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James Salter: A Sport and a Pastime

When I started reading this novel, it did not come across as a novel written by a US writer, but more like a French writer. I am not sure whether Salter would have taken that as a compliment or not. Of course, the fact that it is set in France may well have influenced my decision, as it may well have influenced Salter’s style.

The story is told by an unnamed and unreliable narrator. We know that he is unreliable because he tells us that he is. (Some things, as I say, I saw, some discovered, and some dreamed, and I can no longer differentiate between them. But my dreams are as important as anything I acquired by stealth. More important, because they are the intuitive in its purest state. Without them, facts are no more than a kind of debris, unstrung, like beads. The dreams are as true and manifest as the iron fences of France flashing black in the rain. More true, perhaps. They are the skeleton of all reality.) It is set in 1962. Our narrator seems to be a solitary man, unmarried who, though American, lives in France. He has some friends called Wheatlands in Paris, who are lending him their large house in Autun, where he will stay on his own. It is autumn. I am thirty, I am thirty-four–the years turn dry as leaves. Winter comes and it is cold and dreary.

He does not spend all of his time there. He goes to Paris, where he attends smart dinners with the Wheatlands and others and where he meets people like Bernard Pajot, a writer who not only looks like Balzac but, some say, is Balzac. (Last night I had dinner with Tolstoi, says Pajot.) They wander around Paris in the early hours of the morning but our narrator remains somewhat at the edge, the observer more than the participant. So he returns to Autun.

Phillip Dean arrives unexpectedly, driving a borrowed Delage. He is an old friend from the United Sates. He is also broke, expecting a cheque, he says. We later learn that his father is a critic and not particularly well-off. We also learn that he is something of a genius. He had studied maths at Yale on a scholarship and done brilliantly. He had even taken the final of the anthropology exam and done brilliantly there, even though he had not formally studied the subject at all. But something did not quite work. He dropped out, came back, had psychiatric treatment and now had dropped out again. (It was too easy for him, his sister told me.) Dean and the narrator drive around the region of France near Autun – to Beaune, to Dijon, to Nancy.

The narrator is lusting after a local woman, a divorcee with a daughter, called Mme Piquet who is not the slightest bit interested in him. However, he persists. Dean, however, is luckier. He meets Anne-Marie Costallat, an eighteen year old. (Dean is twenty-four.) She has worked in hotels and even worked in a US army base where she has learned some English. This book now becomes their story though the narrator readily admits his unreliability. (Like any agent, of course, I cannot divulge my sources. I can merely say that some things I saw myself, some I discovered, for after all, the mutilation, the delay of as little as a single word can reveal the existence of something worthy to be hidden, and I became obsessed with discovery, like the great detectives. I read every scrap of paper. I noted every detail. Some things, as I say, I saw, some discovered, and some dreamed, and I can no longer differentiate between them. But my dreams are as important as anything I acquired by stealth.)

We follow Dean and Anne-Marie as they drive around, have sex, drive some more, have more sex, all lustily and pruriently reported by the narrator. Indeed, it is clear that the narrator is sexually aroused by his voyeuristic and imaginative description of Dean and Anne-Marie’s love life, as he describes her undressing, her body and their sex on many a occasion. In the hands of a lesser writer, this could be simple soft-core pornography but Salter describes their affair in such a way that we can both see the narrator’s wistfulness at not being involved, not least because of his rejection by Mme Piquet, as well as the fact that the relationship between Dean and Anne-Marie, while full of passion and love, is a relationship that is doomed to fail, one way or the other. Anne-Marie herself in constantly aware that the relationship has no future and frequently mentions it (“You will go,” she says. “You are the type.”)

Meanwhile, the narrator drifts back up to Paris where the marriage of Cristina and Billy Newlands is fraying at the edges somewhat. All relationships are doomed, seems to be the message. He still follows the relationship between Anne-Marie and Dean, even lending Dean money, though Dean does do some teaching to earn some money. 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, he comments. Dean himself is having doubts. She is walking along down at the water’s edge. Dean follows above, slowly, wondering how it can end. His father will not give him any money. His sister cannot. He must go back to the United States.

Salter’s third novel is certainly an excellent novel, clearly showing a French influence. Salter himself claimed to have been influenced by André Gide and Thomas Wolfe and both influences are apparent in this book. Some critics and fellow writers have suggested that he is one of the great US novelists of the twentieth century, though, after 1979, he did not publish a novel till 2013, because of the lack of critical and commercial success. His reputation is now being rehabilitated, after his death, and this novel should take its place as one of the very good twentieth century US novels.

Publishing history

First published 1967 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux