‘A Sport and a Pastime’ by James Salter

Fiction – paperback; Picador; 192 pages; 2007.

James Salter is one of those authors I had only ever heard good things about, so when I found A Sport and a Pastime in my local second-hand store (I live a few doors down from Elizabeth’s Bookshop in Fremantle), I couldn’t resist buying it.

First published in 1967, it tells the story of a love affair between an American college dropout and a French shop girl, who go on a road trip across France in the late 1960s. Their liaison, steamy and sordid, is imagined by an unnamed narrator, another American, who spies them from afar and lets his creative juices get the better of him.

It’s a rather strange and beguiling novel, and not quite what I expected. It feels voyeuristic in places, misogynistic in others. Mainly it feels like a writer being a little self-indulgent as he lets his own sexual fantasies dominate the storyline.

But the writing, clear and lucid and full of heartache and a deep sense of longing,  is reminiscent of so many American writers of the era. I’m thinking Richard Yates, William Maxwell and William Styron. It’s a style I admire a lot.

Throughout this short novel, Salter is very good at capturing moods and heightened emotions, of the conversations, pithy and of little consequence, between people, but he really excels at conveying the beauty and history of the landscapes and villages of rural France. A Sport and a Pastime could very well double as a tourism advertisement for the French Tourism Board. Take this as an example:

The blue, indolent town. Its cats. Its pale sky, The empty sky of morning, drained and pure. Its deep, cloven streets. Its narrow courts, the faint, rotten odor within, orange peels lying in the corners. The uneven curbstones, their edges worn away. A town of doctors, all with large houses. Cousson, Proby, Gilot. Even the streets are named for them. Passageways through the Roman wall. The Porte de Breuil, its iron railings sunk into the stone like climbers’ spikes. The women come up the steep grade out of breath, their lungs creaking. A town still rich with bicycles. In the mornings they flow softly past. In the streets there’s the smell of bread.

Personally, I admit that I didn’t care much for the storyline, but the luminous prose made up for it. There were many turns of phrase that took my breath away — the line above about the streets smelling of bread is but one example; “over France, a great summer rain, battering the trees, making the foliage ring like tin” is but another — and I felt I was in the hands of an accomplished writer, one who had honed his craft and understood the power of words to enchant and hold the reader captive.

Perhaps A Sport and a Pastime, with its over-emphasis on eroticism and its blurring of the lines between the body and the soul, was not the place to start with Salter. It probably didn’t help that the entire book felt too similar to William Maxwell’s The Château, also written in the 1960s, which I read earlier in the year and found a bit tiresome.

That said, it has certainly made me intrigued enough to read more of his work. If you can recommend any titles, please do leave a comment in the box below.

15 thoughts on “‘A Sport and a Pastime’ by James Salter

  1. I strongly recommend Light Years. I think it’s much better than ‘A Sport etc” and The Chateau’. And he wrote a short story called ‘Break It Down’. I found/came across an audio of Salter himself reading it. It’s a story of a young man’s lost love affair spoken by a very old man. It was soooo moving. Do sniff around and see if you can find it.

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  2. What a great review! Captured so much of what I felt after reading this book. I agree with those who found Light Years much better. Sorry to hear that you and others were not thrilled with the Chateau. It is the only William Maxwell I have not read and I really love his books.

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    • Thanks Susan. Yes, The Chateau was disappointing but having said that I still occasionally think of it three months after the fact so something about it must have wriggled into my consciousnesses and stayed there. I do want to read other Maxwell titles though because I know how much other people love them.

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