“No Time to Spare” and “Don’t Save Anything” collect, respectively, the recent essays and the freelance journalism of two distinguished, but very different American writers. There are, however, at least three reasons to link Ursula K. Le Guin, an outspoken feminist and award-winning creator of imaginary lands and ambiguous utopias, and James Salter, the courtly chronicler of fighter pilots, intense love affairs and dissolving marriages.
First, each writes fiction of wondrous serenity and authority. Just consider the opening paragraphs of Le Guin’s “A Wizard of Earthsea” or the final one of Salter’s “A Sport and a Pastime.” The language is limpid, the sentences deliberate and grave, their cumulative power . . . immeasurable. Go see for yourself.
Second, both Salter and Le Guin are moralists. Courage and heroism, the testing of character, doing the right thing, the acceptance of responsibility, the getting of wisdom — these themes run through all their writing.
The third connection is personal: Salter and Le Guin are both deeply woven into my own bookish life. In one of my earliest reviews, I wrote about Salter’s “Solo Faces,” concluding that this novel about mountain climbing “exemplifies the purity it describes.” A decade later, when Book World’s editors were settling on titles for an online book club, I picked “The Left Hand of Darkness,” Le Guin’s science fiction classic about a society where everyone is both male and female. In 1990, I reviewed her autumnal fantasy “Tehanu,” in which she enlarged her Earthsea Trilogy, originally marketed for young adults, by revealing what happened to its hero and heroine in old age. When Salter’s correspondence with his friend — and my mentor — literary journalist Robert Phelps was published as “Memorable Days,” I contributed the introduction. More recently, I’ve lectured on Le Guin for the National Endowment for the Arts’s “Big Read” program, having written its introductory guide to “A Wizard of Earthsea.”
All this obviously means that I’m hardly objective about these two writers. Nor do I need to be. Their oeuvres demonstrate their worth — the 88-year-old Le Guin is now in the Library of America; as for Salter, who died in 2015 at age 90 two years after completing his magnum opus “All That Is,” one need simply quote novelist Richard Ford: “Sentence for sentence, Salter is the master.”
“No Time to Spare,” deriving from Le Guin’s online essays, covers just about anything that crosses her mind, from “lit biz” to cats to the Oregon landscape. Still, old age, sexual and national politics and our dismal future predominate. Here’s Le Guin in 2010:
“When my kids were young I could still hope we might not totally screw up the environment for them, but now that we’ve done so, and are more deeply sold out than ever to profiteering industrialism with its future-horizon of a few months, any hope I have that coming generations may have ease and peace in life has become very tenuous, and has to reach far, far forward into the dark.”
In a 2012 polemic, “Lying It All Away,” Le Guin writes scathingly of “growth capitalism” returning to its origins and “providing security for none but the strongest profiteers.” She notes that “I have watched my country accept, mostly quite complacently, along with a lower living standard for more and more people, a lower moral standard. A moral standard based on advertising.” Can America, she wonders, continue “living on spin and illusion, hot air and hogwash, and still be my country? I don’t know.” After all, our country is now run by corporations “of which Congress is an almost wholly owned subsidiary.”
Might there be truth to the commonplace that science fiction writers are prophets? All these cris de coeur were originally produced in the Obama era, long before our divisive last election with its appalling consequences. A year ago I argued that Le Guin deserved a Nobel Prize in literature. In fact — what a fantasy! — she ought to be running the country.
In the essay “Why I Write,” Salter declares that “there comes a time when you realize that everything is a dream, and only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real.” In “Don’t Save Anything,” despite its paradoxical title, Kay Eldredge Salter assembles her late husband’s bread-and-butter journalism — yet how delicious good bread and butter can be! Included are an introduction to Isaac Babel’s “Red Cavalry” stories, profiles of Vladimir Nabokov, Graham Greene and Antonia Fraser, and a long biographical essay on Gabriele D’Annunzio, fin-de-siecle Italy’s great poet, lover and madman:
“He was anything but handsome. He was short, baldheaded, with bulging eyes and a prominent nose. . . . And yet, women wrecked their lives for him and, abandoned, remembered him forever.”
Salter himself recalls how he nearly crashed as a young Air Force pilot and outlines, with considerable admiration, Dwight D. Eisenhower’s military career. He spends time with climber Royal Robbins and ace skier Toni Sailer (later mining what he learned from them for “Solo Faces” and the film script that became “Downhill Racer”), then reminisces about an incandescent love affair in Rome and his later years in Aspen and Boulder, Colo.
As always, Salter emphasizes simple, vivifying details. To understand the challenge of ascending the vertical rock face of Yosemite’s El Capitan, “Imagine a wall more than twice as high as the Empire State Building.” Describing a hospital lab technician, he writes, “She has blond hair and the decent, American face of a girl in the emergency room who is there when your eyes open and you love her from then on.”
I sometimes wonder what these two extraordinary writers thought of each other. Not that it really matters: Our literature is lucky to have them both.
Michael Dirda reviews books every Thursday for The Washington Post.
By Ursula K. Le Guin
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 215 pp. $22
By James Salter
Counterpoint. 303 pp. $26