On reading James Salter and opening portals into unlived lives.
Image by Béla Czóbel via LACMA
It is a summer’s evening. Ardis, the young wife in James Salter’s story “My Lord You” and her husband Warren are attending a fashionable party in a house on Long Island. They are among the beautiful and the bright. There is a veranda, sea light, caviar, and as dusk falls the company moves indoors. The mood is languid, and everything—the guests, the setting, the conversation—is cool and elegant and seductive. So far, so good, so Salter. Then, enter Brennan, a drunken poet: handsome, arrogant, dishevelled—a man “used to being ungovernable.” To Ardis’s alarm he seats himself beside her. “I know who you are, another priceless woman meant to languish.” Were men drawn to you when they knew they were frightening you? she wondered. For a moment his talk is tender. He quotes from Ezra Pound. He describes his first sighting of his now estranged wife. “She was walking on the beach. I was unprepared. I saw the ventral, then the dorsal. I imagined the rest. Bang. We came together like planets. Endless fornication.” Ardis is riveted. Warren stands close by, nervously pushing his glasses up on his nose with one finger. Before Brennan can be steered back out into the night he calmly reaches out a hand, mid-sentence, and touches Ardis’s breast. “She was too stunned to move.”
There is an immense erotic charge. This loose cannon, this reckless semi-feral man, both disturbs and arouses Ardis, opening a portal into her unlived life. Days after the encounter she goes to the library, seeks out the poem from which he quoted: “The River Merchant’s Wife,” Pound’s interpretation of an eighth-century Chinese verse, in which a young wife yearns for her absent husband:
In Ardis’s life there had been only one My Lord You, when she was twenty-one. She recalls their love-making in an apartment on 58th Street, hot afternoons, the room filled with slatted light. She called him several times over the years, foolishly believing that love never dies.
It is a dog, a huge deer-hound, yellow-eyed, coming towards her, higher than her waist. She has a fear of dogs.
Later in the story, as she cycles home from the beach, Ardis cannot help herself from detouring by Brennan’s house. She walks her bicycle up the long driveway, watching the house, aware of the forbiddenness of her actions. No one is home.
“She walked farther. Suddenly someone rose from the side porch. She was unable to utter a sound or move.”
It is a dog, a huge deer-hound, yellow-eyed, coming towards her, higher than her waist. She has a fear of dogs. She maneuver the bicycle between herself and the animal. “Good boy, good boy” is all she can manage. He is moving like a machine and her legs and calves are there, bare, ready to be ripped open. She gets up on the bicycle, cries “No! No!” and obediently he veers off. She cycles away, free, and when she turns her head he is following in the fields, on fire in the sun, floating alongside on large lumbering limbs.
James Salter was born in New York in 1925 and spent twelve years in the U.S. Air Force before leaving to pursue a writing career. He wrote film and TV scripts for Hollywood and his first novel The Hunters—based on his air force experience in Korea—was made into a movie in 1958. His best known novel, A Sport and a Pastime: A Novel, is a tender erotic story—where sex comes with love—set in provincial France. Light Years charts the life of a married couple in New York and the deep dark currents of their love and infidelities. The stories in his two collections Dusk and Last Night are tense, taut, immaculate. Each word is weighed, and the real and ordinary are elevated to a state of beauty and pleasure. Salter is a master of mood, and stillness. There is a feel of lushness, yet the writing is never lush—I don’t know how he does this—but beautifully distilled and aching with suggestion. He does women well, gets them so right. He conveys with exquisite delicacy and a dreamlike quality their sensuality, their intense private longings, their pining for love or sex, and does so with an empathy and understanding that is rare among his contemporaries. In Light Years he gives equal accent to the body and carnal life of the wife, Nedra, as he does to that of Viri, the husband. Perhaps even more. Crucially he does not—nor do the characters themselves—seek to blame their men for the shortcomings and regrets that attach to their lives, but instead allows the reader to absorb with terrible poignancy the elusiveness of deep human connection, and the temporary nature of both physical and psychic union.
In his sheer physicality, with his yellow eyes and machine-like capability, he is a potent presence, a wild creature that could, in the blink of an eye, rip her to pieces. He embodies the instincts she fears and suppresses in herself.
That night, in the bedroom after making love with her husband, Ardis senses something. In the morning the dog is on the lawn, under the trees, “its forelegs stretched out in front like a sphinx, its haunches round and high.” The next day the dog is there again, waiting for her, raising his head with his gold and hazel eyes in the morning light. She approaches him, sensing his power, but also his abandonment. “Come,” she says and he follows her down the road to Brennan’s house. Brennan has still not returned. The dog is starving. She tries the porch door—it is unlocked. She enters and walks around—she is in the house of a poet, an artist. In every room books, abundance, disregard. Loose pages on a desk, lines of a newly minted poem. Photographs of his wife, more lines: “Tus besos.” Your kisses. She wanders through the forbidden rooms, carried away. In the bathroom she stands, and the dog comes to the door, falls to the floor before her.
“She turned to him. All she had never done seemed at hand.”
And then, her shocking act. She begins to remove her clothes. She strips to the waist…
Ardis, the good schoolgirl, the meek little wife, dares to be what she has always longed to be—full and whole and reckless. The act is spellbinding, a moment of stunning sensuality, and absolute abandon. The dog is audience, witness, a real and symbolic figure of masculine potency and danger, a substitute Brennan. She is half-naked before him, exposed and vulnerable. She is submitting to the dog, to Brennan, to all men, but more: she is sating a private hunger, an ache in her body, in her breasts, surrendering to the wildness in herself. “You’re a big fellow,” she says, kneeling and stroking his head again and again.
This “open”… encompasses the whole of external reality, nature, and the unseen reality of all worlds, all realms. Rilke thought that children and the dying have access to it, but while lovers come close each blocks the other’s view…
When I first read this story I was completely arrested. I was not surprised to learn that Salter is a dog-lover (though now at eighty-seven, he no longer keep dogs) but one need not be a devotee to feel the depth of the connection here, the melt of animal love. At the heart of the story is Ardis’s inner awakening and while Brennan is the catalyst—the physical embodiment of man who stirs up her desire—it is the dog who is her agent of change, her psychopomp. He is an aspect of her animus—the masculine principle laid down and embedded in the blueprint of every woman’s psyche. In his sheer physicality, with his yellow eyes and machine-like capability, he is a potent presence, a wild creature that could, in the blink of an eye, rip her to pieces. He embodies the instincts she fears and suppresses in herself. Yet, when forced, she can tame this wildness, call him to heel with a “No!” and later, “Come!”, integrate her own polar instincts—power and weakness, fear and trust, desire and passivity, which the dog possesses, for he is, too gentle, unbetraying—”a companion like no other.” Woman and animal break through to each other. Ardis is edging towards something and it is in this human-animal encounter that she comes to a knowingness, a way of being that goes beyond the physical. It is the animal gaze, the humming of his animal soul—reminiscent of Ted Hughes’ jaguar and Rilke’s panther, but more significantly of Rilke’s notion of the “open”—that tips Ardis into this moment of pure luminous joy, into an awareness of their shared creatureliness, something that existed before time, before words, or as Rilke puts it:
In no man, in no other human, will Ardis encounter such tenderness, such relatedness, or be afforded a glimpse into the “open.” She has begun to see with her animal eyes, feel with her animal heart.
“With all its eyes the creature-world beholds the open.” This “open” in Rilke’s Duino Elegies—and especially in the eighth elegy—encompasses the whole of external reality, nature, and the unseen reality of all worlds, all realms. Rilke thought that children and the dying have access to it, but while lovers come close each blocks the other’s view:
The rest of us are mere spectators, never totally at one with “the thing,” always looking in from outside, lacking the sensory faculty to perceive it. But it is animals, it is the dumb brute who is capable of being fully in the “open,” of seeing everything in each moment:
And so back to Ardis in the bathroom, kneeling, stroking, submitting, when suddenly from outside there is a crunch of tires on gravel to bring her abruptly to her senses. Brennan. She throws on her clothes and rushes out. It is her husband, come to find her. “Thank God, she thought helplessly.” An awkward guilty moment ensues.
That evening the wind rises, the elements conspire, the sea breaks through to a pond. And the dog returns, slow, weak. She cannot bear it. She carries out a bowl of water, kneels before him ceremonially, her hair blowing in the wind, like a mad person. His gaze drifts away. His eyes are almost closed. Night comes, the wind blows itself out. In the early morning the dog is still there but something—his shape—is different. He is dead. She runs out in her nightdress, barefoot, across the wet grass.
It is miraculous. She turns. Warren! she cries. The shouts distress the dog and he rises wearily and slopes off.
She ran after him. Warren could see her. She seemed free. She seemed like another woman, a younger woman, the kind one saw in the dusty fields by the sea, in a bikini, stealing potatoes in bare feet.
Ardis never sees the dog again. She goes by the house many times and though Brennan’s car is there, there is no sign of the dog. Her loss is immense, like that of a lover who has changed her. But she will return to her husband and her life, and nothing in her outer bearing will give any indication of what she has suffered or how she has been altered.
Ardis is changed, “a thing’s revealed,” but Salter does not remove the weight of her soul-suffering or her grief for the dog. That then would be a different story.
Each time I read this story I am spellbound, rapt. As it unfurls a weight slowly descends on the heart but I am repeatedly drawn back to Ardis and the dog, addicted. I feel their presence, utterly. I am reminded of Camus’s story “The Adulterous Wife,” and how it too arrests and induces the same weighted heart. At its center, another dead woman walking. Set in Algeria, Janine and her salesman husband Marcel, a childless couple in their forties of French extraction, travel by bus out of the capital, Algiers, into the desert on business. On the bus Janine observes the Arab men with their sunburnt faces and burnooses. She has a brief silent encounter with a French soldier, prompting a recollection of her youth and an awareness of her present body’s fleshiness and waning attraction. Love takes many forms and while, like Ardis and Warren, this couple is not entirely devoid of love, it is a dull feeble love. Barely love at all. Certainly not love in its fullest, most extreme manifestation.
The couple overnight in a village and the next evening they climb to the roof of a military fort and Janine views the rugged landscape and the sky and, in the distance, a nomad encampment. The place affects her deeply. That night, in the cold, she sneaks out of the hotel room and runs along the street and climbs to the roof of the fort again. She gazes around, her heart beating wildly, feels the desert and the night mingling, hears voices from the camps in the distance, remembers the dark faces of the Arab men—mysterious, free. She looks up, and the sky seems to gyrate and thousands of stars fall one by one from the black night, extinguishing themselves in the stones of the desert, “and each time Janine opened a little more to the night.” She forgets the cold, the struggle of life, the weight of humanity.
It is a numinous moment and she is exalted, transformed, liberated from her weeping inert self. Her adultery is not with any living man but with nature and the night and all of mankind—with the universe itself—as she surrenders to this metaphysical union and to a physical and psychical reawakening.
This is philosophical fiction and what Janine and Ardis are hungry for and what they stumble upon in the course of their “adulteries,” goes beyond the physical or sexual, beyond earthly love. Salter and Camus have given their women a deeper reach, a solitary quest for something that no man—husband or lover—could possibly embody or provide for a woman, and vice versa. It is the aspiration, the urge, the hunger to go into the pure space of Rilke’s “open.” In the everyday Ardis and Janine yearn for an essential life, for the quiver and tremble of copious primal love. Both are “unfaithful” and in their consummation with nature, sky, the night, they are given the taste, the thirst for something transcendental and they are both saved and ruined and there will be no going back for them, ever.
In the final scene of “My Lord You” when the dog is resurrected at dawn and disappears, Ardis is bereft. She will never see him again. Salter tells us that the dog may be gone—”lost, living elsewhere, his name perhaps to be written in a line someday though most probably he was forgotten, but not by her.”
Ardis is changed, “a thing’s revealed,” but Salter does not remove the weight of her soul-suffering or her grief for the dog. That then would be a different story. Salter knows that we cannot overcome the human condition, that the most we can do is acknowledge it, face it, sometimes embrace it. In his essay ‘The Wind at Djemila’ Camus wrote:
Ardis and Janine would, no doubt, wish to be delivered from the weight of their lives too but in their encounters with the poet and the dog, with the soldier and the night—and in their abandon—they are made to feel that certain weight and feel it intensely. They venture further and deeper than would ever have been possible had they got it together with the poet and the soldier. They go to the brink of themselves, transported there by the animal and the night and their own passion, and for a moment they feel the beat of a full shining world in themselves, a beat whose memory will linger and make bearable the rest of their long mundane lives.
Mary Costello’s first book, a collection of short stories entitled The China Factory: Stories (Stinging Fly Press), was nominated for a Guardian First Book Award in 2012. She lives in Dublin.