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On Salter & the Nabokovs

Reading James Salter has always been pitch-perfect to my ear, an almost exasperating level of craft and story, leaving no clues or fingerprints behind. After his passing a couple of years ago, his wife, Kay Eldredge Salter, began curating his nonfiction work. It is an enormous collection, as Salter wrote for all kinds of publications, from Outside to the New Yorker and Food & Wine in between. The collection – “Don’t Save Anything” — is out now, and it’s a tremendous offering.

Salter could have been a caricature for the male writer of his era, dapper and direct, and singularly focused on the art of writing. It’s all that mattered, his highs, his lows, and his constant touchstone. Writing was the prism through which he didn’t just work, but lived.

“In the end, writing is like a prison,” Salter says in his 1999 essay, Why I Write: Thoughts on the Craft of Fiction, “an island from which you will never be released but which is a kind of paradise: the solitude, the thoughts, the incredible joy of putting into words the essence of what you for the moment understand and with your whole heart want to believe.”

Salter was all in.

Which makes the profiles he wrote for People Magazine all the more perplexing. First, just the notion that Salter was writing for People creates dissonance. And then there are the people he chose to profile, not the Hollywood or television types, but writers and artists, people like Graham Greene, Vladimir & Vera Nabokov and Ben Sonnenberg Jr., for example.

In People Magazine!? It could almost convince me to visit a doctor’s office again. But then I know I’d be greeted with the modern People, all Kardashian, all the time. Or so I’ve been told.

Salter’s profiles are rich portrayals, novellas as much as journalism. In his profile of the writer Isaac Babel, Salter unveils Babel’s writing mantra: “Describe he is continually reminding himself, describe.”

It was a method Salter employed prolifically, but even more potently in his profiles, packed, as they were, into the confines of magazines. Salter’s profile of Vladimir and Vera Nabokov for People in 1975 is a masterpiece of description – and style and tone and just about any other element required for a magnificent story.

The magazine paid for his visit to the Nabokov’s home for their later years in Switzerland, on Lake Geneva. Salter did what few other biographers did when it came to Nabokov encounters, he put Vera in her proper place: front and center, as was her role within their partnership that lasted decades. They were inseparable. Vera, for example, attended all of his lectures while he was teaching at Cornell – every class, every lecture. The Nabokovs would arrive together, and leave together.

But she was insistent on editing herself out of any profiles of her husband’s life and work. Vera Nabokov would either not participate in such interviews or, if she could get the agreement, mark up the drafts so that there was no trace of her left in it.

But Salter was taking aim at the truth of the Nabokov experience, and that had Vera in the thick of things, central to all that was Vladimir and his prodigious writing and teaching career. Salter brings them to life through “mere” description. It is a time of decline for them, age taking its toll, and Salter captures it while not even mentioning it. This unspoken darkness seems to be obvious to everyone except the Nabokovs. The sadness coils through his prose, a gentleness in the current, always in the same direction. It is the end of a grand fusion of two remarkably intertwined lives, and the Nabokovs carry on with grace, if not complete triumph over their coupled glory.

The best immersion into the Nabokovs unique lives together – butterfly chasing and all! – is still Stacy Schiff’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Vera,” a work that shattered the (mostly) stuffy nonsense that passed as Nabokov biographies, the ones that bowed to the cultural mores that put man in the center and wife as the server. But it takes two for this delicate tango, and Vera was in the lead.

“Novelists, like dictators, have long reigns,” Salter writes of Nabokov, who, at the time, had just published his thirty-seventh book. But there was little that was harsh about Nabokov’s reign, only the work ethic he and Vera practiced like clockwork.

Salter quotes a protagonist in a Nabokov novel, giving advice to a young man going out in the world: “ Play! Invent the world! Invent reality!”

To which, Salter adds: “Nabokov has done that. He has won.”

For the Salter fan club, mostly writers tormented by the seeming ease with which he lets it flow, knowing, of course, that there was nothing easy about it, this book is one, last collection to savor. And to the Salter newbies, it is a trumpet-sounding, red-carpet affair, rolled out to welcome you to the world of a truly great American writer.

Like the Nabokovs, James and Kay Salter were deeply intertwined partners, making their life their love, and only sometimes calling it work. They even collaborated on a cookbook, “Life is Meals,” that allowed them to revel in their mutual habits of fine food and travel.

But this collaboration, “Don’t Save Anything,” Kay Salter’s posthumous collection of her husband’s finest “essays, articles and profiles,” is a powerful tribute to the man she loved and lived and worked with for decades. It should be a textbook for creative – or literary — nonfiction classes, and studied by those aiming for bylines of their own.

Salter’s longtime friend and editor, Terry McDonell, has a brief chapter about Salter in his memoir, “The Accidental Life.” In it, he remembers being with Salter and Richard Ford on an evening in 2013 when they appeared together at New York City’s 92nd Street Y. Afterward, they all went our for drinks and dinner, with Ford bending McDonell’s ear over Salter’s prodigious literary gifts.

Ford quoted from Walter Benjamin’s definition of a true “storyteller,” in an attempt to summarize Salter’s own writing life: “the man who could let the wick of his life be consumed completely by the gentle flame of his story.”

Salter was, as he titled his memoir, “Burning the Days.”

— M. Colby