I always want to be the people in James Salter novels. Which makes no sense, as they are not—on the whole—happy people. They live rich, full lives that they are unsatisfied by. They are restless and lonely. And yet I want to be them all the same. There is the sense that they get it. They understand how all of this works, that life is ultimately disappointing. But they’re here, now, and so they might as well get on with it. One doesn’t not eat the entire suckling pig just because one knows it won’t end well. And so it goes.
I felt this more strongly with Light Years than with any of Salter’s other books. Perhaps because the lives of the characters revolve around food. “Life is weather. Life is meals,” says Salter in Light Years, and if people had the opportunity to make epigraphs for their lives that would certainly be mine.
Also there is Nedra:
It is through the smoke and conversation of many dinners that one sees her: country dinners, dinners at the Russian Tea Room, the Café Chauveron with Viri’s clients, the St. Regis, the Minotaur.
Beach picnics replete with no less than chicken, eggs, endive, tomatoes, pate, cheese, bread, cucumbers, butter and wine. Ears of corn soaked in sea water. Pâté maison. Roasted trout. The book is full of food, but still, the scene I’m most struck by is one of the first.
Nedra was working in the kitchen, her rings set aside. She as tall, preoccupied; her neck was bare. When she paused to read a recipe, her head bent, she was stunning in her concentration, her air of obedience. She wore her wrist watch, her best shoes. Beneath her apron, she was dressed for the evening. People were coming to dinner.
She had trimmed the stems of the flowers spread on the wood of the counter and begun to arrange them. Before her were scissors, paper-thin boxes of cheese, French knives.
They were having Meursault, fromages, pastries from Leonard’s.
Cheese. A cheese plate. One of my favorite things. A wondrous display of the best food there is, ready to share, to eat with your fingers, to pair with delicate meats, salty olives, sweet jams. I decided to share one of my standard cheese plates, a mix of milks—cow, sheep, and goat—and firmness, from the very soft triple cream to the hard aged gouda.
My favorite ways to serve cheese is with a variety of crackers and bread. A sliced French baguette is a must for blue cheeses. The sweetness of Carr’s wheat crackers offsets the smokiness of the gouda, and rice crackers cut through the sweetness of the brie. Something salty is essential – olives or almonds – as well as something sweet, like figs. Finally, most importantly, the meat. You don’t have to serve meat with your cheese, but a fine serrano ham or prosciutto di parma will get you everywhere with me.
It’s the perfect thing to share with friends. Or–if you’re like me–to linger over all night while you read a good book. A book like Light Years, that takes you through decades with this difficult, passionate, self-indulgent, generous family and spares you from nothing–the joyous growth, the abrupt tragedies, the sad and slow dissolution of grace. It is the perfect example of the books it describes:
The book was in her lap; she had read no further. The power to change one’s life comes from a paragraph, a lone remark. 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?
Drink: well anything! It depends on what you choose, but a lovely French table red can never go wrong.