“Burning the Days”

Almost exactly two years ago, I wrote of my pleasure in James Salter’s memoir, Burning the Days. (https://theresakishkan.com/2013/06/04/five-generations/) I’d read one of his novels, A Sport and a Pastime, many years ago and was enchanted with his prose style. After reading the memoir, I immediately ordered his story collections, Dusk and other stories, and Last Night. I also ordered his most recent novel, All That Is, and couldn’t put it down, reading late into the night to finish it. It was troubling in some ways. The main character is self-absorbed and a womanizer in that old way I remember from my young womanhood (when several times men in cocktail bars sent drinks to me via the waiter, along with notes saying that they felt we had something in common. My friends and I would lower our eyes and smile. Now, when such a thing is in no danger of happening again, I think I’d respond very differently) and he takes revenge on a former lover in a manner which I found horrifying. But oh, what a stylist. Every paragraph had something to teach me about language and structure.  In his introduction to Salter’s novel, Light Years, Richard Ford says that, “It is an article of faith among readers of fiction that James Salter writes American sentences better than anybody writing today.” And yes, they are American sentences. This is something I’ll try to write about another time, the nationality of writing styles, sentences (think of Hemingway, Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor), and even cultural obsessions. But for now let me mourn, as a reader, James Salter’s death, yesterday, in Sag Harbor, New York. He was 90 years old.

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five generations

I’m reading James Salter’s memoir, Burning the Days, as beautifully written and thoughtful a book as any I’ve ever read. Last night, just before I turned off my light, there was this:

“We know at first hand, as witnesses, perhaps five generations, most brilliantly of course our own; in one direction those of our parents and grandparents, in the other, children and grandchildren. In my own case much was lopped off. The past is haphazard. I think of the remark of the English cabinet member who was retiring to the seventeenth-century Cornwall farmhouse that had always been in his family. It is the men without roots, he said, who are the real poor of this century.”

In the falling light, I thought of this, while tiny bats passed the windows — I hadn’t pulled the curtains — and I thought of it again immediately upon waking. Most days I look at the materials (and they are meagre at best) my parents left and try to think of other ways to interpret them. I’ve written queries to the places named on my grandmother’s birth certificate, tentative testings in English to people with my grandmother’s maiden name, her mother’s name. In the tiny village she came from and the small town nearby, I suspect someone sharing those names is connected to her, to me. But no word comes back. I’ve sent messages to the offspring of my grandmother with her first husband — the children and grandchildren of my father’s half-sisters and brothers — but again, little or nothing. Who were they in their daily lives? What stories did they tell? Who did they leave behind, in Horni Lomna, and Ivankivtsi in Bukovina? I want roots, yes, but also the sound a stone makes thrown into the past, echoing and re-echoing, the widening music finally including me.

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On this travel document, my grandfather’s surname is Kiszkan.