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’.
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.