Some men live like heroes. James Horowitz did school at West Point, flew fighter jets in the Korean War, wrote screenplays for Hollywood, skied in Aspen, loved in Paris, and knew film stars as friends. He wrote novels as James Salter that ached with sex and loss. Burning the Days is his autobiography.
Americans who write about books for a living call Salter a great prose stylist, a literary giant, a master. Whether you agree depends on your tolerance for misty poetics and heartfelt vagueness. Here’s a slice of prose:
‘A woman, burnished by the sun, walks down the street in early morning carrying an eel. Many times I have written of this eel, smooth and dying, dark with the mystery of shadowy banks and, on that particular day, covered with bits of gravel. The eel is a saint to me, oblivious, already in another world.’
If that makes your heart throb then this is the book for you. Those already frowning should steer clear.
Burning the Days is the kind of autobiography where events emerge from a fog then withdraw before anything is clear. High above, figures do a moment in a lit window and vanish into darkness. You’ll find out more about Salter’s actual life from his Wikipedia page than this book.
Raw fact is not Salter’s currency and was never meant to be. He does regretful looking back in which everything-is-significant. Accounts of doomed fighter pilots who ejected too late or flipped on ice or burned to death in Apollo capsules are full of genuine loss. There’s real tenderness in portraits of the women, all young and beautiful or old and once beautiful, who cross his life in Paris, New York, Honolulu as lovers or friends.
‘As for Sharon, she remains for me a kind of Hera, the emblem of marriage. If she was not a very good housekeeper, she was pure of heart and her flesh a poem. One felt she could be enjoyed in all the ways that one can enjoy a woman, looking at her, talking, touching, as well as other ways.’
I read Burning the Days in a week’s strap-hanging on bad Polish roads, enjoyed it, and have no desire to read it ever again. It still hooks in the memory. I keep thinking of Salter’s never completed film about everyday New Yorkers living and loving, with a narration from Roman writers describing the downfall of their decadent civilisation. And a planned film about Nazi satrap Reinhard Heydrich … starring Dennis Hopper.
You’ll already know if you want to read this book. Salter’s an artist of a particular kind. You might like him.
BURNING THE DAYS/ James Salter/ Random House/ 1997
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