HT reviewer Kunal Ray picks his best read of 2020
Early this year, right before a relatively new word, ‘lockdown’, made an invasive entry into our lives, I found myself on the hilly terrain of Mukteshwar in Uttarakhand. There were very few tourists around. The cafes remained largely deserted. I went for long walks, travelled by public transport and trekked to Sonapani to meet with a friend. During these largely solitary meanderings, James Salter kept me company.
I would wake up in the morning and consume Salter with breakfast and tea. After long walks, while resting at a village corner, Salter would appeal to be read again. Salter became a bad habit, a nagging need that I wanted to disassociate from to focus on the other things that a holiday entails. A close friend had mentioned the novel to me. Little did I then realise that Salter would cease to be a writer and become a friend instead on this trip.
Why did I like Salter so much? He writes beautifully pithy sentences; the kind that you instinctively love and want to note down in a journal. There’s nothing extraneous or crafty about his prose; his exactness is striking. When I ask my students for their reaction to a piece of writing, they often say ‘poetic’ as an indication of how deeply moved they are by the text. I think I will borrow that expression to attribute to Salter’s writing.
His poetry or the poetic however resides in the mundane and the daily-ness of life as evinced in the novel. Salter doesn’t beautify the mundane. He preserves its ordinariness. In Light Years, Nedra and Viri live on the outskirts of New York with their children. They lead an upper middle class life. They work and party with friends, talk, and watch art. They are both involved in extramarital affairs. Eventually, their marriage ends and they split up to pursue other dreams. Nedra is dead. Viri returns to their family home where they once tried to live like a happy family. Salter doesn’t turn human life and its inherent monotony into a spectacle for fiction. Light Years has been called ‘arty’ and ‘maudlin’ by reviewers. It is not a novel exploding with big ideas to reform the world but it is filled with stellar insights into the privacy of life and living. In Light Years, Salter builds a museum to love and loss, both emotions felt chronically this year.
Kunal Ray teaches literary & cultural studies at FLAME University, Pune