Sunday, June 21, 2009

James Salter

I’ve been an admirer of James Salter’s writing since discovering A Sport and a Pastime several years ago. I’ve had his memoir, Burning the Days, around for a while and even dipped into it after reading the short erotically-charged novel about a torrid affair in France. But the memoir didn’t grab me, and I moved on to something else. The other day, I picked it up again. This time I was hardly able to put it down. Why is it that we are receptive to certain books at one time but not another?

In this case, my rapt attention to Salter’s impeccable prose has not so much to do with the admittedly gripping story of his life as a fighter pilot, writer and confidante of countless famous individuals, not to mention his string of affairs with beautiful women (one of which is fictionalized in A Sport and a Pastime). Instead, my interest relates to the balance it strikes between vividly evoked memories and the unavoidable reality that even the sharpest writing cannot capture what is essential about the past. Richness and loss and a groping for what we may have missed. Here is part of an excerpt Salter once read in an interview with Charlie Rose soon after the book came out. It comes at the end of the book’s first 200 pages, which relate to Salter’s life as a pilot:

Once at a dinner party I was asked by a woman what on earth I had ever seen in military life. I couldn’t answer her, of course. I couldn’t summon it all, the distant places, the comradeship, the idealism, the youth. I couldn’t tell about flying over the islands long ago, seeing them rise in the blue distance wreathed in legend, the ring of white surf around them. Or the cities, Shanghai and Tokyo, Amsterdam and Venice, gunnery camps in North Africa and forgotten colonies of Rome along the shore.

Salter goes on to list other sensations and memories he could not capture and concludes, “Money meant nothing and in a way neither did fame. I couldn’t tell any of that or of the roads along the sea in Honolulu, the dances, the last drinks at the bar, or who Harry Thyng was, or Kasler, or the captain’s wife.”

Pondering Mom’s death two weeks ago, I keep trying to hang onto the good memories, of which there are many. But unavoidably, I think of what has been lost, incidents and stories that suddenly fade into two-dimensionality just because Mom is not available to give them life. Granted, it’s been a while since she was able to hold forth glibly about the past, as she so readily and eagerly did for many years. But her death removes any chance of reclaiming that past. Salter’s book is subtitled “Recollection.” And that is what we all struggle to do (to “re-collect”) as time takes its toll on us and our memories. The days burn out, giving way to other days, just as lives fade and give way to successive lives.

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