In this brilliant book of recollection, one of America's finest writers re-creates people, places, and events spanning some fifty years, bringing to life an entire era through one man's sensibility. Scenes of love and desire, friendship, ambition, life in foreign cities and New York, are unforgettably rendered here in the unique style for which James Salter is widely admired.
Burning the Days captures a singular life, beginning with a Manhattan boyhood and then, satisfying his father's wishes, graduation from West Point, followed by service in the Air Force as a pilot. In some of the most evocative pages ever written about flying, Salter describes the exhilaration and terror of combat as a fighter pilot in the Korean War, scenes that are balanced by haunting pages of love and a young man's passion for women.
After resigning from the Air Force, Salter begins a second life, becoming a writer in the New York of the 1960s. Soon films beckon. There are vivid portraits of actors, directors, and producers--Polanski, Robert Redford, and others. Here also, more important, are writers who were influential, some by their character, like Irwin Shaw, others because of their taste and knowledge.
Ultimately Burning the Days is an illumination of what it is to be a man, and what it means to become a writer.
Only once in a long while--Vladimir Nabokov's Speak, Memory or Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa--does a memoir of such extraordinary clarity and power appear. Unconventional in form, Burning the Days is a stunning achievement by the writer The Washington Post Book World said "inhabits the same rarefied heights as Flannery O'Connor, Paul Bowles, Tennessee Williams and John Cheever" --a rare and unforgettable book.
As more and more reminiscences spill down the literary chute, it's clear that the Age of the Memoir has not yet abated. The harvest has been a mixed one, of course. For every Frank McCourt or Mary Karr or Tobias Wolff, there seem to be a dozen score-settling memoirists, many of them less interested in understanding the past than sinking a hatchet into it. Now, however, another major contribution to the genre has appeared: James Salter's Burning the Days
. This splendid autobiography had its inception in 1986, when the author wrote a trial-balloon recollection for Esquire
, so he can hardly be accused of faddishness. But his book differs in another way from the current crop of memoirs, which often feature a forbidding gauntlet of familial or societal travails. Salter, contrarily, has led what many would consider a charmed life. Born an upper-middle-class "city child, pale, cared for, unaware," he attended West Point, served in the Korean War as a fighter pilot, and then seemingly ejected into a postwar period of undiluted glamour. To be sure, his early novels, such as The Hunters
, failed to make Salter a household word. Still, he ran with literary lions like Irwin Shaw, drifted into the film business during the 1950s, and spent the next couple of decades ping-ponging from New York to Paris to Rome to Aspen and back.
Salter puts the reader on notice from the very beginning that this will be a selective sort of recollection: "If you can think of life, for a moment, as a large house with a nursery, living and dining rooms, bedrooms, study, and so forth, all unfamiliar and bright, the chapters which follow are, in a way, like looking through the windows of this house.... At some windows you may wish to stay longer, but alas. As with any house, all within cannot be seen." What, then, are we privileged to see? Salter's airborne years account for perhaps a third of the book, and for this we should be grateful: no contemporary writer has made the experience more vivid or eerily palpable. There are brilliant evocations of New York, Rome, and Paris, some of which rival the virtuosic scene-painting in the author's A Sport and a Pastime. More to the point, there are human beings, who tend to get semi-apotheosized by the sheer elegance of Salter's prose. ("I do not worship gods but I like to know they are there," he notes in his preface--although his portrait of, say, Irwin Shaw does seem to be propped up on a private altar.)
Salter's lofty romanticism can sometimes turn to gush. These blemishes are far outweighed, however, by the general splendor of the prose, which alternates Proustian extravagance with Hemingway-inspired economy. And even when the book flirts with frivolity, there is always the undertow of loss, of leave-taking. Many of the things that Salter describes are gone. In addition, he claims to have despoiled whatever remains by the very act of writing about it: "To write of someone thoroughly is to destroy them, use them up.... Things are captured and at the same time drained of life, never to shimmer or give back light again." No doubt his assertion has a grain of truth to it, at least for the author himself. But his loss is the reader's gain: most of what Salter has captured in Burning the Days remains alive and, frequently, luminous. --James Marcus