Jhumpa Lahiri on James Salter’s book Light Years via The Paris Review:
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, like so many other things, at just the right time. How can we imagine what our lives should be without the illumination of the lives of others?
In the course of nearly thirty years, I have come to read the book differently. I fell in love, married, became a writer, a mother. I am now older than Nedra when she leaves Viri, approaching the age when she grows ill and dies. Now I respond, as I did not before, to Salter’s moving reflections on parenthood, on solitude, on the earth’s beauty. Pleasure is something I continue to associate with the book; it is a novel that taught me the profundity of it. But I have grown vulnerable to its darker currents: the breach between family and autonomy, between possessing and renouncing, between being and nothingness.
As a writer, I am shamelessly in its debt. There is even a very minor character in one of my stories named Franca. That same story is set partly in Rome, as is Light Years toward the end. There is a visit to Keats’s grave, which Viri also goes to see. Reading Salter taught me to boil down my writing to its essence. To insist upon the right words, and to remember that less is more. He taught me that a plot can be at once a straight line and a collage, that tense and perspective are fluid things. That great art can be wrought from quotidian life. These teachings are ongoing. Each time I revisit the novel, I am humbled by how high a bar its author has set.
Oddly, the geography of Light Years has come to reflect, in some sense, my own journey thus far. The North Atlantic shore, New York City, Rome: these are places that have come to inspire and inform me in different but significant ways. England, where Viri and Nedra spend their last days together, is where I was born. India, too, is a presence in the book, evoked less literally than philosophically. I had no idea, at eighteen, that a novel that felt so foreign contained a map of my own future, that by midlife, it would correspond to my evolving definition of home.
“The best education comes from knowing only one book,” Viri tells Nedra. “Purity comes from that, and proportion, and the comfort of always having an example close at hand.” Nedra dismisses him, but I agree.