A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter

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.

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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.

41 thoughts on “A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter

  1. roughghosts

    I actually think I have this and I know a number of committed Salter fans (he is a well known literary writer here, *well known* and *literary* being as they are relatively speaking), but I am not yet decided as to whether it is for me. I struggle with many American male writers but I am thinking I am missing out by not at least trying some more.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s great. He strikes me as being the type of American writer that might suit you, Joe. Even though this isn’t my favourite Salter, I think it would give you a pretty good feel for his prose style. Plus it’s quite short, so you’d be able to read it in an afternoon. Either way, you won’t have lost much time by giving him a try!

      Reply
  2. MarinaSofia

    I do think I need to try Salter at some point – I’ve heard a lot of good things and he sounds like he could be a bit different to the loud, opinionated, macho male American writers I sometimes steer clear of.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, he’s definitely worth trying, Marina. Yes, he’s a different type of writer to many of the other Americans I’ve read (guys like Philip Roth and Jonathan Franzen to name just two). Even though Sport isn’t my favourite Salter, it might be a good one to try just to get a feel for his style. But if you only want to read one of his books, make it Light Years – that would be a contender for my all-time list.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          I think you’d like that one, Marina. Have you read Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety? I was reminded of Salter’s Light Years when I read the Stegner a couple of years ago. Actually, he’s another American writer to keep in mind. I must read another of his books at some point – Angle of Repose is on the shelf at home.

          Reply
  3. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely review as always Jacqui. I confess I’ve never heard of Salter, but his books definitely sound worth looking out for.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. I think he’s probably better known in the US and Canada. I only really discovered him when his final novel, All That Is, was released in 2013 as it prompted a bit of a resurgence of interest in his backlist. He’s still one of my favourite writers, a great prose stylist.

      Reply
  4. gertloveday

    I remember hearing a rave review of this some years ago on a book program here, but I’ve never got round to it. I came to Salter with such high expectations that I have to confess I was a bit disappointed in Light Years, the only one I’ve read. Hard to say why. Perhaps I should try it again.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s got a fantastic reputation. In fact, my expectations were sky-high, and that’s probably why I felt ever so slightly disappointed by it! Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a great book, but I wonder if it has aged a little. I suspect it might have really fallen for it had I read it in the 1970s. Maybe Salter’s style isn’t for everyone. He creates a certain type of mood, and that’s common to this one, Light Years and All That Is. If you’d like to try a different Salter, you might want to take a look at The Hunters. It’s quite different to his later novels, more plot-driven and less nebulous/dreamlike.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Very welcome, Max. To be honest, I’m not sure I’ve added much to your review of this one. I thought the first third was wonderful, particularly the opening section where the narrator is travelling through France – all those images flying by, that’s pure Salter. As a novel, I don’t think Sport has aged as well as something like The Hunters (or Light Years for that matter although LY came later). The sex scenes just got a little too much after a while, although I can understand why they were there – and they seemed to ‘fit’ with the culture at the time of the book’s publication. Looking at it overall, I did like it, just not quite as much as I’d hoped to. Maybe my expectations were too high as I was expecting to be blown away given its reputation.

      Do you think you’ll read Light Years or one of his others at some point? I have a collection of his stories (Last Night) plus his memoir, Burning the Days, which I’m really looking forward to.

      Reply
      1. Max Cairnduff

        I plan to read more, or hope to anyway, but no idea when.

        Looking back at my own review it’s interesting to note I had some similar reservations. I recommended not reading it in too many instalments as the sex scenes became repetitive and I wondered if perhaps the book were at times a little boring and I’d been overawed by its reputation. I have none of those concerns re The Hunters.

        So yes, interesting and the unreliability of the narrator is nicely done and the prose is brilliant, but possibly all in the service of not very much.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Yes, I’m with you on all of that. The only thing I would say is that I had enough time to read it all in one sitting, but I ended up taking a break somewhere around the halfway point (maybe a little later) because the sequence of sex scenes was starting to make it feel a little claustrophobic. I put it aside for a couple of days and then went back to it which seemed to help. In some ways, I wished I’d read it in the seventies or early eighties as it might have felt a little more ‘fresh’ and alive then. It’s a different experience reading it now nearly 50 years after initial publication.

          The Hunters was terrific, I loved that one. Maybe I should try Solo Faces at some point (once I’ve read the others in my TBR) as it sounds much closer to The Hunters than any of his other novels.

          Reply
          1. Max Cairnduff

            I plan to read Solo Faces hopefully alongside M John Harrison’s Climbers which is also supposed to be very good. US and UK climbing novels, with those two that’s likely the whole genre…

            Although it wouldn’t surprise me to learn there’s actually loads of climbing novels around.

            Reply
            1. JacquiWine Post author

              I’d never even heard of Climbers before you mentioned it, but I just looked it up. Sounds cool. As you say, it should make for an interesting comparison with the Salter. I might have to suppress my fear of heights to read Solo Faces, especially given Salter’s ability to pull the reader right into a scene. I recall being utterly gripped by those flying missions in The Hunters.

              Reply
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  6. Melissa Beck

    I picked this book up a few months back and couldn’t make it past about 30 pages. It felt a little too rambling to me and it just didn’t hold my attention at the time. Maybe I should give it another try.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s very interesting, Melissa. It is a dreamlike novel, almost nebulous in some respects, so the style might not suit everyone. I’m tempted to say that if you weren’t drawn into it after the first 30 pages, then I doubt whether that would change if you pushed on through to the end. Have you read any of his other books? I loved Light Years. It’s another rather dreamlike novel, but the mood seems to add to the story – somehow it all seems to work together there. The Hunters is terrific, and it’s a different type of novel to Sport – there’s a clear plot and it’s much more gripping as a result. It might be worth considering if you haven’t read it already.

      Reply
  7. Brian Joseph

    I like the idea of the story being told by an unreliable narrator who is himself a character in the story. This reminds me of some of Philip Roth’s Zuckerman books.

    Too bad that this was in the end disappointing.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, the narrator is interesting, as is his relationship to Philip Dean – it’s very cleverly done. Maybe my expectations were a little high before I went into this one. It’s still a very good novel, and plenty of other readers have loved it – many consider it his best book.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s interesting, Cathy. Not an author I’m particularly familiar with, but I’ll check her out. Salter is definitely worth trying at some point, especially given the link to one of your favourite books. I would suggest either this one or Light Years as possible options to consider. If I had to pick one for you, I’d say Light Years – something tells me you might like it!

      Reply
  8. Emma

    I have All That Is on the shelf, so I’ll start with this one.

    How on earth did this American character end up in Autun of all places? I’m not sure I understand what’s so glamorous about Autun although it’s a quaint little town. To give you an idea, I’d say it’s like a small Salisbury. I can also tell you that an affair between an American and an 18 year old girl Autun would have made quite a stir in 1960s. This is a rather conservative and small place. Is there anything about that in the book?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, the narrator ends up in Autun by way of a couple of friends he knows in Paris. They have a house in Autun, and so they offer the narrator the chance to spend some time there while they remain in the city. Well, I say it’s Autun, but the narrator is rather unreliable, and because everything we see is refracted through his perspective, it’s difficult to tell how much of this actually happened and how much is simply down to his imagination or fantasies. At one point the narrator says: ‘None of this is true. I’ve said Autun, but it could easily have been Auxerre. I’m sure you’ll come to realize that. I am only putting down details which entered me, fragments that were able to part my flesh. It’s a story of things that never existed although even the faintest doubt of that, the smallest possibility, plunges everything into darkness.’ Make of that what you will.

      There is a little about the reactions to Philip and Anne-Marie’s relationship but not very much as the focus is very firmly on the affair itself (as perceived by the narrator). Anne-Marie comes from a very different background and class to Philip. Her parents are simple country folk, quite conservative and not terribly well off, so there’s a bit of tension when Anne-Marie takes Philip to see them. It’s a fairly brief scene, though.

      ‘All That Is’ was my first Salter as well, and it left me keen to flip back to a couple of his earlier novels – I must have ended up reading three in the space of six months! I’ll be fascinated to see what you think. Some people have criticised it (the novel) for being misogynistic, but I don’t see it myself. To my mind, the protagonist thinks and acts in a way that feels consistent with the cultural attitudes and behaviours of the time. He’s like the American men in Richard Yates’ novels or Don Draper in Mad Men. They’re all products of a certain period in time. So yes, the protagonist has a certain perception of women and their role in life, but I don’t think that makes the novel (or its author) misogynistic.

      Reply
      1. Emma

        Thanks for the details about the choice of Autun.
        Reading your comment, it reminds me of Piazza Bucarest by Grondahl where there also an unreliable narrator trying to decipher someone else’s relationship.

        I’m even more curious about All That Is, now. I think you can’t reproach a writer to be a product of his time or to write in accordance with the codes of the times their novel is set in.
        The 1950s were misogynistic. That’s a fact. Just like a WASP wouldn’t have called a black man “African American” in the 19thC.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Ooh, I’ve heard of that book, possibly via one of your billets. I’ll take a look.

          As for the criticisms of potential misogyny…yes, my thoughts exactly – as a writer, you have to be true to the times. Very much looking forward to hearing your thoughts on All That Is – it feels like a fitting sign-off to Salter’s career as a writer.

          Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m not sure how you’d take to it either, Guy. Have you read any of his other books? If you haven’t and would like to try one at some point, I’d suggest you take a look at The Hunters. Somehow I think you might enjoy that one (if you haven’t read it already).

      Reply
  9. Annabel (gaskella)

    I read All That Is and I didn’t warm to it overly although I appreciated the unshowy language. I don’t think I’ll add this one to my wishlist, but as ever, I really enjoyed your review.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Annabel. I think that’s a wise call, especially as you didn’t take to All That Is. I get the feeling that Slater’s final novel divided readers, possibly more so than his earlier books. I remember hearing a discussion about it on one of the review programmes on Radio 4. It didn’t go down too well with a couple of the reviewers, so I guess it’s not for everyone!

      Reply
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  11. seraillon

    So odd to read about this book 20 years after reading it – in France, in 1996. Even with your fine description, I can scarcely recall it at all. What I do recall is that I was infatuated with Salter’s prose at the time. I get the sense, though, that my enthusiasm might not be as strong today, so it might serve as a good measuring stick to see how my tastes have changed!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Well, France sounds like the perfect setting for reading this book. That said, I’m not surprised to hear you say that you can scarcely recall it as it’s a very dreamlike novel – quite slippery in many respects. His prose is beautiful, but I just got a bit bored with certain elements of the story (especially the somewhat repetitive sex scenes). It left me wondering whether my response might have been different had I been old enough to read it in the early 1970s. Maybe you should revisit it just to see what you make of it now – I would be fascinated to hear. At least it’s a slim novel, so you’d be able to whip through it in a few hours!

      Reply

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