Last week, we began to turn our keen minds toward James Salter’s “A Sport and a Pastime.” Let’s continue.
By definition, a work of fiction is not about “real” people or events, although that line has deservedly become fuzzy as most lines do. However, part of the excellence of fiction has to do with its believability, or verisimilitude, as they say. (Who?) So a work of fiction is a work of the imagination, of creativity but part of its excellence lies in how much the reader can be seduced into believing it’s true. For example, if you read “Love in the Time of Cholera,” how much do you believe that the story is true? Much, my friends. Much.
Reynolds Price, in his fine introduction to the 2006 edition of “Sport,” poses the question: How true is this narrator’s story?
A nameless male narrator is spending the winter in a provincial town, taking photographs and yearning for the town’s female half. While visiting Paris, he meets Phillip Dean, a young (twenty-one) American who has dropped out of Yale. This occurs on page nineteen of the 2006 edition—roughly ten percent of the way in, a figure of some significance. Ten pages later, and chapter five begins, “He arrives in the late afternoon…Of course, it’s a complete surprise.” It is Dean, come for a visit. He and the narrator “pal” around. It’s a very realistic, albeit episodic, portrayal of two guys having dinner, driving around in Dean’s borrowed sports car. There’s really no reflection on the narrator’s part about Dean’s arrival. Maybe that’s a departure from realism—if I had someone I didn’t really know show up at my house and invite himself to stay, I’d probably talk about it. Like, what’s going on here?
Then, the narrator returns to the house after buying a newspaper. Dean promises him a surprise. “You’re going to be pleased,” he assures me, stopping before the mirror to look at himself…” It should be noted that Dean is often shown in close proximity to mirrors—we’ll talk about that, best beloved.
The surprise Dean has is that a young woman, Anne-Marie Castallat, is joining them for dinner. They have dinner, Dean takes her home.
The narrator muses a bit—we’ll discuss. The next paragraph begins, “She was waiting for him at six.” It describes the first “date” between Dean and Anne-Marie—the narrator is not present. After a sentence in past tense, the account returns to present tense. The rest of the story focuses on a third person account, present tense, of Dean and Anne-Marie’s affair, interspersed with the narrator’s comments and occasional first person scenes of his own life.
What’s going on here?
Several possibilities occur.
One is that Dean really does come to the narrator’s borrowed house in Autun, really does have an affair with Anne-Marie, and tells the narrator enough about it so that the narrator can make a story of it in his own writerly way, perhaps with some imagination.
Another is that the narrator meets Dean in Paris and imagines a whole story about him—the story comes from the narrator, not from Dean, who is a sort of actor. A story within a story. This would imply that the story is not “true,” but made-up. (It actually is made up, of course, but the point is, are we to “believe” it?).
A third possibility is that Dean tells the narrator a story that is not true. Dean makes up the story. We really can’t be sure about this one.
My audience says, “Hold up, please. Aren’t most novels vulnerable to this kind of questioning? What makes you, Mr. Big-Shot, wonder about “truth” in this book? What makes “Sport” different?
Statements like this: “None of this is true…I’m sure you’ll come to realize that. I am only putting down details which entered me, fragments that were able to part my flesh. It’s a story of things that never existed although even the faintest doubt of that, the smallest possibility, plunges everything into darkness.”
Huh. A bit of a rabbit-hole, no? You’re contentedly reading a work of fiction and are seduced by it. You believe it really happened, or want so badly to think that it did. You trust the narrator, care about him. And then he says the story that you wish to be true is not true. Moreover, he continues to tell it with a kind of ironic resignation. As if he had no choice. You read about Dean and Anne-Marie’s sexual escapades and are basically unsure as to whether the narrator is reporting on things he heard about, or if he imagined the whole thing.
Imagine the difference if the narrator made no such statement. Or if he said, “It’s all true. It really happened. Dean told me the whole thing.” I suppose it’s safe to say if he did, you’d probably have that “faintest doubt” that it was true.