Review of James Salter’s “A Sport and a Pastime”…
James Salter had written two previous novels and yet, in this, his third, he struggled to find a publisher for what would become his best known work. Taken up by The Paris Review, A Sport and a Pastime was published in 1967 and quickly became a cult erotic classic. But to call it an erotic novel would, perhaps suggest it is little more than a series of detailed sex scenes. It isn’t.
Written from the viewpoint of a non-descript third party acting as a voyeuristic observer, it tells the story of an American dropout called Philip Dean who drinks his way across Paris and the French provinces on the back of handouts whilst enjoying the fruits of Anne-Marie, a young French girl he takes from the clutches of a black American G.I. What ensues is a journey from lust into love and how both sexes view the relationship as it unfolds.
It is a relationship driven by sexual attraction and on that basis we can assume the foundations for longevity are shaky. Dean is consistently at odds with his lot, the lines between reality and the fantasies of the unnamed narrator become blurred whilst the bleak truth of sexual liaisons are laid out in stark and honest prose. Anne-Marie is a beauty but the author gives her bad breath and a poor background and between their physical encounters Dean is irritated by her, following a blow-out meal he cannot afford, she vomits it all back up and Dean’s sole concern is to find nobody is watching. It is, at times, the stuff of our own embarrassing, retrospective acknowledgment, moments in our past of pain and regret. For Dean it is the knowledge that the only tie that binds is a sexual one and once that breaks he is off, back to America and a tragic finality.
It is a compelling piece of American fiction by an author who loved France. Salter took the premise of a whirlwind romance between two young lovers and turned it into a dark and thought-provoking appraisal of the cost of sexual gratification over love and affection. In many ways it tells those of us sufficiently long in the tooth what we already know, lust seldom trumps substance and there is usually a price to pay for it. The male characters do not come out of this with any glory, the narrator, an older man transfixed by Anne-Marie and what he cannot have fares little better than Dean who, despite his flamboyance and character is seen for what he his, a chancer. It is Anne-Marie who, despite it all, will eventually find her way. She is the definition of a post-war France, the sexual liberation of the sixties and Salter writes about those sexual encounters with the energy and abandon seldom seen since Henry Miller shook the literary world of the 1930s by its very core.
Categories: The Reading Room