The mise en scène for James Salter’s ‘A Sport and a Pastime’ is as follows: we’re in Paris with a bunch of youngish, good looking, rich, well educated, well connected, hard partying, jaded Americans. Sound familiar? Hemingway’s ‘The Sun Also Rises’ is a springboard and an inspiration for Salter’s famously notorious erotic ‘classic’ of American Lit. Gertrude Stein said that Hemingway’s book described ‘the lost generation’, that is the generation that had the stuffing kicked out of it by World War One, collective P.T.S.D. if you like. Everyone’s partying and fighting and fucking so hard in the forlorn hope that sheer sensation might deflect the general loss in life of meaning and purpose. It can’t, not for long anyhow, and that reckoning gives the heft to Hemingway’s book.
Salter’s novel is set in the sixties, no-one’s fought and killed (or is aware of Vietnam), and the collective ennui seems a rich kid’s privilege. Still, it’s sufficient to propel our unnamed protagonist far from the madding crowd to a village, Autun, in the heart of France, ‘the real France’. He is living in the big empty house of American friends back in Paris and trying to be a photographer. Soon he is joined by a twentyish Phillip Dean, a brilliant Yale drop-out son-of-a-rich-man who shortly begins an affair with a pretty local French girl, Anne-Marie. Our protagonist, who remains celibate and generally unattached throughout the book, imagines this affair, conducted in various towns throughout regional France, in explicit physical detail.
The sexual set pieces are presented as reveries. Our narrator knows nothing and is imagining everything. He is a voyeur of his own wild fantasies, his own grand erotic visions, and at this point, as the novel takes off, another famous twenties American classic is intentionally evoked: The Great Gatsby. We have one man (older here) trying to cast another man, whom he thinks greater than himself in every way, into the realms of myth, and also tragedy. I should mention a third American writer, Henry Miller, who wrote scandalously (for the time) erotic novels set in Paris in the thirties. I have read little Miller, but I’ve no doubt he’s party to all this as well.
Despite the above literary references, ‘A Sport and a Pastime’ is one of the most original novels I have read, or more to the point, I have never read anything else quite like it. The initial impression is that of pornography rendered as art (Nabokov would have loved it), but what therefore is the purpose? There is plenty of sex in good literature, but not, to my knowledge, as an end in itself. Salter is virtually consecrating the sexual act, in all its varieties. We can blather on about the artist (photographer) necessarily living a vicarious existence in order to create, that essential distance, and so on, but we still come back the protagonist’s obsessional focus on the sex, again and again.
My take is that Salter is providing a sharp update on Mr. Joseph Conrad and writing about ‘Youth’, with all the sexual scenes combining as a sort of extended radical metaphor. Because the type of sex described in the novel can really only happen when one is young, in that it is revelatory and experimental. These two youths have suddenly unexpectedly found a brave new physical world with one another, and they are exploring it and experiencing it to the absolute maximum. There is no love or depth, just extraordinary sensation, and so obviously, it cannot last in that form. While they sport, life is knocking on the bedroom door. In due course they will move on.
The most shopworn metaphor for Youth is that of the accomplished athlete, with their moment of divine grace and greatness inevitably passing as the body ages. For Conrad’s sailor, his first voyage is a wonder and revelation, although in reality it is boring catastrophe. Youth for Conrad is a chimera, a dangerous blindness. Salter’s not so cynical; unsustainable though it may be, the experience of his lovers holds a unique value for him.
And with these lovers come all the natural corollaries of youth: freedom, lack of responsibility, life’s unfolding sensations. What deflects it from pornography (aside from the writing) is that this really is about our narrator, this is the life he has not lived (I’m assuming), and can never live, because its possibility has passed him by (only mid-thirties, but still). So here we have the pathos, the depth, and readers may or may not respond to this, see the whole exercise as a kind of extended ‘artistic’ pose, and certainly this is one novel that could easily lend itself to parody.
But I fell under its spell. The sex scenes are baldly realistic; any actual eroticism arises from the beautifully wrought set-ups, the powerful moods that Salter creates prefacing and engendering each encounter. And Salter consistently writes superbly; it’s essential that he does for this book to succeed on the level that he wants. He loves and knows his France intimately, its cities and countryside, all rendered from a new world perspective toward an exhausted beautiful rich and inevitably melancholy old world in which Americans like him are adrift and do not belong. Neither does Youth.
Back to the sex. It is evoked pretty much entirely from a male fantasy perspective―Anne-Marie is a willing participant in Phillip’s erotic desires―also there is a power differential (rich boy, poor girl), but of course relationships like this do exist (not that I’ve had any), and the acute observations and vividly detailed descriptions bring it all to credible life. Female readers may demur. But if it is seen as metaphor, the sexism is not so important.
So yes, for me, all up, ‘A Sport and a Pastime’ is not a novel about sex, but about a sense of life, a sense of engagement with life, and belief what life might deliver, that passes from us all too rapidly.