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A Sport and a Pastime

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James Salter’s 1960’s novel, A Sport and a Pastime, is a gem of a novel whose reputation has only grown since its muted publication. Salter has had an interesting life: he was a U.S. Air Force fighter pilot who fought in Korea before turning to writing in his 30’s. Literary studies in the 1970’s forbade a study of author’s lives in conducting ritual explications de texte but we practice these rituals no longer. Still, Pastime is one of those books that stays with you, a haunting.

In 1975 Salter published Light Years. The book was recommended to me by my college roommate, Steve Thompson (he of WCMS fame). Steve told me that the book “is about divorce.” Divorce is a depressing topic. Out of curiosity I leafed through a mass-market paperback edition of the book at Kroch & Brentano’s but decided not to buy it. Kroch & Brentano’s is no longer with us, and neither is Steve, whose birth name was Wayne. While I am certainly a fan of Salter’s, Light Years is one of his books that I have never gotten around to reading, until fate insisted that I do so.

One evening, while in the process of moving out of the windowless room at the Al-Dorra in Al Khobar I left two suitcases in a covered compartment inside my automobile. The next morning one of mangement’s minion banged on my door at 7:00 am because there was a problem with the car and my presence was needed immediately. At 7:30 I went down and saw that the window on the car had been broken–shocking in Saudi Arabia–and that the two suitcases placed there the night before were gone. Under these circumstances, a police report would only have occasioned a corruption, so I did nothing. This is often the best approach to crime. I realized that the suitcases were mostly filled with books and that their loss, while unwelcome, was hardly tragic. Two weeks later I received a telephone call because my business card had been found in one of the suitcases. They had been found in a stolen car that had been recovered by the police. The likely result in Saudi Arabia would be that I would be investigated for car theft but this was not the case. A week later, the suitcases were returned, and with them my copy of Light Years, picked up during my last visit to the U.S., was returned to me.

So I figured that I better read it.

Divorce is certainly part of the story, but it is far from the whole story. Salter’s lyric style is graceful; wonderful, but this is not a story with a beginning, middle and end: Aristotelian conventions are essentially ignored. It may instead well be a middle-aged bildungsroman, with Salter trying to express sentiments and emotions felt during a particular time of his life, a time when divorce may have featured in one way or another.

But there is at least one wonderful passage. The failed husband and architect has gone to Italy to recover. There is a meme throughout the book that Europe is some kind of paradise, or at least a counterbalance to the vacuity of American lives, lives that are lived and lived well but seemingly without purpose. So Viri (a diminutive of Vladimir that I have not seen before or since, a name that would be particularly inconvenient during the Cold War) goes to Italy and starts consulting with an architectural firm there. A young woman working at the firm sees him and gulps. She engineers a marriage, but he longs for his life in America, his children. She tries to disabuse him of this:

“Yes,” she said, I know you are frightened. I know your habits, I know your thoughts. You have married me for my sake, but not for your own—not yet. That will come. Oh yes. It will come because I will wait. I am a cornucopia, I am overflowing. I am not sweet—no, not in the way one tastes at first. But sweet things are forgotten quickly, sweet things are weak. I have the patience to wait, yes, as long as necessary. I will wait a month, a year, five years, I will sit like a widow, playing a kind of napoleone, because, slowly, slowly I will enslave you. I will do it when the moment comes, when I know it is time, that I can succeed. Until then I will sit at your table, I will lie beside you like a concubine—yes, I will give myself to you in whatever way you like, I will raid your fantasies, I will pillage them and keep the pieces to hypnotize you with. I will say, ‘Those things you are dreaming of, I will make them real.’…Amore, the secret is to have the courage to live. If you have that, everything will sooner or later change.”

What a wonderful passage!

Written by mokane

May 30, 2010 at 10:17 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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