“Don’t Save Anything,” a new collection of James Salter’s essays and journalism, includes several articles he wrote about fellow novelists in the 1970s and a bunch of more recent pieces on everything from downhill skiing to dining in Paris. Some of these are delightful, and at its best, this book reminds us that Salter, who died in 2015, was among his generation’s finest literary craftsmen.
An Air Force pilot, a successful screenwriter, the author of virtuosic novels such as “A Sport and a Pastime” — Salter was an impressive guy. Improbably enough, this volume’s liveliest material is the product of his freelance work for People magazine, which once ran big profiles of eminent novelists.
In 1975, Salter visited Vladimir Nabokov at the Swiss hotel where he and his wife had lived for 14 years. He interviewed the “Lolita” author amid tables “spread with white cloth and silver as if for dinners before the war,” an apt setting for a man who didn’t embrace the modern world.
While his contemporaries appeared on TV talk shows, Nabokov remained an “elusive figure,” Salter writes. “He is aloof by nature, a compulsive revisionist, and he feels for some reason insecure with nothing between himself and an audience except unrehearsed speech.”
Nabokov tells Salter that he writes daily for six hours and takes “a delicious siesta” each afternoon. “In the summer we hunt butterflies,” he says. At 75, he’d published three dozen books, a feat that Salter sums up with an allusion to the author’s native Russia: “Novelists, like dictators, have long reigns.”
Months later, Salter called on another legend. He finds Graham Greene, the author of numerous cloak-and-dagger classics, living “like a prisoner long confined” in a Paris apartment. “His name is missing from the inked list of tenants in the concierge’s window downstairs,” Salter writes. “On his telephone, in place of a number, is a blank disk.”
Salter gives us a peek at his habits: “Greene still reads a lot, three or four books a week, and notes them in his diary, putting down a little tick or cross in judgment.” Greene liked Kurt Vonnegut but not Philip Roth, Salter reports, and hadn’t read Joseph Conrad since “1932 because he was simply too influential a force.”
Elsewhere in “Don’t Save Anything,” Salter reflects on his fighter-pilot days (the inspiration for his first novel); his spell in Hollywood (he befriended Robert Redford while writing the “Downhill Racer” script); and his interest in science and sports (artificial heart developer Robert Jarvik and champion skier Toni Sailer feature in a pair of insightful profiles).
Alas, there are several duds. Salter’s take on President Bill Clinton’s second term is superficial and muddled, and though he discusses his favorite Parisian restaurant in two essays, he barely mentions the food. At times, he sounds like an elitist. A 1995 piece poses a question: “In a country where Maya Angelou passes for a poet, Tom Clancy for a novelist, and Tony Kushner for a playwright what hope do words have?”
There are many reasons to worry about the future of literature, but this isn’t healthy skepticism — it’s snobbery. Salter was a wonderful writer, and his novels still resonate. His nonfiction could be awfully good, too, yet as this collection demonstrates, even he filed a few clunkers.
Kevin Canfield is a writer and critic in New York City.
Don't Save Anything
By: James Salter.
Publisher: Counterpoint, 303 pages, $26.