Swans Commentary » swans.com August 25, 2008  



James Salter's A Sport and a Pastime


by Michael Doliner


Book Review



Salter, James: A Sport and a Pastime, Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1968, ISBN 0-374-53050-5, 185 pages


(Swans - August 25, 2008)   James Salter's A Sport and a Pastime is one of those very rare novels that seems not so much to have been written as discovered. At its heart is a love story, an encounter, that transforms its relatively ordinary protagonists into beings around whom the entire cosmos shapes itself. The love story is delicate and ephemeral, put together out of bits and pieces, like a bird's nest. The vulnerable lovers tremble, in the most mundane circumstances, on the edge of catastrophe. Simply the way one of them moves across the room to meet the other seems miraculous and hazardous. Were they to become aware of themselves everything would be lost. But there is no danger of that. Oblivious, they tiptoe on a precipice. They do not and cannot know that their innocence cloaks them in a kind of divinity and infallibility. Actions and attitudes we expect to bring them down don't. They do things that seem so perfect, so poignant, without knowing they are doing anything at all. They arc beautifully across our path, and then vanish.

A narrator recounts the story, admitting from the very first that he has not seen most of it. In an introduction Salter supplied to a 1995 Modern Library edition he writes, "The question of the novel's narrator is often posed and how much of what he relates is invented or imagined. Very little, in my opinion." Although the narrator is presented as a normal human he seems able to see, not merely imagine, even though he is not there, what is happening between the lovers. In this way Salter solves, or rather discovers the solution to, the fundamental problem of writing love stories. No one should observe lovers, not even the lovers themselves. Reflection, self consciousness, separates the lovers. An observer sullies them and we don't want to hear what he saw. But a narrator is as essential as the lovers themselves, and perhaps makes a third with them. Someone must be conscious of them if there is to be any story. Since nothing is more loathsome than to have the narrator spy on the lovers and actually see what they are doing, and they shouldn't reflect on themselves, the problem seems unsolvable.

The story, of course, needs the narrator to exist, but because it is a love story even its existence is an imperfection, for the story is but a reflection of the real thing, the life the lovers lived, their "encounter." That encounter, in its perfection, is the meaning of the cosmos, and need leave no trace behind. Indeed, its obliteration at the end, when extinguished, is its final perfection. Anything one takes from it is stolen. Salter recognizes that his solution, though it is the best solution, inevitably profanes its subject, which obtains its perfection in oblivion. The meaning of the cosmos, the lover's encounter, remains invisible, except to the narrator who thereby becomes a demonic messenger to a lower world where he sprinkles the dust he has stolen from heaven on the poor lost souls beneath.

The narrator's mind is luminous with observation, so luminous that he seems able to see the universe in a grain of sand. Well, almost. He is human, and so limited. What he sees is what he would see. Even before we meet the lovers we experience the narrator's descriptive power. We meet him on a train trip and we see him, well, just living. But he records things like, "We are on our way to towns where no one goes." The narrator does not have to think this, he sees it. His details contain a depth that reveals him as somehow both all encompassing and empty. In all this intense looking, he is still looking for a self, and sees people as if they were gloves he sometimes tries on. If one reads the book a second time, one sees the sadness of this. His very omniscience disqualifies him from being in Dean's place, that of the lover. Life is always outside him, being observed. Later, his delicatesse prevents him from looking directly at the sanctified lovers, whose actions he divines from how their presence has anointed the remainder of the universe. He picks up fragments, many of which he only intuits, that the lovers have strewn behind them in their career. He is a detective sifting the wreckage left by a shooting star. But the lovers, in their purity, look directly at one another and mingle their lives without a thought. The narrator, to acquire his extraordinary powers of observation, has had to withdraw from life, and do so without understanding, until now, that he had taken a fatal step.

This imaginary narrator who recounts what he sees, mostly in his minds eye, is Salter's solution to the problem of who is to describe what should not be spied upon, and perhaps not even be mentioned. Soren Kierkegaard, (Soren Kierkegaard?) finding that he, the lover, had suddenly become the narrator, spent the rest of his life debating with himself about this problem at this crossroads. In Repetition he tries to solve the narrator problem by having the young man tell the story to Constantine Constantius, one of Kierkegaard's many pseudonyms, or imagined narrators. Constantius knows he is defiling something to listen. He comments, "Say what you will, a young man deeply in love is something so beautiful that for very joy at the sight one forgets to observe...In case one were witness to the fact that a man was praying with his whole soul who could be such a monster as to make observations?" Kierkegaard's life stopped when he broke off his engagement to Regina Olsen because he had become the narrator, and recollected his own love. He, too, recognized that an observer of such an encounter is a monster. In Repetition he tries to find distance and explains that the boy is talking to himself in the presence of the observer, not intentionally conveying the story. His observer is an observer by accident.

Neither solution solves the problem: both just allow the reader some self-deception. Salter's solution may be better, it is certainly more elegant, but it also allows the reader, confused by a graceful bit of legerdemain, to misunderstand. For it allows the reader to see and at the same time not be a monster of observation by simply taking the place first of one and then of the other side of the narrator's ambiguous nature. Becoming aware of the observer's (and his own) transgressions, he can comfort himself with a reminder that the narrator didn't "really" see anything. It was all in his mind's eye, pieced together from bits of debris, and therefore soiled nothing, for he saw everything with a different kind of sight. This sort of vision, which seems not to be an actual observation of the encounter itself, seems more licit. But is it? In any case, if there is to be a novel, there must be a narrator, and this is the best that can be done.

The narrator shows us not only the encounter, but, necessarily, the world that surrounds it, what we formerly thought of as ordinary life. As the novel progresses, and even more so if we read it twice, we see life, the big world of important people, lose it's meaning and take shape as the setting for the delicate jewel placed perfectly within it that we sin just to observe. At first, before we even know of the lovers' existence, we see a bunch of other people, first on a train and then in a rich Parisian milieu. (If what I have said so far has convinced you to read this book you might stop here. If you decide to go on, one of its effects will be destroyed. However, most of the pleasures in this novel have almost nothing to do with wondering what will come next. It is one of those books one should never read, but only reread.)

If a reader approaches this book without knowing too much about it, he is left to guess who the lovers are going to be. Salter's narrator, without comment, offers up the people in his life. Two girls show up on the train. Neither seems likely, but the narrator's sharp eye makes them interesting. However, they disappear. Later, suddenly, where we might expect the lovers to show up, we find Cristina and Billy. They move in a big world: Billy is a hockey star, Cristina a girl whose father was an ambassador. They fell in love from the start. The narrator describes them in an erotic way. Are these our lovers? We are attracted to them, though some of that attraction is plutography and accompanying celebrity worship. But the narrator makes them interesting enough so that we might be willing to spend time with them.

Of course, no, they are not our lovers. They simply are the ones who are offering the house in Autun to our narrator, nothing more than enablers of the most peripheral kind, secondary jewels to set off the diamond. But we don't know that yet. We go to a party, meet other people, Parisian glitterati. It all seems exciting. Rich people in love.

Phillip Dean enters inauspiciously in the company of a woman named Isabel whom the narrator instinctively dreads even before he meets her. We think Dean is her boy-toy. She introduces him but forgets his name. Salter (not his narrator) does a beautiful little dance here. Dean is nothing, nobody, and he doesn't object, but preserves a silence the narrator finds beautiful. Dean is suddenly lifted up, but only for a moment. Except for the most sensitive reader all this pretty much flows by. It is only later that it seems right, almost inevitable. Dean can have no career, no plans, above all no future. He is simply out there "traveling in Spain."

They all go out. They see awful things in a slaughter house. Cristina irritates Billy ever so slightly. They go to a restaurant. Offhandedly the narrator tells Dean about the house in Autun, where everything will happen. These dramatic events serve only to facilitate this exchange of information. The stage props of fate.

We can hardly see it yet but Dean is the center of the book. His purity casts a light on everything else. In contrast Salter shows us the narrator's own hapless attempts at love. That he is making attempts is already pathetic, for to search for love is to make it abstract. He decides to imitate a boy, not Dean, whose assurance "feeds on its own reflection." Again there is a similarity with Kierkegaard. "He was in love," Kierkegaard, as Constantius, writes, "deeply and sincerely in love; that was evident, and yet at once, on one of the first days of his engagement, he was capable of recollecting his love. Substantially he was through with the whole relationship." The parallel is perhaps inexact. Kierkegaard's lover relives his love in memory, hence has no need of the girl herself, and falls from grace; Salter's narrator's model boy seems to be in love with himself, and graceless from the start. In his love affairs he feels "the assassin's joy." But Kierkegaard's lover is also self-contained, needing only the single contact with the girl, just as the assassin does. For this is clearly a spiritual assassin, and in both cases the culprit is reflection.

As we see more and more of Dean his beauty overcomes us. Each bit of information makes him more perfect. His car, the exotic dreamlike Delage, is not his. Dean says it is a dream to drive; the narrator will later say that it drives like a truck. With a brilliant career before him, Dean quit school, instinctively knowing, somehow, that nothing could destroy him quicker than a brilliant career. Finally, he has no money.

Anne-Marie enters. She is a waitress at the Foy, a restaurant. She brings them some food and then disappears from the book for awhile. The reader probably forgets she was even there, even though Dean has looked at her and the narrator claimed that she liked him. Life goes on, rumbling along. The narrator has heated up a love interest and he makes a bare shrug of an attempt to ignite it. It smolders for awhile.

Anne-Marie reappears. There is no meeting with Dean. She is just there, sitting and waiting with him when the narrator arrives at a restaurant. Dean has somehow arranged it. Their meeting is too sacred for the narrator to intrude upon. And so it begins. Salter's description of the love of Dean and Anne-Marie is exquisite, pieced together, as he says, out of fragments, fragments that somehow penetrated him. Out of such apparently ordinary materials the narrator has made something rare, as rare and as fleeting as an encounter. At the same time his own outsider's tragedy unfolds. The lovers, apparently completely mismatched, are each other's fate. How is it that each gesture, each word, each step is the right one, always coming somehow from their lives as they are just at that moment. No rules guide what they do, though it is clear at every moment how lesser beings might falter. Imagining their first night, and the need to bluff the hotel desk clerk, the narrator envisions it so intensely that he imagines it happened to himself. But then he thinks, "but if it had been, I would have had no confidence, none at all. I would have been exhausted, wrung by disbelief, going ahead only out of a source of curiosity, to discover exactly where it would all vanish. I would have thought: God will not permit it."

We see Anne-Marie through Dean's eyes and her little unconscious gestures become luminous. What might be her imperfections become instead the reader's own. Born aloft by the regal Delage they go here and there. Money, the drag and inertia of the lower world, becomes more and more of a problem. Even this is as it should be, for they are, and must be, mortal. Dean consumes everything of his former life to stay aloft, selling his return ticket and begging father, sister, and finally the narrator for cash. Working, settling down, and coming home for lunch, he knows, will send them, like Icarus, crashing to earth. Instead he compromises his life's other relationships becoming almost a criminal.

As their intimacy grows, in a more or less natural way, the world shapes itself around them. We have interludes with the people we met at the beginning. They seem diminished, their glittery life but a curtain that modestly hides Dean's reality from their profane glitterati eyes. Dean crosses everyone's path in plain sight yet his brilliance remains invisible to everyone but the narrator. Except for the narrator, the others' eyes are unworthy to fall upon Anne-Marie, and Dean wraps her in secrecy. Desperate, pursued, gorgeous, Dean and Anne-Marie flee the inevitable furies in the noble Delage until, brought to ground....

The narrator admits he is at war with Dean. For the clever reader is tempted to choose the narrator's luminous consciousness over the lovers' lives, secretly siding with the artist over his subject. "I am the pursuer. The essence of that is that I am the one who knows while Dean does not... I cannot confront him, I cannot even imagine such a thing. The reason is simple; I am afraid of him, of all men who are successful in love. That is the source of his power." The narrator cannot even confront Dean in his own realm of imagination, let alone in life. If the reader is tempted to choose the life of the narrator, a reminder of Dean's success at love puts an end to that. For Dean's is not an imagined success, as the narrator might have, but a real success, in life. To have it the reader would have to stop being a reader. The reader is, of course, still left with what the narrator offered him, but he is under no illusion that that gives him any advantage over Dean, whose bright arc, of no importance down here, yet remains in the firmament.


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About the Author

Michael Doliner has taught at Valparaiso University and Ithaca College. He lives with his family in Ithaca, N.Y.



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Published August 25, 2008