The Pequod Review:
James Salter (1925-2015) is a difficult writer to characterize; his books straddle the line between poetry and prose, and rely little on plot. This “tweener” style has led to several superb novels and short story collections, but unfortunately very little popular success. He remains one of the most underappreciated modern writers.
A Sport and a Pastime is Salter’s third novel and, with the possible exception of Light Years (1975), his best. The book is the tragic story of a doomed love affair between a young French girl (Anne-Marie) and an American college dropout (Philip Dean), as observed by an unnamed and unreliable middle-aged narrator. (“I am not telling the truth about Dean. I am creating him out of my own inadequacies, you must always remember that.”) While the book’s plot is unremarkable, Salter’s prose is precise and intense. Here he describes the couple’s relationship:
Sometimes he is depressed by her imperfections. They should not be important, perhaps, but they often become so real, so ready to take control of her, these plain qualities hidden by the brilliance of a language and life the taste of which he has only just begun to grasp. He waits for her to put on her coat. She avoids his eyes.
A feast of love is beginning. Everything that has gone before is only a sort of introduction. Now they are lovers. The first, wild courses are ended. They have founded their domain.
The book follows Anne-Marie and Philip as they travel around France, which gives Salter a chance to expand his writing to include excellent descriptive passages on various French towns and cities:
Sens. The famous cathedral which is reflected in the splendor of Canterbury itself rises over the icy river, over the still streets. . . . The little shops have grown close around it, cinemas, restaurants. Still, it cannot be touched. Beneath the noon sun the roof, which is typically Burgundian, gleams in the strange design of snakeskin, banded into diamonds, black and green, ocher, red. The sun splashes it like water. The brilliance seems to spread.
At the end of the novel, the narrator looks back on the affair from several years in the future, with a bitter reflection that captures the transience of love (and everything else for that matter):
As for Anne-Marie, she lives in Troyes now, or did. She is married. I suppose there are children. They walk together on Sundays, the sunlight falling on them. They visit friends, talk, go home in the evening, deep in the life we all agree is so greatly to be desired.
This is one of James Salter’s most atmospheric and evocative novels.