Book Review: A Sport and a Pastime, by James Salter

James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime is immersive and dreamlike. Much of it narrates car trips through bucolic cat-filled towns, and thus it seems “truly French,” although other books with different approaches could seem just as “French.”

In the composition of his dreamscape, Salter eschews action verbs and employs instead verbs of being, “there is” or “there are” (il ya) constructions, and the passive voice, as in:

There are tunnels of hay, mosques, cupolas, domes. Every house has its vegetable garden. The roads here are empty – a motorcyclist, a truck, nothing more. People are traveling elsewhere. Outside a house two small cages are hung for the canaries to get some air. (p. 7)

and:

That penetrating cold of France is here, that cold which touches everything, which arrives too soon. Inside, beneath the coupole, I can see the tables being set for dinner The lights are already on in the marvelous, glass consoles within which the wealth of this ancient town is displayed: watches in leather cases, soup tureens, foulards. My eye moves. Perfumes. Books of medieval sculpture. Necklaces. Underwear. The glass has thin strips of brass like a boat’s running the edges and is curved on top – a dome of stained fragments, hexagons, hives of color. Behind all this, in white jackets, the waiters glide. (p. 14)

When an action verb like “glide” comes along, it’s almost startling.

Most of these static vignettes appear at the beginning of the book, setting the scene. Action verbs creep in later, when the tryst between Phillip and Anne-Marie intensifies.

The sex scenes are OK I guess, although the words for parts of the body (like “prick”) and for coupling seem vulgar and unpoetic. I wonder if we’ll ever come up with better words for those things.

Apparently, I’m not the first person to note similarities with The Great Gatsby, as far as narrative point of view is concerned – although I thought I was the first person. If Gatsby’s protagonists trust Nick Carraway with the details of their story, then the unnamed narrator of A Sport and a Pastime takes things a step further by telling other people’s story whether he’s been entrusted or not. (I wonder if Sport refers to Gatsby, as in “Old Sport.”)

Narrative bombs like “None of this is true” (p. 11) lend the book its ponderability.

Author: Harry Miller

I have traveled and lived in Taiwan, China, and Japan and am now a professor of Asian history and author of Southern Rain, a novel of seventeenth-century China.

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