Saturday, November 16, 2013

Haunting Erotic Realism

A Sport and a PastimeA Sport and a Pastime 
by James Salter

"Green, bourgeoise France.  We are going at tremendous speed.  We cross bridges, the sound short and drumming.  The country is opening up.  We are on our way to towns where no one goes.  There are long, wheat-colored stretches and then green, level land, recumbent and rich.  The farms are built of stone.  The wisdom of generations knows that land is the only real wealth, a knowledge that need not question itself, need not change.  Open country flat as playing fields.  Stands of trees."( p 4)

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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Brian Joseph said...

Before I even got to the point where you Mentioned Lady Chatterley's Lover I was for some reason thing of DH Lawrence. Perhaps it was the association of bucolic country and small town scenes and erotica that led me to the association.

James said...

The erotic passages are brief and explicit, but almost matter of fact and stand in contrast to descriptions of the gentle luxuriousness of the French country-side and small towns.
I haven't reviewed his other novels but I would highly recommend his first novel, The Hunters, about a Pilot in the Korean War. I read the revised fiftieth anniversary edition more than a decade ago and found it a hauntingly beautiful novel of men at war.