When A Sport and a Pastime was published in 1967, the New York Times Book Review said: “Fiction survives through minor novels like this one.”Reading this book fifty years later, I’m testament to that statement.
With a reputation in the writing community as a “writer’s writer,” each of James Salter’s sentences reads like an instruction guide for how to write the correct sentence. While reading this book, I experienced a similar sensation to how I felt while reading John William’s novel Stoner, also published in the 1960s. In both of these novels, the prose is controlled and very hemmed in. They wrote before the days of “show, don’t tell.” Williams and Salter tell — and they do it well. “Telling” lends the story even more of an element of control. The novel is, under no pretense, a real life. It’s a controlled narrative.
And the concepts of narrative and control couldn’t be more applicable in the case of Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime. The novel is technically about the love affair between a young Yale dropout and a French girl. But things aren’t that straightforward in this book, which is just as much about memory & construction & archetypes & the way we mythologize people as it is about romance (and lust). The story is narrated by an unnamed narrator, who, aside from some brief lunches and dinners, is not actually present during the novel’s action. Instead, it’s constructed from his imaginings. As the unnamed narrator simmers and stews in his lonely apartment in Autun, Phillip Dean is driving through the French countryside with Anne-Marie. As the narrator longs for the woman who lives across the street, Dean’s raw sexuality lands him straight into the heart of every woman he encounters. Dean becomes an amalgamation of everything the narrator wishes he was. He is not a real person. But the narrator is. And the narrator creates a warm garret where Dean and Anne-Marie briefly carve out a world — the numbered days of a love affair ticking down with the thuds of a beating heart. So accurately and perceptively does Salter document the rise and fall of a connection that I questioned the uniqueness of my own experiences! Fiction: to know we are not alone.
“His devotion is complete; he is beginning to sense the confusion that arises from the first fears of what life would be like without her. He knows there can be such a thing, but like the answer to a difficult problem, he cannot imagine it.”
So, in addition to having some lurid and beautifully rendered sex scenes (it turns out the 60’s were pretty racy if you know where to look), the novel is chock-full of philosophy about the act of remembering. To make the story more complicated, the narrator is telling this story from years in the future. In the end, we find that the inspiration of the story comes from a place of memorial.
“Certain things I remember exactly as they were. They are merely discolored a bit by time, like coins in the pocket of a forgotten suit. Most of the details, though, have long since been transformed or rearranged to bring others of them forward. Some, in fact, are obviously counterfeit; they are no less important. One alters the past to form the future.”
I won’t say that this is an easy book to get into, because it’s not. The novel’s written in immediate present-tense, a sea of choppy sentences that convey the exact weather and place and time. Then, interjected throughout this immediacy is the narrator’s long-winded admissions that this whole thing is a dreamscape, a projection of his own inadequacies. Luckily for us — or for me — what I am left with is not the cold, sterile narrator who says no to life. Instead, there’s Dean. Dean in the car, Dean the Jack Kerouac of France, Dean cold and wandering, a sieve to emotion, a life without constraint.
It’ll stay with me, this book. Quietly, yes, but it’ll be there.