James Salter, 1925-2015

June 20, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

A Sport and a Pastime
has long been one of my favorite novels. The author, James Salter, died yesterday. 

The novel was published in 1967. I don’t remember when I first read it – maybe in the 1970s. It had me at hello. Here are the opening sentences

September. It seems these luminous days will never end. The city, which was almost empty during August, now is filling up again. It is being replenished. The restaurants are all reopening, the shops. People are coming back from the country, the sea, the roads all jammed with cars. The station is very crowded. There are children, dogs, families with old pieces of luggage bound by straps.

Unmistakably Paris. The narrator is in the station and then on a train leaving the station.

Soon we are rushing along the valley of departure, the houses of the suburbs flashing by, ordinary streets, apartments, gardens, walls. The secret life of France into which one cannot penetrate, the life of photograph albums, uncles, names of dogs that have died.

Salter paints with quick brushstrokes, somehow finding the perfect details that convey the entire scene and an idea – that the narrator, an American, can never know this secret but ordinary France.  The names of dogs that have died.

At first, I was a bit hesitant to recommend this book to others, mostly because of the sex. Even the Times obituary is circumspect.

Controversy surrounded “A Sport and a Pastime,” a slender book dense with eroticism about an American expatriate’s affair with a young Frenchwoman. Their lovemaking is described at close range by a third party, a none too reliable narrator, in a story that has been called, among other things, “intensely transgressive.”

Any guesses as to what about the lovemaking was transgressive? OK. It was anal sex – in 1967 still a rarity for serious writers. Only Burroughs in Naked Lunch (1959) and Mailer in An American Dream (1965) come to mind, and they were using it to epater le bourgeois; these were exertions, deliberate attemps to be “transgressive.”  In A Sport and a Pastime, the anal sex is part of the love affair.

Strange that the Times is so prissy nearly three decades after they first decided the AIDS crises had made the phrase “anal sex” fit to print. I long ago abandoned my diffidence about recommending the book because of it.

The narrator presents more of a problem. His identity and his relation to the characters is ambiguous. We can trust him about what he sees out the window of the train. But how can he know what has gone on in the hotel rooms of the lovers (Philip Dean and Anne-Marie)? He makes no secret of his unreliability.

I am not telling the truth about Dean, I am inventing him. I am creating him out of my own inadequacies, you must always remember that.

But I confess, it’s mostly for the prose style that I reread this book.

Images of the towns. Sens. The famous cathedral which is reflected in the splendor of Canterbury itself rises over the icy river, over the still streets. . . . The little shops have grown close around it, cinemas, restaurants. Still, it cannot be touched. Beneath the noon sun the roof, which is typically Burgundian, gleams in the strange design of snakeskin, banded into diamonds, black and green, ocher, red. The sun splashes it like water. The brilliance seems to spread.

Snakeskin! I had looked at those roofs in Burgundy several times, but I had never really seen them.

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