A Sport and a Pastime: A Novel

by James Salter

Paperback, 1985





North Point Press, (1985)


Salter chronicles a love affair between a young shopgirl and an American college dropout against the backdrop of provincial France.

User reviews

LibraryThing member gbill
The title of this book comes from this line out of the Koran: “Remember that the life of this world is but a sport and a pastime…”

The narrator is a 34-year-old American living in France, who meets Phillip Dean, a 21-year-old dropout from Yale who is bouncing around, making it up as he goes along. Dean is everything the narrator is not. While the narrator is impotent to approach a woman named Claude who, “when she walks, leaves me weak”, Dean picks up and begins a highly sexual relationship with 18-year-old Anne-Marie, a French girl who turns out to be highly complaisant in bed.

The narrator describes acts between the two that he couldn’t possibly know. There is nothing inconsistent about this, for at the outset he warns that “none of this is true…I’m sure you’ll come to realize that.” Later, in the middle of the book, he says “I am not telling the truth about Dean, I am inventing him. I am creating him out of my own inadequacies, you must always remember that”, and at the end, it’s “one must have heroes, which is to say, one must create them.”

This creates a few different possibilities for what’s “real”; the entire thing could be the imaging of the narrator, or perhaps it’s just what Dean and Anne-Marie are like in bed which is the subject of his fantasies. The story is enjoyable regardless. The prose is spare and yet often beautiful, though Salter tends to fall in love with the use of similes, some of which are more successful than others, at least in this book.

The character of Dean reminds me of Kerouac’s Dean Moriarty; the narrator describes him as having a life which seems “more truthful”, and “even able to draw mine to it like the pull of a dark star.” Dean does not care what others think, and is “close to the life that flows, is transient, borne away … joined to the brevity of things.” He gets what he wants out of his friends and family, borrowing an expensive car and money from several of them, as well as what he wants out of Anne-Marie in bed. The book has many highly erotic descriptions of sex, and a taboo act in particular. Anne-Marie is completely willing, but there is an element of hope in her which seems doomed from the beginning given Dean’s rambling nature. For “All of Anne-Marie’s joy proceeds from the hope that they are only beginning, that before them is marriage and farewell to Autun, while like the negative from which her dreams are printed, he perceives the opposite. For Dean, every hour is piercing because it is closer to the end.”

In this sense, it’s the tragedy of life which passes all too soon, and of young love that is often fleeting, despite its purity and intensity.

On fantasies:
“…it’s impossible to control these dreams. The forbidden ones are incandescent – they burn through resolutions like cloth. I cannot stop them even if I want to. I cannot make them vanish. They are brighter than the day that surrounds me.”

And this one, on the delicacy of describing a fantasy to a lover:
“…they stroll in the mild sunlight and talk of the ways to love, the sweet variety.
‘What are they?’ she wants to know.
Dean begins casually, arranging as he does a bouquet of alternatives to conceal the one he really desires. He has said it a hundred times to himself, rehearsing, but still his heart skips.”

On love, and that moment when it comes into question:
“There are terrible moments in which one sees love with cold eyes.”

On lust:
“…I try to watch her, to isolate elements of that stunning sexuality, but it’s like memorizing the reflections of a diamond.”

On middle age:
“She’s not young, but rather in the midst of that last and most confident beauty, like the mother of a schoolmate. You see her emerging from a car, the flash of an elegant calf, and you are tumbled into unbearable love.”

On old age:
“He no longer lives in years; he is down to seasons. Finally it will become single nights, each one perilous as a lunar journey.”

On sex:
I loved this one:
“As his prick goes into her, he discovers the world. He knows the source of numbers, the path of the stars.”

In another encounter, and perhaps similar:
“In the great, secret provinces where she then exists, stars are falling like confetti, the skies turn white.”

After a description of an act which I’ll spare you:
“It is these exchanges which cement them, that is the terrible thing. These atrocities induce them towards love.”

And this joke, on English sex, uttered while observing a quiet English couple:
“…they sit in an utter, English silence reading the menu as if it were a contract. In an accent so perfect it surprises me, Anne-Marie whispers,
‘Did I hurt you darling?’
It’s a line from a joke Dean’s told her. Her face is full of mischievous joy. But I don’t know the original story. She delivers it with the assurance of a clown. That’s what he says, she explains. They’re in bed together. Then she says: no, why? And he says: you moved.”

On travel:
“It’s in the little towns that one discovers a country, in the kind of knowledge that comes from small days and nights.”
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LibraryThing member mrtall
A Sport and a Pastime is a young upper-middle class American man’s dreamy journey through post-war France, as he drinks in the landscape and culture, and, well, gets it on with a French shopgirl.

I’ve never read another book quite like this one – it’s written through the eyes of an observer (the protagonist’s friend) whose narrative is undermined by his own frank admissions of unreliability and invention. It’s an odd setup, and quite pretentious, but it’s redeemed by the quality of description in many passages, which of course are in the words of the nameless narrator, who’s a writing virtuoso, yet sad and not a little creepy; he’s essentially a eunuch who can’t quite believe or accept his friend’s sexual power and mastery.

One aspect of this book that a responsible reviewer must note is its frequent sexual content. It’s not gratuitous; indeed the ‘progress’ in the couple’s sexual activities is the central metaphor driving the story, as it were. But although Salter is never obscene, he is often graphic and vulgar, as human life so often must be.

Recommended, but for mature readers.
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LibraryThing member ecantulv
I read this book. Slowly. Took it all in. word for word. I devoured the style of writing. By the end, I was a little confused about who was the narrator. I reread the introduction again, and realized that in someways, the narrator was mystery. Also, I think possibly it was up to who you thought the narrator was. By the last line of this book and when I finally closed it, I felt an instant hope for love. I was even filled with a desire for it. This was a very well written book. In ways, this book possibly reads like a romance novel. But since I've never read one, I can't be for certain. Regardless, this book, to me, even though the story appears to be so common, was in a sense and in someway, completely original and absolutely beautiful.… (more)
LibraryThing member maritimer
Reading A Sport and a Pastime, it is soon obvious why James Salter is considered one of America's great writers, his story being filled as it is, with "luminous days". It also becomes evident why such writing, in and of itself, may not be enough for him to necessarily be considered one of her great novelists. A Sport and a Pastime's narrator is entirely implausible, and it isn't enough that this is self-evident: Salter must continuously remind the dim reader that this is so. This wry, meta winking may have been intended to keep us vigilant, but its more likely outcome is to make us lose interest. It must have been a risk that Salter was ready to take: the sacrifice of readers for whom narrative authority matters in a story, for the sake of those who would question the device itself.… (more)
LibraryThing member Othemts
This modern novel tells the story of a Yale dropout Dean and his fling with a French waitress Anne-Marie. It's supposed to be erotic and goes in to graphic detail of their sexual escapades but mostly it's sad to witness the pair's inability to communicate on any other level. Eventually Dean gets cold feet and makes lame excuses to return to America where in a melodramatic twist he dies in a car crash. The bizarre aspect of this novel is that it's written entirely in first person by a nameless friend of Dean's whose imaginings and/or spying on Dean and Anne-Marie's intimate moments goes beyond obsessive and disturbing.… (more)
LibraryThing member coclimber
Beautiful prose, lots and lots of sex, and a very minimal plot. After a while, even the beautiful prose wore thin for me. The sex scenes (and there are many) are very creative and often erotic or just plain hot. I found myself skimming much of the final third of the book.
LibraryThing member jwhenderson
This is a novel redolent of expressive moments. From the French countryside which one meets on the first page to the game of love played by the young duo - Philip Dean, the American, and Anne Marie, the French girl: 'la belle elle' - the reader is presented a world of existential transport. The unnamed narrator describes the passions of his friend Dean as they experience the culture of France and Dean experiences a breathless few months of carnal episodes.

It begins with a "luminous" September with still lengthy days and in a city filling with crowds after their August retreats suggesting that the unnamed narrator is making the right choice as he boards the train to depart the city. As he begins his train ride the sun hitting his face leads him to sleep. While he wakes as the train slows it is as if the scenes he shares are merely a continuation of his dreams. He admits: "None of this is true . . . I am only putting down details which entered me, fragments that were able to part my flesh. It's a story of things that never existed although even the faintest doubt of that, the smallest possibility, plunges everything into darkness."(p 11)
Reminiscent of Ford's The Good Soldier, our narrator is unreliable and his tale may be taken as a story that may not have happened or at least not happened quite exactly as depicted by the narrator.

Swiftly we meet the narrator's friend Dean and are introduced to the ingenue Ann Marie and the memories of the small French towns, the Summer evenings, speeding down the highway in Dean's borrowed roadster carry you forward while the many brief liaisons of Dean and Anne Marie acquire a status that they would never have if they occurred on the lower east side of Manhattan. Even at Yale, for Dean is an Eli, they would seem tawdry at best, but the ability of the narrator to portray the indescribable beauty of France elevates the story to a better place. However all is not so clear upon reflection for while Dean is no innocent, Anne Marie may not be either. One cloud that is always haunting Dean is the need for money to fuel his journey with Anne Marie. He is a poor English tutor (is there any other kind?) who depends upon his wealthy Father for funds and when his Father is not forthcoming he begs for loans from his friends. The days and nights, various towns and country lanes blend together as the story speeds toward a denouement that must be left for the reader to discover on his own.

In 1959, only eight years before the publication of A Sport and a Pastime, the Grove Press brought out their American edition of Lady Chatterley's Lover. The erotic realism of Salter's novel owes at least part of its heritage to the liberation made possible by that earlier milestone. Salter's prose is as beautiful as any I have read and with that beauty he transports you to a French land of dreams both light and dark. "The orchestras of the world beat softly" in the night as the lovers at midnight share their being.
This is a magnificent short novel that begs to be reread if only to share its haunting beauty and experience again the charms of its magic.
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LibraryThing member Paulagraph
I rarely abandon a book, but Salter's novel, albeit stylistically elegant, is simply boring. He can write perfect sentences. I'll grant him that. But the novel itself doesn't add up to anything I need or want to know, see or discover. As many reviewers have noted, the novel seems dated. In fact, I had to continually remind myself that the setting is France 1962 and not decades earlier. There are echos of Tender Is the Night but without the fascinating driving off-a-cliff craziness of Fitzgerald's novel. As for sexism, the French Feminists would have had a field day deconstructing A Sport and a Pastime according to the theory of The Gaze. As for racism, there are a few instances of the "n" word in conjunction with a bit of racial stereotyping. These flare up in the headlights, so to speak, and then are gone--casual, surnois as the French might say, but not terribly meaningful.… (more)
LibraryThing member alienhard
Short, choppy sentences which at first seemed interesting, eventually grew tiresome. Plus more racist language. What is it with these white literary types? Sick of all the n-bombs. I gave up after 50 pages.
LibraryThing member skavlanj

I'm not sure how I feel about this book. At times the clipped sentences are effectively evocative; at other times I found myself rereading them, inserting and deleting commas to make them sound correct in my mind. There isn't an involved plot but rather repetition masquerading as action - driving and dining and f---ing. And you have to describe it as f---ing. There isn't an illusion of romance or love in the story, except perhaps the narrator's (to me) out-of-place "Days of marriage" ramblings during their final trip to the coast, which I'm inclined to believe are the lies he tells himself to avoid looking beyond his naked reflection he too often enjoys looking at in the mirror. And yet I never considered setting this book aside, disappointment though it turned out to be.

I'm not curious enough to verify this, but I believe Anne-Marie is the only character who calls Phillip by his given name. If Salter's intent in having the narrator consistently refer to him as Dean was to imbue the story with a sense of detachment, it worked for me. I'm also ambivalent about the choice of first person narration. Coupled with the lack of clarity in his narrator's background, the voyeuristic nature of his storytelling left me without a character to feel strongly for or against and without a deeper involvement in the story of a desultory season in France with Dean and the nondescript receptacle of his indifference than in the list of hotels they create for their various excursions. Dean's death at the end of the book isn't tragic; in fact, it isn't even necessary. Rather, Salter lets his protagonist escape without having to live down to our expectation that one day of not writing to Anne-Marie will become one week will become one year will become forever.

Like another reviewer I pulled this book from a list in Esquire and have to wonder what it was the list-maker found worthy of recommendation. I found if on a winter's night a traveler much more sensuous without the grating specificity of pricks and vaseline and tampons. If this book is on your list, read it when you get to it and have run out of top tier fiction. It has its moments but its sum is less than its parts.
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LibraryThing member snash
Lovely erotic writing, but it could have been just as effective as a short story from my viewpoint. It just seemed to go on and on saying essentially the same thing over and over.
LibraryThing member Iambookish
Okay I read this book and while the prose was terrific, I couldn't really tell you what the book's about :)

It's a little too deep for a reader like me!
LibraryThing member chrisried
Beautifully written. How can you not pick up a book that opens like this: "September. It seems these luminous days will never end..." I didn't particularly like the characters, but that isn't the point. The relationship between Dean and Anne-Marie, and the narrator's imagining/telling of it -- the story itself is the point. There's a later edition with an introduction by Reynolds Price that I wish I'd bought instead. I'll have to hunt that down.… (more)
LibraryThing member Hagelstein
In 1960s France the unnamed narrator tells of the relationship between his American friend, Dean Phillips, and a French girl named Anne-Marie. There are erotic scenes but the story stands on it's own. Like Americans before and after, they discover France, fall in love, and flirt with staying. The narrator repeatedly hints that the story may be totally false, or not. No matter, the writing is very good.… (more)
LibraryThing member Ron18
A man nearing middle age confesses to being an unreliable narrator while relaying a sexy account of a whirlwind romance in a dreamlike setting. That's the whole shebang. Sublime in its relative simplicity.

Over the story hangs intimations of tragedy, regret, unrealistic expectations, and envy - but most of all, longing for the roads not taken (about fantasizing over the potential sweetness of those roads, despite their pitfalls) and the inability to travel them due to the human conditions of insecurity, and unrealistic (but enviable) opportunity.

The book is never pornographic (but is frequently erotic in a touching, though unreliably idealized, way). The narrator isn't portrayed as non-straight. It isn't sexist (Anne-Marie is sex positive, and jokes about English sex being stodgy). Using the word "nigger" and expressing casual fascination of black people and their relationships in early 1960's France (among a bilingual couple, no less) isn't racist. However, each of these (As Seen On Goodreads!) accusations contains the seeds of potentially productive conversations on the subjects - a praiseworthy achievement for Salter.
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LibraryThing member michaelbartley
this a 50's novel that broke ground in writing about sex. Mr. Salter was one of the first American writers to be so open in writing about people having sex. certainly one of the first serious writers. he is a fine writer. it's more then sex.
LibraryThing member earthforms
Eh. I couldn't really finish this. I tried. I saw a spoiler about the end and the sex wasn't that good so oh well.


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