising myself to read this soon. But “soon” is always relative. How soon can I read everything by Lahiri or Salter (or anything by Nabokov or Atwood or Waugh)? “Soon” just reminds me time is running fast. But that’s another story.
So this is my other story, the one from which my “Lahiri made me do it” tale spins off. Yesterday I started to read Salter’s Light Years. I was just dipping here and there. On the Internet I had found yet another reviewer (the novelist Kevin Rabalais) raving about Salter’s novel on the “dissolution of a marriage.” The only Salter novel I had read is A Sport and a Pastime. Now that’s another one that deserves its own series of blogs. But reading parts of Light Years, I see now why other writers, in describing Salter’s prose, might resort to such adjectives as “mesmerizing,” “hypnotic,” “elegant,” or (even more clichéd) “poetic.” (Lahiri uses none of these.) If “stylist” has become such a bad word to describe a great writer, in Salter’s case, it doesn’t sound like a lazy choice or an exaggeration. The man exudes style. No wonder his books continue to “mesmerize” readers.
Salter’s masculine, pared-down sentences are often compared to Hemingway’s. But they usually remind me more of Virginia Woolf or the way Michael Cunningham echoes her in The Hours. Which is not to say that Salter’s sentences get artsy-fartsy or self-consciously pretty or deep (whatever those things mean). No. His eloquence is grounded in familiar objects—chairs, pebbles, pastries, torn sketchbooks, a black telephone, a broken shoe falling to the floor, “windows curtained with bamboo and dense with plants.” The day-to-day accumulation of acts, impressions, and denials spread over seasons and meals, casual conversations, long drives, periods of contentment.
On page 7 of Light Years I find this opening paragraph:
It was the autumn of 1958. Their children were seven and five. On the river, the color of slate, the light poured down. A soft light, God’s idleness. In the distance the new bridge gleamed like a statement, like a line in a letter which makes one stop.
And I tell myself, “Yes, I get it. But, hmm, no, I really don’t—not all of it—and it doesn’t matter. I’m not supposed to get it all; otherwise the whole thing fades too fast, connects too easily. Let the gaps stay. No need to figure it all out now. But stay with this book. Pause if you need to. Skip some pages, wander in and out of chapters. But keep reading.”
And so I did. I had been reading Salter since yesterday. In the midst of bad weather and worse moods, I came to page 170:
She had entered a new era. All that belonged to the old had to be buried, put away. The image of Arnaud with his thickly bandaged eye, the deep bruises, the slow speech like a record player losing speed—these injuries seemed like omens to her. They marked her first fears of life, of the malevolence which was part of its fluid, which had no explanation, no cure. She wanted to sell the house. Something was happening on every side of her existence, she began to see it in the streets, it was like the darkness, she was suddenly aware of it, when it comes, it comes everywhere.
I have no idea who Arnaud is or what happened to his eye. And who is the “she” putting away the old? And why are the best parts of Salter often his fragments and run-ons, the seemingly throwaway bits? Perhaps that’s one mark of great writing—at any point, you slide into it and even without knowing where you are exactly, you already believe you’ve found your place. Or perhaps I’m just making an excuse for this kind of distraction-driven nonlinear reading, the only kind I’m capable of right now. Yes, when it comes, it comes everywhere.
One of the oft-quoted lines from Light Years is this: “Life is weather. Life is meals.” How apt that at this moment rain starts lashing again at everything outside my window and inside my head. How apt that I’m about to finish writing this, aware that the next step is yet another meal—this time, lunch. Late but still necessary lunch. Yes, I will shut up now and let the next Tumblr excerpts, quotes, and photographs speak for themselves. Blame it on Lahiri, Salter, all these hypnotic stylists, addictive distractions, masters of the written word, saviors of the depressed brain. They keep me rambling on, Tumblring, getting up each morning whether or not there are reasons for me to stick around.