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The Sexual Novel: James Salter's A Sport and a Pastime.

Reynolds Price called James Salter's A Sport and a Pastime (1967) "as perfect as any American fiction I know." (1) But this admirable novel has two notable imperfections. The narrator admits that he describes scenes that he cannot possibly have witnessed. And the theme stated by the hero and the narrator is different from the one that emerges from the characters and action. Salter's comments on the novel describe a different book than the one he actually wrote.

Salter's short, compressed novel, the story of a love affair, takes place in 1962-63. The two main characters are Phillip Dean, a twenty-four-year-old American, and his lover Anne-Marie Costallat, an eighteen-year-old French girl. Phillip is a schoolboy hero and math prodigy who has dropped out of Yale after a year, traveled in Mexico and California, and is trying to find his true self. He comes from a wealthy family but has no money of his own, and must borrow funds from his father, sister, sister's friend, and the narrator. His mother has committed suicide. Their story is told by an unnamed, thirty-year-old narrator whose life touches but is quite separate from theirs. It begins with the narrator's autumn train journey from the Gare de Lyon in Paris to Autun, a provincial town 185 miles southeast of the capital, and ends with Phillip's trip back to Paris the following summer. The book is based on Salter's own experience. During the Berlin crisis in 1961 he was recalled to active duty as an Air Force pilot. Married to a wife left behind in America, he was stationed in Chaumont in central France, where he had a love affair with a local girl.

Phillip penetrates the secret life of France through Anne-Marie, who "is able to summon up all of the black countryside that surrounds them." (2) He first sees her in a dance hall in Dijon and soon rescues her from the company of American soldiers. Born in Nancy, she is the daughter of a Belgian father who divorced her mother and remarried, and has inherited a difficult stepfather. She has been seduced the previous year, during her first summer away from home, by an Italian waiter. Anne-Marie has a shop girl's face, wears cheap clothes, looks like a tramp, and is not sufficiently presentable to introduce to his family. He disapproves of Anne-Marie's interest in trashy magazines, but does not try to teach her or improve her taste. With scant knowledge of each other's language, they have little to say and are mostly silent. Their talk is inevitably banal: her shoes and her work at the office. They express their feelings in sex.

Anne-Marie is attracted to Phillip's luxurious Delage automobile, which he has borrowed from a friend and is part of the glamorous image he wants to convey. (He has also borrowed money, the house in Autun, and even, as it were, Anne-Marie herself.) The low-slung car--with a long hood, high metal grill, and huge yellow headlights--can reach a speed of 100 miles per hour. At one point, Phillip is stopped by the police for reckless driving and he sees a fatal motorcycle accident that foreshadows his own death. His dangerous driving in this novel matches the daring downhill skiing, mountain climbing, and wartime flying in Salter's other works. The lovers have no real destination--the journey not the arrival matters--and enjoy the pure pleasure of restless, escapist wanderings from Burgundy to Brittany. Apart from visits to the chateaux on the Loire, they avoid churches, museums, and tourist sites, and confine themselves to sitting in cafes, looking at storefronts, and walking along the rivers. Their aimless trip is the external representation of their leisurely exploration of each other.

Anne-Marie is not a nymphomaniac, but is willing to please Phillip in every possible way. Always eager to arouse him, she is even more keen on sex than he is. The rhythm of Salter's lyrical prose matches the rhythm of their bodies as they move together, and their passion is all the more intense because it cannot last. Their carnal duet and desperate spasms move from Blakean innocence to experience and are as elaborate as the rich recipes of Brillat-Savarin. Their milieu is also suffused with sex. As they eat crayfish, "the hidden juices spurt" (68) and "they begin an Olympian act as the freight [trains] slam together in the distance" (115). Phillip begins their affair by undressing her, and they have inventive sex across pillows, over a chair, during her period, in the shower, while dancing, half-dressed at a party, in a moving car, and in every imaginable Kama Sutra position and perversion. She twice praises his performance and, breathing heavily, explains, "That's the best" and "the best ever" (101, no).

In his Introduction to the Modern Library reprint, Salter slyly alludes to his influential predecessor Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928) by recalling, "I think back to a once-infamous book in a locked case in the library which I opened with almost trembling hands." (3) Lawrence had boldly advocated "the warm blood-sex that establishes the living and re-vitalizing connection between man and woman," (4) and his courageous fight for literary freedom had blazed the trail. Lawrence's novel places his characters in a historical and social setting, and shows how the sexual connection between Connie and Mellors enables them to break out of a dead civilization. Forty years later, Salter did not have to struggle against social convention, suffer suppression of his novel and face legal penalties, or justify his sexual descriptions. Pursuing Lawrence's theme, he chose to focus on the sexual life alone, and meets the challenge of sustaining the reader's interest. In his fictional tour de force, he vividly describes a long series of increasingly intense sexual scenes that culminate in anal intercourse. Dylan Thomas declared, "There are only three vocabularies at your disposal when you talk of sex: the vocabulary of the clinic, of the gutter, & of the moralist." (5) Salter followed Lawrence by combining low gutter words with heightened lyrical description.

Lawrence's Mellors seems to believe that he can never really conquer and possess Connie until she completely surrenders and he sodomizes her. His ultimate penetration must transcend taboo and pain, repulsion and disgust. Lawrence's soaring description moves from a primeval to an Edenic setting, from shame to purged of shame. In anal sex, Mellors and Connie reach the core of the physical jungle, the last and deepest recess of organic shame. The phallus alone could explore it. And how he had pressed in on her! And how, in fear, she had hated it. But how she had really wanted it! She knew now. At the bottom of her soul, fundamentally, she had needed this phallic hunting out, she had secretly wanted it, and she had believed that she would never get it. Now suddenly there it was, and the man was sharing her last and final nakedness, she was shameless. (6)

Lawrence also provides the vital social context. Mellors and Connie's emotional and sexual commitment overcomes class differences, Clifford Chatterley's wartime paralysis, and her adultery. As sex transcends class through the tenderness and touch that Mellors has taught her, they both look to the future and plan to marry, emerge from the tragedy of war wounds and failed marriages, and begin a new life.

Halfway through Salter's novel Phillip, testing Anne-Marie's submission to his will and the limits of his sexual curiosity, reveals the act he most desires. Doubting it can be pleasurable, she fears that it will hurt. He tries to reassure her by explaining, "if it does we can stop. We can try it" (108). Their anti-romantic buggery, too crude to describe, is indirectly suggested by the mention of lubricant, coating, Vaseline and graisse (grease).

Before the first of five anal penetrations, Anne-Marie feels condemned and begs him, "Ne me fait pas mal" (Do not hurt me). Rivaling Lawrence, Salter elevates Anne-Marie's tight, twitching flesh and Phillip's delirious sword-thrusts into a rapturous sexual sonata:

His arms are trembling. Suddenly he feels her flesh give way and then, deliciously, the muscle close about him. He tries not to press against anything, to go in straight. She is breathing quickly, and as he withdraws on the first stroke he can feel her jerking with pleasure. It's the short movements she likes. She thrusts herself against him. Moans escape her. Dean comes--it's like a hemorrhage--and afterward she clasps him tightly.

When he asks if she liked it, she gratefully replies "Beaucoup" (118-19).

Lawrence's Mellors wants to burn out the deepest shame, to achieve the greatest form of intimacy. Salter's Phillip, a demanding but considerate lover, wants to please himself and satisfy Anne-Marie, but his interest in her is confined to their erotic life. In their last encounter Phillip reverts to the Lawrencean theme of tenderness, an alternate tide to Lady Chatterley's Lover: "Dean makes love to her with great tenderness, kissing her shoulders, listening to her breath. It's as if he's never done it before" (183). Ironically, his new delight occurs as he decides to leave her.

Salter's narrator, an amateur photographer, is an unusual feature of the novel. Observant and perceptive, with a retentive memory stimulated by all five senses, he moves in and out of the lives of the lovers. They tell him some of the events in their life and he fervently imagines their sexual scenes. But there is no attempt, as in Proust, to eavesdrop, look through keyholes, read letters, or relate second-hand gossip; and Phillip never boasts about his sexual life with Anne-Marie. The narrator, in fact, cannot possibly know everything he describes and reminds us throughout that he is only a marginal and vicarious participant in the story. He admits that the lovers "vanish into hotel rooms--one cannot follow. There are long silences filled with things I ache to know.... I am not telling the truth about Dean, I am inventing him" (46, 85).

Salter rejected the traditional omniscient narrator and tried to defend his use of what the narrator could not possibly know. But his explanation is as unreliable as the narrator himself. In his Introduction to the Modern Library reprint Salter conceded, as if he had not created his own narrator, that readers have wondered "how much of what he relates is invented or imagined. Very little, in my opinion. I am impressed by his powers of observation and tend to trust his description of scenes." (7) In this cunning manner, Salter hinted at the basic function of the narrator: to aestheticize the sex scenes and put an objective screen between them and the reader. A first-person narrator would have been too egoistic and boastful about his sexual exploits. The narrator in the novel distances the erotic scenes while making them more vivid.

Salter has divided his remembered self into his narrator and his hero. In his Paris Review interview he explained that the narrator serves "as an intermediary between the book and the reader.... You could say it's me." The lovers include the narrator in their sex life without him actually participating, which makes them more unusual and interesting. The narrator's voyeurism "is immensely exciting. You are seeing something forbidden, something absolutely natural and unrehearsed; someone unaware of being observed." (8)

There is a dramatic contrast between Phillip's gratification and the narrator's frustration. Phillip offers fragmentary hints about his life, the narrator reflects and records them. But his imagination runs riot in what Norman Mailer called "sexual newsreels." He becomes vertiginous when recounting the ingenious variations of the forty-one sexual scenes, which surpass the frantic fornications in the works of Samuel Pepys, Giacomo Casanova, and James Boswell. The narrator's erotic existence is dreamy, mixing memory and desire, more absorbed in Phillip's sex life than his own: "It seems not to be his own life he is living, but another, the life of some victim" (164). He longs for the divorced and potentially available Claude Piquet, who leaves him weak, with tingling hands that want to touch her. (Phillip can never stop touching Anne-Marie.) But the narrator cannot fulfill his Gatsby-like yearning. His fantasies crash when he finally discovers that she has been seeing a young student and is going to marry him.

Salter's narrator performs a function that Henry James perfected: the American observer in Europe, telling the story of an innocent abroad.

Alternating between Henry James and Henry Miller, Salter occasionally uses gutter words (cock, cunt, fuck). But his graceful novel soars aloft on the beauty of his luminous style, which sustains the sex scenes as snow sustains the skier. There are many striking sentence fragments and startling similes--fields "pale as bread, others sea-dark," girls "with ankles white as soap," bookshelves "illuminated from below like an historic facade"--and many elaborate descriptions of dining and lovemaking, driving and landscapes (11,16,22). He evokes, in lucid, incantatory style, "This blue, indolent town. Its cats. Its pale sky. The empty sky of morning, drained and pure. Its deep, cloven streets. Its narrow courts, the faint, rotten odor within, orange peels lying in the corners" (15).

One fine passage combines myth and motoring, scenery and sex, with a romantic nostalgia for this glorious period of Salter's hot youth:

[I]n that great car that exists for me in dreams, like the Flying Dutchman, like Roland's horn, that ghosts along the empty roads of France, its headlights faded, its elegance a little shabby; in that blue Delage with doors that open backwards, knees touching, deep in the seats they drive towards home. The villages are fading, the rivers turning dark. She undoes his clothing and brings forth his prick, erect, pale as a heron in the dusk, both of them looking ahead at the road like any couple. Her fingers form a ring which she gently slips onto it and then causes, cool, to descend. Her slim fingers. (109)

His prick appears unexpectedly as they pretend nothing unusual is happening.

Salter learned from the style of other modern masters. He echoes the famous rising and descending rhythm of the final sentence of Joyce's "The Dead" (1914). Joyce concludes that snow "was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves." (9) Salter recalls this passage by writing, "the wind returns, the rain moves sideways, beats against the windows like sand. Rain falling everywhere, on all the avenues and enterprises, the ancient glories of the town" (34).

Hemingway also made his mark on this novel. He nicknamed his oldest son Bumby; Billy Wheatiand calls his wife Bummy. In The Sun Also Rises (1926) Hemingway notes that Brett Ashley "was built with curves like the hull of a racing yacht." (10) Salter describes the "Rue St. Pancrace curving down like a woman" (21). Hemingway's clear, direct, and sensual style recurs when Phillip declares, "[W]e stop in at the [Cafe] Foy. It's nice to enter, to be inside. The wood on the floor feels good" (42). In both Across the River and into the Trees (1950) and A Sport and a Pastime, an American man and a foreign woman meet in her country: in Italy and in France. In both novels, the adoring girl flatters the man's ego, and they are cocooned and isolated from the political events of the outside world. The characters frequently make love, but there is more talk than action. Their liaisons are doomed and both men die at the end.

Though Anne-Marie satisfies Phillip's deepest sexual desires, the dice are loaded against her and she will always lack the requisite social skills and intellectual qualities. He is ashamed of her imperfections and even her sexual abandon, which seems too indecorous for his future consort. So slivers of his discontent gradually begin to emerge. The narrator suggests the change of mood by alluding to Canto V of Dante's Inferno and noting, "Great lovers lie in hell, the poet says" (100). Like Paolo and Francesca on their eternally swirling cloud, Phillip and Anne-Marie become isolated and unhappy in their perpetuum mobile Delage. The narrator mentions a series of unpleasant physical details that emphasize the reality of intimate lives: Anne-Marie's bad breath and pimples, farts and vomit, menstrual blood and dangling tampon string; Phillip's sperm in her mouth and dripping out of her parts. All this undermines the romance (mainly supplied by the narrator) and suggests that her animal self and lust in action, for all its exquisite appeal, has become repellent to him.

As Phillip feels guilty about his plan to abandon Anne-Marie, her existence blackens his life. Like plagues in paradise, their lyrical delights are constantly undercut and they endure two surprisingly negative sexual episodes. They experience "Mechanical love. Senseless love. She is dry, and that makes it worse" (114). He complains that he is too tired for sex, but submits to another bout of mechanical movement: "She starts to caress him, he cannot escape her hands. Finally he begins, obediently, to make love, working himself in from side to side like a lever. It's a little dry, this prescription, but she suffers it" (166). They have very different ideas about the future. Anne-Marie hopes for marriage and a release from boring Autun. Phillip does not want to marry her, especially if she gets pregnant. He thinks his life would be better without her and is pierced by guilt as every hour moves them closer to the end. He lies to her and swears on the head of his (suicidal) mother that he will come back from America, but she does not believe him.

The women in this novel are either supportive and shallow or bitter and caustic. Phillip's rich, attractive, and glamorous friends, Billy and Cristina Wheadand, constantiy sniping at each other, provide a dismal example of a deteriorating marriage, and a warning of what may happen to him. Billy mentions their house in Autun, where they used to go before they were married. To which Cristina aggressively adds, "when we were sleeping together" (76). Later on, Cristina makes an obscene gesture when Billy burns the eggs and he gives her a Bogart-like warning, "Keep it up.... You're going to get it" (142).

Billy and Cristina resemble another major influence on A Sport and a Pastime: Tom and Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby (1925). They are also people with money and taste who seek pleasure and are rich together. Like Daisy, Phillip fears a life of endless boredom. Daisy asks, "What'11 we do with ourselves this afternoon?.. and the day after that and the next thirty years?" (11) Phillip similarly thinks, "After breakfast it is quite a long time until lunch, and after lunch, the whole afternoon" (169). Like Daisy (and Zelda Fitzgerald) Cristina has "this intimation of sexual wealth. Billy always talks about how beautiful she is. It's almost as if he's protesting: but she is beautiful. And she is. Their life is arranged to exhibit this beauty" (79-80). But underneath, she is a desperate woman.

By the end of the novel Anne-Marie has submitted to exactly the kind of marriage, with a generic husband, that Phillip feared and she hoped to avoid. It is less adventurous and less sexually exciting, though more secure, than what she might have had with him. The narrator states, ironically, "I suppose there are children. They walk together on Sundays, the sunlight falling upon them. They visit friends, talk, go home in the evening, deep in the life we all agree is so greatly to be desired" (191). As in Nabokov's Lolita, Anne-Marie's youth ends anticlimactically. The once sexy young girl is now older and married with a child in a settled bourgeois life.

In its deliberately narrow focus, sparse dialogue and limited action, A Sport and a Pastime reads like a French recit, and resembles two classic short novels--Abbe Prevost's Manon Lescaut (1731, mentioned on page 46) and Benjamin Constant's Adolphe (1816). Both works also emphasize the thoughts and feelings of isolated and doomed lovers. Phillip expresses the apparent theme of the novel when he tells his sister Amy:

Life is composed of certain basic elements.... In all of us, there's the desire to find those elements.... We look at the Greeks and say, ah, they built this civilization, this whole brilliant world, out of certain, simple things. Why can't we? ... Why can't each of us, properly directed, build a life, I mean a happy life?" (156)

But even the Greeks were unable to realize the Platonic ideal of elevating sexual relations from the physical to the spiritual realm.

The narrator, in what he considers a shameful criminal act, lends Phillip the money for his plane fare that allows him to escape from Anne-Marie. After Phillip is killed in a car accident in America, his beloved Delage is not recovered by its owner and seems to die with him: "It's parked under the trees near the house and locked, but like a very old man fading, it has already begun to crumble before one's eyes" (190). Apres moi, le Delage. The narrator, loyally though unconvincingly, exclaims that he is able to keep Phillip's glamorous memory alive: "Dean never died--his existence is superior to such accidents. 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" (191).

In his Paris Review interview Salter stated that the novel was intended to be "more or less a guide to what life might be, an ideal." (12) But he expresses the theme he meant to portray instead of the one that actually appears in the novel. As Lawrence wisely warned in Studies in Classic American Literature, "Never trust the artist. Trust the tale." (13) Salter's often ignored epigraph from the Koran (57.19) runs counter to the spirit of the novel and illuminates the covert meaning: "Remember that the life of this world is but a sport and a pastime." In this belief, the Koran echoes Ecclesiastes 1.2: "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity." The failure of Phillip and Anne-Marie to form an enduring relationship powerfully suggests that sex is merely a diversion and amusement that cannot be the basis of an ideal life. The all-consuming pastime of sex finally separates the lovers instead of bringing them together.

Like Salter's Light Years (1975), which portrays the stages of disillusion, withdrawal, and hostility that destroy an apparently perfect love, A Sport and a Pastime undermines the naive American belief that the possibilities of life are unlimited and all the glittering prizes can be attained. The ultimate theme of the novel is darker and more complex than Salter suggests. Phillip's striving for a perfect but unattainable life comes right out of Jay Gatsby's fantasies and longings: "Daisy tumbled short of his dreams--not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion"14 Phillip and Anne-Marie's idyllic love affair inevitably ends in bitterness, loss, and illusions perdues.

JEFFREY MEYERS has had thirty-three of his books translated into fourteen languages and seven alphabets, and published on six continents. In 2012 he gave the Seymour lectures on biography at the National Libraries of Australia. He has recently published Remembering Iris Murdoch in 2013, Thomas Mann's Artist-Heroes in 2014, Robert Lowell in Love and The Mystery of the Real: Correspondence with Alex Colville in 2016.


(1.) Reynolds Price, "Famous First Words: Well Begun is Half Done," New York Times Book Review, June 2, 1985, p. 3.

(2.) James Salter, A Sport and a Pastime (San Francisco: North Point, 1985), p. 129.

(3.) James Salter, Introduction to A Sport and a Pastime (New York: Modern Library, 1995), P- vii.

(4.) D.H. Lawrence, "A Propos of Lady Chatterley's Lover," Sex, Literature and Censorship (NY: Viking, 1969), p. 104.

(5.) Dylan Thomas, The Collected Letters, ed. Paul Ferris (New York: Macmillan, 1985), p. 50.

(6.) D.H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley's Lover (New York: Signet, 1959), p. 232.

(7.) Salter, Introduction to A Sport and a Pastime, p. viii.

(8.) James Salter, with Edward Hirsch, "The Art of Fiction," Paris Review, 127 (Summer 1993), 79

(9.) James Joyce, "The Dead," Dubliners (London: Penguin, 1956), p. 220.

(10.) Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises (New York: Scribner's, 1926), p. 22.

(11.) F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (New York: Scribner's, 1925), p. 118.

(12.) James Salter, "Art of Fiction," p. 77.

(13.) D.H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature (London: Seeker, 1924), p. 19.

(14.) Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, p. 97. See also my essays "Remembering James Salter," Sewanee Review, 124 (Spring 2016), 334-43; and "Lady Chatterley's Gamekeeper," Style, 51:1 (2017), 25-33.
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Date:Dec 22, 2017
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