Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 12 Jul 2018

Burning the Days by James Salter

It was John Dos Passos, I think, who said that Hemingway only really became insufferable on the occasions that he strapped on the white whiskers and pontificated – Papa Hemingway, giving people the low-down on whatever was under discussion, proving that he knew not just the most, but the truth. I’m sorry to say that there is an element of this about James Salter’s extraordinary memoir, Burning the Days.

Salter died in 2015 aged 90 and was without doubt a somewhat Hemingwayesque figure. A writer (novels, short stories, this memoir, film scripts), working on the fringes of Hollywood and the film industry, something of a womaniser, an expatriate (he lived in Paris and moved in its literary, society and bohemian circles during the 1950s and 60s), but most of all a warrior, a decorated fighter pilot who saw active service during the Korean war.

Burning the Days was published in 1997 and at over 350-pages is a substantial book. Salter terms it a ‘recollection’ rather than a memoir and I think the distinction is important, for his method is not to offer a chronological or realistically detailed account of his life. His primary interest (he says) is the lyrical, the ‘exalted’, and this is an intense and poetic book, the surface of its prose gleamingly beautiful and fleetly impressionistic, its large cast of characters and incident sketched in with great economy and compression. The ghosts of his stylistic heroes loom large: Hemingway’s concision and ‘grace under pressure’; Saint-Exupéry’s oblique, philosophising lyricism; something of an existential indebtedness to Camus; and something too of Joan Didion’s affectless, weary analysis of the wealth and luxury of the film industry. It is a book that from the very first page lets you know that you are in the presence of a master prose stylist – and frankly, that is part of the problem.

For as is often the way with books of this type, it is not always abundantly clear when or who or what Salter is writing about. Sometimes this scarcely matters. But at other times it can be infuriating.

The book is dominated by four broad subjects: his life in the US air force and combat flying; his transition to writing and early struggles to get published; his personal life and relationships; and his expatriate life in Paris and elsewhere in the Mediterranean and the ‘forgotten kings’ of the 50s and 60s literary and film world.

Some of the finest writing is in the earlier parts of the book, and especially about flying, the rigours of combat, the particular maleness of military life and reflections of the enduring values that have guided his life and his view of others – bravery, honour, stoicism, integrity. For my money some of the least interesting writing – and where the book sags somewhat – concerns life in the film industry, especially the scripts that never made it to the screen, and the once heroic but now largely forgotten giants of 50s and 60s screen-writing.

Like Hemingway, Salter’s real subject is how to live – and one must necessarily add, as a man. Your patience with this will depend to a great degree on your attitude. (Indeed, one may just as well say that if you have no patience with or liking for Hemingway, it is unlikely that you will for Salter.)

Salter is a marvellous writer on sensuality and the opulence of perception but ultimately his desire for the exalted, for the lyrical, weaken the book. It has more than an occasional whiff of self-regard. His prose may provide much to marvel at but paradoxically not always a great deal one can warm to. And nor did I warm to Salter himself – and I think that’s it in a nutshell, really: I enjoyed Burning the Days less on second reading because I found less to like about James Salter.

Thankfully, after a period of great neglect, all of Salter’s work now seems to be available in paperback and so you can make your own mind up about his work at no great expense.


Alun Severn

July 2018