A Sport and a Pastime, first published in 1967, is the second James Salter novel I have read, and as different to the previous one (The Hunters, reviewed here) as it could be. Different in story that is, different in theme and content, but not in the sheer skill of its prose.
A Sport and a Pastime (which going forward I’ll just refer to as Pastime) is the account of an affair between a young American, Phillip Dean, who is spending some time in France and a rural shopgirl, Anne-Marie Costallat, that he meets there. Except that it isn’t, it is in fact the account by an acquaintance of Dean’s of his imagined version of their affair. An affair described in language which is often beautiful, always apposite and frequently highly explicit. Language which, however, cannot be trusted as neither Phillip nor Anne-Marie confide in the narrator and he is rarely with them to observe their behaviour.
Indeed, one of the more unusual aspects of Pastime is that the narrator is not merely unreliable, he is proudly – even boastfully -unreliable.
Certain things I remember exactly as they were. They are merely discolored a bit by time, like coins in the pocket of a forgotten suit. Most of the details, though, have long since been transformed or rearranged to bring others of them forward. Some, in fact, are obviously counterfeit; they are no less important. One alters the past to form the future. But there is a real significance to the pattern which finally appears, which resists all further change.
Later, speaking of Phillip Dean:
He has already set out on a dazzling voyage which is more like an illness, becoming ever more distant, more legendary. His life will be filled with daring impulses which cause him to disappear and next be heard of in Dublin, in Veracruz… 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.
Passages of this kind recur throughout the book, carefully judged, so that each time we start to accept what we are reading as potentially true, our narrator reminds us that in fact it is almost all his fantasy.
Pastime then is not a novel in which events can be trusted, nor indeed character. Phillip is largely a creation of the narrator, we do not meet the real Phillip, we meet the dream made from him. Similarly, is Anne-Marie truly as beautiful, as locked into the secrets of life as depicted? We do not know, we merely know that the narrator dreams her as such. Is there even a Phillip and Anne-Marie? At one level, no, we read a novel and nothing is real, at another level within the fiction, I believe so, but we know little of them.
With so little then on which to rely, what can we trust? Essentially, the prose and the descriptive power of the narration, whether true or not. The novel depicts scenes which may not have happened as described (where the narrator was present) and scenes we can be certain did not happen (where he was not). That said, the emotions described are real emotions, the acts ones that people do perform, whether those emotions were actually felt and those acts actually performed, that is quite by the by.
As the novel opens, the narrator is travelling by train to Autun, a town in rural France. Or possibly not, this too the narrator places in doubt, it may be another town entirely. The train journey is described in exquisite detail, in what is often (and rightly in my view) described as luminous prose:
Soon we are rushing along an alley 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 photographs albums, uncles, names of dogs that have died. And in ten minutes, Paris is gone. The horizon, dense with buildings, vanishes. Already I feel free.
Green, bourgoise France. We are going at tremendous speed. We cross bridges, the sound short and drumming. The country is opening up. We are on our way to towns where no one goes. There are long, wheat-coloured stretches and then green, level land, recumbent and rich. The farms are built of stone. The wisdom of generations knows that land is the only real wealth, a knowledge that need not question itself, need not change. Open country flat as playing fields. Stands of trees.
Even here, looking out of a train window, we are in the territory of imagined profundity, of imposed sensuality and of what is essentially a romanticised fantasy.
The difficulty in describing this novel is that it essentially amounts to pure description. Description of mood, of landscape, of dogs herding sheep and women on trains and people in cafes, of small moments of awkwardness and tenderness between a new couple, of sex. I could, and am tempted to, simply quote and keep quoting and let Salter’s prose speak for me. There is little plot here, the affair occurs, the narrator imbues it with extraordinary eroticism and a sense of foreboding at its inevitable end, Phillip after all coming from a country and more importantly class quite different to that of Anne-Marie. All we have then is just short of 200 pages of description written in some of the finest prose I have read in many months.
Returning to the narrator, one suspicion I had in reading the novel is that he himself lusts after Anne-Marie, as he does over another woman in town whom he also fails to make any approach to in reality rather than dream. The narrator makes of Phillip a heroic figure, a man larger than life possessed of vitality and more importantly of Anne-Marie. We are in the realm of prurience, what we read is beautiful, but may be merely the erotic longings of a man too inadequate to find a woman of his own. Consider this description of Anne-Marie’s birth:
Anne-Marie Costallat, born October 8, 1944. I was beginning high school and masturbating twice a day, curling over it like a dead leaf, when she was born, in a bed of violets as she says-all French mothers tell their children that.
At times in the novel it is easy to imagine the narrator may be curling like a dead leaf long after he finished high school. A point which takes me on to the core of the novel, the descriptions of the couple themselves, sometimes as they eat dinner or window-shop struggling to find topics of conversation, but always inevitably leading back to them together in bed, every imagined scene returning them to the same essential act.
She cannot be satisfied. She will not let him alone. She removes her clothes and calls to him. Once that night and twice the next morning he complies and in the faint darkness between lies awake, the lights of Dijon faint on the ceiling, the boulevards still. It’s a bitter night. Flats of rain are passing. Heavy drops ring in the gutter outside their window, but they are in a dovecote, they are pigeons between the eaves. The rain is falling all around them. Deep in feathers, breathing softly, they lie. His sperm swims slowly inside her, oozing out between her legs.
Most of the sex scenes are much more explicit than the above, often precise descriptions of what goes where, and how hard it goes there. Salter does not shy away from language that would shock some readers, using terms that in the 1960s were simply not uttered in public (and some which still are not).
Pastime then is an exploration of fantasy, it is also an exploration of a narrator who cannot at times help but impose himself or his concerns on scenes which he imagines taking place purely between Phillip and Anne-Marie. His insecurities, his inadequacies, constantly push forward and I suspect I missed a great deal about the narrator himself that a second (or closer first) reading would reveal.
Finally, a short word of warning. Pastime is a novel to read on a Sunday afternoon, without interruption. It is a work one should give time to, surrendering to its pace and to its descriptive richness. It is not a novel one should read on the way to work, bit by bit, an approach which robs it of much of its power and which near the end led to my counting pages to see how much I had to go. I am fairly confident that if you allowed yourself to enter the narrator’s world, it would reward, but reading it intermittently instead led to my feeling frustrated at the lack of incident and becoming a tad bored at yet another account of how wet Anne-Marie was and of the tightening of Phillip’s balls. I do think that was a fault in how I approached the novel, rather than one integral to the work itself, and I mention it so that anyone who reads this blog entry and is tempted to read the novel itself can avoid the same error.