Tag Archives: James Salter

Last Night by James Salter

Last year I wrote about A Sport and a Pastime, a critically acclaimed novel by the American writer James Salter, a book I liked in parts but didn’t particularly enjoy as a whole. This year I thought I’d try some of Salter’s short fiction – more specifically, Last Night (2006) a set of ten stories, many of which first appeared in various literary journals and magazines in the years leading up to the publication of this collection. Once again, this turned out to be a bit of a mixed experience for me due to the variable quality of the material. There is one standout story here, some very good ones, and a few that seem either less compelling or less memorable. Nevertheless, there is something intriguing about this author’s work, particularly his ability to capture particular moods or scenarios (e.g. the emotional charge between two lovers, the intensity of some of those key moments in life).

The opening story, Comet, features two typical Salter protagonists: a capable, elegant middle-class American man, Philip Ardet, and his beautiful wife, Adele.

She was still young enough to be good-looking, the final blaze of it, though she was too old for children, at least if she had anything to say about it. Summer was coming. Out of the afternoon haze she would appear, in her black bathing suit, limbs all tan, the brilliant sun behind her. She was the strong figure walking up the smooth sand from the sea, her legs, her wet swimmer’s hair, the grace of her, all careless and unhurried. (p. 4)

At first, all seems well in the Ardets’ relationship, their lives appear comfortable and settled; but as the story unfolds a somewhat different picture emerges. A conversation at a dinner party opens up old wounds for Philip and Adele as another woman reveals that her husband has been having a secret affair for the last seven years. As a consequence, we gain an insight into the bitterness that is eating away at Adele, an emotion that threatens the stability of her marriage to Philip.

In My Lord You, one of my favourite pieces in the collection, a drunken poet arrives late to a dinner party where he proceeds to harass, both verbally and sexually, another of the guests – a married woman named Ardis – spouting Oscar Wilde and Ezra Pound in the process. (For his part, Ardis’ husband does nothing to intervene in the incident, a significant factor as it highlights his impotence when faced with the possibility of confrontation.)

In spite of being disturbed by this annoying poet, Ardis remains somewhat fascinated by him, so she goes in search of his poetry and then his house to see how he lives. Ultimately, Ardis is drawn into the poet’s life in a rather unexpected way, especially when his dog follows her home and proceeds to set up watch outside. This is a strange story, unsettling and compelling in relatively equal measure.

Such Fun features three young women at the end of a girls’ night out. Their conversations focus on the men they have been seeing, their recent break-ups, their past and current loves – in other words, the trials of finding the ‘right’ partner in life. But unbeknownst to the other two women there, Jane, the quietest member of the group, is carrying a painful burden, one she only reveals to an unknown taxi driver as he drives her home, the tears streaming down her face.

Several of the most successful stories in this collection feature unexpected twists or revelations towards the end, pieces like Give in which the all-too-familiar ‘comfortable man-having-an-affair-with-another-woman’ scenario is given a different spin. Others are more poignant, stories such as Palm Court, in which a man receives a phone call from a woman from his past, a development that triggers memories of their time together and the opportunities he failed to grasp.

Desire, betrayal, frustration – these are the emotions at the heart of many of these stories. In Platinum, another of my favourites in the collection, a seemingly happily married man is having an affair with a seductive young woman, only to be given away by a pair of his wife’s earrings when his lover insists on borrowing them. While this might sound like another rather clichéd scenario, Salter gives the story a new twist, the sort of development you don’t necessarily anticipate even though the clues are there in the narrative almost right from the very start.

The book ends on a startling note with the titular piece, Last Night, undoubtedly the best story in this collection. Walter’s wife, Marit, is terminally ill with cancer. Unable to tolerate the pain any longer, Marit has asked Walter to hasten her death, a wish we assume he has agreed to carry out even though we are not privy to any of their earlier discussions on this point.

It was in the uterus and had travelled from there to the lungs. In the end, she had accepted it. Above the square neckline of her dress the skin, pallid, seemed to emanate a darkness. She no longer resembled herself. What she had been was gone: it had been taken from her. The change was fearful, especially in her face. She had a face now that was for the afterlife and those she would meet there. It was hard for Walter to remember how she had once been. She was almost a different woman from the one to whom he had made a solemn promise to help when the time came. (p. 123)

It is Marit and Walter’s last night together. Their final supper has ended, the lethal injection lies ready and waiting in the fridge. We think we know how this story will unfold, how both of these individuals deserve our sympathies as they confront Marit’s mortality; but once again, Salter wrongfoots us in the most surprising way, a move that causes us to question our earlier assumptions about values, morals, intentions and motives. This is a highly memorable story, one that is likely to stay with you for quite some time.

In spite of the variability of the stories in this collection (I’ve skipped the lesser ones), the quality of Salter’s writing is never in doubt. As with much of this author’s work, there is a discernible undercurrent of sensuality running through several of these pieces, a mood that is matched by the elegant and graceful nature of the prose – you can probably see it in my first quote, the one on Adele. I’ll finish with a final passage, just because it captures something of Salter’s style, the way he can sketch a lasting image in just a few well-judged sentences.

At six, he somehow made his way home. It was one of those evenings like the beginning of a marvellous performance in which everyone somehow had a role. Lights had come on in the windows, the sidewalk restaurants were filling, children were running home late from playing in the park, the promise of fulfilment was everywhere. In an elevator a pretty woman he did not recognise was carrying a large bunch of flowers somewhere upstairs. She avoided looking at him. (pp. 84-85)

Last Night is published by Picador; personal copy

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.