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Last Night by James Salter: “Comet”

May 12, 2015

It occurs to me that a gap has emerged between the types of film that I enjoy and the types of book that I tend to read.

As the contents of this blog suggest, I am generally drawn to small, intimate and psychological films that ask a lot of their audiences. Made with a painter’s eye and a jeweller’s hand, these films demand not just a familiarity with the language of cinema but also a capacity to sift the debris of fictional lives for traces of raw humanity. If forced to choose a film that most captured my current mood, I would happily point to Francois Ozon’s 5×2 as it strikes the major chords of a modern marriage only to then invite the audience to speculate as to nature of the tune that once united them.

Given that the books I read generally keep humanity at arm’s length, I thought it might be fun to seek out some literary short fiction that adopted a similar relationship to its readers as the works of Claude Chabrol and Francois Ozon. Hell…. Reading something a bit different might also help to improve my reading skills, which have atrophied considerably since I stopped regularly reviewing books.

I wanted a work that would present me with beautiful human puzzles and my search eventually lead me to James Salter’s Last Night. It is my intention to write a little something about each of the book’s ten stories, starting with “Comet”.

As I write, I have not yet finished Last Night but I have read a few stories ahead in an effort to familiarise myself with Salter’s techniques and spot any recurring themes. The first theme to emerge from my reading is an interest in older sexualities and the emotional lives surrounding them. “Comet” is a story that invites us to consider the differences between a freshly-married bride and groom.

 

Comet2

The story may begin with the name of the groom but its opening section is devoted to an almost forensic investigation of the bride’s physicality:

At the reception, Adele smiled with happiness, drank too much, laughed, and scratched her bare arms with long showgirl nails. Her new husband admired her. He could have licked her palms like a calf does salt. She was still young enough to be good-looking, the final blaze of it, though she was too old for children, at least if she had anything to say about it. Summer was coming. Out of the afternoon haze she would appear, in her black bathing suit, limbs all tan, the brilliant sun behind her. She was the strong figure walking up the smooth sand from the sea, her legs, her wet swimmer’s hair, the grace of her, all careless and unhurried.

While this is an almost perfect example of the male gaze, it is neither crass nor dehumanising. Salter is certainly alive to his character’s sexuality but he seems to linger on the details that reveal most about her inner life, such as the juxtaposed imagery of “long showgirl nails” and a “careless and unhurried” older woman striding up the beach.

The word “careless” is particularly pregnant with meaning as while we could take it to mean that Adele is indifferent to other people’s opinions, we can also take it to mean that she is so supremely confident in her appearance and sexuality that she does not worry about other people finding her anything less than gorgeous. The image of Philip as a small calf licking salt from the palm of her hand only serves to underline the power and joy that Adele derives from the performance of her own sexuality.

People often praise Salter for the power and economy of his writing and these qualities are definitely evident in a scene in which the married couple prepare for bed:

She would get into bed with a drink, the way she had done when she was twenty-five. Phil, a sport jacket over his pajamas, sat reading.

You have to marvel at how much Salter is able to convey in these two quite simple descriptive sentences but it is worth noting that neither detail functions alone. In fact, each sentence is lavishly underpinned by the very structure of the story.

Salter lavishes descriptive paragraphs on Adele but limits his descriptions of Philip to a few carefully chosen adjectives and colourful images. Adele is warm, beautiful, sexy, and generally larger than life whereas Philip is calm, competent and like a calf liking salt from her palm. What this means for the reader is that while we may warm to Salter’s descriptions of Adele, we have to work considerably harder to piece together a comparable mental image of what Philip is supposed to be like. We literally cannot see Philip because lovely Adele is in the way and when Salter hits us with that image of a man sat reading with a jacket on over his jimmies, it is nothing short of a revelation: Yes! That is exactly what he’s like!

When I say that Salter’s descriptions are supported by the structure of the story, I mean that it is not just what he says but when he chooses to say it and Salter’s awareness of how structure influences the reader’s experience is made beautifully clear in a passage that could almost be an instruction manual for the story:

To be liked by her was worthwhile but to be liked by him seemed somehow of greater value. There was something about him that discounted the world. He appeared in a way to care nothing for himself, to be above that.

In other words, we warm to Phil because we have to work harder in order to get to know him and the minute we realise that we really like Phil, we begin to question our affection for Adele: Sure… she seems like a lovely lady, but there’s something slightly over-rehearsed and polished about the way she carries herself. She also seems to be living in the past as she keeps telling and re-telling affectionate anecdotes about her ex-husband.

Loyalty – it came from her childhood as well as the years of marriage, eight exhausting years, as she said – was her code. The terms of the marriage had been simple, she admitted. Her job was to be dressed, have dinner ready, and be fucked once a day.

“Loyalty” is another interesting choice of words as it seems to come out of nowhere. Upon first reading, Adele’s talk of loyalty comes across as a rather self-aggrandising way of talking about habit. This glimpse into Adele’s formative years goes some way to explaining the over-rehearsed quality of her public persona: Married to “the heir of a garbage-hauling empire”, Adele was encouraged to play the role of the beautiful trophy wife and that role would then sustain her for the rest of her adult life. The implication that Adele was ‘made’ into the beautiful, engaging, and carefully “careless” woman that Philip would later marry gives her increasing bitterness an edge of tragedy:

 – I’ve had good sex since I was fifteen, she said.

He looked up.

– I didn’t start quite that young, he confessed.

– Maybe you should have.

It is clear that Adele regrets the end of her old marriage and the break with habit this involved. It would appear that Philip is a very different man to her first husband and that these differences make Adele resentful and bitter. However, the exact nature of the differences between Adele’s husbands and the source of her bitterness is not what you might think.

Salter builds Adele up only to raise questions about her character and once this image of an embittered and nostalgic older woman is established, Salter provides us with the correct context for Adele’s diatribes on loyalty.

The reasons for Adele’s bitterness come into focus when the couple attend a dinner party at which one of the guests reveals that she has just discovered that her husband had been having an affair for seven years. Brilliantly, Salter has Philip express confusion at the idea that the woman might want to re-evaluate not only her marriage but also the last seven years of her life. Initially, we think that this might be due to Philip’s social cluelessness but the roots of the disagreement have burrowed much deeper:

 – That woman stole my husband. She stole everything he had vowed.

– Forgive me, Phil said softly. That happens every day.

There was an outcry as if from a chorus, heads thrust forward like the hissing, sacred geese. Only Adele sat silent.

Adele is silent because she is drunk, and she is drunk because she knows that Philip’s previous marriage ended when Philip decided to have an affair with his son’s twenty-year-old tutor. Having established him as a calm and muted presence lurking in his wife’s shadow, Salter reveals Philip to be an unapologetic romantic who sees himself as having been completely overwhelmed by the strength of his own passions:

There is love when you lose the power to speak, when you cannot even breathe.

Phil’s fellow diners are just as shocked as Salter’s readers, again… Salter instructs us on how to process this revelation about his character:

You think you know someone, you think because you have dinner with them or play cards, but you really don’t. It’s always a surprise. You know nothing.

Adele describes the tutor as some sort of call girl because Phil would later find her in bed with another man but this seems to have made no difference to Phil’s perception of the woman:

None of them could know, none of them could visualize Mexico City and the first unbelievable year, driving down to the coast for the weekend, through Cuernavaca, her bare legs with the sun lying on them, her arms, the dizziness and submission he felt with her as before a forbidden photograph, as if before an overwhelming work of art. Two years in Mexico City oblivious to the wreckage. It was the sense of godliness that empowered him. He could see her neck bent forward with its slender nape. He could see the faint trace of bones like pearls that ran down her smooth back. He could see himself, his former self.

As much as anything else, “Comet” is a story that toys with the affections of its readers. Salter introduces us to his characters and encourages us to form very clear and lasting opinions of what they are like. Having implanted these mental images, Salter then proceeds to undermine them in a way that really drives home the idea that you can never completely know another person. The story’s concluding dialogue is haunting as Philip excuses himself from the dinner party in order to step outside and look for a comet:

 – What are you looking for? She finally said.

He did not answer. He had no intention of answering. Then,

– The comet, he said. It’s been in the papers. This is the night it’s supposed to be most visible.

There was silence.

– I don’t see any comet, she said.

– You don’t?

– Where is it?

– It’s right up there, he gestured. It doesn’t look like anything, just like another small star. It’s that extra one, by the Pleiades. He knew all the constellations. He had seen them rise in darkness over heartbreaking coasts.

– Come on, you can look at it tomorrow, she said, almost consolingly, though she came no closer to him.

– It won’t be there tomorrow. One time only.

This exchange is about Philip’s secretly passionate nature and his willingness to drop everything in order to experience something beautiful that someone with his wife’s temperament would not deem worthy of the sacrifice. Salter ends the story on an image of a drunken Adele heading back into the house and stumbling over the step but while this image certainly drags us back to an unsympathetic reading of Adele, I think it actually reinforces her image as a tragic character.

The stars are not just beautiful objects; they are also practical things that can be used for navigation. Adele may have made a terrible mistake in choosing to marry Philip but she acted in good faith, she looked at his quiet demeanour and lack of charisma and plotted a course to marriage based on those stars. Salter may encourage us to share Philip’s frustration with people who cannot appreciate a good comet but this is to assume that all sailors would be better off as artists. Salter compares Philip’s passionate nature to a comet but one could just as easily compare it to a landmine: harmless until stepped on and then liable to deprive you of a limb.

Another interesting thing about this story is the nature of the couple’s falling out. Philip may have walked away from an old life in order to enjoy a moment of great passion with a much younger woman but there is no indication that this is likely to happen again. Philip may well turn out to be the loyal and predictable husband that Adele requires but his refusal to accept this persona and rule out the idea of running away with a younger woman is something that Adele can neither understand nor tolerate. Adele simply cannot understand Philip’s romantic nature and Philip cannot understand why Adele would see it as such a threat to their relationship. “Comet” is not just a story about two very different people who accidentally wound up getting married, it is also an image of a marriage falling apart on the basis of things that have not yet happened: Philip has not yet left Adele for a younger woman but nor has he thrown himself into his marriage in the way he did the affair with his son’s tutor. Philip has reserves of passion that he chooses not to bring to his marriage with Adele and Adele simply cannot forgive him for not loving her the way he has loved before.

7 Comments
  1. Mark Pontin permalink
    May 13, 2015 9:21 pm

    Great writer, much of the time.

    The autobiography BURNING THE DAYS is amazing and beautiful, and my personal favorite by Salter. There, of course, he’s helped by his CV, since most authors haven’t done things like fly fighter jets in the Korean War (a unique battlefield situation, never before or after repeated, in that they were fighting by pure eyesight without radar but doing it at jet speed and at 30,000 feet for the first time) or work with their buddy Robert Redford in the late 1960s film business, or hang around in Fellini-era Rome and bed starlets.

    But he’s just as good and piercing describing how his father lost his money, broke down and died, or how his daughter died, or his feelings as he quit the US Air Force (which he seems to have loved).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. May 14, 2015 5:00 pm

    Hi Mark :-)

    I’ve never read him before but he is utterly kicking my arse. Every time I read one of his short stories I think ‘what the fuck was that about?’ and it’s only when I re-read them and sit down to write about them that I start to pull together an idea as to which emotions and ideas he is trying to pull down.

    Thanks for recommending his autobiography, I doubt Last Night will be the last thing of his I read as I don’t think anyone except M. John Harrison has ever challenged me quite as much.

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  3. Brendan permalink
    June 21, 2015 3:19 am

    Jonathan, nice reading you offer. My initial thought was that Salter was simply fucking with us here, but it wasn’t till I read your analysis that I realized exactly how elegantly he was fucking with us. I’m going to slowly read Last Night as well, but he’s got a long way to go based on this first story: unsparing prose and trip-the-reader, but in service of what? V. interested to see if he has a personal cosmology to play out.

    (NB: My decision to read Last Night was prompted by buying the final sale copy in the bookstore I sometimes work at. His death has caused a temporarily paucity of his novels in the US, as usual.)

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  4. June 21, 2015 5:42 am

    There are certainly recurring themes and images but I’m not sure if there’s anything as coherent as a ‘cosmology’. It’s possible that Comet is just an attempt to lure the reader into a sympathy shell game but the capacity for misdirection alone makes a point about the complexities of human emotion and the very human tendency to put people into nice little boxes and form relationships with them on the basis of their being a certain kind of person. In some ways, Comet speaks to a similar set of concerns as Gone Girl… Who is it you really married and why?

    The third story is proving much more of a puzzler as I can’t decide whether I’m missing some subtlety or he just decided to write a bum story. I’ve reread it twice and I pick up in more stuff but writing about it is still proving difficult.

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  5. Brendan permalink
    June 21, 2015 3:53 pm

    Re: “My Lord You”: I think it’s a pretty simple story about the desire to be dominated (shown in the complete absence of Warren until the final moments of the opening party) being worked out through a relationship with a dog (the animal which most brings the word “master” to mind). Once Ardis starts weeping at the dog’s supposed death, I think the story loses any chance of being successful, but I liked Salter’s willingness to abandon Brennan as anything more than a threatening, sexually charged presence.

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  6. June 22, 2015 3:00 pm

    Brendan — I’m actually going to be uploading my piece on that story tomorrow. I think the ending is actually a bit better than you give it credit for :-)

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  7. Brendan permalink
    June 22, 2015 4:44 pm

    Jonathan, looking forward to it & rereading the story.

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