Burning the Days, James Salter 1997

Salter has written a superb book subtitled, “Recollection” and that is a fitting name for this personal and idiosyncratic memoir.  Though hewing to a chronological framework, he is distinctly non-linear in his leaping about as memories occur to him. The result is that reading the book feels like sitting with a close friend of many years, sharing glasses of wine and recollecting people and moments from the past.  Salter lived a fascinating life, growing up Jewish in New York City and attending West Point after getting off the waiting list when he was Stanford-bound. West Point changed his life as he became a fighter pilot seeing extensive combat in the skies over Korea and leaving the USAF only after a difficult decision to support his family.  Years of screenwriting, play writing, directing and producing eventually led to his writing career, one that resulted in a small number of jewels that remain highly prized by other writers. The blurbs for this memoir were glowing and written by John Irving, Richard Ford, Joseph Heller, Frank Conway, Susan Sontag, and Michael Herr—not a bad collection of critics!  Salter’s recollections are detailed descriptions of specific moments, many of them sensual and sexual with many women over the years and many involving deep friendships with writers and editors.  His stories of his attachment to these people are moving and demonstrate a deep ability to engage with others including Irwin Shaw, Robert Phelps, Helen Frankenthaler, and others.  This was one of those books I hated to see end. I could quote pages of spectacular prose but here’s just one example as he writes about his beginning his great novel, Light Years:  “Writing is filled with uncertainty and much of what one does turns out bad, but this time, very early there was a startling glimpse, like that of a body beneath the water, pale, terrifying, the glimpse that says: it is there.”  or “When I was happiest, the happiest in my life?  Difficult to say.  Skipping the obvious, perhaps setting off on a journey, or returning from one.  In my thirties, probably and scattered other times, among them the weightless days before a book was published and occasionally when writing it.  It is only in books that one finds perfection, only in books that it cannot be spoiled.  Art, in a sense, is life brought to a standstill, rescued from time. The secret of making it is simple: discard everything that is good enough.”  Through all of these recollections, there is the feeling of life hurtling forward, finite life with not enough time to drink fully of the wonderful brew.  In his writing, he reminds me of Patrick Leigh Fermor, though Salter is the far better writer. Both left conventional upbringings to travel in Europe, fight wars, love women, and live, live live—lives that I can only envy from this point in my own.

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