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Time and "Sport"

This week, let’s look at how time is handled in “A Sport and a Pastime.”

In his great book, “The Perpetual Orgy,” Mario Vargas Llosa writes about four categories of time in fiction. There is singular, specific time, wherein the characters proceed in linear fashion. Scenes showing this kind of time are particular, discreet moments, often with dialogue. We talked several posts back about Umberto Eco’s comment that pornographic films tend to occur in real time, novels do not. But linear time (which is real time), is an essential part of fiction.

There is circular time or repetition. The imperfect tense, indicating an on-going action which began in the past is the hallmark of circular time. Whenever you encounter passages in fiction that are like, “He would get up at the same damn time everyday,” you’ve got circular time, my friend. I believe dogs tend to experience time circularly. Habit and routine. Woof!

There is immobile time, defined rather annoyingly as moments when time is neither linear nor circular. The action disappears and people become motionless, living in an eternal moment.

And there is imaginary time, the time that exists in the characters’ fantasies. A subjective time. This gets tricky, as all fiction is by definition imaginary. However, imaginary time occurs whenever you read about a character imagining or dreaming of something. Desiring and wanting. When we desire something or someone, it is not a linear event. We don’t desire someone for six minutes, forty-one seconds, and then this desire leads to making a grilled cheese sandwich. When we dream and desire, it occurs in a different time, a “day-dream” if you will. (I will). It is not circular though. You could write of a character, “She/he desired a BLT every day at eleven o’clock.” This would be circular, but it would not show the actual “desire for the BLT” experience.

“Sport” contains all four of these types of time, however one of the mysteries of the book is how the categories are blurred. Scenes that on the surface seem linear possess a kind of circular quality, dream-like, repetitive. This is fitting as much of the story is imagined by the narrator. (Come on—it’s “time” to admit this).


“’Don’t you get tired of being down there for months on end?’ Cristina says. ‘God!’

I don’t know what to say. They’re all looking at me. I’m really not sure. It’s not a question of being tired of something. It really can’t be compared.

‘What on earth do you do there?’ Alix says.

‘Well, I’m doing some work.’ A pause. ‘I’m doing a lot of reading—I know that sounds funny.’

‘It must be fascinating,’ she says.”

This snippet is from a scene in which the narrator returns to Paris and goes out with the Wheatlands and their friend Alix. It is not imagined by the narrator; it’s part of the story, the plot. It is imagined by the imaginary author of the book. The Wheatlands, Alix, and the narrator are all “real” characters, as opposed to creatures of the narrator’s imagination. It has a generous amount of dialogue and also some reflection by the narrator that reveals his inner thoughts and feelings. So the passage is linear, with a bit of imaginary time thrown in.


I’m going to go out on a limb here. I believe most if not all of the scenes with Dean and Anne-Marie have a strong circular quality. The narrator imagines their life together, their lovemaking.

“…afterwards she lies strewn across him.

‘You are bread and salt,’ he tells her.

‘Oh, Phillip,’ she says. They are lost in the darkness.


She does not continue. Finally, in a soft voice,

‘You are good for me.’

The last bells are sounding. The pigeons sleep…”

On the surface, this is a linear event. A couple lie spent from love-making, express caring for each other. It could be a particular event, but it could also be a sort of emblem for many episodes of lovemaking. In the same way, Dean and Anne-Marie are often shown taking car trips around France. They go to a new town, have dinner and go to bed early (those rascals). And this occurs again and again.


“There’s a photograph of Annie and her father and step-brother, the three of them looking directly at the camera. She is sixteen but seems younger. Behind them is what appears to be the railroad station, large windows, distinguished façade. It’s one of those ordinary little snapshots which illustrate the life of almost everybody. It was taken in the sunshine.”

This is not part of a scene where a character finds a photo and describes it as part of a linear scene. The passage is the narrator imagining a photo, imagining a younger Anne-Marie. We “see” the photo through the narrator’s consciousness but there is no one really mediating it except the implied author. There is no time. An eternal moment.



Most of the book is imaginary. It is the fantasies of the narrator about Dean and Anne-Marie. A project he creates during his winter sojourn in Autun. He imagines a young man he met in Paris coming to visit him, the young man becoming involved with a young woman, going off with her on long car trips, staying overnight in the towns of provincial France. Having wild sex. A tragic ending. Occasionally the lonely narrator travels to Paris to see the Wheatlands. He lusts after women but seems unable to initiate an intimate relationship. Only in his head, best beloved. Think again, please, about the title and the epigram that starts things off. Remember that this world is only a sport and a pastime—the implication is that there are two worlds, a linear and circular one, and an imaginary one.

Of course, a work of fiction is all fantasy, right? More to come on that one.

A further wrinkle. There’s a statement that indicates the narrator is writing the story from a future point, looking back on his memories. He is a photographer and describes the story as a series of snapshots.

So the presentation of time in “Sport” is very complex—what effect does this have?

Uh…it makes it complex?

Good answer.

We’ll pick this up next time.


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