Farrar, Straus and Girard, 2006
I first became aware of A Sport and a Pastime while reading an interview with another author, about his favorite books. I’d never heard of either the book or its author, but the article offered high praise for both its lyrical style and its sensuality. I was intrigued enough to go buy a brand-new copy, something of a rarity for me. As an avid reader, as well as an erotic author, I was curious to see how well a self-styled literary novel handled the question of sex.
From the interview, I’d thought the book was relatively new. However, it turns out that A Sport and a Pastime was initially published way back in 1967. Furthermore, it is considered by many to be a modern classic. While searching for it on Amazon, I found Cliff Notes for students who were assigned the book in class!
The novel is narrated by a middle aged man whose name, if given, is unimportant. He’s an intellectual, a photographer, a writer perhaps. Certainly he’s a keen observer with a talent for vivid description.
Here is the first paragraph of the novel:
September. It seems these luminous days will never end. The city, which was almost empty during August, now is filling up again. It is being replenished. The restaurants are all reopening, the shops. People are coming back from the country, the sea, from trips on roads all jammed with cars. The station is very crowded. There are children, dogs, families with old pieces of luggage bound by straps. I make my way among them. It’s like being in a tunnel. Finally I emerge onto the brilliance of the quai, beneath a roof of glass panels which seems to magnify the light.
The narrator flees Paris to take up temporary residence in the house of friends, located in the provincial French town of Autun. His motives are a mystery. He seems melancholy, or at least moody, as he settles into the backwater and gets to know his neighbors.
Occasionally he returns to Paris, to participate in glittering, superficial cocktail or dinner parties with friends. At one such event, he meets Phillip Dean, an attractive young man from a wealthy family who has dropped out of Yale and is traveling, rather aimlessly, around Europe. A few weeks later, Phillip shows up at his door in Autun, driving a borrowed vintage car, and takes the narrator touring around the region. In a raucous club in Dijon, they meet Anne-Marie who is hanging out with a group of black men. She is obviously not innocent despite her long hair and sweet face. Later they encounter her again, in Autun, and Phillip begins an affair with her.
The nameless narrator exposes bits and pieces of Phillip’s and Anne-Marie’s relationship, chronicling their intense physical attraction, contrasting it with their difficulties in communication. Patrician Phillip barely speaks French. Anne-Marie comes from a poor, common family. Their expectations and assumptions could hardly be more different. Still, something luminous binds them.
The radio is playing. They undress in the winter daylight. Dean is a little embarrassed at his condition. His prick gets hard whenever he looks at her. He can’t help it. His chief desire is to raise her on it, exultant, to run her up into the sunshine, into the starlight, where she can see the world. They begin to dance a little, naked, in the early darkness, the music thin and foreign, their feet bare on the rug. Then they make love, she astride him, in the favorite manner of the Roman poets, as he informs her. He lies gazing up at her, his hands encircling her ankles. The rich smell of her falls over him. At the bottom of it all, his eyes lingering there, the mute triangle in which he is implanted.
How, though, can our narrator know these intimate details? He’s not present at these trysts, yet he describes them in achingly beautiful language. Is the love affair only in his imagination? He clearly identifies with young Dean, understands the younger man’s confusion and his overwhelming desire. Are these echoes of his own youth that he is projecting on strangers? Are Phillip and Anne-Marie merely figments of his melancholy nostalgia?
These questions are part of what defines A Sport and a Pastime as “literary”. The narrator admits his own unreliability:
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. But there is a real significance to the pattern that finally appears, which resists all further change.
Phillip’s and Anne-Marie’s relationship does not end well. We can anticipate this from the start. Youthful passion rarely endures in the best of circumstances. Meanwhile, Phillip is clearly too feckless and self-absorbed to return the love she obviously bears him. Though Anne-Marie wants to build a life with him, for him she is no more than the sport and pastime of the book’s title.
Nevertheless, the two young people share moments, days, and nights, that will burn forever in memory—theirs, the narrator’s and the reader’s. They tour France in Phillip’s borrowed sedan, visiting towns both renowned and forgotten, sleeping in cheap hotels (Phillip is perennially short on funds), eating in cafes, arguing, making love. They come from different worlds, but their bodies speak the same language. It is perhaps the only language they have in common.
Speaking of language, Salter’s prose is, as promised, exquisite: evocative, vivid, almost poetic in its concrete simplicity. The brief extracts above will give you some idea; nearly every page, I found myself pausing to savor some particularly lovely or apt passage.
The narrator, toward the end of the story, describes Phillip as a hero. I found this strange, though consistent with the narrator’s fascination with the young man. Dean hardly admirable, with his irresponsibility, callousness and lack of direction. His only heroic qualities reside in his unquestionable charm and his courage to engage life and love, without plan or intention.
The narrator, I believe, wishes he had these qualities. In fact, I think he’s a bit in love with Phillip Dean himself. He lingers on descriptions of Phillip’s sun-browned skin, his wiry body, his rampant erection. There are definite homoerotic echoes in this book. (I wonder if the Cliff Notes mention this?)