A Sport and a Pastime, by James Salter

1967. Tender story, beautifully narrated.  A privileged young expatriate American’s passionate and sensual love affair with an  eighteen year-old French woman.

The unreliable narrator is older, 34, and meets Phillip Dean, a Yalie on sabbatical at a pension(?) in the town of Autun. But, the narrator tells us, “None of this is true. I’ve said Autun, but it could easily have been Auxerre.” And he reminds us periodically that though there may be elements of truth to the tale, he made much of it up for his own vicarious reasons. He created in Dean a hero for his own lost youth.  (Lost youth?! He’s 34!)

And so we follow Dean on this made-up tale as he meets Anne-Marie and they explore southern France to get away from everyone they know so they can devote themselves to one another body and soul.

Yes, Dean and Anne-Marie do meet and they do disappear on a long sojourn to the south, but the details, the sights and sounds and smells of their intense lovemaking are all constructs of the narrator’s imagination. (If Anne-Marie was any younger, I might consider the narrator a pale version of Humbert Humbert.)

Strong visuals. Strong sense of place: I’ve traveled beside those canals under those poplars; eaten those croissants in those small town cafes; climbed those stairs in those rural inns. Salter’s style almost feels cubist, image fragments assembled to create more than the sum of the parts. He demands an attentive reader.

But it would be remiss not to call out Salter for his handling of class and race which made me struggle with the overall story. Those instances are threaded seamlessly through the narration, meaning you could consider such attitude a reflection of this unreliable, horny narrator as he wishes he was younger, richer, and able to find a lover from among those French women he longingly eyes. But I think not. These were Salter’s views and they detract, for me at any rate, from an otherwise enticing story.

Likeable for its time and place. Unlikeable for its embedded bias.



M L Rudolph has worked for CNN among other American and British television and film companies. He has written for general interest and trade magazines and published his first novel, Facing the Son, A novel of Africa, on Amazon in 2011. More are on the way. Rudolph is a dual US/UK national and lives in Pasadena, CA. View all posts by M L RUDOLPH

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