James Salter’s novel A Sport and a Pastime is the book to buy for any miserable wretch in your life who thinks Fifty Shades of Grey is quality erotica. Salter’s book earned notoriety when it was published in 1967 for its explicit descriptions of imagined sex scenes between its two protagonists, the American ne’er-do-well Philip Dean and the young Frenchwoman Anne-Marie, scenes that have lost their power to scandalize readers but retain some of their shock value because of the contrast between those descriptions and the mundane passages that surround them. A Sport and a Pastime remains an erotic novel, but its greatness lies in its incisive, almost heartless look at the vacuous nature of any relationship built exclusively on sexual attraction.
Philip and Anne-Marie don’t even connect until the book is about a quarter of the way over, after various descriptions of the dissolute lives of American expats in France in the 1950s, many still capitalizing on the popularity earned by soldiers who helped liberate the country after World War II. Philip is the son of a wealthy crtiic and a mother who took her own life; he’s a Yale dropout who was bored by school yet able to learn anything he liked. He’s bumming around Europe and seeking excitement by driving too fast when he drops in on the narrator for a few days, which turns into a longer stay when he encounters the dim-witted Anne-Marie, pretty, seemingly innocent, with frequent bouts of bad breath. They embark on an affair, relayed by the narrator,
Yet their relationship is fundamentally an empty one, doomed from the start to die when Philip’s sexual infatuation with Anne-Marie fades. The early equilibrium starts to shift, and Anne-Marie finds herself increasingly obsequious in bed because she cannot hold Philip’s attention any other way. Philip, meanwhile, uses her to play out some of his sexual fantasies, but as they become more adventurous in bed, graduating from trying new positions to fellatio to anal sex (all of which must have been extremely shocking to see in print forty-five years ago), each new trick holds his attention for less time than the previous one. (While Anne-Marie performs oral sex on Philip, he never returns the favor, another sign of their relationship’s imbalance.) When his money runs out, he’s first willing to try anything to keep the sex coming, even selling his plane ticket home for cash, but eventually he chooses not to beg his sister or father for more money and lies to Anne-Marie that their separation will only be temporary, even though it’s clear she’ll never hear from him again. Anne-Marie’s mother warns her that she’s being used, but the girl is oblivious, thinking, incorrectly, that she can convert Philip’s lust into love. It spoils nothing to say that she can’t.
The unnamed narrator admits that much of what he’s telling readers is his own speculation on what the couple are doing when he’s not with them, in or out of the bedroom, raises a host of questions around why he would invent or even provide the details he does give us. He’s clearly jealous of his friend Philip’s success with women, but the jealousy doesn’t have any homoerotic overtones – nor does he seem to be jealous of Philip’s success specifically with Anne-Marie, to whom the narrator is attracted but in a distant, almost clinical way. His primary romantic interest in the novel is a divorcee closer to his own age (34), but he describes her and his half-hearted courtship of her in far less detail than he gives Philip and Anne-Marie, choosing instead to live vicariously through the younger, more charming man. The explicit descriptions of Philip’s sexcapades with Anne-Marie, possibly invented by the narrator, may show the narrator’s own fear that his time as a ladies’ man, if he ever was one at all, is passing him by, leaving nubile girls like Anne-Marie, far too young for him anyway, out of reach. Or maybe he’s just a pervert.
I’m not offended by literary depictions of sex – I’m much more likely to find them embarrasingly funny, as they often read like the imaginings of a teenaged boy who hasn’t lost his virginity yet – but Salter’s word choice for Anne-Marie’s ladybits was unfortunate (even if deliberate), because of the extreme negative connotations of that word. Some of the content in the book may be vulgar, but the c-word isn’t vulgar – it’s vile, reducing a woman to her anatomy with a term that is also one of the worst insults anyone can hurl. Perhaps Salter intended to use it to show that for Philip, Anne-Marie is little more than a sex object, reducing her to her genitalia; the way Philip uses her, or that the narrator says Philip uses her, indicates a clear lack of interest in her beyond the bedroom. Or perhaps the narrator intends to reduce both Anne-Marie and Philip to their sex organs, because their relationship wasn’t based on anything more.
If you’re not perturbed by sexually explicit content in a serious work of literature, A Sport and a Pastime is absolutely worth reading, as the parts between the naughty parts are thoughtful and starkly written, as if Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller collaborated while only using their best qualities as writers. Mrs. Shinn, however, would not approve.