James Salter: Burning the Days

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.)

Burning the Days (UK) Burning the Days (US)

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?


  1. Couldn’t agree less about this one. It was only the second Salter book I read, after A Sport and a Pastime (it was in the old Harvill paperback edition, incidentally, which had a better cover than either of the two above) and it was the one that convinced me that Salter was a great writer. I love the fact that it so impressionistic, rather than just a straight narration of a man’s life – “I did this, then the next year I did this..” It’s almost a poetic meditation on what it has meant to him to be alive in the mid-20th century, gorgeously written as all his work is: I really don’t mind that it says little about his novels, it’s so perfectly written it’s almost a novel in itself. By far my favourite autobiography by anyone, alive or dead.

  2. Ah, I thought you might say that, Howard! I can’t really disagree with the details of anything you say, so all I can suggest is that my expectations must have been way off-beam. I certainly wanted to like it as much as you did.

  3. Irwin Shaw — “Rich Man, Poor Man.” I read these when I was a pre-teen and developed a crush on Tom Jordache, especially after watching the mini-series which was a huge hit here in the U.S.

    I’m boycotting memoirs for the moment, but I do think I might try “Light Years” one of these days.

  4. Before becoming associated with blockbusters like “Rich Man, Poor Man”, which probably cost him some critical esteem, Irwin Shaw was a highly regarded writer of ambitious novels like “The Young Lions” (Hemingway called him, somewhat disparagingly, “the Brooklyn Tolstoy”, but then Hemingway didn’t think much of any of his contemporaries) and also an excellent short story writer. His collection “Short Stories: Five Decades” is well worth seeking out, full of good things: his story “The Girls in their Summer Dresses”, which often appears in anthologies, is one of the best known.

    Shaw seems to have been a fascinating, larger than life character. He is also talked about at some length in a memoir by another American writer of the same generation as Salter, Peter Viertel, the author of “White Hunter Black Heart”. His autobiography “Dangerous Friends” (also well worth seeking out) is mainly about his friendships with Hemingway and with John Huston, but also with Orson Welles and Irwin Shaw. Oddly, though both Salter and Viertel claim in their memoirs to have been close friends of Shaw, neither mention each other.

    I must admit I love these so-called “second-rank” American writers – apart from Salter and Shaw, I’m thinking of Paul Bowles, William Maxwell, Richard Yates – who rarely had the attention of the Fitzgeralds, the Faulkners, the Bellows, the Updikes, but who all wrote wonderful things which will be constantly rediscovered.

    Incidentally, has anyone out there ever seen “Three”, the only film both scripted and directed by Salter (from a short story by Irwin Shaw, as it happens)? It seems to be a very obscure item, never shown on TV, despite starring the young Charlotte Rampling (about whom Salter says some nasty things in his autobiography, though omitting to name her).

  5. Terrific, thanks for all this background Howard. I recall that Salter mentioned ‘The Girls in their Summer Dresses’ in Burning the Days, and his portrayal of Shaw is warm and affectionate.

    I didn’t realise Salter was talking about Charlotte Rampling re Three (which I also haven’t seen – but then I hadn’t heard of it until last week…). But I did look up The Appointment to see who the director was he referred to: Sidney Lumet, as it turns out.

    I’ve read some William Maxwell, and enjoyed him but never with the same pleasure as I get from Yates (or indeed Salter, other than here). In fact thinking of it, I’ve read most of his novels – Time Will Darken It, The Folded Leaf, So Long See You Tomorrow, They Came Like Swallows – which suggests (a) I must have liked each one enough to read another, but (b) I can’t actually remember much about any of them. I also have his collected stories All the Days and Nights and another novel The Chateau, all in handsome Harvill editions, so maybe I will try those soon.

    As for Bowles, I’ve read The Sheltering Sky but again it has left no impression on me, even of whether I enjoyed it or not. Did he write anything else?

  6. I’d suggest both Maxwell’s “So Long See You Tomorrow” and Bowles’ “The Sheltering Sky” are well worth a second look, John. Both made a big impression on me when I read them, a long time ago.

    Bowles wrote three other novels besides “The Sheltering Sky”, one of which, “Let It Come Down”, I’ve read and liked, and another, “The Spider’s House”, I have on my shelves but haven’t read yet. He also wrote short stories, which are highly regarded but I haven’t read.

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