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"A Sport and a Pastime" (1968) is the third novel of the American writer James Salter (b. 1925). Before becoming a writer, Salter lived an energetic life as a West Point graduate and a fighter pilot. I read this book because I loved Salter's novel "Light Years", which was his next novel after this one. Salter remains unknown to many readers. The two books I have read show Salter as the master of a lyrical, precise, and highly distinctive writing style. Salter writes of eroticism and passion tinged with sadness and with the inevitability of loss.

The book is set in France in the late 1950s and features three primary characters, two American men and a young French woman. The story is told by a nameless narrator, an American man of 34, college-educated, who is visiting old companions from school in the United States. The narrator tells something of his own story combined with the story of a young man whom he befriends during his stay, Phillip Dean. Dean, age 24, is highly intelligent but footloose. He has been touring Spain and then visits France after twice dropping out, he claims due to boredom, from Yale. Dean is the son of a wealthy American family. His father and sister are also staying in Paris. While in a bistro in Autumn, France, Dean and the narrator meet an 18-year old French shopgirl, Anne-Marie. Dean and Anne-Marie quickly begin a highly-charged and erotic love affair. The description of the affair, through the eyes of the narrator, takes up most of the book.

The narrator admits his unreliability. At the simplest level, the erotic affair between Dean and Anne-Marie, while described in the most intimate detail, mostly takes place out of sight of the narrator. The accuracy of the account is questionable. More importantly, the narrator is unlike Dean in many ways. In early middle age, the narrator, although highly literate and perceptive, has difficulty approaching women sexually. In the initial scenes of the book, the narrator is attracted to at least two young women travelling with him on the train, makes eye contact, but will not approach them. As the book progresses, he becomes highly enamored with another young woman but does not approach her. She becomes engaged. The narrator has a life of sexual frustration.

The narrator sees his friend Dean as heroic, with a self-confident swagger. Dean is a man who knows what he wants and how to get it with women. Dean also leds a life of bravado, as he recklessly drives an expensive French sports car, borrowed from a friend, and spends money, which he increasingly cadges from family and friends, with little restraint. With its recklessness and improvidence, there are many intimations in the book that Phillip Dean's life will be short. The narrator's portrayal of his friend may in part be a projection of the narrator's own felt inadequacies and his own dreams. The matter is left ambiguous. My own feeling is that his story is mostly true. But whether it is a projection or a factual account is largely irrelevant. The book, in the story of Annie-Marie and Phillip Dean, captures the force of erotic love, of passion, and of heartbreak.

The novel's language and style are highly-charged. They show a writer with a sense of mastery of what he wants to do. The novel has an explicitness in its sexual content that was unusual in a work of literature of the time and that still retains its force. Salter contrasts the fire of his Dean and Anne-Marie, with the lives of frustration and boredom of the narrator and of the book's secondary characters. Salter has an extraordinary sense of France, especially of small towns, cafes, hotels, shops, and ordinary people outside the range of tourists. He is an almost painterly writer who is taken with the surfaces of things, with sex and with fast cars, that some might find superficial. Yet there is a sense of mystery in this book, of passion, and of loss.

Among other books, "A Sport and a Pastime" reminded me of Kerouac's "On the Road." Kerouac and Salter were in fact schoolmates for a short time. Salter's writing is far more elegant and disciplined than is Kerouac's. But Phillip Dean, with his rootlessness and recklessness, love of cars, and energetic sexuality shows parallells to Kerouac's Dean Moriarty/Neal Cassady in "On the Road". So to, the narrator in Salter's novel, with his ambivalences and almost hero-worship of Dean, resembles in many ways Sal Paradise/Kerouac, the narrator of Kerouac's famous novel. Kerouac's book has achieved greater public recognition, and I would not want to judge as between the two novels. But Salter's book is far more concentrated and has a much more mannered and elaborate literary style.

It is a great pleasure to discover a writer one has not known before. Salter's "A Sport and a Pastime" and "Light Years" have brought me poetry and thought. Readers willing to explore a unique American writer will enjoy these books.

Robin Friedman
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on 16 July 2013
Sublime prose, ecstatic and depictions of addictive sex, meandering, plausible love affair which taints over one blowsy drowsy summer. Young slightly feckless hero, in love, then young and still feckless but out of love. Captures passionate period of abandonment in the sensuous French countryside. Daily domesticity, rural cast of characters contrasted with sophisticates in the city. Similar dreamy half-remembered atmosphere and landscapes of Le Grand Meaulnes, with a melodramatic ending and a sense that nothing lingers, remains unchanged, life goes flowing on, no matter. All the technical pleasures of masterly writing, with heart and soul.
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on 17 July 2013
A great novel which truly captures the spirit of post-war France. James Salter's descriptive narrative invokes the atmosphere of small town provincial France, seen through the eyes an acquaintance of the two main characters, who describes in intimate detail the lives of an American University dropout and a young French waitress. Their affair is chaotic, intense and probably indicative of many lives lived in this period in social history. Looking back 50 years we would not see anything particularly unusual in this story, but at the time it was written it must have been a remarkable and revolutionary piece of writing. That it grips the reader's attention and is so well written attests to James Salter's reputation as a first class novelist. Be aware that it does contain explicit descriptions of sexual practices which may offend some people, but having said this it is not pornography - I don't believe Salter sets out to titillate, merely to describe what he saw as an intense relationship between two young people.
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on 8 January 2014
A Sport and a Pastime is written in an impressionistic style whereby the author conveys the physical and emotional atmosphere through bits and pieces of images and experiences. What is particularly interesting about the novel is that the central "action" of the story is the love affair between a young American man and young French woman, while actually the story is more about the narrator, who is essentially on the sidelines and embellishes, colours and imagines the facts based on his own personality, perceptions and fantasies. It is a fairly short novel and I found it entertaining and easy to read, although the writing style can be confusing at times, as the author uses short sentences and fragments and jumps around in time and place and from character to character. In addition, I agree with some other reviewers that the story feels a bit dated. Overall, A Sport and a Pastime is a quality piece of literature that is worth reading.
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on 23 December 2003
'A Sport and a Pastime' is the sad, tender story of the evolving relationship between a French girl and a young American visiting France. The tale is told in intimate, erotic detail by the American's friend (who is also living in France), and so the story takes on an unconventional quality, related to the reader at an extra remove. The reflective, restrained narrative voice drifts through the story of the affair, giving it a distinctive and compelling flavour; and although at times disconcerting, this thoughtful, voyeuristic perspective captures a strain of emotional intensity and complexity that would have been missed if the reader was not on the outside, covertly looking in.
Behind this relationship there is always a lingering sense of disaster approaching. Rarely is the narrator explicit about what is to come, but in a novel so concerned with life, experience, and the passing of time it is inevitable that the reader will encounter the flip-side. Salter concentrates on the shapes and the things, the words and gestures, while always making the reader conscious that something is being built to: the negative space, the silences and absences, surrounding the corporeality of the novel. This tension (a tension embodied in the choice of the title, a reference to a passage of the Koran), made real in the beautiful, resonant writing, is what makes 'A Sport and a Pastime' an essential read.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 17 August 2010
If you have never heard of this writer before, be assured, he is something very special. I can't imagine how he has escaped my radar up until now.The story is told through a bystander figure, never named, and is the story of a moneyed young man, Philip Dean, who falls for a shop assistant in a small French town, where he has arrived to spend a few days with an acquaintance (the bystander). The story of their liaison is gently erotic and beautifully described. The writing is superb:
"A hot afternoon. It is not yet dark. In the cool of her room
they lie like fish in the shadows of a bank. Dean unfolds the
map. The shutters are drawn."

Much of what happens takes place in the imagination of the bystander figure, but he tells the story so convincingly, so loving with detail, and with such wit and passion that one forgets him and the story of the affair takes over completely. They are different classes at a time when such a thing mattered even more than it still does, but Dean is in love with Anne-Marie and he cashes in his return ticket to New York so that he can stay with her over the winter, and on into the following Spring and Summer. They travel all over France in his borrowed car. But though the story of the affair is told at one remove by a non-participant, he is completely engaged by it. Here is part of the passage which explains this engagement brilliantly:
"I cannot divulge my sources. I can merely say that some things
I saw myself, some I discovered, for after all, the mutilation,
the delay of as little as a single word can reveal the existence
of something worthy to be hidden, and I became obsessed with
discovery, like the great detectives. I read every scrap of paper.
I noted every detail."
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on 13 January 1998
This book is odd in several respects. It is narrated through the imagined or dreamed episodes of the narrator. The plot concerns an affair between a young Aerican and a French girl of 18. Although there is sex on almost every page, and there can hardly be any more ways of describing it, the scenes are narrated flatly and are set in dingy, rainy, grungy parts of France. The affair has nowhere to go, the participants being dependent on one another for their happiness. Without sex they have nothing to say to each other. More interesting is the device of the third person narration. We are given a description of the narrator, but he, too is flat and unemotional. One might conclude that he has dreamed the whole story up. Salter's writing is vivid and smooth, but his story is a one-note symphony. It's hard to empathize with any of the characters, which leaves the main thrust of the book in the bedroom. But it's better than average.
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on 6 November 2013
I only found out after having finished the novel that it was written by the same author who wrote The Hunters . Came to me as a surprise although the subjects and locations are so different ... but on consideration , I found some similarities.
The characters are very well fleshed out in a novel that is at times surrealistic ... I liked the imagery , and the eroticism . The novel starts in semi reality and ends firmly grounded in our everyday reality .
Not gone into much of the story so as not to spoil it for others .. but it is recommended for those who enjoy good writing , and would like a glimpse of rural France in the not too distant past .
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TOP 100 REVIEWERon 13 October 2015
One of the blurbs on the back of my copy of Salter's small masterpiece states that 'he can, when he wants, break your heart with a sentence'. Can't he just! Another calls it 'a tour de force of erotic realism' - true too.
I was a little lost to start with, since Salter isn't that clear where or when things are taking place in the early chapters, but when the 'story' settles down, the narrative is fairly linear, though compounded by an unreliable narrator, who may in fact be making the whole thing up. Salter is quite open about this, which doesn't compromise his narrative at all, merely calls for an authorial sleight of hand that he pulls off miraculously.
So many other writers sprang to mind while I was reading this beautiful, somewhat sad novel - Fitzgerald, Highsmith, Nabokov, even Colette, and perhaps Alain-Fournier, though never - as another reviewer suggests - D.H. Lawrence, despite the explicit, though gentle and utterly credible erotic scenes, of which there are many throughout. In fact, I've seldom read such realistic, un-prurient depictions of sex acts between two lovers. But don't imagine this is some 'sex romp'. Far from it. He really can break your heart with a sentence, and I'm reining in the urge to quote from the novel, as there are (no exaggeration) two or three memorable lines or phrases per page.
This is the kind of writing that is in the lineage of Fitzgerald, Richard Yates, and Philip Roth: precise, weighty with considered language, resonating way beyond the page.
The story, such as it is, is virtually a road-trip by the two young lovers Phillip Dean, a restless but feckless young American and his likable French girlfriend Anne-Marie, who hole up in a variety of provincial hotel rooms across France, making love in each one, eating and drinking, visiting her family, meeting friends. But the devil is in the detail, and Salter's details are the meat and drink of this tender novel, written in such lucent prose that one can't help wanting to memorise it, or at least write chunks of it down, to look at - and marvel at - later.
Salter died earlier this year, wrote few books in a long life, but with this one in 1967 he mined gold.

A tremendous experience.
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on 18 August 2013
This is a short, memorable and clever story of a love affair in 1960s France between an American college drop- out, Philip Dean, and a young French shop girl, Anne- Marie Costallot. It's memorable because of the descriptions of provincial France; wide skies, mist, rain- filled towns. (Last year I spent a few months working in Rennes and I thought often of here when I was reading.) It's clever because the narration is compelling, but you are never entirely sure who is narrating the story and why. I suspect that I will be thinking about this novel for quite a while.
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