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


The notion of a relationship becoming deeper and more profound as people begin to ‘transgress’ the boundaries of what a twenty-first century reader would describe as vanilla sex is also a time-worn strategy.

The writer to most conspicuously and effectively deploy it was D.H. Lawrence in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and since Lawrence, it has become difficult to employ that strategy as anything other than derivative.

I guess part of where the novel lost me, maybe the place it lost me entirely, is in the notion of Dean being a hero because he ‘conquers’ Anne Marie.

In my own experience, the real ‘magic’ of a passionate sexual relationship stems from the fact that intimacy begins when a woman consents. If Dean has done anything to induce consent, Salter and his narrator have neglected to celebrate it.

Again, in this sense, the voyeurism and prurience of the narrator made me somewhat uncomfortable during the sex scenes, like I was witness to things I shouldn’t have been privy to.

By the time I’d reached the last couple of pages, I was ready to let the novel go. The protagonist of the story, Dean, agrees to return to France to come back for Anne-Marie, but it felt as if he was actually fleeing to America.

The reality of Dean is that he is a spiv. He cadges money from everyone around him to fund his holiday, doesn’t have much of a sense of responsibility and if he’s a hero because he’s nailed Anne-Marie, then it just goes to show how little the narrator knows about being a ‘man’.

He’s exactly the kind of prissy, obnoxious child of privilege you want to punch in the face if you find yourself standing next to him in a bar.  

And then, in the last few pages of the book, Salter deploys its sovereign trick. Dean is killed in a car accident at home in the U.S. and it falls to the narrator to tell Anne-Marie of his death. Fate has caused him to bear a pivotal responsibility in their relationship.

And in so doing, Salter makes it plainly apparent how we create the people and relationships around us, from the fragments of their lives that we find and the way we pass them through the prism of our own existence.

This is obvious, of course, but this is the trick of great art: it reveals the extraordinary countenance of what is shrouded by the everyday and calls into question the manner in which we deliberately, if not consciously, conceal things from ourselves in the business of living functional lives.

Maybe part of the strength of the book is in the creepy, voyeuristic whispering of the narrator and, once he lets go with his clammy hands and fusty breath, I recognise that not only has he told me a version of the truth of Anne-Marie and Dean, he’s told me a deeper truth that binds the two of us, and every other storyteller and reader beyond.

Maybe what Salter has done is reveal the essential nature of all relationships, as dramatised through the act of literary creation.

One of the other features of ‘Great’ books is that they require more than a single reading. Perhaps now that I’ve seen the reveal, I need to read A Sport and a Pastime again. Perhaps the weak link in the novel, upon first reading, was me. 

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