April 5, 2011 | by Jhumpa Lahiri
Our Spring Revel is on April 12. In anticipation of the event, The Daily is featuring a series of essays celebrating James Salter, who is being honored this year with The Paris Review’s Hadada Prize. If you’re interested in purchasing tickets to the Revel, click here.
For over half my life, I have returned repeatedly to Light Years. It was the first of James Salter’s books I discovered; it has since led me to all his others. Light Years is the one I know best. The first copy was borrowed. It belonged to my college roommate and was among the handful of books she’d brought with her from home, having nothing to do with our classes. It was a beautiful paperback published by North Point Press: yellow border, rough edges, thickly woven pages, a Bonnard painting on the cover. It was 1985. The book was ten years old; I was eighteen. I was new to New York, a freshman at Barnard College. I was unsophisticated, unmoored, bewildered by college and by the city. Reading the novel was like opening a window for the first time in spring, after a long winter has passed. Something worn out was set aside, something invigorating ushered in.
At the time I had not read much contemporary literature. I had certainly never read sentences so precise, so clean, so fervent and yet so calm. I reacted to the novel as I did to the books of my childhood: it cast a spell in the same way, provoking a reaction that was visceral and dreamlike and whole. But here was a book that was about adulthood, the undiscovered country that lay on the other side of a bridge I was only beginning to cross.
I loved the mood of the book, which was sober and sophisticated, but also casual, playful. I loved its structure, restrained and orderly, while at the same time loose and unspooling. I loved its intimate texture and its images: Nedra’s hands flat on a table, her oat-colored sweater. Pigeons crowding into the R of a furniture store, a martini that is like a change in the weather. I loved the devotional rendering of meals, peoples’ faces, rooms and the objects they contained. Though it felt startlingly modern, I recognized certain ancient forms of literature I was studying in my classes: myth, elegy, ode. The five acts of Shakespeare. Long passages of conversation, as unadorned but as revelatory as dialogue in a classical play.