One of the great pleasures of literature is that it is possible to read a book a week for decades–and sometimes more than a book a week, and sometimes a lot of decades–and still encounter a startling, lovely book that you’ve heard about but not read.
And then page by page, you can’t believe you haven’t read this book and yet feel, at the same time, that you must have read it because it is such a summation of literary art, there’s so much Fitzgerald and Hemingway in it, there’s so much Cheever, there’s so much Paul Bowles, there’s so much William Maxwell, there’s such an original mix of the familiar. It’s old but it’s new.
For me A Sport and a Pastime has just been that book. I recall reading and reviewing James Salter’s last book, All There is, and not thinking much of it. It seemed forced, a bit staged, a last gasp (or grasp) of improbable love. But long ago, Salter published A Sport and a Pastime with all of his ingenious technique, phrasing, and gift for chucking plot in the wastebasket in the interest of delving deep into eros and life through the mystery of well-chosen words.
This is a novel that seems to be written by a young man, hidden away in France, about another young man, hidden away in France, having a profound encounter of some months with a young French woman, perhaps not twenty. We can’t be sure that the first man is making all this up–the story of the love affair, if it can be called love–but that’s the impression he leaves. The opening passages are fundamental, riveting, maddening descriptions of a train ride into the France where the writer, who masquerades as a photographer, plans to hide a while. He sees all the things you see in France. Old things. Old churches. Old fields. Old walls. And they are beautiful but maddening because you are not the one seeing them from the train window, he is. And then, more madness, a feckless Yale dropout has his insincere affair with the French girl in great, physical detail, and he’s not worth her. His signature quality is possessing a Delage automobile, ridiculously fancy, eye-catching, which by rights ought to belong to the elusive narrator, the one who can describe things (France, meals, breasts, sex acts) so well. But in his subplot self-narrative, the narrator doesn’t have a car and doesn’t get his arms around a woman he covets in Audun and doesn’t have any luck with another woman–girl, really–he’d like to take to bed. In the perverse way things work, he is subordinate to his imaginary friend, the one for whom Anne-Marie would do anything, front or back, up or down.
The lover is called Dean or sometimes Philippe or Philip. He knows, we know, the narrator knows, and Anne-Marie knows that he will leave Anne-Marie because, as her mother puts it to her, What has she held back with which to hold onto him? But anyway, while his leaving her is not happening and he is making her happy and she is making him as happy as he can be, not very, the two of them drive around “the real France” in the Delage and experience what many of us have experienced via the tantalizing frustrations of so-called travel, or touring, which is to say they see so much, so many hotel rooms, squares, dining rooms, that do not and never will belong to them–postcards in the mind–and so take refuge in one another’s bodies, moods, accommodations, quirks. This does generate spells of the erotic; somehow Dean is good for that; and it’s a spellbindingly frank eroticism, not too much, not too little, just the way it works. But even then, given that Dean is a wastrel, there is a lack of promise in the lovemaking; there’s a certain amount of technical calculation about avoiding what lovemaking might lead to, a counting of days before, during and after certain feminine events. But still, our narrator, going right between the sheets with Dean and Anne-Marie, can get it right without getting it for himself. The alter ego he is constructing for himself outmaneuvers and outperforms him. So that’s frustrating and realistic, too. Everyone always thinks everyone else is having what they don’t have, don’t they?
It’s all fascinating, really–a beautifully written novel that swirls languidly through the pages, overcoming its weak central character, demeaning its admirable heroine, enabling its onlooking narrator to torture himself with well-chosen, beautifully paced words.
This is really a very minor key Gatsby with zero glamour but much more erotic intimacy. The sadness of it is the evanescence of touch.