A Slow Read

I’ve heard of speed reading but have never attempted it. For one thing, I have a habit of reading aloud in my head which doesn’t make for rapid reading. And though many books can no doubt be read quite quickly – thrillers, detective stories – there are a few where it simply isn’t possible.

One of these is ‘Burning The Days’, James Salter’s autobiography. This book is beautifully written but often very dense. So the thing to do is read it slowly. If you don’t, you’re likely to miss things. If this book is food for the mind, reading it slowly allows you to savour it.

Salter went to West Point. From his description of his time there I’m glad I did not: so many aspects of military training seem pointless. From there he went on to become a pilot and flew fighter missions in the Korean War. His descriptions of learning to fly and tackling MIGs over Korea are exceptional.

His various relationships come into it too, of course, and he sometimes comes at these from a tangent. One of these is with his wife, Ann Altemus, whom he describes as follows: ‘good-looking, unspoiled, she was from the horse country in Virginia.’ (p130)

It seems to me that Salter has used Ann Altemus as a model for the first woman Philip Bowman marries in his most recent novel, ‘All That Is’. The name of the wife in the novel is Vivian, and she too belonged to the Virginia society set and was into riding horses.

I am basing this theory on a single hint so I may be wrong. If so, it won’t be the first time.

I liked Vivian. When Bowman asks her to marry him she does not say yes directly, going along with it in a strangely passive way as if she had nothing better to do at the time. Bowman’s mother thinks Vivian has no soul, but it would be more accurate to say she has her limitations. Because she is both polite and reserved she is difficult to know, though you could also say that there isn’t as much to know as you might like. Vivian is the one who concludes that they are not suited to each other and writes him, very politely, out of her life. Her assessment is correct and she is never less than honest in her dealings with him. When discussing where it went wrong she tells him ‘I gave you your chance.’  And it can’t be denied that she did. A plain dealer.

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