What an astonishing, thoughtful, sad and sensual book.
I know Salter, from his collection, Dusk & Other Stories, as a master of sentences. They are here as well. But given the longer form of a novel, Salter shows himself to be a master of characterization as well. Though not completely and perhaps far from sympathetic, we are invited into the lives of a somewhat self-absorbed and privileged couple as they move through their years, together and apart. There is wisdom here, about marriage, about parenting and about growing old. At first I would stop intermittently to note a sparkling sentence or something I found true, but eventually I just held onto the pencil full-time.
There are two’s a-plenty here. Two protagonists who each live two lives while they are married and while (sorry, a bit of a spoiler here, though not a surprise) they are apart. There are two daughters, two continents, the city and the country, etc.. Viri and Nedra live a life divided. They both agree that “[t]here are really two kinds of life. There is. . .the one people believe you are living, and there is the other. It is this other which causes the trouble, this other we long to see” (24). But it is not about happiness for happiness is elusive and Nedra, the female protagonist, ultimately scoffs at the notion; instead, she wants to be free, which she describes as a kind of “self-conquest” (264). She studies life. She collects. She reads biographies of great lives. Speaking of her and these biographies (in the case, one of Kandinsky), Salter offers: “The power to change one’s life comes from a paragraph, a lone remark. The lines that penetrate us are slender, like the flukes that live in river water and enter the bodies of swimmers. She was excited, filled with strength. The polished sentences had arrived, it seemed, at just the right time. How can we imagine what our lives should be without the illumination of the lives of others?” (161). Ultimately, time passes. “Life,” she realizes, “divides itself with scars like the rings contained within a tree. How close together the early ones seem, time compacts them, twenty years become indistinguishable, one from another” (170). [Note, here and in other excerpts, the use of commas, the absence of conjunctions.] She becomes tired of two-ness. She tells a friend, “I’m tired of looking on both sides of things” (171). Nedra sums herself up when she says, “The only thing I’m afraid of are the words ‘ordinary life'” (174). She gets old and realizes that “[t]he story continues, but we’re no longer the main characters” (245). Both she and Viri equate being known with a recognition of their existence. They are both selfish, and Viri learns this. He realizes that “[w]e preserve ourselves as if that were important, and always at the expense of others. We hoard ourselves. We succeed if they fail, we are wise if they are foolish, and we go onward, clutching, until there is no one – we are left with no companion save God. In whom we don’t believe. Who we know does not exist” (296). He gets old as well. They both “live too long” (299), but not as long as the trees (303):
In the turning of seasons they would be green again, these great trees. Their dead branches would be snapped away, their limbs would quicken and fill. They would again, in addition to their beauty, to the roof they made beneath the sky, to their whispering, their slow, inarticulate sounds, the riches they poured down, they would, besides all this, give scale to everything, a true scale, reassuring, wise. We do not live as long, we do not know as much.
“Silence is,” Salter writes, “mysterious, but stories fill us like the sun. They are fragments in which reflections lie like broken pieces; collect them and a greater shape begins to form, the story of stories appears” (65-66). This describes Salter’s writing as well. This story is broken, which is not to say modern, but the perspectives, places and even the verb tenses shift. And together they make the story of stories. And this story, “[i]t happens in an instant. It is all one long day, one endless afternoon, friends leave, we stand on the shore” (308).
A great, great book. Well-written and wise. Up there with one of my favorites, Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road.