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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1860

In an era rife with memoirs and autobiographies, James Salter’s Burning the Days stands out for its elegance, sensuality, and style. Although described, on the title page, as “Recollection,” the book is as carefully shaped as any piece of recent fiction. It evokes, in its precision and in the sensibility that informs every page, not so much a personal life as a way of approaching life and a way of describing experience that characterizes an era of literary style and apprehension long since gone.

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Salter, the author of six works of fiction published over a writing life of more than forty years, spent his earliest adult years as a fighter pilot. Maturing in a period when flying still held a high magic that was somehow connected to the romantic dreams of writers and when the spirit of the French aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry hovered in the atmosphere, Salter crafted a prose style that would encapsulate the heroism of flight in words capable of evoking a postwar world of bittersweet dreams and nostalgic disillusion. Burning the Days, the title a metaphor adopted from the author’s experiences flying missions over the Yalu River in the Korean War, is a beautifully written book, one made to be read carefully and slowly, but it is also, in many ways, a throwback to an earlier age, an era shaped by the early writings of Ernest Hemingway and even more by F. Scott Fitzgerald, an era that one realizes is completely over only when a book such as this appears.

The organizing principle of Salter’s “recollection” is not the life of a man but the performance of that life. “I have written only about certain things, the essential, in my view,” the author notes in the introduction. The book is, thus, in direct opposition to the confessional exploration of memory that often passes for a memoir. Selection, not inclusion, is the shaping force. The work grew, we are told, from a single essay, “The Captain’s Wife,” published in 1986 and now the central chapter of the book. That chapter, with its vivid description of two passionate but ill-fated love affairs and its evocation of a particular kind of army life on Hawaii in the days immediately following World War II, captures both the doomed romanticism that informs the entire memoir and the focus on subtle, sometimes hidden, heroism that determines the structure of each chapter.

Salter spent his early years in New York City, living a life alternately of privilege and, as his father earned and lost money, of occasional disruption and discomfort. If his father, a businessman who speculated in the real estate market, turned out to be a less inspiring model than a determined and ambitious young man might want—he was to die of what seemed to be despair in 1957—there were at least some other heroes to take his place, people in whom Salter would see the equivalent of Hemingway’s “grace under pressure,” neighbors, teachers, and friends, male and female, who impressed the boy with what later seemed to him dignity and innate fortitude. The latter, the defining quality of the hero of English writer Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The Ballad of East and West,” passionately memorized by the schoolboy and recalled at length by the adult man, would be exemplified by the pilots and writers who were to fill the author’s later days, but, in this early chapter, Salter finds it equally well embodied in the mother of a friend, a woman with whom he established intense and lasting ties. Her intelligence and insight captured Salter’s imagination, as did the incredible physical suffering of her later years.

Salter prefaces the statement about selectivity quoted above by noting that he has, in the past, written about gods, that, although he does not worship them, he likes to know they are there. “Frailty, human though it may be, interests me less.” Nothing, of course, could more clearly set him apart from the confessional. The gods he creates—more aptly called heroes—are those people who flash across the personal universe, larger than life, then disappear, literally or figuratively. Some of these, such as the astronauts Buzz Aldrin, Virgil Grissom, and Ed White, became famous; others remained obscure except to their friends, distinguished by their insouciance in the face of danger or their ability to indulge in what Salter calls “a single daring act.” As a young man, the writer found some of these heroes at West Point, where he began as a raw adolescent fresh from a New York City prep school, graduating just as World War II ended. Recollecting those years and the subsequent ones after he had been trained as a pilot, he discovers more of these men who have remained alive for him because of this indefinable quality that separates them from their more ordinary companions. They people the chapters, crowding into the pages until one begins to see that they are less important as real individuals than as projections of Salter’s image of masculinity, dignity, and achievement, the role models he sought but never found in his father.

Salter admits to having found it difficult to write about himself. His admiration of others—his chosen others—creates, for the reader, however, a sense of the author’s personality. What he clearly does enjoy writing about is flying, and he does it very well indeed. The experience of flight, the camaraderie of the cockpit, the fear in combat, and the incredible exuberance of controlling the vast power of a fighter plane really form the center of this memoir. He describes getting lost in darkness on a training flight and crashing ignominiously; he writes of walking out on the airfield on an icy winter morning before a mission; he ruminates on the comrades who crashed before his eyes or the officers whose careers plummeted as quickly as their flights. He talks of the chase and capture of North Korean MiG jet fighters and pursuing enemies around and beyond the Yalu River. Perhaps only Saint-Exupéry and Beryl Markham have conveyed as well this sense of the mystery and exhilaration of flight. When Salter, almost as an aside, tells us he decided to leave the service to devote his life to writing, it comes as a shock. His later career, spent among writers and women in France and later among Hollywood producers and screenwriters, seems anticlimactic.

The latter half of the book seems to describe a different man. “Europe gave me my manhood or at least the image of it,” he declares after a decision to live abroad in the 1960’s. “It was not a matter of pleasure, but something more enduring: a ranking of things, how to value them. What other men found in Africa or the East, I found there.” He goes on to explain that what he means is that it gave him the distance to judge his existence, a sense of history that clearly defined his own unimportance. It also gave him lessons in conversation, in dining, and in love. The fighter pilot became the boulevardier, the salon-goer, the sophisticate. The sense of diminishment that might have accompanied this transformation was, to some degree, alleviated by the company he kept and the cafés and streets that continue to enchant him, each with a name redolent of literature and culture. His friendship with the novelist Irwin Shaw became a crucial source of education and personal enrichment.

One might say that the real diminishment came when he became involved in the world of film—not because film is any less sophisticated than the literary culture of Paris, but because the story begins to revolve around contract disputes and the fate of screenplays, fascinating matters, perhaps, in their own right but more familiar and strewn with a tinsel too often tarnished. Eventually, Salter, although reasonably successful (he was the author of the screenplay for Downhill Racer, 1969, an offbeat Robert Redford vehicle about the ultimate defeat of a competitive skier), was happy enough to get away and return to life as a writer.

In the last chapter, “Dîners en Ville,” he closes his performance with a series of scenes from his urbane old age, remembering dinners in New York City; in Paris; in Nyack, New York; and in Southampton, New York. He thinks about the people who had been the models for characters in his fiction, allowing them walk-on parts in his meditations on the past, and wonders about the winter coming on, savoring the friendships and natural pleasures that remain. He ends with a walk on the beach: “Nothing on the empty road, no cars, no sound, no lights. The year turning, cold stars above. My arm around her. Feeling of courage. Great desire to live on.”

The focus on life as a series of heroic encounters, subtle or implied as that heroism may be, has the distinctly masculine feel of a tale bathed in nostalgia for a world of action. Salter’s women, here, as in his fine novels Light Years (1982) and A Sport and a Pastime (1985), are graceful, life-giving, sometimes (as above) heroic themselves, but they seem, all the same, to be trophies, mysteries, inspirations rather than physical beings. This is intentional, part of Salter’s sense of the universe as the habitation of only seldom-revealed gods, who flash brightly and then disappear, and of the goddesses who enflame them. When readers finish, they know about the shape of the author’s life as he sees it but very little about the nonessential. Deeply personal in its exploration of situations and places, Burning the Days yet has a generic quality. Salter’s writing, the genesis of his novels, is touched on, his ambitions and disappointments are sketched, but there is little about his married life and, except for a tragedy briefly described, little more than a hint of the existence of his immediate family. The reader is conscious not of secrecy or even discretion but, rather, of conscious reticence, a stripping away of all that is not universal about human existence.

These comments may seem like disappointments. They are not. The accomplishment of this memoir is exactly in its impersonality, romanticism, and beauty. Salter very clearly evokes a sense of place, whether he is describing a barracks in the early morning, a frost-covered airfield, the cockpit of a plane in trouble, or the restaurants of Paris in the 1960’s. The writing is both haunted and haunting; each word counts. As the book winds down, the author turns to winter, to night, to the sense of people lost and time remaining. The reader savors the prose, aware not simply of the mortality of the author but also of the rarity, as we reach the millennium, of wisdom and poetic confidence.

Sources for Further Study

Artforum. Winter, 1997, p. 35.

Booklist. XCIV, September 15, 1997, p. 199.

Chicago Tribune. July 27, 1997, XIV, p. 1.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. August 31, 1997, p. 2.

The Nation. CCLXV, October 6, 1997, p. 46.

The New York Times Book Review. CII, September 7, 1997, p. 9.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, September 1, 1997, p. 81.

Time. CL, September 15, 1997, p. 110.

San Francisco Chronicle. September 7, 1997, p. REV5.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVII, September 7, 1997, p. 3.

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