Title: A Sport and a Pastime (Goodreads)
Author: James Salter
Published: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1967
My Copy: Library Book
Buy: Amazon, Book Depository (or visit your local Indie bookstore)
1950’s France, an American middle-class college drop-out Philip Dean begins a love with a young French girl. But this sad, tender story of their erotic affair has been captured by a witness, a self-consciously unreliable narrator. This narrator freely admits that some of the observations are his own fantasy of the couple making A Sport and A Pastime an intensely carnal account of this affair and in part a feverish dream.
James Salter’s writing in this book is really interesting; he creates this wonderful imagery with the scenery, the colours, the smells and when it comes to the erotic side of this story this continues in a way that never felt crude or overdone. Sure the descriptions might feel really tame for our generation but there is a real lyrical way about the whole book that really worked for me. I will admit that I’ve not heard of James Salter before but I’m very impressed with his style that I would be curious to read more.
The relationship with Philip Dean and the French girl, Anne-Marie, is just wonderfully portrayed; there is no sense of love between the two, only raw passion. Anne-Marie has a healthy sexual appetite and she wasn’t afraid to tell him what she wanted which I find a little rare, especially considering the year this was written. While she feels like she is dominating at time, there are other times she feel really submissive and I think Salter did a wonderful job in getting that balance right.
The unreliable narrator was tricky to get used to; a friend of Philip’s from Yale, he was on holidays enjoying regional France but he seemed rather obsessed with this affair. You never quite know what is real and what is made up in his head, sometimes he will tell you but most of the time you are left wondering. It would be weird having a narrator standing beside the bed while you have sex so you have to assume that most of the sex is either his own fantasy or word of mouth.
I do like the way James Salter used this narrator to create this almost dreamlike story and I expect there is a lot more in the novel worth exploring. With a reread or two, I’m sure you will discover some interesting elements. I think Salter was trying to explore the emotions behind sex but sometimes that feels a little ambiguous; the tenderness, thrill, passion all come out rather clear but at times I thought there was an element of boredom and selfishness that was also coming out, just not as well.
A Sport and A Pastime is a wonderfully lyrical novel worth sinking your teeth into, the short sentences really give it a poetic feel throughout the whole book. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting but I am glad I gave it a try. I have to wonder why James Salter never had commercial success, was it because he was a misogynist? His style reminds me a bit Steinbeck and Hemingway and yet he isn’t as popular as the two. I’m not sure if I would read much more in the erotic genre but I will have to check out some Henry Miller or Anaïs Nin in the future.