James Salter’s ‘A Sport and a Pastime.’


A Sport and a Pastime is considered – by Americans – to be an American classic. My first question, upon finishing the book, is, ‘What makes something a classic? What makes it ‘feel’ like one?’

In the case of James Salter’s novel, it’s a novel that has painted itself in the colours that Americans want to regard themselves. But does that make it ‘good’?

The other, probably most famous, book written by an American about Americans in France is Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. It’s a secondary work written by a capital-G ‘Great’ writer in his infancy, detailing his penurious existence in Paris as a nascent talent.

It is a beautifully written book that showcases his unimpeachable Modernist style.

It also draws credibility as an American ‘literary’ novel because of its Paris setting.

In A Sport and a Pastime, James Salter tries to spin a few of the same tricks. He employs a similarly taciturn style that Americans perceive as literary. It’s a style that is lit by its simple metaphors, like ‘the heater is as cold as glass’, which has a volatile quality, courtesy of the juxtaposition of two such seemingly distinct objects.

It doesn’t always hit, however. He uses glass as a metaphor at least three times for a range of objects which amounts to nothing as much as confusion (for this reader, at least).   

The premise of A Sport and a Pastime is that it is a tale told by an anonymous narrator who constructs a story out of his social proximity to two young people he knows; a young man named Philip Dean who has prematurely left his studies at Yale to travel around France and the young shop girl, Anne Marie, with whom he has struck up an affair.

The novel follows their affair, but is drawn entirely in the shades of what the nameless narrator imagines, based on what he believes his own life (and character) does not contain.

Early on, he says, ‘I am not telling the truth about Dean. I am creating him out of my own inadequacies, you must remember that.’

Again, it’s a kind of melancholy, loss-chequered story of the beauty of life, and young love, which are also ‘literary’ subjects.

Anyhow. The affair between Dean and Anne-Marie progresses as they travel through the countryside, its phases of deeper emotional involvement marked in terms of their sexual relationship; conventional, oral, and finally, anal sex.

I felt that I could hear the familiar feminist complaint about the girl, Anne-Marie, being rendered by a ‘dirty old man’ as an object, pure and simple. It’s a criticism that I’d have to agree with.

Anne-Marie doesn’t really exist except in relation to Dean, and she presents as a little girl sex object to be mastered and conquered by him.

Initially, she appeared to me very vividly, reminding me of someone I have loved. The way she sat; the dress she wore. The contrast between how much she knew and how innocent she appeared.

It’s a profoundly attractive illusion, but the story doesn’t seem to penetrate beneath the glare of her shimmer. I got the impression that neither Salter nor his narrator really knew Anne-Marie, or anyone like her, so Salter couldn’t make her real.

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