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A Sport and A Pastime

This week, a new work of fiction, “A Sport and a Pastime” written by James Salter, published in 1967. I first learned of Salter belatedly after reading his 2015 obituary. In short order, I read “Light Years;” “Sport,” and two collections of his short stories.

The memory of a first reading might elide certain central features, leaving the reader with the sense the novel is the vivid story of an affair between Phillip Dean and Anne-Marie Costallat in the provincial France of around 1960. It is much more and presents challenging mysteries of narration.

When I described some of my thoughts about “Sport,” Dena said it reminded her a bit of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” in that both are about a narrator imagining the (more thrilling) life of someone else. And those someone elses are both called “Dean.” Huh. Smart woman—in all fairness, I believe Salter was a much more accomplished writer than Kerouac but I wonder if Mr. Salter may have found some inspiration in “On the Road.”

“A Sport and Pastime” is known as a book about sex. Writers are encouraged to read Salter to learn how to write about sex; the book is “classified” in Amazon’s key word system as an “erotic novel.” On the surface, it does seem to refer to 1960-era beliefs about male sexuality and women viewed through a man’s eyes—think Playboy and Esquire—by the way, both magazines lionized Salter. I think the book can be approached on this level, but that such a reading cuts out great depths of subtlety. The book does take on the enormous task, I believe, of trying to give clarity to such issues as, what is sexual attraction? And what is love? (or isn’t).

The title itself, “A Sport and a Pastime,” could seem to be trivializing love and sex, lumping both together with the manly ideals of sports and the need to fill one’s idle time. But no, best beloved, I think it’s deeper. The story begins with the quote from the Koran, “Remember that the life of this world is but a sport and a pastime.” There is a question of translation here, but I believe the quote suggests a more mystical shading—the idea that there is “this world” where serious matters should not be taken so seriously. And of course, this implies the existence of another world.

So some reviewers see the book as a shallow and sexist tale of a slightly older man exploiting a nineteen-old girl. Others see it as a homoerotic story of a man (the narrator) unable to express his sexual feelings toward another man and instead, fantasizing about the other’s sexual life. Well, a book can be a kind of lens that reveals things about ourselves. Any reading is legitimate.

I myself tend to be fascinated by creative structures of narration (eroticism is fine, too). Maybe this could teach me something about myself—that I am bossy and like to tell stories? Controlling?

Oh, oh.

“Sport” begins with an unnamed, male narrator traveling from Paris to the provincial city of Autun by train. The time is probably the early sixties. He has been in Paris, partying with friends who drink a lot and are very sexualized. One couple, the Wheatlands, owns a house in Autun but only go there in the summer, and agree that the narrator can stay there in the fall. He is a photographer and dreams of capturing Autun the way Atget captured Paris—in the camera’s eye.

The prose is gorgeous and lyrical. “This blue, indolent town. Its cats. Its pale sky. The empty sky of morning, drained and pure. Its deep, cloven streets. Its narrow courts, the faint, rotten odor within, orange peels lying in the corners.”

The narrator states he is in the “real” France, as opposed to Paris. But he goes back and forth between the two places, and while back in Paris, partying with his louche friends, meets a young man named Phillip Dean. Dean is also American and a Yale dropout. “Dean has a small, straight mouth and wide-set, intelligent eyes. Hair that the summer has dried. It’s of school-boy heroes that I’m thinking, boys from the east, ringleaders, soccer backs slender as girls.” Dean has been in Spain, and the narrator fantasizes about this, “Images of a young man in the dun-colored cities of late afternoon…Suddenly I like him.”

A nice mise en abyme (mirror in the text) occurs when the narrator visits the local hotel in Autun. He observes several teens in the bar—the “gilded youth” of the town. One is an “angel, at least for betrayal. Beautiful face, Soft, dark hair. A mouth like spoiled fruit…He’s ready to start seductions…A chill passes through me. I recognize a clear strain of assurance which has nothing to imitate…I am modeling myself after him, just for the evening.”

We will see later how this is a small model of the narrator’s relationship with Dean.

The narrator is alone, frustrated. He lusts after women—especially Claude Picquet—an attractive resident of Autun, but is unable to seek intimacy. He is easily rebuffed and discouraged. He is often empty and on the outside of situations he can only observe.

“Sport” is very much a story of a couple imagined by the narrator, who is of course himself imagined by the author. Layers of irony and self-reference.

We’ll get into this next week.


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