The Books: “A Sport and a Pastime” (James Salter)

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A Sport and a Pastime: A Novel, by James Salter

James Salter sneaks up on you. His writing is deceptively simple. Kinda like Hemingway. He reminds me a bit of Fitzgerald as well. You may think that Salter just describes surfaces (and does so very well – he totally transports you) – but you would be wrong. He’s unbelievably deep. I find his writing hypnotic … and I can’t really put my finger on what is so good about it … I just know when I read his books (and I’ve only read two of them: Sport and a Pastime and Light Years), it’s like I’m under a spell. Reynolds Price calls Salter’s prose a “dense net” and I think that’s perfect. The writer in me tends to stand back a little bit from James Salter, looking at this or that paragraph, thinking to myself, “How does he do it? What the hell is he actually doing here that makes it so effective?” For whatever reason, James Salter is not as well-known as some of his contemporaries (Sport and a Pastime came out in the 60s, it was his third novel) – and I’m not sure why that is. He’s accessible, too – there’s nothing opaque or intellectually distancing about his books. He seems to be interested in digging in to the sensory reality of any given moment. And so his books are full of colors and tastes and sounds … nothing calling too much attention to itself. He is not at ALL a “clever” writer. And you might be lulled into the impression that not much happens in his books. People sit around in a cafe and have wine. They walk home over cobblestones. They wake up in the morning and see the frost on the trees. But Salter is getting at deep truths throughout, moments of insight that are piercing – those moments in life when people are truly alive. And it’s not always a pleasant feeling – being that alive. Most people choose to dull things down a bit, to not walk around in such an aware state because it can be unbearable. James Salter, with no fanfare, no self-importance, navigates his characters through life and experience, showing us what they see, hear, touch, feel … and by the end (more so in Light Years than in Sport and a Pastime), we are rocked to the core. And because of the “dense net” of his writing, it is difficult to point to what exactly it was that moved us so much. You come out of the maze (his books are short, they can be read in about 3 days) and wonder where you have been, how long you have been gone … There is a piercing sense of awareness. He makes you see. I mean, how many writers can do that? The fact that James Salter is, in some crowds, considered a “minor” writer is ridiculous to me. This man is a major talent, a major American writer.

Sport and a Pastime is the story of a romance between an American boy and a French girl. She is 18, he is maybe 20. The way it is written, we are not sure if the narrator (who is first-person) is actually the boy – or just an observer. He goes into the bedroom with the two lovers, there’s a lot of sex in this book – it’s about the intoxication of – well, not first love – but first sex. These people have probably had sex before, but they haven’t gotten lost in it. But anyway, the narrator – who may be looking on … would have no way of knowing what goes on in the bedroom, unless his friend tells him what happened … But there are clues in the book that the narrator is not, shall we say, reliable. He tells us that what we read is not true. We wonder what his investment in all of this is. Why is he so obsessed with his friend’s sexual affair with the French girl? Is he living vicariously? The book takes place in a small rural town in France. Our narrator is living there, and Philip Dean – a guy who is kind of mysterious – it seems he was kicked out of Princeton and is now bumming around France – comes to visit him. They had met at a party in Paris. Philip Dean is the one who has the affair with Anne Marie, the French teenager. It is a summer of love. It was, perhaps, a more innocent time then – not as sexualized – so the discovery of the pleasures of sex for these two characters is an intense revelation. Sex IS love, in many respects – whether or not you ever say the words “I love you” and these two have a sexual combustability that rocks both of their worlds. She can barely speak English. He can barely speak French. None of that matters.

It’s one of those books where woman is completely “Other”. She is barely seen as human. She is an alien from outer space. She IS her parts. There is nothing there besides her body, which intoxicates Philip Dean. It is an intensely objectified portrait of a female – so if you’re turned off by that (and I am) – just know that going in. It’s not hostile objectification (although all objectification is, of course, to some degree, hostile – you’re not seeing the other person as, you know, a person) – I didn’t feel a disgust for femaleness or any of that other stuff that often comes with objectification. No … it was just that Philip Dean does not see her as a whole … and, I suppose, that’s what first love and first sex really feels like … You’re not looking at the other person, appreciating them for who they are, their life experience, their quirks … You’re all about what they smell like, what their thighs feel like, what they taste like. So I have no idea who Anne-Marie is. She IS her body, in all its weirdness (meaning: not like men’s) … she IS what she tastes like, how she fucks, what she smells like. We never get inside her brain. We can surmise what she is going through, based on her behavior … but Philip Dean doesn’t even seem to realize that knowing who she is, in terms of her brain, her thoughts, her psychology, is part of being in love with someone. He does love her. But there is something in the love affair that is inherently temporary for him. SHE doesn’t know that … but he does, even if he doesn’t admit it to himself. Is he slumming? Yeah, a little bit. He may have dropped out of Princeton (or been kicked out), and on the run from the American-dream expectations back home … but he won’t be on the run forever. He will eventually go home and join the rat race and stop borrowing money from everyone and make his own. (At least you get the sense from him that this all temporary … He won’t be an ex-patriate forever). And you just can’t picture poor little Anne-Marie being transplanted to the fast-track United States. She lives in a small village, with a billiard hall, a cafe, a church, and green fields all around. Her life is small. She cannot speak English. But of course sex is not separated from love (not for men OR for women) – and so she is probably spinning fantasies of being taken back to America as his wife. But from the little we know about Philip Dean, we know that that will probably never happen. It’s not like she is wildly inappropriate – he hasn’t fallen in love with a hooker, or a homeless girl … She is a perfectly respectable young French girl, but that’s about it. Philip Dean is not callous. In many ways, he does not know what is in his own heart (although our observational narrator often guesses at it) … and he’s not cavalier, he’s not a ladies’ man – You totally get the sense that he has never experienced sex like this before either. And I’m not talking about different positions or anything technical – I’m talking about sex as true communication between two people. He is blown away by that aspect of it. In that way, she is NOT objectified: he could only have experienced such a thing with her. They “click”, is basically the message of all of the sex scenes in the book.

But, like Fitzgerald, Salter has a way of suggesting that the end is coming, even in the midst of the summer blooming romance. There’s a wistful nostalgia in his tone, a sense that we are all middle-aged now, looking back on the time when we were young … and it’s heartbreaking. You can’t really point to where it is so heartbreaking, it is just an overall impression – from his writing.

To me, Light Years is a superior book – but Sport and a Pastime is what put him on the map – and I’m glad to see it’s been re-released, in a nice new edition, with a preface by Reynolds Price – and it’s given the props it deserves. Salter recently came out with a memoir that I am excited to read, I don’t know much about the guy. But God, what insight, what … EYES he has. I don’t know how he does it. There are times when it seems he is just listing objects he sees … but the cumulative effect of all of that is haunting. You begin to get the sense that you are looking at a world that is long gone. The summer he describes in Sport and a Pastime will never come again.

It’s difficult to excerpt, I have found – but I did adore the following section (here you can see what a great psychologist Salter is as well: his observations about a young Lothario in a bar … and what he SEES in such people. Seriously: so so good.) And also, just his powers of observation: sitting in the stands, watching a soccer practice … and the stands are almost empty … so there seem to be no sounds, no sounds from the players – just the thud of the ball … and that seems to me to be just so right. Imagine the scene, and how James Salter gets that detail so so right: the lack of sound. And the bit about the lady’s false teeth. In 18 words, 3 short sentences, he creates an entire life.

He’s marvelous that way. I’m observant but he makes me realize just how much I miss. So good!

EXCERPT FROM A Sport and a Pastime: A Novel, by James Salter

Four in the afternoon. The trees along the street, the upper branches, are catching the last, full light. The stadium is quiet, some bicycles leaning against the outer wall. I read the schedule once again and then go in, turning down towards the stands which are almost empty. Far away, the players are streaming across the soft grass. There seem to be no cries, no shouting, only the faint thud of kicks.

It is the emptiness which pleases me, the blue dimensions of this life. Beyond the game, as far as one can see, are the fields, the trees of the countryside. Above us, provincial sky, a little cloudy. Once in a while the sun breaks out, vague as a smile. I sit alone. There are the glances of some young boys, nothing more. There’s no scoreboard. The game drifts back and forth. It seems to take a long, long time. Someone sends a little boy to the far side to chase the ball when it goes out of bounds. I watch him slowly circle the field. He passes behind the goal. He trots a while, then he walks. He seems lost in the journey. Finally he is over there, small and isolated on the sideline. After a while I can see him kicking at stones.

I am at the center of emptiness. Every act seems purer for it, easier to define. The sounds separate themselves. The details all appear. I stop at the Cafe St. Louis. It’s like an old schoolroom. The varnish is worn from the curve of the chairs. The finish is gone from the floor. It’s one large, yellowing room, huge mirrors on the wall, the same size and position as windows, generous, imperfect. Glass doors along the street. Wherever one looks, it seems possible to see out. They’re playing billiards. I listen without watching. The soft click of the balls is like a concert. The players stand around, talking in hoarse voices. The rich odor of their cigarettes … They’re never there in the daytime. It’s very different with the morning light upon it, this cafe. Stale. The billiard table seems less dark. The wood is drawing apart at the corners. It’s quite old, at least a hundred years I should think, judging from the elaborate legs. Beneath the pale green cloth which is always thrown over it, the felt is worn, like the sleeves of an old suit.


It’s the old woman who runs the place. False teeth, white as buttons. Belonged to her husband probably. I can hear them clattering in her mouth.

Monsieur?” she insists.

Later on, about nine, there’s the hotel where there’s music in the bar and somebody at least, a few couples, sitting around. The three or four gilded youths of the town, too, slouched on the divans. I know them by sight. One is an angel, at least for betrayal. Beautiful face. Soft, dark hair. A mouth like spoiled fruit. Nothing amuses them – they don’t talk until somebody leaves, and then they begin little laughing cuts, sometimes calling over to the barman. The rest of the time they sit in boredom, polishing the gestures of contempt. The angel is taller than the rest. He has an expensive suit and a tie knotted loosely at the neck. Sometimes a sweater. Soft cuffs. I’ve seen him on the street. He’s about seventeen, and he seems less dangerous in the daylight, merely a bad student or a boy already notorious for his vices. He’s ready to start seductions. Perhaps he even says it’s easy, and that women are simple to get. To believe is to make real, they say. A chill passes through me. I recognize in him a clear strain of assurance which has nothing to imitate, which springs forth intact. It feeds on its own reflection. He looks carefully at himself in the mirror, combing his hair. He inspects his teeth. The maid has let him undress her. She hates him, but she cannot make him go. I try to think of what he’s said. He has an instinct for it. He is here to hunt them down, to discover the weaklings. I don’t know what he feels – the assassin’s joy.

I am modeling myself after him, just for the evening. As I walk home I see my image floating on the glass of darkened shopfronts. I stop and look at clothes. It’s like coming out of a movie. I have discarded my identity. I am still at large, free of my old self until the first encounters, and now I imagine, very clearly, meeting Claude Picquet. For a moment I have the sure premonition I am about to, that I am really going to see her at the next corner and, made confident by the cognacs, begin quite naturally to talk. We walk along together. I watch her closely as she speaks. I can tell she is interested in me, I am circling her like a shark. Suddenly I realize: it will be her. Yes, I’m sure of it. I’m going to meet her. Of course, I’m a little drunk, a little reckless, and in an amiable condition that lets me see myself destined as her lover, cutting into her life with perfect ease. I’ve noticed you passing in the street many times, I tell her. Yes? She pretends that surprises her. Do you know the Wheatlands, I ask. The Wheatlands? Monsieur and Madame Wheatland, I say. Ah, oui. Well, I tell her, I’m staying in their house. What comes next? I don’t know – it will be easy once I am actually talking to her. I want her to come and see it, of course. I want to hear the door close behind her. She stands over by the window. She’s not afraid to turn her back to me, to let me move close. I am going to just touch her lightly on the arm … Claude … She looks at me and smiles.

Mornings with clouds. Windy mornings. Mornings with black wind rushing like water. The trees quiver, the windows are creaking like a ship. It’s going to rain. After a while the first silent drops appear on the glass. Slowly they increase, cover it, begin to run. All of Autun beneath the cool, morning rain, the sculptures on the Roman gates streaking and then turning dark, the slate roofs gleaming now, the cemetery, the bridges across the Arroux. Every once in a while the wind returns, the rain moves sideways, beats against the windows like sand. Rain falling everywhere, on all the avenues and enterprises, the ancient glories of the town. Rain on the plate glass of the Librairie Lucotte, rain on les Arcades, on au Cygne de Montjeu. A long, even rain that makes me quite content.

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9 Responses to The Books: “A Sport and a Pastime” (James Salter)

  1. mercury says:

    James Salter is astonishing. A Sport and a Pastime is a cut jewel of a book; if you haven’t read Burning The Days, do yourself a favor and run to the bookstore. He’s one of the best writers I’ve ever read.

  2. red says:

    I’ve heard such great stuff about his memoir – I own it, just haven’t read it yet – but I’m very psyched for it!

  3. ambro says:

    Though already unwittingly a fan by way of his work on “Downhill Racer”, I was properly introduced to Salter through his autobiography, recommended by a friend. The subsequent publication of a re-edited early novel prompted me to read all of them in succession. I think this was probably a mistake: overexposure to all that spare, if magically wrought, fatalistic melancholia can curdle it into genuine vacancy. But it’s testament to his stature that I found in many ways this didn’t actually diminish him for me. Having said that I found my favorite of his novels to be the relatively off-the-cuff “Solo Faces”, and the best writing of all to be the autobiography itself, shoring up, as it does, against the above-mentioned tendency towards complete evaporation by also happening to be true.

  4. charles sullivan says:

    your review is right on target. freshly written. the novel is densely slim. it is indeed his keen observations.

  5. Pingback: here & now › THE YEAR IN BOOKS

  6. George says:

    Just started A Sport and a Pastime and love it so far! Very nice review and I agree … his writing is hypnotic.

  7. Pat says:

    It’s interesting what you have to say about A Sport and a Pastime. I had never heard of James Salter, and the only reason that I read his book is that Leah Stewart mentions the book in her novel Husband and Wife. It is supposed to be one of the character’s (in this case, the husband’s) favorite novel. I wondered what was so impressive about the novel and why the character regarded it so highly.

    Anyhow, I was less than impressed after reading it. True, Salter is a very good and the novel did remind me somewhat of Hemingway’s work, especially The Sun Also Rises. Salter’s writing shows a lot of restraint and understatement. At times, you almost have to read between the lines to realize what is going on.

    However, the two main male characters really bothered me. I perceived Philip Dean as a shallow cad, a playboy who was getting his kicks by traveling around the French countryside. I thought that the narrator was a separate character, not just another aspect of Dean, but then I wondered how he would or could know so many intimate details about Dean’s affair with Anne Marie. Either he was lecherously imaging what went on, based on the bits that Dean told him, or Dean was just a blabbermouth who confided everything that went on in the bedroom to his friend. In either case, it doesn’t say much for them. Basically, Dean fucked Anne Marie seven ways to Sunday and then he got tired of her. I felt sorry for her and didn’t really think of her so much as an “object” (although Dean obviously did) than as a young woman who had become deeply involved with a man who wasn’t serious about her, or at least was incapable of commitment. She was in love with him, and he wasn’t in love with her, or at least not enough in love to stay with her.

    I suppose it was fitting that the writer in Leah Stewart’s novel chose Salter’s book as his favorite. Maybe he wanted to experience first-hand some of the thrills of having an affair. Unfortunately, he decided to confess his infidelity to his wife. I am not giving too much away, since this happens early on in the novel.

    I heard Stewart discuss her writing at a recent lecture. She said that she is interested in moral ambiguity. Well, there you go. Who could be more morally ambiguous than the male characters in A Sport and a Pastime?

  8. Rupert says:

    I agree, Salter writes beautifully & poetically about France & first love. As you suggest, Hemingway crossed with Fitzgerald. It’s Yale that Phillip Dean dropped out of, not Princeton.

  9. sheila says:

    Rupert – oops, thank you for the correction. Will change when I have a moment!

    James Salter is just the best, a really superior writer. Thank you for your thoughts.

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