Sex Prose As It Should Be: The Erotic Realism of James Salter’s A Sport and A Pastime

One word that I kept encountering whenever I read about James Salter was ‘luminous’. “His prose is luminous” says one review of his book A Sport and A Pastime. Another calls The Hunters his “luminous first novel”. One admirer says his novels left him “breathless with admiration for their luminous prose”. And for the life of me, I couldn’t get that word out of my mind when I was mulling over this post in my head. Because you know what? His prose is luminous, dammit. Take for instance, his description in A Sport and A Pastime of an early morning in a non-descript French town called Autun:

I am awake before dawn, 0545, the bells striking three times, far off and then a moment later very near. The most devout moments of my life have been spent in bed at night listening to those bells. They flood over me, drawing me out of myself. I know where I am suddenly: part of this town and happy. I lean out of the window and am washed by the cool air, air it seems that no one else has yet breathed. Three boys on motorbikes going by, almost holding hands. And then the pure, melancholy, first blue of morning begins. The air one can bathe in. The electric shriek of a train. Heels on the sidewalk. The first birds. I cannot sleep.

These are words of pure genius. What is the colour of early morning, if not blue? And of course, the shriek of a train is electric! You’ve seen it and you’ve heard it, but not until you read Salter’s prose do you know exactly how to describe it.

Having read this book, it surprises me that Salter isn’t more famous. I have rarely seen his books stocked in Indian bookstores – not even his most accomplished work, Light Years. His is a name that rarely crops up in literary discussions in India. But then, American literature seems to get so little attention in India. That is a perennial grouch of mine, which I shall address in another post.

It seems in the US, though, he has a small but very dedicated readership and is a very respected name in literary circles. I first stumbled upon his name in Sonya Chung’s brilliant article for The Millions. There, she discusses how Salter depicted sex as well as, or perhaps, better than Great American Novelists like John Updike and Norman Mailer. She says:

There is no “about” in Salter’s feverish reality-dream, dancing or otherwise, no distanced atomization of the physicality of sex, the intimacy of physicality. The nakedness of these characters is soul-deep, and the novel demands no less of its reader.

She goes on to ask:

Are Dean and Anne-Marie’s “amorous exercises” raunchy, violent, aberrant, empty, farcical, magical, loving, religious, lyrical, beautiful? I can’t answer that for you; and herein lies the novel’s profound meaning: that it will require courage – maybe even epic courage – for you to answer for yourself.

It truly does. This is a book that deals with sex head-on. There is no, pardon my pun, pussy-footing around the subject. No beating about the bush. No metaphors – breasts are breast, not honeydew melons. To fuck is to fuck, it’s not the quasi-religious rapture that Ayn Rand’s cardboard characters feel, and nor is it the heads-banging-on-wall rumpus that Updike’s characters engage in. It’s direct. It’s sex, for God’s sake – essential, vital, living anf throbbing sex.

And yet its not divorced from love. For Dean and Anne-Marie (the protagonists) sex is, quite simply, how they react to the attraction they feel for each other. It’s a powerful attraction and one that explodes in, what for both of them, is probably the most intense experience of their lives. They travel around small-town France in Dean’s borrowed car, rent hotel rooms and have sex. And their encounters are beautifully rendered by the unnamed narrator. Of course, we’re warned again and again by him that most of what he’s saying is fiction. Who really knows what Dean and Anne-Marie did behind closed doors? As you read further, it becomes harder and harder to tell dream and reality apart. The narrator weaves such an attractive web of deceptions. There’s no real reason for him to describe their time together in such loving detail – at least, he never mentions it. But as the reader, you get a sense of him. Perhaps he’s half in love with Anne-Marie himself, or perhaps he envies Dean, a Yale dropout from a privileged background, his carefree, seemingly endless tour of France. Or he envies both Dean and Anne-Marie their burning romance.

Please read this book. Ditch that horrible rape fantasy scene in The Fountainhead and the smutty, grimy encounters in all those Harold Robbins and Sidney Sheldon books. I leave you with this evocatively described scene, Dean and Anne-Marie’s first sexual encounter. Maybe that will convince you?

He has wrapped her in an enormous towel, soft as a robe, and carried her to the bed. They lie across it diagonally, and he begins to draw the towel apart with care, to remove it as if it were a bandage. Her flesh appears, still smelling a little of soap. His hands float onto her. The sum of small acts begins to unite them, the pure calculus of love. He feels himself enter. Her last breath – it is almost a sigh – leaves her. Her white throat appears.

PS – For further reading on James Salter, check out The Paris Review’s essays for their James Salter Month

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8 thoughts on “Sex Prose As It Should Be: The Erotic Realism of James Salter’s A Sport and A Pastime

    • Thanks Anjuly! I’m sure you’ll love the book as much as I did!

      How’s life in the UK, by the way? Is your course over?

  1. but i don’t get it!
    why bring some Rand into this? and why this final exhortation to the reader?
    but anyway – glad to read your take
    do hope your blog survives through your professional duties workload

    cheers
    AT

    • Haha! I suppose the only reason I dragged Ayn Rand into this was because I intensely dislike her books, and I want to use every opportunity possible to make that clear. I have no other excuse!

  2. ah glad! relieved
    🙂
    but that new biography of her i think is well researched . i haven’t read it ‘tho.
    i am not sure what i dislike more: ayn rand’s writings or those imbeciles who like her writing with some quasi-religious intensity

  3. don’t know if reactivating a comment thread on a 3 month old post will surface on your busy dashboard but Nicholson Baker’s Vox would be a good contender to sit next to James Salter. very urban, contemporary and the humor is just brilliant.
    finished it recently and was reminded of this thread – would be interesting to see your review of Vox

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