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Burning the Days: Recollection

Burning the Days: Recollection

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by James Salter

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In this brilliant 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 unforgettably rendered here in the unique style for which James Salter is


In this brilliant 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 unforgettably 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. In some of the most evocative pages ever written about flying, 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.

Only once in a long while—Vladimir Nabokov's Speak, Memory or Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa—does a memoir of such extraordinary clarity and power appear. Unconventional in form, Burning the Days is a stunning achievement by the writer The Washington Post Book World said "inhabits the same rarefied heights as Flannery O'Connor, Paul Bowles, Tennessee Williams and John Cheever" —a rare and unforgettable book.

Editorial Reviews

Dwight Garner

James Salter's savvy, bittersweet new book is a happy reminder that the word memoir hasn't always been synonymous with "woozy self-revelation." Salter, author of the novels A Sport and a Pastime and Light Years, distills the essence of his life—his childhood in Manhattan, his years at West Point and in the Air Force, his days in Paris and Hollywood and Tokyo with friends like John Huston and Irwin Shaw—without massaging his own tortured ego. (He's the anti-Kathryn Harrison.) On the surface, in fact, Burning the Days is much more concerned with others Salter has known—a kaleidoscopic assortment of friends, lovers, heroes, villains—than it is with the author's own experience. "To remember only yourself," Salter writes, "is like worshipping a dust mote."

Salter is not a silky stylist. His prose lumbers, like an outsized cargo plane, into the air. But once you're in synch with his leisurely cadences, it begins to dawn on you what a remarkable book this is—a lovely and expertly crafted elegy for Paris, for youth, for flight, for food, for women, for life itself. As a kid, Salter was pampered—"I was a city child, pale, cared for, unaware," he writes—and he arrived at West Point both vain and "spoiled by poetry." After a rocky start, he fell in love not with the military, but with the sense of honor and duty it inculcated in him. Salter later flew fighter planes in Korea, and many of the book's most vivid passages evoke the joys and terrors of flying. ("It was a baptism," he writes about one particularly harrowing flight.) Burning the Days reads almost nothing like a typical writer's memoir: There isn't a lot of talk about Salter's own literary ambitions or his passionate urge to write. In fact, he devotes more space to his years in the film world—he wrote several screenplays and directed a film called Three in the early 1970s—and his friendships with men like Robert Redford and Roman Polanski.

By all accounts (except, perhaps, his own), Salter wasn't a bad-looking guy, and his abiding passion for women is one of the book's signal themes. "Nature is ravishing, but the women are in the cities," he says at one point, explaining his fondness for Paris and Rome. He recounts, in poetic detail, moments with many of his lovers—including, on film sets, notes from "the wives of leading men, bored and unattended to, that said in one way or another, Call me." There's also a wonderful moment when an Italian woman explains to Salter that Bologna is famous not merely for food but for fellatio: "All the various forms," she explains to him, "are called by the names of pasta," and she goes on to list several. ("Rigate" sounds like it might hurt.) Some readers may detect a whiff of sexism in Salter's old-fashioned brand of masculinity. The things he prizes—including "soundness of body" and "a beautiful wife"—can make him sound like a trophy collector. And you may find yourself wondering where Salter's own wife and children were during all of his gleeful tomcatting; they barely get a mention. But it's impossible to read Burning the Days without feeling the glow of a life vigorously lived. Salter's days weren't burned while he wasn't looking. He lit them himself.

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Members of a generation nearing its end are passing along memoirs that remind Americans how innocent life was before 1945, how grand immediately after. And Salter commands a position near the head of this class for his unfaltering skill as a writer and intuitive sensitivity as a chronicler of human relationships. Though he fought in Korea, not WWII, he describes the same postwar euphoria that existed when Americans felt beloved by the world. The bulk of this brilliant memoir recounts the 1940s, '50s and '60s, when Salter was a fighter pilot, then a novelist (Light Years) and writer of screenplays. Combat missions and military culture (Salter graduated from West Point) are described in detail, along with the exotic locales of his Air Force career: the American Midwest, Asia, North Africa. But it is Europe that still enthralls him, and the pages recounting his friendships there with 'performers whom the years had yet to deplume' (Irwin Shaw, Roman Polanski) are the most heartrending. Salter fans will recognize the theme of once mighty worlds decaying to insignificance. Everything in this book is colored with the sweet sadness of loss of friends, lovers and dreams. Salter writes about tragedy and regret with irresistible eloquence.
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 -- Charles C. Nash, Cottey College, Nevada, Missouri
Washington Post Book World
[Salter] inhabits the same rarefied heights as Flannery O'Connor, Paul Bowles, Tennessee Williams and John Cheever—a rare and unforgettable book.
Kirkus Reviews
Glimpses of a writer's past, given as though discreetly decanted. This memoir by the New York novelist (Solo Faces) and short-story writer feels more like a first-person elegy, with all the poignancy available to one who writes in advance of life's closing. A sadness, half-suppressed in the telling, flows through the pages. The tone is most persuasive whenever Salter's story itself takes melancholy turns—when, for instance, he writes of his editor-friend Ben Sonnenberg's decline from multiple sclerosis or when he alludes to his difficulties and failures as a writer. But at times the narrator seems to long to absent himself from the narrative, perhaps to escape the pain inherent in anyone's excavation of his past. At these times, lacking an integral structure, the writing loses momentum. And although the book is packed with characters—from Irwin Shaw to Robert Redford to scads of femmes fatales, portrayed with a courtly tact—it seems too often to depend on scenes and observations saturated with a rather dated literary perfume. The scent bears traces of Hemingway's literary stoicism and Fitzgerald's lyric delicacy. Many of the continental settings and scenes belong to Hemingway and Fitzgerald, too, especially those involving wartime (the West Point-educated Salter was a pilot) and Paris, where his reveries of wine, women, and belles lettres are generically familiar to a fault. Women are in general a weak point for Salter here, rarely seeming more than seductive ghosts. For instance, he writes condescendingly of Sharon Tate that 'if she was not a very good housekeeper, she was pure of heart and her flesh was a poem. One felt that she could be enjoyed in all the waysthat one can enjoy a woman.' Though almost too patrician to be true, the book includes descriptions and characterizations that demonstrate how good Salter can be when he dispenses with his courtly reserve. A connoisseur's view of himself and others.

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Vintage International Series
Edition description:
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Product dimensions:
5.16(w) x 8.03(h) x 0.81(d)

Read an Excerpt

Flying, like most things of consequence, is method. Though I did not know it then, I was behaving improperly. There were light-lines between cities in those days, like lights on an unseen highway, but much farther apart. By reading their flashed codes you could tell where you were, but I was not bothering with that. I turned south toward Reading. The sky was dark now. Far below, the earth was cooling, giving up the heat of the day. A mist had begun to form. In it the light-lines would fade away and also, almost shyly, the towns. I flew on.

It is a different world at night. The instruments become harder to read; details disappear from the map. After a while I tuned to the Reading frequency and managed to pick up its signal. I had no radio compass, but there was a way of determining, by flying a certain sequence of headings, where in a surrounding quadrant you were. Then, if the signal slowly increased in strength, you were in-bound toward the station. If not and you had to turn up the volume to continue hearing it, you were going away. It was primitive, but it worked.

When the time came, I waited to see if I had passed or was still approaching Reading. The minutes went by. At first I couldn't detect a change, but then the signal seemed to grow weaker. I turned north and flew, watching the clock. Something was wrong, something serious: The signal didn't change. I was lost—not only literally, but in relation to reality. Meanwhile the wind, unseen, fateful, was forcing me farther north.

Among the stars, one was moving. The lights of another plane, perhaps one from the squadron. In any case, wherever it was headed there would be a field. I pushed up the throttle. As I drew closer, on an angle, I began to make out what it was—an airliner, a DC-3. It might be going to St. Louis or Chicago. I had already been flying for what seemed like hours and had begun, weakhearted, a repeated checking of fuel. The gauges were on the floor, one on each side of the seat. I tried not to think of them, but they were like a wound; I could not keep myself from glancing down.

Slowly, the airliner and its lights became more distant. I couldn't keep up with it. I turned northeast, the general direction of home. I had been scribbling illegibly on the page of memory, which way I had gone and for how long. I now had no idea where I was. The occasional lights on the ground of unknown towns, lights blurred and yellowish, meant nothing. Allentown, which should have been somewhere, never appeared. There was a terrible temptation to abandon everything, to give up, as with a hopeless puzzle. I was reciting "Invictus" to myself, "I am the master of my fate . . ." It availed nothing. I had the greatest difficulty not praying, and finally I did, flying in the noisy darkness, desperate for the sight of a city or anything that would give me my position.

In the map case of the airplane was a booklet, What to Do If Lost, and, suddenly remembering, I got it out and with my flashlight began to read. There was a list of half a dozen steps to take in order. My eye skidded down it. The first ones, I had already tried. Others, like tuning in any radio range and orienting yourself on it, I had given up on. Something was wrong with that; it wasn't working. I managed to get the signal from Stewart Field but didn't take up the prescribed heading. I could tell from its faintness—it was indistinct in a thicket of other sounds—that I was far away, and I had lost faith in the procedure. The final advice seemed more practical. If you think you are to the west of Stewart, it said, head east until you come to the Hudson River and then fly north or south; you will eventually come to New York or Albany.

It was past eleven, the sky dense with stars, the earth a void. I had turned east. The dimly lit fuel gauges read twenty-five gallons or so in each wing. The idea slowly growing, of opening the canopy and struggling into the wind, over the side into blackness, tumbling, parachuting down, was not as unthinkable as that of giving the airplane itself up to destruction. I would be washed out, I knew. The anguish was unbearable. I had been flying east for ten minutes, but it seemed like hours. Occasionally, I made out the paltry lights of some small town or group of houses, barely distinguishable, but otherwise nothing. The cities had vanished, sunken to darkness. I looked down again. Twenty gallons.

Suddenly off to the left there was a glimmer that became—I was just able to make it out—a faint string of lights, and then slowly, magically, two parallel lines. It was the bridge at Poughkeepsie. Dazed with relief, I tried to pick out its dark lines and those of the river, turning to keep it in sight, going lower and lower. Then, in the way that all things certain had changed that night, the bridge changed too. At about a thousand feet above them, stricken, I saw I was looking at the streetlights of some town.

The gauges read fifteen gallons. One thing that should never be done—it had been repeated to us often—was to attempt a forced landing at night. But I had no choice. I began to circle, able in the mist to see clearly only what was just beneath. The town was at the edge of some hills; I banked away from them in the blackness. If I went too far from the brightly lit, abandoned main street, I lost my bearings. Dropping even lower, I saw dark roofs everywhere and, amid them, unexpectedly, a blank area like a lake or small park. I had passed it quickly, turned, and lost it. Finally, lower still, I saw it again. It was not big, but there was nothing else. I ducked my head for a moment to look down—the number beneath each index line was wavering slightly: ten gallons; perhaps twelve.

The rule for any strange field was to first fly across at minimum altitude to examine the surface. I was not even sure it was a field; it might be water or a patch of woods. If a park, it might have buildings or fences. I turned onto a downwind leg or what I judged to be one, then a base leg, letting down over swiftly enlarging roofs. I had the canopy open to cut reflection, the ghostly duplication of instruments, the red warning lights. I stared ahead through the wind and noise. I was at a hundred feet or so, flaps down, still descending.

In front, coming fast, was my field. On a panel near my knee were the landing—light switches with balled tips to make them identifiable by feel. I reached for them blindly. The instant the lights came on I knew I'd made a mistake. They blazed like searchlights in the mist; I could see more without them, but the ground was twenty feet beneath me, I was at minimum speed, and dared not bend to turn them off. Something went by on the left. Trees, in the middle of the park. I had barely missed them. No landing here. A moment later, at the far end, more trees. They were higher than I was, and without speed to climb, I banked to get through them. I heard foliage slap the wings as just ahead, shielded, a second rank of trees rose up. There was no time to do anything. Something large struck a wing. It tore away. The plane careened up. It stood poised for an endless moment, one landing light flooding a house, into which, an instant later, it crashed.

Nothing has vanished, not even the stunned first seconds of silence, the torn leaves drifting down. Reflexively, as a slain man might bewilderedly shut a door, I reached to turn off the ignition. I was badly injured, though in what way I did not know. There was no pain. My legs, I realized. I tried to move them. Nothing seemed wrong. My front teeth were loose; I could feel them move as I breathed. In absolute quiet I sat for a few moments, almost at a loss as to what to do, then unbuckled the harness and stepped from the cockpit onto what had been the front porch. The nose of the plane was in the wreckage of a room. The severed wing lay back in the street.

The house, it turned out, belonged to a family that was welcoming home a son who had been a prisoner of war in Germany. They were having a party and had taken the startling noise of the plane as it passed low over town many times to be some sort of military salute and, though it was nearly midnight, had all gone into the street to have a look. I had come in like a meteorite over their heads. The town was Great Barrington. I had to be shown where it was on a map, in Massachusetts, miles to the north and east.

That night I slept in the mayor's house, in a feather bed. I say slept, but in fact I hung endlessly in the tilted darkness, the landing light pouring down at the large frame house. The wing came off countless times. I turned over in bed and began again.

What People are Saying About This

Michael Ondaatje
A wise and sensual memoir…you can not put it down.
—(Michael Ondaatje)

Meet the Author

James Salter is the author of A Sport and a Pastime (now in Modern Library), Light Years, The Hunters, Solo Faces, and Dusk and Other Stories, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1988. He lives in Colorado and Long Island.

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Burning the Days: Recollection 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was the book the proved Salter go do more than write great fiction. Burning the Days is a wonderful collection, a memoir that reads like one great story. You get a glimpse of his life as a young boy, his days at West Point, his years in the service, his decision to abandon his life and become a writer. Remarkable writing, a must for any fan of Salter.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Sierra smiled slyly as she tiptoed into the room. She watched Preston sleep then slowly crawled into bed. "Boo" she whispered into his ear
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Shivers go down his spine as he presses against her, gently pushed his fat d..k towards her p...y
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Me too