Absconding from Perfection

By Brookner, Anita | The Spectator, August 31, 2002 | Go to article overview

Absconding from Perfection


Brookner, Anita, The Spectator


LIGHT YEARS by James Salter Harvill, L10.99, pp. 308, ISBN 1860466540

Another novel, another marriage, another marital breakdown - but this is slightly different. Lurking behind what has become a convention, almost a requirement, is something rather more universal, and also more dignified: an immense nostalgia for the settled state, not merely for happiness but for trust, for the knowledge that one will not be betrayed. That this once existed, and was wilfully brought to an end, imparts an aura of tragedy to an exasperatingly familiar scenario. The marriage in question is treated as something so ideal that the only possible progress is downward, towards, if not ruin, then certainly expulsion. Thus the world's oldest story is re-enacted, by characters apparently as obtuse as Adam and Eve, but without the benefit of ignorance. The fall, if that is what it is, is seen as ineluctable, and this is peculiarly interesting. The extreme happiness and satisfaction of this particular husband and wife leads them into assumptions of complacency, even grandiosity: if this is allowed - this perfect marriage - then surely infidelity is almost an obligation, an entitlement. For every obscure dissatisfaction there must be a remedy. Through thickets of abrupt and idiosyncratic writing James Salter anatomises a common moral dilemma, which may no longer be a dilemma: guilt-free suffering, with the benefit of added compensations.

The marriage in question is between Nedra and Viri (all the names are unconvincing, so that it is difficult to tell the men from the women). Viri is an architect; Nedra, his wife, keeps house in their American suburb and brings up their two daughters. Everything is beautiful: the house, the landscape, the daughters, the friends. When Nedra drives into New York for some gourmet shopping the roads are free of congestion. There are many dinner parties, weekend parties, beach parties, evenings at the theatre, summers at Amagansett. But to one of her women friends Nedra explains that she is restless; she wants to be rich and live in Europe. The innocence of such statements is taken for granted by one or other of these friends, who seem to come from nowhere and have equally puzzling names. All are treated as satellites to the central couple, as if the peculiar lustre of this marriage casts all the other characters into shadow. There is no illness, no loss of energy or confidence, no failure.

Viri is the first to abscond from perfection. He succumbs to Kaya (another maddening name) who is not only wordless but instantly unfaithful. Nedra, in the meantime, when not busy with her various domestic duties, has, as of right, a lover drawn from the ranks of their various friends. …

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