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Burning the Days: Recollection Paperback – September 29, 1998

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

A "writer's writer," despite his Sport and a Pastime's inclusion in the Modern Library, the 72-year-old Salter uses his autobiography not to bathe in the glow of celebrity names (in fact, he makes a point of using noms de plume) but, rather, to discover the overall trajectory of his life thus far?a purpose that perhaps accounts for the book's unwavering tone of humility, candor, and authenticity. A graduate of West Point, where he experienced an emotional about-face from rebellious would-be drop-out to a young man eager to be tested in combat, Salter was trained as a fighter pilot in the mid-1940s but saw combat against the scary Russian MIG-15s in Korea in the early 1950s. Throughout, his writing style?tight, lyrical, and insightful?calls attention to itself. This is a writer's textbook, a sheer pleasure, and the descriptions of flying are perhaps the most vivid yet written. After leaving the Air Force (there are no old jet fighter pilots), Salter gravitated to Europe for its older and more resonant culture. There he met the failing Irwin Shaw and wrote film scripts before graduating to fiction (e.g., Dusk and Other Stories, LJ 1/88). The flavors of four decades are here. Highly recommended for all libraries.?Charles C. Nash, Cottey Coll., Nevada, Mo.
Copyright 1997 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 387 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage (September 29, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0394759486
  • ISBN-13: 978-0394759487
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.8 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (69 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #80,476 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

James Salter (b. 1925) was a novelist, short story writer, and screenwriter. Salter grew up in New York City and was a career officer and Air Force pilot until his mid-thirties, when the success of his first novel (The Hunters, 1957) led to a fulltime writing career. Salter's potent, lyrical prose has earned him acclaim from critics, readers, and fellow novelists. His novel A Sport and a Pastime (1967) was hailed by the New York Times as "nearly perfect as any American fiction."

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
A colleague got me reading novels again after a long period by recommending "The Hunters." Not long afterward, I was reading "Solo Faces," stunned in both cases by Salter's crystal clear prose and the wrestling with themes of personal integrity. It has taken me a while to get round to his memoir "Burning the Days," which I found myself gulping down in two days and one long night of a holiday weekend. It has been a revelation.

Salter's novels are case studies of what I'd call male mythology. The heroes of "Hunters" and "Solo Faces" seem trapped in hyper gender roles, testing always both a kind of grace under pressure and an ability to endure physical and psychological extremes. "Burning the Days" turns out to be a celebration of those values, where to be a man is to embark on a long, lonely journey of proving that one is both like and better than other men.

The book is his own story of emerging from a fairly nondescript youth in New York to the life-transforming experience of West Point and a career as a pilot, along with the getting of a kind of worldly wisdom during times spent in Europe, especially Paris. His life as a writer introduces him to literary circles in New York and abroad and an international community of filmmakers and film stars.

Through it all, Salter focuses often on the men around him who earn his respect. He marvels at the particular integrity that makes each of them admirable. He elevates each of them into a kind of pantheon, and when all is said and done, he hopes that his own life warrants him a place among them. By contrast, the women who pass through his life are remarked upon for their beauty and intelligence, but beyond that they are walk-ons in this book about men.
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Format: Paperback
I find it amusing to see how some people take this man's extraordinary lyrical gift for granted - as if prose poets of his caliber could be found in any issue of People magazine. Let's be clear about this: there is *no one* making more beautiful music with the magnificent instrument of the English language than James Salter. If this book were nothing more than a factual recounting of his life story, it would still be a greatly rewarding reading experience.
It is, in fact, a great deal more than that. Like Casanova's immortal memoir, this is the work of an old man looking back on the dazzling life he relished but which has vanished forever. As such, a funereal darkness lurks behind every sunlit memory, an abyss of ruin underneath every bejewelled sentence. There is a sad wisdom in these pages that makes "Burning the Days" a timeless classic, belonging to no one generation but to all.
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I love Salter's fiction. After reading "Burning the Days", his autobiography (memoirs if your prefer), I'm not sure that I like the man - but the book review should have nothing to do with that personal opinion.

Salter's writing style is unusual. The syntax often makes one stop and reconstruct, thus stop and think. On rare occasions it's nonsensical. I particularly was annoyed with the confusion of general pronouns among mixed proper pronouns, the result being that I couldn't figure out who he was talking about. That said, his use of the language is superb. It's there in all of his work. And he's a wonderful "observer and describer" of people and things.

His life story is, of course, fascinating. Raised in privilege in NYC. West Point. Combat jet fighter pilot. Author. Director. Screeenwriter. Literary socialite. World traveler.

His singularly candid recounting of his years at West Point was excellent in quality and style. He gives West Point to us warts and all. And his internal struggles. Loathing it, living it, finally loving it.

The tales of flight are absolutely riveting. Nobody does it better. True storytelling that sometimes touches your heart, and sometimes raises your heartrate with the tension. In reading these memoirs I found that as I had suspected, his first novel, "The Hunters", was largely autobiographical. For me, this only adds to the greatness of that work.

The writing years seemed to be a little slower reading. At least for me. And I can't decide whether Salter was indulging in a little "name dropping". In any case, he travels in high company. He is loyal to and generous to his friends. Plenty of saucy tales, no vulgarity. Well done.

I do not share his love for Paris. Salter breathes it.
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Format: Paperback
You either burn the days or you're burned by them, I suppose--although at some point the wood becomes the fire, the fire the wood, and attempting a distinction is futile. That futility might be what we mean by aging, if we're lucky.

James Salter certainly has burned through his days, as this oddly structured, intensely lyrical memoir demonstrates. He's best known (properly) as the author of two of my favorite post-war novels--A Sport and a Pastime and Light Years. He wrote the screenplay for the icy, piercing Downhill Racer, one of Robert Redford's best films. Before becoming a writer, he graduated West Point and fought in the Korean War as an Air Force fighter pilot.

Also, to his credit, he embraced the post-war possibilities open to an American man: see (and rule) the world; educate yourself as a world citizen; help re-construct, if only by your love, Western Europe; and never cease to admire our country's incomparable landscapes and coincident opportunities.

By all appearances, Salter has known power--been close to it--but never allowed that closeness to ruin him as an artist. He evokes the circles of power, the famous faces, with their fantastic, distorted personalities, with intriguing delicacy. He's also had the good sense to fall in love a few times. Anyone who has picked up A Sport and a Pastime already knows how precisely, how lethally he records the burning choreography of love.
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