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.

The Hormonal Origins of Campus Radicalism

A former student recently asked me about campus radicalism, and here is how I replied:

Dear ________,

The far-outness on campus is real and has been at least since the 80s, when I attended [my alma mater]. It was 99% a left-wing phenomenon, but some ‘conservatives’ got in the act too by pretending to be victims and marginalized on campus. Most of the stuff that happened at school back then would count as funny and charming today.

As to how this has happened, there are many explanations. My theory is the hormonal theory, which calls attention to social and sexual factors. Essentially, leftism is much cooler and sexier than conservatism or moderation or classical liberalism. As a result, the most radical people on campus will tend to attain social prominence. At [my alma mater], the ‘in crowd’ was composed of radical lesbian feminists. Conversely, heterosexual white males found themselves on the wrong side of history and thus could never be cool. As compensation for this uncoolness, the heterosexual white males had to present themselves as supercommunists in order to get any attention and acceptance at all. In my case, having crushes on the lizzies made the problem worse. (Actually, it goes back farther than that. Even in high school, I found that the more radical I sounded in class, the more attention I would get, from girls and also from teachers. Either way I was greatly encouraged.) The male college student trying to get laid by lesbians writes paper after paper, each more pinko than the last. If he becomes an academic himself, he’s already developed habits of thinking and an academic specialty that cannot be so easily changed. On campus or off, if there is any kind of lefty ruckus going on, I guarantee that at the bottom of it is a middle-class, heterosexual, white male trying to get a feminist in the sack.