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.
Walter Such, the man at the center of James Salter’s short story “Last Night,” which was first published in The New Yorker in 2002, is a particular, exacting man. He is a translator who, Salter writes, “could recite lines of Blok in Russian and then give Rilke’s translation of them in German, pointing out their beauty.” He has a stutter; he and his wife, Marit, have no children; he uses a pen “almost as if his hand were a mechanical device.” He is an unremarkable bourgeois intellectual; as a translator, he has spent his life reinterpreting and reworking the literary output of others.
The story hinges on what is literally the last night of Marit’s life. She is terminally ill with cancer, and she and Walter are about to go out for the final dinner of Marit’s existence, after which they will come home and Walter will inject Marit with a lethal drug cocktail that will kill her. “You look re-really nice,” Walter stutters to Marit when she comes downstairs in a red silk dress “in which she had always been seductive.” Here is a man who still thinks his wife, who is about to die, looks beautiful, and at this moment, Walter is overwhelmingly sympathetic. But it’s sympathy tinged with guilt, because Walter is a pathetic man.
The Such’s have invited their younger friend along for the meal: Susanna, who is wearing a short skirt and whom Salter describes as looking like the “slightly errant daughter of a professor or banker.” At dinner, Walter orders two bottles of $575 Cheval-Blanc, a splurge. “We don’t usually order wine this good,” says Merit. They have never ordered a bottle that cost more than $35.
The mood at the meal is not grim, despite the fact that Marit already seems half dead: “her skin, pallid, seemed to emanate a darkness … She had a face that was now for the afterlife and those she would meet there.” Susanna feels uncomfortable, and Marit dimly perceives their differences: “Susanna’s long hair and freshness meant something, though she was not sure what.” After the meal, back at home, Walter is almost unable to do the deed; he cringes at the sight of the sharp syringe in the refrigerator. Who would have the strength or presence of mind to do what he is about to do? Who could kill their most beloved, even if it were because they were in unmitigated pain?
Marit is consoling and unselfish. She tells Walter, “This is the right thing … I’ve loved you as much as I’ve ever loved anyone in the world,” and asks, “Did you love me?” Walter’s stomach “churn[s] in despair,” and the needle wavers; he can hardly breathe, but he injects the poison into her vein, and as the syringe empties, he notices that the house “had fallen into silence, the silence of a fatal act.” But then Salter brings the story to a devastating place: Walter comes downstairs, and even though Susanna had said she was leaving, she is, in fact, outside, sitting in her car. She asks, “Did she really want me to come?” And Walter responds, “Darling, she suggested it. She didn’t know a thing.”
That remark—that darling—turns the story one more time, into something even darker, into a tale about betrayal, secrets, and lies. One is forced to reconsider Walter. Now his exactitude seems controlling, his orchestrations manipulative, his actions horribly selfish. He goes from being an angel of mercy to being an angel of death. And then, to Susanna: “I need you,” he says, and unbuttons her shirt. She tries to stop him, but he takes off her bra, and, Salter writes, “She tried to speak again, but he put his hand over her mouth and pushed her down. He devoured her.” Walter Such—translator, quoter of Rilke—is a monster, a murderer, a rapist.
Salter is not done twisting the knife. In the morning, as Walter and Susanna sit at the kitchen table drinking coffee, “complicit, not long risen, and not regarding one another too closely,” Walter does not allow himself to think about the calls that must be made to notify their friends and relatives about his dead wife (whose body, after all, is still upstairs in the matrimonial bed, almost literally still warm); instead, he is thinking only of Susanna and “mornings to come.” It is then that Marit comes downstairs, and one’s heart jumps: The injection didn’t work! She is still alive! “I thought you were going to help me,” she says pleadingly to Walter, and starts to cry. Then: “I have to do it all over.” She doesn’t seem to process, or want to process, what has happened with Susanna, who silently gathers her clothes and leaves.
The full meaning of the story’s title now becomes cruelly clear: it was the last night that Walter and Susanna would spend together, not the last night between him and his wife. For even though Susanna agrees to see him two or three more times (“at his insistence”), things are not the same: “Whatever holds people together was gone.” And we are left to wonder whether we can ever really know anyone, at all.
Doree Shafrir is a senior editor at RollingStone.com and has contributed to New York Magazine, The New Yorker, The Awl, and The New York Observer.
To read Geoff Dyer on The Hunter and Louisa Thomas on The Skiing Life, click here.