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.

Book Review: Amadis of Gaul, Books III & IV

I read the Place and Behm translation, which puts Books I and II in Volume One and Books III and IV in Volume Two. I waited over a year between volumes. As a result, I forgot what had contributed to the main conflict narrated in Volume Two, and I also forgot many of the characters, especially the many whose names begin with G. I would advise readers to tackle the whole thing straight through, if possible.

Volume Two drags. There is a lot of preparation for the Big Battle, and the pacing is quite slow during the preparation. The beginning, covering Amadis’s eastern adventures, and the end, covering a couple of extra adventures, are the most exciting parts.

One thing that continues to strike me about chivalric literature is the paucity of emotional narration accompanying dialogue (or action). One example is:

“Beware, sire, for you are committing great cruelty and a great sin, and very quickly you could receive such a lashing from the Lord on high that your great brilliance and fame might be greatly obscured….”

“Good uncle,” said the king, “I well remember all that you have said to me before, but I cannot do anything more….”

“Then, sire,” said the count, “I ask of you permission to leave for my own estate.”

“God be with you,” said the king. (p. 281)

One might have expected the king to “redden” or “bristle” as he is reprimanded and abandoned by one of his vassals (his own uncle, no less), or for the narration to spare a phrase or two to convey his feelings. However, the sixteenth-century text, like many others of the time, remains minimalist and leaves the psychoanalyzing to the reader. Perhaps the emotional narration is absent when the emotion should be obvious.

On the other hand, when emotion is not discernible from a character’s speech or behavior – as usually occurs when the character’s speech is counterfeit or his behavior ironic – the omniscient narrator does intervene. For example, after a certain knight loses a battle and is then treated cordially by his former foes, he dutifully returns the cordiality; but he is inwardly angry, for, as the narrator explains:

He was not satisfied in his desire, because all this honor and gain had come to him after being overcome and reduced to dire straits….He consoled himself and dissimulated as a man of great prudence so that no one might perceive that his thought was concerned with anything other than considering himself the lord and superior of everyone, and believing that with great honor he had won it. So with this pretended joy and with a very complacent appearance he came to where the queen was. (pp. 565-566)

In sum, the omniscient narrator only appears when there is a mismatch between appearance and reality. He is a guide only to what is hidden. If nothing is consciously being hidden, then his services are unnecessary. Unless otherwise stated, then, all is as it seems.

By way of comparison, Thomas Malory, who was active a full century earlier than Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo (the compiler of Amadis), did not, I recall, employ omniscient narration in such a way. In fact, Malory’s more consistent disinclination to explain his characters’ actions leaves a great deal of very pleasant work in the hands of the reader, as he is compelled to supply motives and draw lessons from Malory’s often mysterious, bare-bones narration. My conclusion is that Malory is more of a puzzle than Montalvo, more challenging and perhaps, therefore, more rewarding.