A Sport and a Pastime
France in certain American novels and movies is beguiling. There is beauty, casual beauty, beauty in the everyday food and the conversation and the women and the clothes and the cold and the countryside and even the poverty. Think Last Tango in Paris, Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, Before Sunset, Moulin Rouge, Hemingway’s novels…
James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime is charming France all over again. It’s Philip Dean’s charmed existence, a Yale dropout spending time in France, searching for authentic France driving around in the French countryside with a young French girl Anne Marie, learning about love and sensuality and all about being young and irresponsible in that intoxicating time before you have to grow up. But it’s also about the thirty four year old unnamed narrator seeing in Philip Dean all that he can never be – the insouciant rebel who does not feel the need as he himself did, to ‘do everything properly.’ And so he becomes the voyeur, playing the peeping Tom, imagining the erotic, sensual life of Philip and Anne Marie, seeing the villages they drive through, the everydayness of their life that is always tinged with the extraordinary, a life more ‘lived’ than he can ever imagine. It’s a paean to sensuality, in a way that I imagine Nabokov’s Lolita was, not just in the way the love making is imagined and described, but also in the way the French countryside is and the French food. It is all the more poignant because you know it will end. It has to end. You even know how it will end. That Anne Marie will grow old, marry, have children and will, with her husband “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.” And of course we know the irony of that, when we juxtapose that with the memory of that one magical year of Philip and Anne Marie.
Salter’s writing is quite different from usual. He uses the present tense most times. And his sentences are not always complete, especially when he is describing places and moods and feelings. It’s like an impressionistic painting. Here he is describing Autun, the French town where he is staying. “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. The uneven curbstones, their edges worn away. A town of doctors, all with large houses. Cousson, Proby, Gillot. Even the streets are named for them. Passageways through the Roman wall. The Porte de Breuil, its iron railings sunk into the stone like climbers’ spikes. The women come up the steep grade out of breath, their lungs creaking. A town still rich with bicycles. In the mornings they flow softly past. In the streets there is the smell of bread.” Could a painting have painted it better?
So the writing is quite a treasure –precious, delicious, to be savoured like a free afternoon in a European city. And if only for that, Salter is worth a visit.