James Salter: Burning the Days

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Plays: 725

Richard Ford has said that “[James] Salter writes American sentences better than anybody writing today.” Judge for yourself with this recording of Salter reading from his memoir Burning the Days. He was introduced by Susan Sontag, who echoed Ford’s sentiment.

“If he can be described as a writer’s writer,” Sontag said that night, “then I think it’s just as true to say he’s a reader’s writer; that is, he’s a writer who particularly rewards those for whom reading is an intense pleasure and something that is a bit of an addiction. I myself put James Salter among the very few North American writers all of whose work I want to read and whose as yet unpublished books I wait for impatiently … In the case of James Salter, I crave more of those sentences and paragraphs which I wish I had written or were capable of writing.”

A similar sense of admiration touched with envy can be found in this recording, which places Salter the young soldier on a train in the 1950s reading an old copy of Mademoiselle in which Dylan Thomas’s play “Under Milk Wood” has been excerpted. “The words dizzied me—their grandeur, their wit,” Salter reads. “In the soft, clicking comfort of the train, I feasted on it all. The drops of rain became streaks as the dazzling voices spoke. House-wives, shop-keepers, shrews, Captain Cat the blind, retired sea-captain dreaming of a strumpet Rosie Probert—‘C’mon up, boys. I’m dead!’ It was an unforgettable performance, singing on and on.”

Salter knew, of course, that he was reading about the play from the very stage where it was first performed—by Thomas and others—in 1953.