When I belatedly discovered James Salter last year, I adored his novel Light Years so much that I knew not only that I would have to read everything he’s written, but that I had to take my time doing so. His output, in 82 years and counting, comprises just five novels, two collections of stories and a memoir. Fortunately in the UK most of these books were reissued last year, with his most recent (if that’s the term: it was published in 1979) novel Solo Faces to be reissued as a Penguin Modern Classic later this year. Just his second novel Cassada and his first story collection Dusk are out of print. Anyway, I’ve restrained myself for almost a year now, so time to indulge with his memoir, Burning the Days (1997), shown here in the typically uninspiring cover of the 2007 Picador reissue. (I much prefer the more colourful US cover.)
My original intention was to read all Salter’s fiction before Burning the Days, as I knew he would have a lot to say about his work within these pages. I was wrong: of the six books he had published when this was written, only A Sport and a Pastime and Light Years are referred to more than once. A couple aren’t mentioned by name at all, including his fine debut The Hunters. So in the end I am pleased I read this book now: it avoids building up yet further expectation in my mind, and therefore being even more disappointed by it than I was.
The problem is that despite Salter having had an interesting life by anyone’s standards – privileged upbringing, fighter pilot, screenwriter, ‘interesting’ relationships – the book to me was for the majority frankly dull. Most of the first half, outside his childhood, is taken up with his time as a pilot, which for my money is far more interestingly covered in his autobiographical novel The Hunters. But this is a book of recall – its subtitle is Recollection – and Salter says that Light Years was inspired by Jean Renoir’s “The only things that are important in life are those you remember.” So he writes well about the cruel selectiveness of memory.
Families of no importance – so much is lost, entire histories, there is no room for it all. There are only the generations surging forward like the tide, the years filled with sound and froth, then being washed over by the rest. That is the legacy of the cities.
Or here, when meeting his old teacher. There’s no suggestion in the book that Salter has lost his way with language:
I meant him to see that his faith in me had been confirmed, but I am not sure what he saw – his smile was one of not quite remembering. His children had replaced me and life now crowded in. As if the school years had been a vine and something cut them and they fell.
In the second half, after too much flightiness, we’re back to earth, with some memories of writers such as Irwin Shaw (er, which one was he again?) and Hemingway. Nonetheless I keep wanting him to get to his own books: is it unnatural for me to want a writer’s memoir to be more or less a director’s commentary on each of his works? But they come only in a fifty-page burst at the end which almost justifies – or at least is cause for forgiveness of – everything that went before. Perhaps Salter sees his novels as only a small aspect of his life (he certainly hasn’t spent the majority of his time writing them). But at the same time he’s primarily known for being a novelist, isn’t he? And “there is your life as you know it and also as others know it, perhaps incorrectly, but to which some importance must be attached. It is difficult to realize that you are observed from a number of points and the sum of them has validity.”
Another area where Salter hasn’t lost his touch, or at least his habit, is in his love of female sexuality, which he tempered to mostly successful ends in A Sport and a Pastime and Light Years. The matched sensations of physical arousal and existential yearning were well evoked in those books (particularly in Viri’s affair with Kaya Doutreau in Light Years), and here he gives us, for example, a portrait of John Huston’s mistress which you can practically taste.
Ilena may have been her name or it may have been the name she simply wore like a silk dressing gown one longed to peel back. Warmth came off her in waves. She was twenty-three years old and weighed sixty-two kilos, the absence of any part of which would have been a grave loss. … It was lovely to watch her. Her legs, the silk of her print dress, the smoothness of her cheeks, all of it shone like constellations, the sort that rule one’s fate.
Salter’s – one thing I learned is that that’s not his real name: he’s Horowitz – great subject is success; other writers prefer failure. He says, “Sometimes you are aware when your great moments are happening, and sometimes they rise from the past.” The horrible conclusion for me from Burning the Days – published in 1997 when he was 72 – so far is that as a writer, Salter’s great moments may be behind him. Which is not to make those moments any less great.
What more is there to wish than to be remembered? To go on living in the narrative of others?