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4.4 out of 5 stars
4.4 out of 5 stars

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on 2 December 2010
This is beautifully written. He really is a great stylist. At times it is almost like poetry.

He has led a fascinating life as well. A fighter ace and a greatly respected author. There is a melancholy feel to this autobiography but it is never depressing.
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on 27 July 2013
These recollections are grouped around themes: Salter's family, his time at West Point, his time flying fighters in Korea, later times in the Air Force, a literary friendship with Irwin Shaw, writing film scripts, writing novels and so on.

Salter's style and his world views both come across very strongly. Individual episodes are very memorable - his acquaintance with Robert Redford (he finally imagines himself Falstaff when seeing Redford for the last time in public and idolised), his temporary friendship with a sculptor who become paralysed after an accident, and his relations with a wide range of women. And of course it's interesting to find out what Salter's real life was like - he shot down on MiG in combat in reality in Korda. He's also very honest about his reactions eg to Buzz Aldrin, with whom he flew, walking on the moon; and to reading Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. He clearly did just about make it int he world of heroism he writes about..as well as as an author. And it's really interesting to learn how few proposed films are actually made and why so many fall by the wayside...

All that having been said - and I'm glad to have read this, for sure - I would say: read first the novels and the short stories, where everything so often fits together so well.
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James Salter died two months ago, having lived a full life, to the age of 90. I only recently became acquainted with his work, having read his classic, published in 1967, A Sport and a Pastime, a title inspired by a verse from the Koran, implying the very transient nature of life. His novel is a wonderfully sensual telling of an early love affair with a young French woman, "... the flash of an elegant calf, and you are tumbled into unbearable love." In his summing up, he states: "Ironically, the portrait I made of her she never read." Yes, ironic indeed, but fortunately it is not always true: some do read, and find the yearnings metaphorically expressed by a magnolia tree with its fragrant blossoms.

Salter was born James Arnold Horowitz, in New York, into a Jewish family with Eastern European origins. His father had graduated from West Point at the end of the First World War, and James, with the change in last name, would graduate from his father's alma mater at the end of the Second World War. The first half of the book are his recollections from his West Point days and his subsequent military career. Although missing the big war, he would go on to3 be a fighter pilot in the Korean War. His hero was Antoine de St-Exupéry, a French fighter pilot and writer, most famous for Wind, Sand and Stars (Penguin Modern Classics) as well as the children's classic, The Little Prince. Pilots today are in danger of obsolescence, with computerized drones on the one hand, and the fear of a human pilot deliberately flying the plane into a mountain or an ocean. St-Exupéry however, as well as Salter, flew during the glory days, pre-GPS; pilots were indispensable, and their courage and intellectual capacity were the difference between life and death. Salter's prose on flying, I feel, is the equivalent of St-Exupéry, brilliant and thrilling.

Unmentioned though is the work of another French pilot and writer, the pied-noir, Jules Roy. And I feel the deficiency critical. Roy flew on bombers, and participated in the fire-bombing of Dresden, and later wrote an account of it, the sardonically entitled La vallée heureuse. Roy at least reflected upon what was happening on the ground; Salter never did. True, Salter was a fighter pilot, in combat with the MIG's over northern Korea, but he never once mentions the fate of the "grunts," the infantry, as they raced up and down the peninsula, before reaching deadlock. [Note: my next review, the first one I will post of a movie, will be of Hearts And Minds [DVD] which provides much insight into the fate of those on the ground.] Salter mentions that he was in uniform from 17 to 31, and that he was asked by a woman at a cocktail party why he had spent so much time in the military, and he never provider her, nor the reader of "recollections" a real answer.

The second half of the book is after his resignation from the military, due, in part, to the success of his novel. His ticket is "punched," and he enters the literary world. Salter provides a string of anecdotes, a "celebrity-culture" type of account of the literary world, but with sparkling prose and, at times, incisive character summations. He was probably closest to Irving Shaw, a writer I have never read, who had fled America for Europe after being "black-listed" during the McCarthy era. Overall, there was the feel of Hemingway's A Moveable Feast but instead of the `20's and Paris, it ranged over all of Europe, in the `50's and `60's.

In terms of prose that resonated, he said of St-Exupéry: "He disappeared in July, 1944, his aircraft one of the many simply lost without trace in the great sweep of the war. Blue sea of glittering beauty, the sea of which Cervantes fought and where history was born- somewhere within it lie the bones of this secular saint." The sea is the "mother sea," the Mediterranean. He quotes St-Exupéry, but never reflects on his own actions: "Fighters don't fight, they murder." More pleasantly, and resonating even stronger: "Much has faded but not the incomparable taste of France, given then so I would always remember it. I know that taste, the yellow headlights flowing along the road at night, the towns by a river, the misty mornings, the thoughts of everything that happened there, the notes that confirmed it and made it imperishable."

Towards the end, I felt the anecdotes increasingly choppy and ill-formed. Yet he grabbed my attention with a dinner with David Halberstram, and the subject of John Paul Vann, which Neil Sheehan would write much more extensively about in A bright shining lie : John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam. On the other hand, no "bon mots" of critical insight were provided, and that is my central complaint: a summing up should probe deeper into the issues of motivation. Overall, 4-stars.
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on 2 December 2010
This is beautifully written. He really is a great stylist. At times it is almost like poetry.

He has led a fascinating life as well. A fighter ace and a greatly respected author. There is a melancholy feel to this autobiography but it is never depressing.
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on 25 August 2015
A master takes us through his version of his life and never ceases to draw us forward. Not a typical autobiography, although at first it seems it, but then the sheer quality of the writing and observation takes over. Salter dosen't disappoint. RIP.
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VINE VOICEon 9 August 2013
This is the autobiography of James Salter. He went to West Point, mainly because his father had before him, became a fighter pilot and flew missions in many places, including the US, France, North Africa and in Korea during the Korean War. Later he worked in the film industry and wrote stories and novels.

His descriptions of learning to fly and his experiences as a fighter pilot are outstanding. He remembers many fellow flyers, their characters and idiosyncrasies. Some survived, others did not.

His work in film was less successful, in part because so much of it is a process outwith the control of the writer. For example, he has a script which might make it into production provided one of three actresses agrees to star. None of them does, so that's where it ends.

After he has dealt with his life at West Point and as a pilot, a main subject of interest is writers and agents he knew. We meet many of them first hand - Irwin Shaw, for example - and others by way of anecdote. Unlike the part of the book concerning flying, much of this ground has been covered by others, but it is interesting nonetheless. And with respect to Irwin Shaw, the account of his name-change given in this book differs radically from the article on Shaw in Wikipedia. (I would go with Salter.)

Sometimes referred to as girls, women feature lot in this book. But it is striking that a main area of a biography, the writer's family, is dealt with in the most cursory manner. He refers to his wife, briefly, on page 130 0f the Picador edition: `Ann Altemus, good-looking, unspoiled, she was from the horse country in Virginia.'

I think that the character Vivian in his novel `All That Is', was based on Ann Altemus, but with a little reversal. Vivian is also into horses and belongs to the Virginia society set. She agrees to get married in a strangely passive way, as if she had nothing better to do at the time. In real life, Salter married Ann Altemus in an equally passive way, the match having been made for him by another woman, Paula, a woman he tells us he loved.

Salter quotes someone as saying that the trouble with marriage is it lasts too long. However that may be, the couple divorced. I read elsewhere (not in this book) that they were married for twenty-four years and that he later married again.

Why does he give us so little of his family life? There may be a clue on page 323, where he says: `To write of someone thoroughly is to destroy them, use them up.' But if that is the explanation, then he uses up Irwin Shaw, Robert Phelps and one or two others besides. So the more likely explanations are that he doesn't want to explore this subject, or that he does but feels unequal to the task.

This book is written unusually well, though occasionally it is dense and so allusive as to be cryptic. There were sections I read several times and, even then, wasn't sure I'd really got the point. A very good book then, but not to be read quickly.
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on 22 September 2015
I have just finished reading this -- which I read simultaneously with William Boyd's Sweet Caress . Two very different styles but both linked as biographies -- one an autobiography, the other a piece of fiction.

At the end of the exercise I would have to say that I liked Amory Clay, the subject of Boyd's book, better than I liked the persona of James Salter. Not least because by the end of Sweet Caress you know more about Amory Clay from Boyd's confection than you do from Salter's own revelations of himself.

Salter's prose is often crystalline, that is true. His views and opinions (particularly in the sections that deal with flying) are often very perceptive. But he comes across as a shallow, vain and self-regarding individual obsessed with booze, easy conquests and how well he is doing in comparison with others. He was not, I suspect, a happy man or particularly pleasant to be with. The revelations about himself are mostly guarded and superficial. Although the book is an easy and engaging read, and Salter is probably the better writer in a purely technical sense, I didn't enjoy this book in the way I enjoyed learning about the life of Amory Clay through Boyd's engaging writing.
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on 16 July 2010
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on 11 August 2013
A couple of reviewers have referred to "plot" but this is an autobiography and not a novel. James Salter has a consummate talent for drawing the reader into breathless admiration of his skill as quite simply a poet of the human condition. One of the most idiosyncratic, but beguiling autobiographies I've read and recommend highly.
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on 10 May 2007
I can think of no memoir quite like this: dazzling, perfect prose; a fascinating life recounted; emotionally honest. Questions asked about love, and longing, and loss; about life's purpose. Simply stunning.
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