A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter

From Goodreads: “As nearly perfect as any American fiction I know,” is how Reynolds Price (The New York Times) described this classic that has been a favorite of readers, both here and in Europe, for almost forty years. Set in provincial France in the 1960s, it is the intensely carnal story–part shocking reality, part feverish dream –of a love affair between a footloose Yale dropout and a young French girl. There is the seen and the unseen–and pages that burn with a rare intensity.


I will warn you in advance; this is likely to be a logorrheic discussion of A Sport and a Pastime and other associated events. Okay? Excellent. Consider yourself warned. Let’s begin with a little background…

I cannot take a compliment. It might actually be impossible. If someone does say something nice, cue a painfully awkward reaction on my part. Why is it important for you to know this? Because it likely influences the way I feel about this novel. Case in point (and I’m about to embarrass myself), while at work a seemingly nice gentleman asked me if I was a runner. I’m not. He continues, telling me I have nice legs. At this point, we’re thirty seconds into a conversation and I’m dying. It’s so bad that I want to break out my favorite Fifty Shades of Grey line, ““Um.” I feel the color in my cheeks rising again. I must be the color* of The Communist Manifesto. Stop talking. Stop talking. NOW.” (quote exclusively reserved for the most ridiculous of situations). He proceeds to tell me I should not be embarrassed, that it’s very nice to see. That’s it. I’m dead.

At this point, you may be asking yourself why I included this lovely little anecdote. It’s not so you’ll think about my legs (if you are, stop, it’s not worth it). It’s not so you’ll wonder about my workout routine (kickboxing, if you’re curious).  It’s to illustrate how profoundly uncomfortable I can be when confronted with physical observations that need not be spoken aloud.  If a botany librarian* is helping you find a book on botany, then perhaps the two parties should discuss botany. And furthermore, I’d like to take this opportunity to observe that while attraction is important in a relationship, it needs to be primarily mental (physical attractiveness rarely lasts forever).  That being said, let’s get on with the book discussion, shall we?

Phillip Dean, 24 year old Yale dropout, begins an affair with 18 year old Anne-Marie Costallat. Their increasingly intense affair is chronicled by an unnamed narrator. The narrator freely admits to being unreliable.

“None of this is true,” he says. “I am only putting down details which entered me, fragments that were able to part my flesh.”

Dean and Anne-Marie travel France, staying in near lifeless French towns, rarely leaving the confines of their hotel.

The Good: This is a beautifully written novel. It truly is a testament to the prose that this novel does not come off as cross between extreme voyeurism and excessive stalking. The travel descriptions are evocative, creating the hazy, lush atmosphere of provincial France.  I typically enjoy unreliable narrators and this was no exception. Truly, it is a rare writer that can earn an accurate comparison to both Hemingway and Fitzgerald – they’re usually stylistically at odds with each other.

The Bad: I’m amazed that this novel is included on The Guardian’s 1000 novels everyone must read: the definitive list under the love section (perhaps the travel section instead?). That means this book is included alongside E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. No…just no. Phillip Dean, though sexually attracted to Anne-Marie, does not find her particularly intelligent and laments that every encounter they have is one closer to the end (she’s not long term material).  He notes her smell, her poor dental work, and her flea bites. He does appreciate the opportunity to explore her previously uncharted areas, though the encounter lacks any sort of realistic detail. I find Dean’s listing her faults while fantasizing about just how far he can take his imaginings to be incongruous. Perhaps Dean’s opinions are the sole construction of the unnamed narrator, but ultimately it is neither loving nor romantic. While the story is “part shocking reality, part feverish dream”, the character and plot development are weak, leaving little to care about.  Finally, although it is a product of the time period, the novel is laced with casually racist and classist observations which I found distasteful.

Ultimately, I did not like A Sport and a Pastime, but the writing is notably wonderful. Will I ever reread or recommend this book to anyone? No and no. Do I regret reading it? No, the prose was lovely even if the content was not.  3/5.

After reading the above, will any of you be picking up James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime (it is included on many must read lists – a few found here, here, and here)?

Update: In accordance with this, I passed this on to an unsuspecting individual (I did say it was well written and worth reading). Here’s hoping he enjoys it.


I am recommending Gardener’s Pizza to go with this novel. You’ll need comfort food after you realize the next person you’re with might be simultaneously enumerating your flaws, planning on leaving, and imagining ways to violate you.

*Although I’m using this statement to indicate my face was very, very red, it is worth noting that the color of my copy of The Communist Manifesto, sadly, is blue.

*I’m not actually a botany librarian, I’m a horticultural librarian, but I couldn’t include it above because all I could think about was Dorothy Parker and horticulture. You might laugh if you know what I’m referencing, no guarantees.


5 thoughts on “A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter

  1. I’ll start off this comment by saying that your face was as red as The Communist Manifesto has to be the greatest simile I’ve read all month. Second of all, I think it’s fascinating how the author juxtaposes so much physical attraction to so much physical disgust, and I agree that this juxtaposition really doesn’t belong to an acclaimed romance novel.


    1. Thank you! I wish I could say I thought of it myself. For me, this was definitely not a love story, but who am I to argue with the experts…? I understand the idea of love and hate being different sides of the same coin, but not love and distaste. It didn’t work for me (clearly!) :).


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