First published in 1967, A Sport and a Pastime is the American writer James Salter’s third novel. Prior to becoming a writer, Salter served as a fighter pilot in the Korean War, and he drew on this experience for his first novel, The Hunters, an absorbing story of a pilot’s desire to deliver a successful mission. Despite a revival of interest in his work in recent years (his final novel, All That Is, was published in 2013), Salter remains largely unknown to many readers, a situation I still find hard to understand given the quality of his writing.
Set in France in the 1960s, A Sport and a Pastime is the story of an affair between a young American man, Philip Dean, and an eighteen-year-old French girl named Anne-Marie. The novel is narrated by another man, an unnamed narrator in his mid-thirties, who hooks up with Philip while spending some time in Autun, a small town in the Burgundy region of France. As the book opens, the narrator is travelling by train from Paris to Autun, an extended section that immediately draws the reader into the story as a rush of images fly by.
The hills close in and run beside us as we begin slowly to move away from the city. The windows of houses are open to the warm morning air. Hay is stacked in the shape of boxes, coops, loaves of bread. Above us the sudden passage of a church. In its walls, cracks wide enough for birds to nest in. I am going to walk these village roads, follow these brilliant streams.
Rose, umber, camel, tan—these are the colors of the towns. There are long, rising pastures with lines of trees. St Julien du Sault—its hotel seems empty. Shocks of hay now, bundles of it. Great squares of corn. Cezy—the station like scenery in a play that has closed. Pyramids of hay, mansards, barricades. Orchards. Children working in vegetable gardens. JOIGNY is painted in red. (pg. 4)
The house in Autun is owned by two friends of the narrator’s, Billy and Cristina, a couple currently living in Paris. There is a sense that they are the beautiful people, floating around from one long, languorous evening to another. Having been introduced to the narrator at a party, Philip arrives unexpectedly at the house in Autun shortly after the narrator moves in. Even though the two men do not know each other very well, they end up spending time together, driving around the countryside in Philip’s convertible, a 1952 Delage.
One evening when the narrator is out with Philip, he notices a young girl at a dance – it is Anne-Marie. Shortly afterwards, we cut to a scene in a restaurant; the narrator, Philip and Anne-Marie are having a meal together, and the affair between Philip and the girl is just beginning to get underway. The remainder of the novel presents an account of Philip and Anne-Marie’s relationship, as perceived almost entirely through the imagination of the narrator. The young couple spend their days travelling around France, driving from one town to another, staying at hotels and eating out most evenings. Salter’s prose is full of sensual imagery; the descriptions of Philip and Anne-Marie making love are highly erotic, so much so that I wondered how they were received at the time of the novel’s publication. Here’s a quote from the early stages of their relationship – most of the sex scenes are much more graphic than this, but it should give you a feel for the novel’s tone.
He has wrapped her in an enormous towel, soft as a robe, and carried her to the bed. They lie across it diagonally, and he begins to draw the towel apart with care, to remove it as if it were a bandage. Her flesh appears, still smelling a little of soap. His hands float onto her. The sum of small acts begins to unite them, the pure calculus of love. He feels himself enter. Her last breath—it is almost a sigh—leaves her. Her white throat appears. (pg. 56)
From an early stage in the novel, it becomes apparent that the narrator is unreliable. At several points in his narration, he fully admits his lack of reliability. In effect, he is presenting us with a description of what he imagines is happening between Philip and Anne-Marie at the time. (Moreover, he is looking back at his stay in Autun from some point in the future, several years down the line I suspect.)
The narrator’s own situation is of some significance here. During his time in Autun he becomes attracted to a divorcee, Claude Picquet, whom he sees about the town; and yet other than exchanging a few pleasantries with her, he seems hesitant to make a more definite move. By contrast, everything seems so easy for Philip. At twenty-four, he is handsome, self-assured and highly intelligent. Despite his brilliance as a student, he had felt restless at Yale, ultimately dropping out to pursue a different type of education: lessons in the school of life. There is a sense that the narrator is envious of Philip, worships him even. In many ways, he represents the man the narrator wishes he himself could be.
If I had been an underclassman he would have become my hero, the rebel who, if I had only had the courage, I might have also become. Instead I did everything properly. I had good marks. I took care of my books. My clothes were right. Now, looking at him, I am convinced of all I missed. I am envious. Somehow his life seems more truthful than mine, stronger, even able to draw mine to it like the pull of a dark star. (pg. 33)
At one stage I began to wonder if Philip Dean ever existed at all, or whether the narrator had created him out of his own shortcomings, his own insecurities and dreams. After all, at one stage he states ‘I am not telling the truth about Dean, I am inventing him.’ Either way, I suspect the narrator may have been in love with Anne-Marie himself, as he fantasises about what might have been.
Could she, I have often wondered over the empty plates in restaurants, in cafés where only the waiters remain, by any rearrangement of events, by any accident could she, I dream, have become mine?…I look in the mirror. Thinning hair. A face marked by lines, cuts they are, almost, that define my expressions. Strong arms. I’m making all of this up. The eyes of a clever and lazy man, a passionate man… (pgs. 96-97)
A Sport and a Pastime is a difficult novel to summarise – it’s a book that feels as though it needs to be experienced for itself. Much of its power stems from the world Salter creates, so much so that it’s hard to capture this feeling in a review.
Very little happens in the way of plot. Philip and Anne-Marie travel around France in Philip’s car, they have dinner, make love, sleep and lie around in bed for much of the time. At one point, they visit the girl’s mother and stepfather. From a relatively early stage, there is a sense that the affair cannot last, particularly as the two lovers come from contrasting backgrounds and have very different aspirations in life. A simple girl at heart, Anne-Marie wants little more than to get married and have a family, whereas Philip is wary of getting too tied down. His feelings towards Anne-Marie oscillate throughout the course of their affair; at times he clearly adores her, but there are other occasions when he seems close to ending the relationship.
While there is much to like in this fluid, dreamlike novel, I didn’t love it quite as much as I’d hoped to. I found myself wondering whether it might be a touch self-indulgent, more so than Salter’s later novel Light Years, which I adored when I read it a few years ago. Perhaps my favourite thing about A Sport and a Pastime is Salter’s shimmering prose, a quality that comes into its own in the wonderful descriptions of the French countryside (like those in the quote near the beginning of my review) and the passages on Autun. He writes beautifully about France, the little shops and cafés, the restaurants and meals, the scenery and landscape.
I’ll finish with a final quote, one that gives a sense of the blurring of the margins between reality and the imaginary in this story. Perhaps it will encourage you to read it for yourself.
One alters the past to form the future. But there is a real significance to the pattern which finally appears, which resists all further change. In fact, there is the danger that if I continue to try, the whole concert of events will begin to fall apart in my hands like old newspaper. I can’t bear to think of that. The myriad past, it enters us and disappears. Except that within it, somewhere, like diamonds, exist the fragments that refuse to be consumed. Sifting through, if one dares, and collecting them, one discovers the true design. (pg. 48)
For another perspective on this book, do read this excellent review from Max at Pechorin’s Journal.
A Sport and a Pastime is published by Picador. Source: personal copy.