James Salter is a lovely writer. He writes with precision and poetic rhythm. His most recent book, All That Is, published last year is a reminder of the beauty and rarity of his writing. A Sport and a Pastime is one of his early books, written in 1967, but has been continuously in print. It caused a bit of a sensation when it was published for its explicit sexuality. As it states in the forward, it was less than 10 years since Lady Chatterley's Lover had been allowed to be printed in the United States. This is a book that had provoked discussion, both when it was published and even today.
The author tells us near the beginning of the novel, and repeats several times throughout, that the story is not real. It is related by a 34 year old narrator who is staying in a house belonging to friends in Autun, near Dijon, in France. Our American voyeur relates the story of a restless young American student, Philip Dean, who has dropped out of Yale and arrives in Paris looking for an escape from his family's expectations. His father is a famous critic and his mother committed suicide. The narrator meets him at a party attended by a certain avant-garde social set which includes American ex-pats reminiscent of the wild young things of the twenties, though these have come off World War II instead. It is the era of "Mad Men" and pseudo-sophistication.
Philip Dean ends up driving to Autun with the narrator. There he meets a 19 year old French waitress, and they begin a torrid affair, most likely the first for him. The story then becomes one of their obsessive sexual relationship (though not tawdry or cheap) as the couple travel through southern France. It is told with grace and feeling, yet it is dated by the era in which it is written. Clearly this is not a modern novel. The romanticism that Salter attaches to the young lovers is that of a young man experiencing his first deep sexual experience. Anne Marie, his French lover, is more open than an American girl of that time would be.
What to make of the mysterious narrator, is he the author relating a story, or is the character just making up a story? That is never explained but adds to the dream-like quality of the novel. Even though this book was written over 40 years ago, it still holds up today. The world was on the cusp of the rebellions and excesses of the sixties which "Mad Men" depicts so realistically. The author takes his title from a quote of the Koran: "Remember that the life of this world is but a sport and a pastime......"