Burning the Days: Recollection
by James Salter
“Sometimes you are aware when your great moments are happening, and sometimes they rise from the past. Perhaps it's the same with people.” ― James Salter, Burning the Days: Recollection
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.
There are many such moments in this memoir including portraits of writers like John Cheever and Irwin Shaw, the latter a good friend to Salter; also film directors like Roman Polanski in addition to Redford. The culmination of these moments suggest a life that illuminates the meaning of becoming a humane person through a life of creativity.
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.
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