“The Relics of Love”: Adam Gallari’s Review of James Salter’s A Sport and A Pastime (and so much more)

I will not hide the fact that James Salter is probably my favorite American writer, and that A Sport and a Pastime holds a special place in my personal pantheon. To my detriment I have modelled my own style too heavily on Salter’s—much to the chagrin of my PhD examiners and my editor, who both highlighted a singular, unique tick of mine that tends to string together words in close succession. I’ll excise this soon. Perhaps, maybe.

I first encountered A Sport and a Pastime when I was 24 and visiting Paris for the first time; a cursory stay that landed me in the hospital because, after an afternoon spent drinking too much wine and eating too little food while waiting for a close female friend to meet me in a small cafe on the corner of Avenue Monceau, I fell, not so gracefully, on my face and needed four stitches to close gash in my chin. I did not speak much French at the time, but little language skill is required to translate the overt and less than maternal exasperations of an overly irate French woman. Now I like to tell people that I got into a fight in Paris, with the pavement, and despite my grit and gall, the pavement easily won. But before that evening in the hospital, I spent the afternoon immersed in Salter’s novel, the wine and the breeze off of the cool June Seine serving to stoke the fantastic idiocy of a young romanticism spawned by the sudden, simultaneous coupling of naiveté and wonder. Four months later, I moved there.

I say this because I believe Salter to be unique among American-male ex-pat writers. Unlike Fitzgerald or Hemingway, who used Paris and Madrid and Nice as backdrops but never really saw the cities or the culture bleed into their fiction, Salter at times gives the feel that he truly is a continental writer. He moves fluidly in the garb of a European; his pace and tone heavy but never dolorous, and yet he remains distinctly American in his perspective, one that can bridge the grand imagination that comes from a notion of the Old World, but which also remembers that beneath the golden rotundas and ornate friezes lies the flaking paint of long weathered walls.  Beauty mirrored with transience, love with longing. His work reads like a sudden warm day in Autumn, one that births a melancholic nostalgia for that which will be flitted away as the darkness of Winter approaches.

Salter’s lyricism and the musicality of his language is evidenced from his opening paragraph:

September. It seems these luminous days will never end. The city, which was almost empty during August, now is filling up again. It is being replenished. The restaurants are all opening, the shops. People are coming back from the country, the sea, from trips on roads all   with cars. The station is very crowded. There are children, dogs, families with old pieces of luggage bound by straps. I make my way among them. It is like being in a tunnel. Finally I emerge onto the brilliance of the quai, beneath a roof of glass panes which seems to magnify the light.

It feels as though it needs to be scored, set perhaps to Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.”

It is a dirge, but to whom or for what notion Salter is writing it, I have never quite been sure, because any treatise on love often requires us to re-examine both it and our greater understanding of its devices. It forces us into an uncomfortable no-man’s-land where we are made to reckon with out own shortcomings, our own abilities, and our own failings. Better it is the opening movement to a requiem sung for the premature death of innocent notion of idealistic love.

A Sport and a Pastime is a plotless novel. The immediacy lies mostly in Salter’s language, in his ability to make us forget that we are forever revolving around the fixed point that is Philip Dean, a Yale drop-out who is ostensibly perfect. He is rich. He is beautiful. He captivates. He is a strange foil to a narrator who remains faceless and unnamed as he walks like a ghost through the life of Dean and offers a haunting, erotic narrative both voyeuristic and beautiful. “I am not telling the truth about Dean,” he says. “I am inventing him. I am creating him out of my own inadequacies, you must always remember that.” How we understand the perfections of others in contrast to ourselves; that is Salter’s strange project. The way we mythologize, while simultaneously awaiting downfall–schadenfreude at its finest. Still, Salter’s romantic imagination cannot but help to aspire to perfection at moments, because if we cannot achieve it in our own lives, we want to believe it possible in the lives of those we view with envious awe. It is why we watch film, why we engage in a daily mythology, why we construct a facade of ourselves that we present to the world. Honesty is a scarce virtue; honesty paired with sex is perhaps the greatest and rarest of gifts one can give offered in a human lifetime.

A Sport and a Pastime is a dream, a carnal paradise conjured from a projection and a manifestation. It is, as Baudelaire might say, “L’Invitation au voyage,” on a sea whose waves are the sexual acrobatics of two lovers locked away within the confines of a rural French pension. We are far from Paris; we are in what Salter calls the “real France.” We are hidden away in the provincial village of Autun—closer to the earth, to the grit, to the base and simple. We are in a world void of ostentation and superficial distraction, and thereby invited to lose ourselves in the most immediate and pressing action a man and woman in relative social isolation can engage in. A Sport and a Pastime is the expanded and inflated paradise of Andrew Marvel’s “To His Coy Mistress;” but the propriety and regulations of puritan society have been cast away. We exist in a new Eden; we play in it as we await its destruction.

Not everyone will take enjoyment in this book. It is overtly sensual. It is highly erotic, yet it is not titillating. At its height, it is the type of conjugal union we all aspire to; at its worst, it is the relationship that will ruin us for years. Unlike genre romance, or the laughable, soft-core-kitsch-fetish-porn of 50 Shades of Gray, the goal of Salter is not to arouse the body but to spark the senses and ignite the soul, to mine some recess in the human psyche that longs for both physical and emotional connection. Salter is less concerned with act, though he describes it often, with tempo and fury, than he is with the psychology that pushes us towards it. His sex is passionate, breathtaking, and even at its roughest, it is still gentle and tender. He swims in the base, but he is not sucked beneath its riptide. He explores the power that comes from the knowledge of another’s most basic and intrinsic desires, and to be so completely vulnerable in the presence of another is overwhelming and frightening, because despite what we may think of ourselves, we are never really worthy of such a gift. Of such intense honesty.

Moreover, the portrayal of sex, in current American culture, too often reduces the act to one of pragmatism, to plot device, or attempts to remove it from popular discourse altogether. It becomes a topic of either extravagance or farce. It pains to achieve the status once assigned to it by more romantic and less stringent societies. Rarely are we graced with such a perfect, and such a necessary interlude in media or film as the coupling of Claire Fourlani and Brad Pitt in Meet Joe Black, one of the most skilful and perfect depictions of carnal and emotion bliss offered by Hollywood in the past twenty years. It is three minutes that make an otherwise unwatchable three hour movie worth every drawn-out minute, but moments like these are rare, and rarer still are they in literature, where the description of the act often parodies it, makes it sound comic and forced and awkward, or worse, ugly and vile. This is one reason I have always struggled to find the beauty in the sexual narration of writers like Philip Roth or Junot Diaz, who seem more concerned with waving a penis high in the air than with the slope and curve of a woman’s back or the dip and dovetail of neck into shoulder. The little things. The essence of another. The small imperfections that one can recall from past lovers otherwise long forgotten—a mole, a small scar, some other souvenir proving a life lived. “The relics of love.” These are what Salter manages not only to locate and to describe, but also to make even the most cynical and jaded of us believe in. Because to be jaded, to be cynical is a path of ease. Polished armour shines. It can be proudly worn, but its weight often outstrips its practicality. We are crushed under our own self-assuredness, suffocated in the heat of a sweltering summer. Salter invites us to strip, to feel the breeze of vulnerability against our skin.

The archaeology of a ruined heart is not unearthed with pick-axes and machine cranes but hand-held shovels and teaspoons:

His devotion is complete; he is beginning to sense the confusion that arises from the first fears of what life would be like without her. He knows there can be such a thing, but like to answer to a difficult problem, he cannot imagine it. There are many days now when he is perfectly willing to accept the life she illustrates, to abandon the rest. Simple vagrant days. His clothes need pressing. There are flea-bites on his ankles.

Salter’s world is void of the hyper-masculine. It is willing to acknowledge fear, longing, wanting. It is never boastful; it is almost embarrassed by sexual success, and sexual prowess is something to be carried but never flaunted. Controlled confidence. Humble capability. For Salter’s narrator, Philip Dean is flawed perfection. He is Achilles without war; he is in need of a battle. He craves the chance for downfall, because:

…neither is he entirely what he seems. Intelligent, yes, but somehow he is weary of his gifts. Already he seems to be outliving them. He sometimes thinks otherwise, but he’s finished with school. The clever mathematician is disappearing, the young man for whom everything was too easy. His existence is already becoming clouded, strange. He lies like a son who has been cut off and now is discarding the customs, the course of ordinary life without hesitation, with all the assurance of an anarchist… Mythology has accepted him, images he cannot really believe in, images brief as dreams.

Welcome to the most psychologically damaging territory a man can inhabit. It is the moment where one begins to no longer believe in the self-myth, but to believe instead in the glory of another human being, and it is this trap that many shrink from. For it is easier, and sometimes better, to flee than to fall short of our expectations of ourselves in the present of another. Fight or flight; sink or swim. Live or die. As if it was ever, at any point, such a simple dichotomy.

For all its beauty, A Sport and a Pastime is overwhelmed by darkness; if anything it might be best described as a large room lit only by the weak flame of a dying candle, and a plausible epigram for it might be F. S. Fitzgerald’s classic quip on human companionship: “All life is just a progression towards, and then a recession from one phrase. I love you.” Despite the ostensible perfection of the paradise we find ourselves invading, Salter shows us the cracks early. The armour we are gifted prior to battle glistens, but it is only centimetres thick.  There is a remorselessness and a callousness to the way Dean makes love to Anne-Marie, not because Salter is a misogynist or because he wants to glorify the male sexual fantasy, but because we know Dean still does not know how to fully navigate the currents he finds himself swimming against. Yes, it is clear that he has done this 100 times before and will be capable of doing this 100 times again, should he wish to, but this is the moment. He gives, and still he tries to recede. He is two steps forward and three steps back. He wants to ask for love and protection, but he does not know the language needed for his question, and he is unsure how he would respond should he request be granted. “He discovers himself in her presence.” She is the one woman who understands him better than he does himself. Because this is the partner, the exchange, that will color all potential future deeds and erase of memory of deeds past. “‘You will go,’ she says, ‘You are the type.’ ‘No.’ ‘Si,’ she insists calmly,” with the clear foresight of Cassandra at Delphi. What we are to make of her awareness, of her strength, of the way in which she cares for Dean all the while knowing he will go? Of this I have never been sure. Perhaps it is only in transience that we can find perfection. Perhaps it is only a strong woman who can hope to love a feckless man. Perhaps I have no idea, still, about any of this.

“By now they know something of each other. There is a fund they can draw together. The encounter beings to have an essence of its own which neither can define but which nourishes them both, and happily in the single unselfish ritual of love, they contribute to it all they can. Nor does it matter how much either takes away. It is a limitless body. It never can never be exhausted but only, although no one believes this, forgot.”

One of the main reasons I love this book, is because I have always been drawn to women in literature—Kate Croy and Brett Ashley. I have often found them more compelling than their male counterparts. More interesting. Dangerous. Inviting. Unworthy of the male characters they have been forced to coexist with. There is something great in them, a depth needing to be discovered. Compared to them the men of these novels seem cardboard ideas, whereas they are almost actual people, and without Anne-Marie this book does not exist. Salter stated in the Paris Review that he finds writing form the point of view of women to be much more interesting than writing from the point of view of a man; in literature, as in life, a powerful woman possesses a presence that will dwarf and overwhelm even the most confident of men—If they are intelligent enough to realize this aura. I have always been drawn to powerful women. I have always been petrified of letting them close to me because they have a way to deconstruct and decode even the most well encrypted of secret codex. My entire existence, my writing, my decisions in life have been based upon the women I know and my relationships to them. Whether we wish to admit it or not, they are the compass points around which our lives as men revolve, the shoreline rocks our breakers crash against. The people to whom we want to prove that we are worthy, that we are better than we are, and they are the people who know immediately to what great depth and what great extent we at times might be lying.

With Anne-Marie, Dean is keenly aware of this. And Salter reminds us of this constantly, in whatever small nuanced way he can. Dean is power; he is passion; but he is never stability and control. He is an unmade self that is forever in the process of becoming but never capable of being:

“You are like a dead king,” Anne-Marie says. Like one heralded away in a grand sarcophagus whose symbolic carvings will have no meaning for the generations that come. “Still, 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. And in turn, they give some back. But they are mortal, these heroes, just as we are. They do not last forever. They fade. They vanish. They are surpassed.”

I will not give away all here, but it is not Dean who survives. He cannot. He must not. That would be to believe in the myth; to believe that the world of dreams can intrude into the world of deeds, as though Salter wants to remind us that even in this sequestered universe there is no such thing as permanence, of complete faithfulness or unwavering devotion. At its very core, A Sport and a Pastime seeks to answer the question of whether we are ever truly capable of complete communion with another, because no matter how well we think we know them, there will still be some crevice, some unseen curve that leads down a long road to a tunnel secret and guarded. We only know what we are allowed. We love in another the glorified idea of what we think others love in ourselves. We forget that love is not the celebration of our ideals but the acceptance of our failures. There is forever an underlying cynicism to this sublimity… Apres moi, le deluge.

Still, I want to believe in something more. I want to believe that Eden was never razed; I want to believe that there will be that one, sudden moment that destroys all prior and creates all post. I want to hope. I want to love without rational and reason and philosophy reminding me that this is only a journey embarked on by a great fool. I want to be worthy of a love that I don’t know I can ever truly give, though I will break myself in effort and attempt. And perhaps A Sport and a Pastime, at its best, at its most sublime, is proof that Salter does too.

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  1. Taylor Pappas says:

    Incredible review, a worthy analysis of a book I would consider a masterpiece. Having just finished A Sport and A Pastime – it moved something within me. It is time to read more Salter. Thank you for writing this for us.

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