Poster by Triunfo Arciniegas
The brutal truth about loveSat, Feb 18, 2006, 00:00
BY Eileen Battersby
Short Stories: A woman prepares for her death. But first she dresses for dinner. "She was wearing a red silk dress in which she had always been seductive . . . In the white wire baskets in her closet were stacks of folded clothes, underwear, sport things, nightgowns, the shoes jumbled beneath on the floor. Things she would never again need."
The doomed woman directs her anger at the world which will go on without her. Downstairs, her husband is waiting with a woman, an invited guest. Making an entrance into the room, she remarks to him: "I feel as if it's my first date or something." It has been carefully planned. He is going to help her die. The syringe is in the refrigerator.
These are the bare details of Last Night, the title, and final, story in the second fiction collection from veteran US writer James Salter. His first, Dusk and Other Stories (1989) won the Pen/Faulkner Award. This book of 10 brilliantly observed stories, is as impressive, if even more terrifying. Salter, cool, elegant and remorseless, is a truth teller. And each of the many truths contained in this unsettling volume are as deadly as silver bullets.
That title story, a remarkable work in its own right, is consistent with the dark reality of the other stories. Salter is a bleak romantic; his poet's eye works hand in hand with his realist's reading of the ways in which people conduct their emotions. Central to his view of life as lived by lovers is the element of performance. If Salter has a master it must be Henry James, with whom he shares a near architectural approach to narrative and an intelligence that borders on the clinical. Obviously, Salter, who has written five novels including the outstanding A Sport and a Pastime, has a tighter approach than James; he is writing in a different era, in a very different society.
He balances the conversational and the lyrical. His use of detail is exact and telling: "She was short with short legs and her body had lost its shape. It began at her neck and continued down, and her arms were like a cook's," begins Eyes of the Stars.
"In her sixties Teddy had looked the same for a decade and would probably go on looking the same, there was not that much to change."
Teddy became a movie producer by default. Her now dead husband had been a wealthy, much older man when she met him. Moulded by him, she is his product. He gave her a life and with it, a function. When a spoilt, over-priced actress casts for a role arrives in town and is met by her younger leading man, the pair decide to bow out of Teddy's dinner invitation. Salter observes the dynamics between the two, before returning to the real heart of the story, Teddy. Having been relieved of her hostess duties, she sits alone at home. "The vodka had left her with a pleasant feeling and the disinclination to wonder where the two of them were . . . She found herself, for some reason, thinking about her life, a thing she did not do often." In the course of a paragraph Salter draws a portrait of a real person, conscious of the facts that gave her an identity.
In Such Fun a much younger woman attempts to deal with the discovery that a failed relationship has destroyed her sense of self and she turns to invention as a means of justification. A long-since-rejected girlfriend returns in Bangkok and is intent on confronting the man who dismissed her.
Throughout the stories Salter avoids falling into the traps and cliches of heightened psychological drama. There is always the element of surprise, invariably achieved by a vicious, utterly plausible twist.
Love is both fragile and brutal and dogged by compromise, delusion and betrayal. In My Lord You a recently widowed woman at a party speaks about her husband who had died of a brain tumour at the age of 40. "At the funeral, she said, there had been two women she did not recognise and who did not come to the reception afterward." The widow is philosophical. "I never suspected. I suppose I'm the world's greatest fool."
Of the many strange qualities central to the stories is Salter's use of nuance and the remoteness of the interactions. None of these people really engage fully with each other. If they do it is only by illusion, or by default, as in Give, where a young wife forces her husband to chose.
A fine example of the delusions of love is found in Palm Court, in which a man takes a phone call from a woman he had been in love with some 20 years earlier. Arthur and Noreen are now both divorced from other people and as he listens to her voice he remembers the relationship which lasted three years and proved to be the most important one of his life.
It is Salter at his most subtle and exact. The memories described are born of physical sensation and it is vivid and oddly touching. Arthur recalls the girl he had known: "She was twenty-five and filled with life . . . She had a young girl's unselfconscious belly and ran into the waves. He went in more cautiously, as befitted a man who had been a typist in the army and salesman for a dress manufacturer before coming to what he called Wall Street."
It is pitch perfect. Salter creates a simple and convincing study of Arthur, a man comfortably, happily in love with warm hearted, blunt Noreen. "He had fallen in love, deeply, and without knowing it. He hadn't realised he had been living a shallow life. He only knew that he was happy, happier than he had ever been, in her company." It seems the perfect match, the only element missing was the wedding day.
But nothing happens and she meets someone else. The second man is not only prepared to act, he ends an earlier relationship. Faced with having to state his intentions, as have so many lovers before him, Arthur does nothing. "Arthur didn't know what to say: his thoughts were skipping wildly, like scraps of paper in a wind. There is that fearful moment in the ceremony when it is asked if there is anyone who knows why these two should not be wed. This was that moment."
Such long-sustained feelings "of the love that had filled the great central chamber of his life" appear to guarantee that their reunion should be easy. Within moments they speak as if never parted but Arthur again experiences a failure to connect. "He could not imagine them" as "an old couple, a couple from time past". Confident of her forgiveness he lies and tells her he is engaged. As he walks away, he feels "she always understood". As he does do many times throughout this poised, viciously astute collection, Salter watches Arthur aware of girls walking in the streets around him, "girls such as Noreen had been . . ."
There is a grace and a wariness about this cautionary volume of curiously European tales of betrayal from a gifted US writer. Salter observes and explores, but never judges. Bitter, though never quite cynical, each of these sure-footed dramas convince because of his grasp of the chaotic ambivalence that determines desire and need; truth and illusion.
Last Night By James Salter Picador, 132pp. £14.99
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent of The Irish Times