Last Night by James Salter: “Last Night”
While I have tried my best to stay out of the way of any essays or reviews that might have distorted my take on this collection, I had heard that the final eponymous story was something special. I imagine there’s an art to the ordering of short story collections, maybe you start strong in order to grab the attention, hide the weaker stories in the middle, and end with fireworks in an effort to ensure that readers walk away from the book with a good impression of the author. Art as cognitive psychology… you always remember the first things and the final things but the stuff in the middle fades quite quickly. Last Night certainly started strongly only to become stuck in a rut of photocopied themes and stock characters, did Salter have it in him to go out with a bang? Well… yes.
I can certainly see why “Last Night” would stick in some reviewers’ memories; it seems considerably more accessible than a lot of the stories in the collection and while it too revisits those themes of middle-aged regret and sexual yearning, it does so in a style more reminiscent of O. Henry or Roald Dahl than James Salter. Much like “Give”, “Last Night” is ostensibly all about the twist in the tale while the really interesting stuff lies buried in sub-text and the details of character psychology. Like many of the best stories in this collection “Last Night” appears to be about one thing but is actually about another.
Walter Such is a fastidious little man who has spent many years married to Marit. However, Marit is now terminally ill and we join the characters as they prepare for Marit’s final night on Earth before committing suicide in an effort to avoid the pain of the final weeks:
She no longer resembled herself. What she had been was gone; it had been taken from her. The change was fearful, especially in her face. She had a face now that was for the afterlife and those she would meet there. It was hard for Walter to remember how she had once been. She was almost a different woman from the one to whom he had made a solemn promise to help when the time came.
Marit and Walter get all dressed up and prepare to go out for a final dinner in the company of Susanna, a family friend:
They had asked Susanna rather than someone closer and grief-filled, Marit’s sister, for example, with whom she was not on good terms, anyway, or older friends. Susanna was younger. She had a wide face and high, pure forehead. She looked like the daughter of a professor or banker, slightly errant. Dirty girl, one of their friends had commented about her, with a degree of admiration.
I think that opening sentence is a perfect example of Salter’s ‘hipness’ about punctuation. While the meaning may be clear, it is almost impossible to parse. Why isn’t there a full stop after “grief-filled” and what is going on with that “anyway”? My theory is that the tortured syntax reflects an uncertainty about the decision to invite Susanna to Marit’s final meal. The description makes it sound as though Susanna is little more than a casual acquaintance and why would a casual acquaintance accept such an invitation anyway? ‘Come out to dinner with us before I commit suicide’ is not exactly a guarantee of a rip-snorting good time. Salter is amazingly coy about the type of relationship Marit and Walter had before Marit’s illness and so the decision to invite Susanna along is really quite ambiguous.
The group order an amazingly expensive bottle of wine, have an awkward dinner and return to the couple’s apartment. On the way back, Marit seems to quiz Susanna:
Marit stared out the window as they drove. She was tired. They were going home now. The wind was moving in the tops of the shadowy trees. In the night sky there were brilliant blue clouds, shining as if in daylight.
— It’s very beautiful tonight, isn’t it? Marit said. I’m struck by that. Am I mistaken?
— No. Walter cleared his throat. It is beautiful.
— Have you noticed it? she asked Susanna. I’m sure you have. How old are you? I forget.
— Twenty-nine, Marit said. She was silent for a few moments. We never had children, she said. Do you wish you had children?
— Oh sometimes, I suppose. I haven’t thought about it too much. It’s one of those things you have to be married to really think about.
— You’ll be married.
— Yes, perhaps.
— You could be married in a minute, Marit said.
Once home, Marit makes her excuses and retires to her room… for ever. Horrifically uncomfortable, Susanna tries to leave but Walter convinces her to stay before climbing the stairs and helping his wife on her way with what is supposed to be a lethal cocktail of drugs. Marit reminds Walter that this is how she wants to go and Walter administers the injection:
He was barely breathing. He waited, but she did not say anything more. Hardly believing what he was doing he pushed the needle in – it was effortless – and slowly injected the contents. He heard her sigh. His eyes were closed as she lay back. Her face was peaceful. She had embarked. My God, he thought, my God. He had known her when she was in her twenties, long-legged and innocent. Now he had slipped her, as in burial at sea, beneath the flow of time. Her hand was still warm. He took it and held it to his lips. He pulled the bedspread up to cover her legs. The house was incredibly quiet. It had fallen into silence, the silence of a fatal act. He could not hear the wind.
Walter comes back downstairs and we learn that he has been carrying on an affair with Susanna for a considerable amount of time. Susanna wants to leave but Walter has to have her and so they spend the night together. Blurry-eyed, they have breakfast as Walter prepares to handle the administrative onslaught of Marit’s death and… Marit comes down to join them for breakfast.
The makeup on her face was stale, and her dark lipstick showed fissures.
The story ends with Marit noticing that Susanna stayed the night and Susanna and Walter’s relationship being soured not only by Marit’s discovery but also by the realisation that Marit and Walter would now spend their last day thinking about Susanna while the doctors prepare Marit another lethal cocktail of drugs.
When I first read this story, I was unimpressed. I was unimpressed as I took it to be a story about how Marit’s carefully-staged final hours had been completely undermined and how she would now have to live out her final day knowing that her husband had been having an affair. I was unimpressed because Marit’s failed suicide has considerably less impact than the very similar botched suicide of Lupe Velez, a Hollywood star of the 1930s known as the Mexican Spitfire.
The death of Lupe Velez is one of the standout moments in Kenneth Anger’s infamous Hollywood Babylon. Spotted by Douglas Fairbanks and renowned for her fiery temper Velez had a reputation for being something of a man-eater in that she would often flash people at cocktail parties and send her husband Johnny Weissmuller to work covered in bites and scratches. When the couple divorced, Velez’s star began to fade and so her attentions shifted from stars to bit-players and finally to gigolos as the debts began to mount up. Accidentally impregnated by a complete non-entity who then refused to marry her, Velez decided to commit suicide rather than get rid of the baby. According to Anger, Velez spent her final evening feasting on Mexican food and decorating her bedroom with scented candles and flowers before downing a load of barbiturates and reclining on her bed in a white satin gown where her immaculate corpse was to have been discovered by her maid in the morning:
When Juanita, the chambermaid, had opened the bedroom door at nine, the morning after the suicide, no Lupe was in sight. The bed was empty. The aroma of scented candles, the fragrance of tuberoses almost, but not quite masked a stench recalling that left by Skid-row derelicts. Juanita traced the vomit trail from the bed, followed the spotty track over the orchid-tiled bathroom. There she found Senorita Velez, head jammed down in the toilet bowl, drowned.
The huge dose of Seconal had not been fatal in the expected fashion. It had mixed retch-erously with the Spitfire’s Mexi-Spice Last Supper. The gut action, her stomach churning, had revived the dazed Lup. Violently sick, an ultimate fastidiousness drove her to stagger towards the sanitary sanctum of the salle de bain where she slipped on the tiles and plunged head first into her Egyptian Chartreuse Onyx Hugh-Flush Model Deluxe.
Clearly, “Last Night” does not come anywhere close to the pure pathos of a Hollywood A-lister trying to find dignity in death only to wind up drowning in a toilet. The story springs Marit’s survival on us like a twist in the tale but Salter undermines the payload by a) refusing to tell us very much about Marit’s life and b) hinting at a day filled with social awkwardness rather than some other negative emotion. Indeed, Walter might have been shamed by Marit’s discovery of Susanna but I can imagine Susanna legitimately staying over to provide Walter with support. In fact, even if Marit did work out that Susanna and Walter slept together, why would it prove emotionally devastating? Sure… Water might well have moved on a bit too quickly by choosing to have sex with his wife’s cooling body in the other room but that’s a very minor sin in the grand scheme of things.
“Last Night” reminds me a lot of “Give” in so far as it is a story that builds towards a surprise ending only for said ending to lack the impact that you might normally associate with that type of story. “Give” is not about the husband having an affair with a poet; it’s about the couple having a relationship that had made love, companionship and change structurally impossible. “Last Night” is not about Marit’s botched suicide… it’s about Marit pulling the strings on her own relationship and steering her husband into the arms of another woman.
Salter opens the story by establishing Walter as one of those typically Salterian fusspots:
Walter Such was a translator. He liked the write with a green fountain pen that he had a habit of raising in the air slightly after each sentence, almost as though his hand were a mechanical device. He could recite lines of Blok in Russian and then give Rilke’s translation of them in German, pointing out their beauty. He was a sociable but also sometimes prickly man, who stuttered a little at first and who lived with his wife in a manner they both liked.
On first reading, we assume that Marit was a temperamental match for her husband but the text is littered with clues suggesting the opposite. For starters, why would Marit invite a much younger woman to her final meal, let alone a much younger woman with a reputation for being “dirty”? Reading the scene after the scene at the restaurant, I was reminded of the social awkwardness one might associate with group sex… everyone is sitting around and trying to be nice but nobody has the courage to get up and go to the bedroom. Similarly, Marit comforts Water as he prepares to give the injection but Salter makes it rather ambiguous as to whether Marit is encouraging Walter to inject her or fuck Susanna. Why would a banal little man literally tear at a young woman’s clothes with his dead wife in another room unless he had given his word and made a solemn promise?
— Walter, she said.
— This is the right thing.
She reached to take his hand. Somehow it frightened him, as it might mean an appeal to come with her.
— You know, she said evenly, I’ve loved you as much as I’ve ever loved anyone in the world – I’m sounding maudlin, I know.
— Ah, Marit! he cried.
— Did you love me?
His stomach was churning in despair.
— Yes, he said. Yes!
— Take care of yourself.
The fact that the exchange builds towards a request that Walter take care of himself and Marit talking in the past tense about any love Walter might have felt for her suggests that this is not about the injection but what comes after it.
The reason the twist ending feels under-powered is that the ‘target’ for the twist is not Marit and Walter but Susanna. When Marit comes down and the narrative of her death unravels, Susanna realises that Marit not only knows about the affair but might actually have been the one who urged Walter to initiate it:
That was how she and Walter came to part, upon being discovered by his wife. They met two or three times afterward, at his insistence, but to no avail. Whatever holds people together was gone. She told him she could not help it. That was the way it was.
“Last Night” is about betrayal but it’s the betrayal of Susanna rather than Marit.
In a recent piece for the New York Review of Books blog, Tim Parks questions the value of literary ambiguity:
So what is it about ambiguity that it has to be praised to high heaven by all and sundry? Above all, how did it come to take on, at least for some, a cloak of liberal righteousness, to shift from being an aesthetic to a moral virtue, as if the text that wasn’t clear, that didn’t state its preferences clearly, were ethically superior to the text that does.
Parks argues that ambiguity is seen as a valuable aesthetic because a) the world is more ambiguous than language naturally allows and b) it allows writers to get around making the kind of declarative statements that might alienate audiences by virtue of being wrong. Ambiguity is certainly a neat way to produce a text with the potential to be all things to all people, but what Parks doesn’t mention is that ambiguous texts are actually a lot more fun to read.
Some artists are dictators, they come up with very specific themes, very specific characters and very specific narratives and use all of their skill to corral their readers into a very specific experience. Other artists are more democratic in so far as they will produce something that is amazingly evocative and tied to particular ideas but the specific links between the text and its ideas are left to the audience. Ambiguity is widely regarded as a superior aesthetic because critics often double as cultural gatekeepers and an ambiguous work is one that gives critics the opportunity to exercise their hermeneutic skills in public.
Salter is an excellent example of a critic’s writer as his characters and plots are so ambiguous that it is quite easy for skilled readers to construct alternate readings of the text. Critics love these types of works as it allows them to play Sherlock Holmes; to light their briar pipes, toss the matches into the fire and declare in a patronising tone of voice “My dear chap… this isn’t a story about Marit’s humiliation! If you had paid attention to Susanna’s gait and the dirt under Walter’s nails you would have realised that the affair was Marit’s idea to begin with!”
I am aware that I approached this book looking to stretch my critical wings. Had I not donned my critical deer-stalker and gone about piecing-together non-obvious readings of the stories in this collection then I suspect I would have found Last Night unbearably boring. Indeed, looking back over the pieces I have written about this book, it occurs to me that I most enjoyed the stories where I felt inspired to sift through background details in search of narratives and ideas more compelling than those deposited in the foreground by Salter. This forces me to conclude that while I certainly enjoyed reading Last Night, I suspect the book that Salter wrote may well have been considerably less interesting than the collection I stories I constructed for myself. All art is collaboration between creator and audience but I am genuinely ambivalent as to who is most responsible for my enjoyment of this collection. Hmm.