A Sport and A Pastime – James Salter

James Salter is one of those American authors who would readily find a place in my top 10 authors list should I sit down to compile one. I have been steadily working my way through his oeuvre enjoying gems such as ‘Light Years’, unarguably his masterpiece about an upper middle class married couple, and ‘The Hunters’, a poignant and searing tale of the exhilaration and disappointments of being a fighter pilot.

A significant time had passed since I last read him; now the time felt right to explore some more of his work. So I picked up another of his popular novels, ‘A Sport and a Pastime’.

A Sport and a Pastime
Picador Edition

It begins with our unnamed narrator travelling to a small town in France, Autun.  His friends Billy and Cristina, a well to do couple, have a house there and they have agreed to rent it out to him for a while. Billy and Cristina’s world is one of good food, parties and social gatherings. And it is in one of these soirees that he meets a young man and the principal character in the novel, Phillip Dean.

In the earlier parts of the novel, we learn that Dean is a brilliant student at Yale but decides to drop out as he is too bored. He and our unnamed narrator strike up a close friendship. Dean is everything, the narrator is not; confident, daring, with a remarkable zest for life, which only makes the narrator conscious of his own insecurities.

Dean then meets Anne-Marie and the two embark on a sensual relationship. That’s the plot and nothing much happens otherwise. Dean and Anne-Marie travel to various provincial towns in France in a vintage Delage, a car Dean has borrowed from a friend. They stay at hotels, eat at restaurants, walk around the town and make love.

But the interesting thing – this relationship and the description of all its intimate details are imagined by the narrator. This is no spoiler.

In the earlier pages itself, we get a glimpse of the unreliability of the narrator:

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.

In a novel such as this in which there’s not much of a plot to speak of, the language has to be strong enough to carry the weight of the story. This is where James Salter clearly excels. His prose is luminous and he has a way with words unlike any other author.

Here is a para at the start of the novel where the author beautifully evokes the French countryside as it flies by when the narrator is making his way to Autun in a train:

The hills close in and run beside us as we begin slowly to move away from the city. The windows of houses are open to the warm morning air. Hay is stacked in the shape of boxes, coops, loaves of bread. Above us the sudden passage of a church. In its walls, cracks wide enough for birds to nest in. I am going to walk these village roads, follow these brilliant streams.

Rose, umber, camel, tan—these are the colors of the towns. There are long, rising pastures with lines of trees. St Julien du Sault—its hotel seems empty. Shocks of hay now, bundles of it. Great squares of corn. Cezy—the station like scenery in a play that has closed. Pyramids of hay, mansards, barricades. Orchards. Children working in vegetable gardens.

And another one here where he is describing Anne-Marie:

Anne-Marie sits quietly and as Dean talks, becoming drunker, his mouth wetting, I try to watch her, to isolate elements of that stunning sexuality, but it’s like memorizing the reflections of a diamond. The slightest movement and an entirely different brilliance appears.

Another area where Salter is really good is writing about sex. The American author Toni Morrison once wrote Sex is difficult to write about because it’s just not sexy enough. The only way to write about it is not to write much. Let the reader bring his own sexuality into the text.

Salter clearly believes otherwise. There’s a lot of sex in this novel and in some passages more explicitly described than in others. But he carries it off; something not a lot of authors can do successfully.

And yet it’s not a perfect novel. Although Salter writes beautifully, the novel does sag midway and that is my main quibble with the book.

How will Dean and Anne-Marie’s relationship pan out? And will the narrator’s fascination with Dean continue?

One must have heroes, which is to say, one must create them. And they become real through our envy, our devotion. It is we who give them their majesty, their power, which we ourselves could never possess. And in turn they give some back. But they are mortal, these heroes, just as we are. They do not last forever. They fade. They vanish.


Bird In A Cage – Frederic Dard (tr. David Bellos)

One of the great things about independent publishing houses is that they release excellent books that have either been out of print or did not somehow get the attention that they deserved when they were originally published. Most of them are also champions of translated literature.

NYRB Classics, Pushkin Press, Peirene Press are some of these indie presses that have consistently introduced strong books to readers and brought back authors into the limelight who otherwise had sunk into oblivion.

Frederic Dard’s Bird in a Cage comes from the stable of Pushkin Press, under its crime imprint Pushkin Vertigo. Frederic Dard is one of those prolific authors with no fewer than 284 books under his belt. Very popular during his times, especially in the post war years, strangely he has been completely forgotten since. Not surprisingly, I had never heard of this author until Pushkin Press decided to gradually release his titles. Bird in a Cage (ably translated by David Bellos) is the first of many to come.

Bird in a Cage
Pushkin Vertigo Edition

The first few sentences just grab you.

How old does a man have to be not to feel like an orphan when he loses his mother?

When I returned after being away for six years to the small flat where Mother died, it felt like the slipknot on a rope round my chest was being tightened without pity.

Albert’s mother died four years back and he has come on Christmas Eve to her small flat. Why has Albert waited to come four years after her death? Why not then? Where was he for six years?

These are the questions that come to mind when the novel opens but we will only get an inkling later on.

It is not until he is in her flat, that her death really hits Albert hard. Suddenly he feels claustrophobic and depressed. He decides to go out for a walk.

On the way he passes a shop selling Christmas decorations from where he purchases a silver cardboard birdcage sprinkled with glitter dust. This purchase will gain much significance as the novel progresses.

Gripped by loneliness, Albert enters a big restaurant and settles down nicely to a warm meal. He looks around the room and at a table spots a young girl with a woman who he assumes is her mother.

The child was with a woman, presumably her mother. She had seen me turn towards them and was smiling at me, as all mothers smile when you look at their child. I had a shock.

The woman looked like Anna. She had dark hair as Anna did, the same dark and almond-shaped eyes, the same dusky complexion and the same witty, sensual lips that scared me. She might have been twenty-seven, which is what Anna would have been. She was very pretty and smartly dressed.

Who is Anna? Why does this woman remind Albert of Anna? We do not know yet. But it is enough to make Albert obsessed. So when mother-daughter leave the restaurant, Albert decides to follow them.

Albert is trying to throw us off guard though. But can we believe him?

Let me be clear: I was not following them. I picked the same street simply because it was the way to my flat.

They end up meeting in a theatre and after the movie, she invites him to her flat. Albert can’t resist the invitation.

All of this takes place in the first chapter itself. From thereon, Albert begins to feel that he is embroiled in a nightmare as a series of events take place in her flat that completely baffle him. Yet, he is so besotted with this woman, he can’t let go of her. This then is the brief outline of the plot.

For a novel of barely 120 pages, Bird in a Cage packs quite a punch. It is an unsettling, gripping tale and cleverly constructed. A sense of unease prevails throughout and there is a dream-like quality to the story.

Albert can’t make sense of what is happening initially. Is he hallucinating? Is he in a nightmare? What will happen later on, when he begins to get some sort of a grip on events?

Nightmares are personal things that become absurd when you try to tell them to other people. You can experience them, that’s all you can do…

Sphinx – Anne Garreta (tr. Emma Ramadan)

The blurb has billed Sphinx as a love story that delves into the nightclubs and cabarets of afterhours Paris. But it is much more than that. It is not just the story but the way that it is told that makes the novel stand out.

Indeed, it is all very well to write any kind of novel. But how about writing a novel by deliberately imposing a constraint and then writing within its confines? Not that simple. This is what the writers from the ‘Oulipian’ movement chose to do. The most illustrative example is the author Georges Perec. He wrote his book ‘La Disparition’ (which I have not read) by not using words containing the letter E in the entire text.

Anne Garreta chooses to do something similar; making this the first novel by a female member of the Oulipo.

So where is the Oulipian constraint in Sphinx?

Sphinx, in very simple terms, is a love story between the narrator (who is never named) and A***, who is a dancer from America. Basically, this is not just a love story but a genderless love story. And that is its main conceit.

Throughout the novel, the gender of both the narrator and A*** is never revealed.

A glimpse into the plot then. It begins with the unnamed narrator reminiscing about the time when he or she met the dancer A*** in a cabaret in Paris.

It is revealed to us that the narrator is an intelligent student looking to major in theology but somewhere along the line is gripped by an infinite sense of boredom. It doesn’t help that debates and the classes in general lack intellectual rigour. Not surprisingly, the narrator starts drifting.

A priest tries to be a sounding board to the narrator and help provide some direction. They start meeting regularly and ironically these discussions take place in clubs and cabarets. One such nightclub, The Apocryphe, becomes a regular haunt.

The narrator then recalls the catastrophe that takes place in The Apocryphe, which leads to him/her taking up the temporary post of the resident DJ in that club.

And so began what seemed to me a new life, but what seemed to all those who knew me the beginning of a resigned and aimless wandering. The Padre neither encouraged nor discouraged me from this new path; after all, he had been partly responsible for leading me into it.

Post the shift at The Apocryphe, a tour of clubs and dives followed with a group of friends. That is how they end up in the Eden and where the narrator meets A***.

Over many meetings, the narrator relentlessly pursues A***, who finally relents. What follows therefore is a whirlwind relationship between the two. But it’s not always easy as society, bogged by stereotypes, is all too ready to condemn them. Nobody understands why they are together in the first place.

At the Apocryphe and everywhere we went, people made remarks about our striking dissimilarity. They teased me over the contrast in colour between our skins, they stressed the difference in our mannerisms: the impulsiveness of A***’s voice and gestures, that wild exuberance and openness to the world, which by comparison underscored my moderation and reserve. A*** in turn had to bear the incessant prattle about my religious and social background. They painted a picture of my incomprehensible oddities: my isolation; my taste for solitude strangely coexisting with a sudden dive into this world; an unheralded abandon of a university career for the improvised post of DJ. For want of any intelligible coherence, they assumed I must be harbouring some kind of vice or perversion.

This then is a novel about love, its difficulties and the unimportance of gender. The writing shines too. It is indeed a feat that Garreta could write such a novel and still manage to not reveal the gender. Certainly, it would have been a challenging task in the original language French, where the construction of verbs in a sentence, typically gives an idea of the gender of the subject.

What about its translation to English? Here the translator Emma Ramadan has to be applauded too. In an illuminating afterword, Ramadan has pointed out the challenges in translating such a text and how she had to bend or rewrite the text in such a way that the gender of the characters is not revealed and at the same time the essence of the text is not lost.

In a world where pre-conceived notions about gender, race, religion and identity form the fabric of modern society, Sphinx does a great job in ripping it apart.

Deep Vellum Publishing Edition

After The Circus – Patrick Modiano (tr. Mark Polizotti)

I hadn’t heard of the French author Patrick Modiano until he came into the limelight when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2014. Clearly it was time to explore him.

In the Café of Lost Youth was my first foray into Modiano and I was hugely impressed. It only made sense then that I work my way through his back catalogue…and so zeroed in on After the Circus.

After the Circus (wonderfully translated by Mark Polizotti) is a deeply atmospheric and evocative tale set in Paris. It opens with the narrator (whom we later come to know is called Jean)  in a police station, being asked some questions, to which he replies but not always truthfully (for one he tells them that he is an adult when he is actually underage). We do not know why he is being questioned. Actually, neither does Jean himself. All we know is that the police found Jean’s name in an address book.

When Jean emerges from the room, he notices a woman (Gisele) called in for questioning after him. Something about her leaves an impression on his mind. He waits for her at a café and when they get talking, we learn that her name was in that address book as well.

The two are strangely drawn to each other and the rest of the novel charts how they spend their days walking around the streets of Paris; the city, beautifully evoked, and as much a character in this novel as Jean and Gisele.

Jean, meanwhile, is offered a position in a bookshop in Rome, which he welcomes with open arms. He puts across the idea to Gisele who consents to shift with him there. Given his past, Paris remains a murky city for Jean and Rome promises to be the place where he can make a fresh start.

Why is Jean haunted by his past? Probably, it has something to do with his father, who was always involved in shady dealings and is now on the run. The precise nature of these dealings is a mystery.

But there is something more that unsettles Jean. This is where we are introduced to a few more characters, Pierre Ansart and Jacques de Bavieres – acquaintances of Gisele – who convince the couple to run an errand for them. The purpose of this errand and its ultimate consequences remains vague, peculiar and strange.

This then is typical Modiano fare. His novels are impressionistic, suffused with atmosphere, longing, and always pointing to how imperfect memories are.

Throughout this novel a continuous sense of unease prevails. Is Gisele really who she seems to be? And as the two of them plan to escape Paris and shift to Rome, will they finally leave their demons behind?

After the circus
Yale University Press (The Margellos World Republic of Letters)