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Burning the Days: Recollection by James…
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Burning the Days: Recollection

by James Salter

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I recently reviewed the books I read last year. Some great stuff, but also too much “bookish junk food”. I’m committed to reading better this year.

Some time ago I was wandering through a used bookstore in Manchester by the Sea and stumbled across Burning the Days, the memoir of the writer James Salter. The well known book reviewer Michael Dirda of the Washington Post famously wrote “he can, when he wants, break your heart with a sentence.”. I opened the book to a random page, and found:

I cannot think of it without sadness. I think of the day-long, intimate hours in her apartment with the same record playing over and over, phrases from it like some sort of oath I will know til the day I die.

OK it’s two sentences. Salter is an amazing writer, and behind that lies a fascinating, complex, insightful man. Burning the Days tells the story of his life, from the early days of learning about sex through to his early 70’s. The transience of all things is lurking on every page, but the book rings out with its joys as well.

In youth it feels one’s concerns are everyone’s. Later on it is the clear that they are not. Finally they again become the same. We are all poor in the end. The lines have been spoken. The stage is empty and bare.

Before that, however is the performance. The curtain rises.


His description of becoming aware of sex is priceless. After a friend tells him stories, this:

Months later one noon, looking through the magazines in a cigar store, I came across a pamphlet with blue covers. Some had placed it there, concealed behind a magazine; it was not part of the stock. The provocative title I have forgotten, but as I began to read I underwent a conversion. …fairly trembling with discovery, like someone who has found a secret letter, I hid the precious thing. I was going to try certain things, and all that I had read, in time, I found to be true.

Years afterwards, at a luncheon, I sat next to a green-eyed young woman, a poet, who declared loftily that you learned nothing from books, it was life you learned from, passion, experience. The host, a fine old man in seventies, heard her and disagreed. His hair was white. His voice that the faint shrillness of age. “No, everything I’ve ever learned,”, he said, “has come from books. I’d be in the darkness without them.”

I didn’t know if he was speaking of Balzac or Strindberg…. but in no particular order I tried to think of books that had instructed me, and among them, not insignificant, was the anonymous twenty page booklet in blue covers that described the real game of the grownup world.


At The Hawaii Project, we often say Books Change Lives. And they do.

His time at West Point was equally formative.

The most urgent thing was to somehow fit in, to become unnoticed, the same. My father had managed to do it, although, seeing what it was like, I did not understand how.

During his studies at West Point, a number of books figure prominently. But one book changed his life.

There was one with the title Der Kompaniechef, the company commander. This youthful but experienced figure was nothing less than a living example to each of his men. Alone, half obscured by those he commanded, similar to them but without their faults, self-disciplined, modest, cheerful, he was at the same time both master and servant, each of admirable character. His real authority was not based on shoulder straps or rank but on a model life which granted the right to demand anything from others.

An officer, wrote Dumas, is like a father with greater responsibilities than an ordinary father. The food his men ate, he ate, and only when the last of them slept, exhausted, did he go to sleep himself. His privilege lay in being given these obligations and a harder duty than any of the rest.

The company commander was someone whom difficulties could not dishearten, privation could not crush. It was not his strength that was unbreakable but something deeper, his spirit. He must not only have his men obey, they must do it when they are absolutely worn out and quarreling among themselves, when they are at the end of their rope and another senseless order comes down from above.

He could be severe but only when it was needed and then briefly. It had to be just, it had to wash things clean like a sudden, fierce storm...

I knew this hypothetical figure. I had seen him as a schoolboy, latent among the sixth formers, and at times had caught a glimpse of him at West Point. Stroke by stroke, the description of him was like a portrait emerging. I was almost afraid to recognize the face. In it was no self-importance; that had been thrown away, we are beyond that, stripped of it. When I read that among the desired traits of the leader was a sense of humor that marked a balanced and indomitable outlook, when I realized that every quality was one in which I instinctively had faith, I felt an overwhelming happiness, like seeing a card you cannot believe you are lucky enough to have drawn, at this moment, in this game.

I did not dare to believe it but I imagined, I thought, I somehow dreamed, the face was my own.

I began to change, not what I truly was, but what I seemed to be. Dissatisfied, eager to become better, I shed as if they were old clothes the laziness and rebellion of the first year and began anew.


To the anonymous poet mentioned above: yes, Books Change Lives. If they are good enough, and if we let them. On my reading, I was struck by how much this fictional company commander resembles the Leonidas of Gates of Fire, by Steven Pressfield, of which I’ve written elsewhere.

The first phase of Salter’s life is military, eventually becoming a pilot, and Burning the Days chronicles that life in ways that are by turns comical, heartwarming, and searing. This phase of his life leads to his first novel The Hunters, and flying the Korean War, and his true tales from that time open a window into the military experience few books can match.

The success of The Hunters eventually drives him to leave the Army and write full time. He discovers Paris. This leads him to write A Sport and A Pastime, an erotic chronicle of Paris, with an unreliable narrator. He goes into movies, writing screenplays for a number of films, most of them unsuccessful (I’ve recently become aware of how many writers of that era put food on the table by writing screenplays — Steven Pressfield is another). His stories of the movies, the stars, and set locations are thought provoking as well as interesting.

And always, there are the books. The books he’s writing, the books he’s reading — I’ve picked up 3 or 4 books other than his own, that meant something to him.

What a fascinating man and life. A fighter pilot, a man’s man, a serial womanizer it seems, and yet deeply introspective and caring. An aesthete, intimately aware of the transient nature of all things. Burning the Days is simultaneously elegiac and joyful, and will give you insightful perspective on life. ( )
  viking2917 | Jan 9, 2017 |
James Salter calls his memoir a "recollection" as it is more a collection of scenes and episodes selected from throughout his life than it is a typical memoir. Published in 1997 when he was a youthful seventy-two it includes some fascinating vignettes of youth, middle age and beyond, all told with his signature narrative style that is both precise and beautiful.
Several of these episodes were particularly memorable in my reading. He grew up in New York City. But he tells of an unexpected sojourn at West point early in the recollections. As a young boy he had a poetic bent and he had been accepted at Stanford, looking forward to heading west. His father who had graduated from West Point had arranged a second alternate's appointment for him and, improbably, both appointees ahead of him were unable to attend so he received notification that he had been admitted. He comments, "Seventeen, vain, and spoiled by poems, I prepared to enter a remote West Point. I would succeed there, it was hoped, as he had." His four years at West Point were difficult and he is honest about his difficulties, but he gradually found his true self and upon graduation in 1945 he would enter the Army Air Corps which he would call home for a dozen years, becoming a fighter pilot. His experience as a pilot would provide material for his first novel, The Hunters.

Salter displays an earnestness and life in his telling is a serious undertaking, a gesture toward glory and immortality through love and a kind of private ethics revealed in the large and small choices that add up to tell a story. He excels as a writer with a devotional purpose, though not religious in a modern sense. Instead, there are ancient, perhaps unspoken, tests to pass. Salter was a cadet at West Point and an Air Force fighter pilot during the Korean War, and in his prose about flying, we see his guiding assumptions:
"It was among the knowledgeable others that one hoped to be talked about and admired. It was not impossible—the world of squadrons is small. The years would bow to you; you would be remembered, your name like a thoroughbred’s, a horse that ran and won."
Pilots were the elegant gladiators of the twentieth century, their battles were distilled examinations of mettle and will. Some of these pilots, friends of Salter, became astronauts later in their careers. Two of these friends, Virgil Grissom and Edward White were killed on the launching pad at Cape Canaveral in 1967.

He jumps ahead to other moments in his life, writing having become his profession following the service career. Salter has written about fighter pilots and mountain climbers but also about poets and novelists, notably in two fine short-story collections, Dusk and Last Night. He was officially credited with eight screenplays according to the Internet Movie Database, only one from his novels (The Hunters) and one other that stands out and is highlighted in his recollections, Downhill Racer, a film from 1969 based on Oakley Hall's novel and starring Robert Redford. Only a few pages are devoted to this episode but it is a fascinating one about a beautiful life, dining with the Redfords, and discussing his idea of writing a film that would be about something which he described simply as "the justice of sport." And he includes a few moments about his most famous novel, A Sport and a Pastime, choosing to comment on the passage from the Qu'ran that provided the title for that book.
I would compare this memoir to some of the best I have read, Vladimir Nabokov's Speak, Memory and Gregor von Rezzori's The Snows of Yesteryear come to mind. James Salter's achievements have been compared to those of Flannery O'Connor, Paul Bowles, Tennessee Williams and John Cheever by Michael Dirda, book critic for The Washington Post. This is an opinion that I share as I recommend his work to fellow readers.
Salter has written about fighter pilots and mountain climbers but also about poets and novelists, notably in two fine short-story collections, Dusk and Last Night. ( )
1 vote jwhenderson | Dec 6, 2013 |
I think I would only have enjoyed this more if James Salter had read it to me. His writing; his way with words is intoxicating! In reality, Salter could have written separate two books about his life. The first being about his time serving in the Air Force as a pilot. His descriptions of war are frightening and exhilarating all at once. The second book could have covered the time in his life as a New York writer. As an accomplished writer his world was opened up to film deals and movie stars. Again, terrifying and exciting all at once. Both are fast paced lives but so very different! The second section seems to be a who's who in the entertainment industry. Salter makes coy references to the passions he shared with lots of women, "We sat on the couch and studied. The vocabulary was not that of school" (p 245). Salter could have written a third about his friendship with Irwin Shaw. You could tell from the tenderness in Salter's words that he truly enjoyed Shaw's company. ( )
  SeriousGrace | Aug 14, 2013 |
If you haven't read him, please try to....one of the great undervalued American writers. ( )
  sjohnsonauthor | Jan 3, 2009 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0394759486, Paperback)

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

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 17:58:33 -0400)

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In this 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 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. 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.… (more)

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