A Sport and a Pastime
Marguerite Duras receives only one mention in Conversations with James Salter, yet reading Salter's A Sport and a Pastime, published in 1967, one recognises a coincidence of feeling in Salter's debt to Duras's work. "I love Colette, Sybille Bedford, Marguerite DurasThe Lover, especiallyAnne Carson and Joan Didion. Simone de Beauvoir" Salter says, but much could be made of the interest that both Salter and Duras have in time as unremitting but also subjunctive and conditional. Like Duras, Salter ventured into cinema, writing The Appointment and Downhill Racer before, like Duras, moving into direction. Salter's relationship with film was persistent yet intermittent and not always respectful. "It's very hard to identify a good writer who has had a continued association with films." But he also adds: "Again, there are always exceptions or possibilities which force you to change your mind. Pinter has written a number of film scripts and one cannot call him anything but a writer of major rank. But I think in Europe you find it a little more often, the process of making films is different". Duras had that advantage and continued to make films throughout the seventies that are seen as monumental works: Nathalie Granger, India Song, and Le Camion. Salter directed only one, Three, which, is rarely talked about even if it is a beautiful film, one that shares with some of the fiction the pleasure of moving from place to place without much sense of purpose but with the capacity to absorb into one's senses the milieu and landscape one passes through. Like A Sport and a Pastime, the film is set mainly in rural France.
Yet we make great play of Duras and cinema on Salter's work because of a problem potential in film and evident in Duras's writing that concerns the anomaly of time. Literature doesn't have this problem ontologically and cinema frequently ignores it. Literature can put everything in an unequivocally past tense since the words on the page are symbols that have no recorded reality beyond the moment that the writer places them next to each other. But film is both the present tense of its filming and the present tense of its storytelling. It is why we can say while watching a film that Robert Redford or Charlotte Rampling (whom Salter worked with on Downhill Racer and Three respectively) can both look young and looked young. The tenses are tangled in cinema as they are not in literature. Many a good filmmaker will acknowledge this temporal entanglement and occasionally a writer forces the problem onto the page as well. This is exactly what Salter does and that Duras did before him, but rather than getting too lost in the cinematic or the Durasian, we will focus on Salter's short novel and illustrate how he addresses the problem.
At the very beginning of the book, Salter doesn't start with a story or a character but with fragments. "September. It seems these luminous days will never end. The city, which was almost empty during August, now is filling up again. It is being replenished...the station is very crowded. There are children, dogs, families with old pieces of luggage bound by straps." Though we are quickly given a narrative consciousness as an I appears who is making these observations, the book remains throughout a disembodied work as the narrator focuses mainly on his friend, the familially wealthy Yale-dropout Philip Dean and the affair that develops between Dean and an eighteen-year-old provincial shop assistant Annie-Marie. The affair which takes up most of the book isn't Dean's disclosure to his friend but much more based on speculations and inventions by a forlorn narrator whose admiration for Dean in its own way approximates the love that Anne-Marie has for the young man; at least the way the narrator sees the couple's love affair. Dean "reeks of assurance. We are all at his mercy. We are subject to his friendship, his love. It is the principles of his world to which we respond, which we seek to find in ourselves." Whether it is the narrator giving Dean three hundred dollars because he cannot say no, or Anne-Marie agreeing to anal sex because she can't resist him, Dean is a perforating presence who pushes through people's physical and psychic barriers. He makes people 'holey'. This isn't the same as saying they are violated: Anne-Marie enjoys the sex with Dean and the narrator suggests that Dean has strengths others can admire, as if seeing in what appears like their own weaknesses a power of possibility that Dean has accessed. "I haven't the slightest instinct to escape or lie, but Dean, ah, he would greet her [Anne-Marie] with a smile. The whole difference lies in that. I am not strong enough to love her. One must be selfish." Dean's strength creates holes in others that needn't quite be the same as weaknesses. Though Dean might seem a snob who can't face introducing Anne-Marie to his wealthy family, this isn't because he believes that she is beneath him; more that he might in the process humiliate her. Her worn clothes would clash with the father or sister's moneyed attire. This may be Dean's bad faith: protecting himself by believing he is protecting her but, taking into account his attitude to Yale, the book indicates he isn't much taken by status. Dean's sister tells the narrator that he quit; it was too easy. "Once he took the anthropology final when he hadn't taken the course. He wrote that at the top of the page. The paper was so brilliant the professor fell in love with him. Dean was disappointed of course."
The book shows that he has been drifting ever since, unable to escape his family even in France (he needs his father's money) but hardly wishing to emulate them either. It seems he wouldn't want his father to cast a cool eye over Anne-Marie in the first place rather than that he would especially respect his father's judgement if he did. If one sees Dean as a 'holey' figure, as a perforating presence, it rests not on any transcendent holy dimension he possesses but on his capacity for acknowledging the potential meaninglessness of things. He is somebody people cannot resist rather than someone who ought to be followed. When his sister's friend hears he has dropped out of Yale she "emits a small oh. But it takes courage to do that, she adds, to set out on your own. Only a real individual...Dean nods. He's heard all this before." She is good-looking and seems interested in Dean; she doesn't appear to be patronising him but is yet another person who is willing to lose a little of herself in finding something admirable in this young man. She might initially be impressed by his stint at Yale but is even more enamoured to hear that he followed his own direction. Dean impresses with the threat of his nothingness imposing itself upon another. If he has heard it all before it needn't be that someone is patronising him; more that he hasn't given anyone anything of much value. To undermine what somebody is impressed by in giving them something else to be impressed by doesn't add much to a value.
And yet the book is a product, if you like, of impressed impressions. The book comes out of the narrator's admiring perspective on this Yale drop-out. Speaking of the car crash that kills Dean near the end of the book, the narrator says, "but of course, in one sense, Dean never died his excellence is superior to such accidents. One must have heroes, which is to say, one must create them. And they become real through our envy, our devotion." Salter himself says of the narrator: "I don't recall how it came to me, but the idea of having a third person describe it, somebody who is really not an important part of the book but merely serving as an intermediary between the book and the reader, was perhaps the thing that was going to make it possible; and consequently, I did that. I don't know who this narrator is. You could say it's me; well, possibly." (Conversations with James Salter). What does the narrator want and who is the narrator are questions worth exploring if one accepts that the envy is hard to locate merely because of the brilliance of Dean's mind, the good looks he possesses and the sexual prowess he shows. Reasons enough for envy, no doubt but it is as though, in the disembodied narration, Salter is searching out another quality that allows us to return to cinema and the similarities between Salter and Duras. The most enviable quality someone can possess is the sense of time that is both absolute and contingent, in someone going beyond time and living it intensely. Dean possesses these qualities by living the affair with Anne-Marie and dying in his mid-twenties in a car crash that leaves him a figment of the narrator's imagination, just as the start of the book offers fragments of time and space. It is as though Salter has put the book together as a montage of memories which are at the same time a montage of the imagination. Cinema is of course in many ways exactly that: a director records moments of time and reconstructs these moments into a narratively imagined meaning. Yet these meanings the filmmaker creates always contain within them moments greater than any deliberation. A character may cross a street in a sixties film, and someone watching fifty years later is as concerned by how the street has changed in the interim as in why the character is crossing it. Watching a film such as Salter's Three we will be aware of Charlotte Rampling's youthful beauty but many will be aware too of Rampling as a beautiful older woman and will be watching her younger self in the context of her older one. Cinema is made up of little pieces of time past turned into a narrative present but which cannot (unless animated) eliminate the reality out of which it has been drawn.
A Sport and a Pastime is of course a book and not a film but, taking into account its title and Salter's ongoing involvement in cinema, one can muse over the nature of Salter's interest in fragmentation of the present for its containment within a broader sense of being. "Remember that life of this world is but a sport and pastime..." (from the Koran) is the opening epigraph to the book. If in cinema this broader being need be no more than a present-tense narrative that contains within it a past tense existence, literature doesn't contain this gap ontologically in other words, it isn't a given of the art form. Partly why we invoked Duras is because like Salter she wishes to make it a condition of her aesthetic, evident, perhaps, in a remark she makes in an eleven-line essay called Stars. "Death, the fact of death coming towards you, is also a memory. Like the present. It's completely here, like the memory of what has already happened and the thought of what is still to come." (Practicalities) Film is in this sense death coming towards us, a filming of a given moment in time that will become past time and in turn death as those on screen are immortalised in a present that is the story and mortal in an image of themselves that time has altered. The camera can narrate as it directs our attention to information that is narratively pertinent but first and foremost it records and, no matter how personal the filmmaker, there is no direct equivalent of the first or third person: film is always offered in the historical third that Salter discusses in interviews when talking about how he struggled to find the right narrative positioning for the book. "On the other hand, if it were in the third person, the historic third, so to speak, it would be a little disturbing because of the explicitness, the sexual descriptions." (Conversations with James Salter) The book seems to seek out a narrative consciousness that is not objective but whose subjectivity is capable of containing within it a distance that is greater than fiction usually supposes but not as distant as film takes for granted. While literature in the 19th century often gave the impression that its narration was omniscient and disinterested, film could take this freedom and ostensible objectivity as a given and force the novel to acknowledge its own unavoidable subjectivity As Alain Robbe-Grillet says (yet another novelist who turned to film): "...it is easy to show that my novels like those of all my friends are more subjective in fact than Balzac's for example. Who is describing the world in Balzac's novels? Who is that omniscient, omnipresent narrator appearing everywhere at once, simultaneously seeing the outside and the inside of things..." (For a New Novel) Whether literature chose to emphasise its attempt at objectivity or to play up its subjectivity, this became an important question in 20th century fiction. You could have a narrator that weaves in and out of people's consciousness as in Mrs Dalloway, an apparent absence of interiority as in Hemingway's Hills Like White Elephants, a dramatically secondary character narrating a dramatically primary character's story (the turn of the century Heart of Darkness; The Great Gatsby). You could also have askew, unreliable narration (The Good Soldier), a very limited perspective (What Maisie Knew) and claustrophobic first person narration, evident in Nausea. Our point is that much that passes for great and important 20th-century work rests partly on who is narrating. That question is so often irrelevant in cinema even if voice-over happens to be one of the ways a filmmaker can direct the material and give the impression of subjectivity. But most films don't have a narrator the way a book cannot avoid one, and many a book will fret over who that narrator might be.
Yet this is let us say the historical and technical aspect of narration: that the position of the narrator has become more pressing into the 20th-century and that a writer when they sit down to put words on the page needs to ask not only whose story is being told but who is telling it. This is evident in Salter's remarks but we may also muse over the envy the narrator talks of and how such a claim proves pertinent to the temporal that we have suggested cinema cannot deny. After all, what does the narrator mean when he says that our heroes become real through our envy and devotion? Halfway through the book, the narrator muses over whether Anne-Marie could have been his. "...By any accident could she, I dream, have become mine?...I look in the mirror. Thinning hair. A face marked by lines, cuts they are, almost, that define my expressions. Strong arms. I'm making all this up. The eyes of a clever and lazy man, a passionate man..." The narrator returns to Dean and Anne-Marie but we might wonder whether he has fictionalised himself in the mirror or fictionalised Dean and Anne-Marie too; fictionalised both or neither or fictionalised some things and not others? As the narrator then moves between dramatic description and personal meditation, speaking of Anne-Marie's nakedness and his solitude, so the book suggests it is generating event out of emotion and emotion out of event in a constant relay that leaves neither fact nor fiction secure. In a literary variation of cinema's capacity to be both the past (the moment of filming) and the present (the narrative telling), so Salter replaces it with a projection of his own: a moment that is real and unreal simultaneously. It is real as affect and unreal as event but where the reality of feeling generates a narrative reality that leaves us viewing the book as subjunctive and conditional. In other words, this is the affair that the narrator could potentially have had with Anne-Marie, and this may have been the affair Dean has had with the young shop assistant.
If cinema cannot avoid being both past and present tense simultaneously; literature can choose to offer an equivalent breach by creating a complex relationship with the narrational positioning. When Salter offers the various positions he could have adopted, he acknowledges that none of them seemed quite satisfactory, well aware that modern literature needn't be beholden to the restricted expectations usually offered in earlier narrative modes, however flexible they may have ostensibly been: not only the expected third and first-person but also the epistolary. But the idea of the narrator coming across some letters shared between two lovers may have appeared too cumbersome, even if those letters were seen by the narrator after Dean's death. How plausible would it have been that the narrator could have access to the letters of both parties? Such a method would have allowed for the intimacy Salter searches out but there would have been potentially clumsy devices utilised to get to it. It would also have left the story in the literal rather than the potential; in letters written rather than thoughts hypothesized. Salter says "you are seeing something forbidden, something absolutely natural and unrehearsed; someone unaware of being observed. As we know from physics, observed things are not the same as unobserved things" (Conversations with James Salter) The observer's presence impacts on the result and in this narrator's case that observation seems far from even attempting objectivity. How could it be so if you envy the man and desire the woman, if out of your passivity you generate an affair that may have taken place but in which your telling dramatises it? When the narrator tells us "we drive her home. Place du Carrouge. The building she lives in is dark. Her room is over an alley where some Corsicans have a fruit business", we can assume this to be not just the case but evidentially so: the narrator is in the car with Dean and Anne-Marie. However, when the narrator says, "she was conceived after much difficulty I do not know if this is significant and born in the fall of 1944, the last Autumn of the war", we might wonder how the narrator has gleaned such information. It isn't impossible Dean has passed this info on but what about when Dean "turns his head to face her in the dark. Their mouths meet. Her breath is thin and rotten. It makes him dizzy"? Would Dean be offering his friend such details about their love life, a sexual liaison that isn't only very liberal in its deeds but very explicit in the telling. Has Dean told his friend about anal sex and cunnilingus or is this the narrator's own projections?
Thus Salter doesn't only create a problematising narration; he also creates a problematic narrator, someone who might be deemed in modern parlance 'creepy' but, for our purposes, need only extend the passivity we find in a Nick Carraway or a Marlowe, one that takes us into the voyeuristic and the hypothetical. Speaking of the book and the narration, Jeffrey Meyers says, "Reynolds Price called James Salter's A Sport and a Pastime (1967) 'as perfect as any American fiction I know.' But this admirable novel has two notable imperfections. The narrator admits that he describes scenes that he cannot possibly have witnessed. And the theme stated by the hero and the narrator is different from the one that emerges from the characters and action. Salter's comments on the novel describe a different book than the one he actually wrote." ('The Sexual Novel: James Salter's A Sport and a Pastime') But are these imperfections or modifications an instance of failed technique or further attempts to generate freedom in the novel as Salter can create without finding himself beholden to the conventional means by which to do so? When we suggest the contrivances Salter could have put in place to avoid such imperfections, as Meyers sees them, then we also could see how predictable some of these would have been and how much harder it would have been to release Time from them. When Meyers invokes Proust he does so by saying: "But there is no attempt, as in Proust, to eavesdrop, look through keyholes, read letters, or relate second-hand gossip; and Phillip never boasts about his sexual life with Anne-Marie. The narrator, in fact, cannot possibly know everything he describes and reminds us throughout that he is only a marginal and vicarious participant in the story." But we should remember that Proust's interest in the way he garners information is secondary to the Time he extracts from it. As Proust says, "the idea of Time was of value to me...it was a spur...How much more worth living did it appear to me now, now that I seemed to see that this life that we live in half-darkness can be illumined, this life that at every moment we distort can be restored within the confines of a book!" (In Search of Lost Time) Meyers reckons "a first-person narrator would have been too egoistic and boastful about his sexual exploits" but that seems to miss the point, unless we see the ego in contrast to the temporal, to view the ego as the confining self as opposed to its expansive possibilities. When Salter said in the mid-2000s, " I'm writing a novel. I'd like it to be a little longer than usual. It's more or less What Mattered to Me, though me is not really in itI don't like the postmodern ego. I'd like it to have a little breadth, perspective." (Conversations with James Salter) Here he suggests he didn't retreat from putting more or less himself at the centre of A Sport or a Pastime because he wanted to avoid egotism nor because he wanted to create a playful self-consciousness but because there is something much more interesting than either the self or the narrator.
If Meyers falls into trying to read the book through Salter's life, insisting it is based on an affair the writer had with a young French woman while he was still married Stateside, another danger would be to see the book playing with narrative consciousness in a post-modern manner that suggests the world matters rather less than the structure the novel is contained by. An experimental, loosely post-modern novelist like John Hawke might say: "I began to write fiction on the assumption that the true enemies of the novel were plot, character, setting and theme, and having once abandoned these familiar ways of thinking about fiction, totality or structure was really all that remained. And structure - verbal and psychological coherence is still my largest concern as a writer." ('The Novel Today') Salter, though, has no desire to remove these elements from fiction but he might wonder how best to contain them in a mode that needn't reduce fiction to the dangers of the autobiographical or the technical. Meyers sees Salter fail because it is an autobiography that doesn't take responsibility for itself and leads to technical impoverishment as the narrator possesses information he wouldn't know. Such criticisms appear to tell us more about what Meyers expects rather than what Salter has done and, to understand an aspect of what Salter has achieved, we can return to the similarities with Duras's work.
One of the ongoing themes of Duras's fiction is the way others preoccupy the self to the point of possession without at all invoking the supernatural. Whether it is the narrator in The Ravishing of Lol Stein who is obsessed by Lol Stein who has in turn never got over a teen jilting, the woman in The Sailor from Gibraltor who spends her fortune searching for a lover from her youth, or the bourgeois married woman returning again and again to a caf where she has witnessed a young woman's murder in Moderato Cantabile (and where she and a working-class man discuss the details of the incident), Duras shows people not so much falling in love but falling apart once breaches inside them start to appear. If one of the Greek words for Love is agape then Duras takes this word which usually means unconditional love for God and love's highest form, and turns it into an astonished opening: a breach that leaves the self without walls and time without coordinates. By refusing to offer a categorical first-person narrator that could suggest the autobiographical, and refusing too a third-person omniscience, Salter gets himself into a problem technically that is worth the risk if it solves a problem ontologically: if it allows him to explore the temporal and psychic chasm that has proved vital too to Duras' work.
One way of looking at this is to say that Dean turns the narrator into a writer in the Durasian sense of the term. "I know all kinds of people who don't write and who are writers" she says. "By that I mean that the world passes to us by way of them. They hand it on; they don't just endure it. There are many people who write and who are much farther from being writers than people who don't." ('Interview With Two French Novelists') Duras proposes that writing comes out of the intolerable. What cannot be endured demands the durable - the prose that will give fixity to the flux. The narrator in A Sport and a Pastime is presented as a photographer yet becomes a writer to make sense of his feelings, to comprehend an envy that permeates the book not as societal jealousy but as a metaphysical condition. If Dean escapes time by escaping the social expectations of Yale, through the sexual encounters with Anne-Marie and by the end of the book in the car crash that kills him, our narrator does so through producing a text that can create, kill and resurrect this young man whom he can't match and whom he can't resist. He creates him on the page, kills him in the story and resurrects him in the telling. Shortly after he meets Dean and before Dean joins him in the provinces, the narrator sees a seventeen-year-old in a hotel bar and says "I recognize in him a clear strain of assurance which has nothing to imitate, which springs forth intact. It feeds on its own reflection. He looks carefully at himself in the mirror, combing his hair. He inspects his teeth." A few pages later he says of Dean: "he describes it [dropping out of Yale] casually, without stooping to explain, but the authority of the act overwhelms me. If I had been an underclassman he would have been my hero." The narrator adds, "I am envious. Somehow his life is it seems more truthful than mine, stronger, even able to draw mine to it like the pull of a dark star." This is Duras's problem given an American idiom and a masculine bent. There is ego involved but there is also its shattering, as though the narrator puts it back together again in the words that he puts down on the page. "The narrator in this bookhe's there to allow the book to exist" Salter says. "I knew what I wanted to write. I knew the story I wanted to write. It existed. It was only a question of more or less pulling it in as if it were a balloon, but I couldn't find the manner in which to write it. Finallyand I don't remember exactly how the idea came to me but it didI thought, it should be told by someone else. It should be filtered through still another person besides me, the writer of the book, and hence that narrator came into existence."( Conversations with James Salter)
Yet such a narrator could only come into existence at a time when complicated questions of narrative positioning became accepted, and where the narrator is an intrusive figure within the work. When Meyers quotes Lawrence saying "never trust the teller trust the tale" this is all very well if one assumes the author is the teller but so often the question in modern fiction is who is doing the telling who can claim responsibility for the tale getting told? Salter may have little interest in metafictional devices that make the reader well aware they are reading a work of fiction but he coincides with them in making sure that the narration isn't invisible. Knowing that some of the events in the book are autobiographical doesn't help here, and in invoking them Meyers may have fallen into the very intentional fallacy Lawrence warned against. It is as though Salter wasn't only fighting against the autobiographical but trying to understand what constitutes moments that acknowledge the experiential from a position that is recorded. The narrator is both a personality who needs to create an existence on the page through Dean but also a kind of camera eye, an impossible observer who has access to lives other than his own. How better to escape a self than by becoming a device? Over the years various commentators (none more strenuously than Roger Scruton in 'Photography and Representation') may have questioned whether cinema is an art form at all since it is ostensibly, say, much easier to film the weather than to describe it. Yet what about when a writer doesn't assume the creative gap between writing and cinema but instead wonders how one might close it because there is something in film in the fact of its recording existence that can create a new tension for literature. As Robbe-Grillet insisted, "cinema knows only one grammatical mode: the present tense of the indicative." (For a New Novel) But the paradox of film is that while literature has various tenses to describe its moment as past, present or future, it is then fixed in that tense much more firmly than the apparently mono-temporal cinema. However, as we have noted, cinema has the tense of its recording and the tense of its diegetic viewing: a bi-temporal paradox allowing us to say that an actor is and was simultaneously. The character is always thirty but the actor was thirty. Film is haunted by this fact as literature is not but what happens if a writer tries and generates this haunting? The result may be something like A Sport and Pastime. It may be too ingenious to note that Salter's first name and Dean's surname makes for one of the most famous of all car crash victims, and that both James Dean and Philip Dean die at the age of twenty-four, but what interests us is that sense in which when watching a James Dean film the usual gap between the tense of the actor disappears in the reality of his youthful demise. Dean was and will always be in his early twenties perceptually as Marlon Brando is not. Both are now dead but Brando's tense is much more complicated than Dean's. The past and the present intermingle as we have Brando in his mid-twenties as Stanley Kowalski and in his mid-forties as Paul in Last Tango in Paris, while we only have James Dean in his early twenties. Literature doesn't have this relationship with time because it doesn't record blocks of space but takes events and translates them into the very different code of words.
Yet what writers like Duras and Salter can do is find various ways to invoke the temporal crisis that isn't a given of the art form. It is as if the narrator wants Dean to die as those watching a James Dean film cannot perceptually view him any other way but in his youth. In the book, it is both a narrative act of revenge but also furthers the hero worship. As the narrator says that one must have heroes and so must create them, so one must kill them too, if necessary. No such worship is offered to Anne-Marie. In a proleptic moment at the end of the book the narrator says "as for Anne-Marie, she lives in Troyes now, or did. She is married. I suppose there are children. They walk together on Sundays, the sunlight falling upon them. They visit friends, talk, go home in the evening, deep in the life we all agree is greatly to be desired." Salter has said of this conclusion "That paragraph, the final sentence, is written in irony, but perhaps not read that way. If you don't see the irony, then the book is naturally going to have a different meaning for you. (Conversations with James Salter). However, what it gives to Anne-Marie is a future self in the context of an earlier self, and one might wonder if this a greater form of revenge than the death he gives to Dean. It is the staid and predictable life that cannot make heroes.
© Tony McKibbin