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A Sport and a Pastime
By James Salter
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1995 James Salter
All rights reserved.
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 restaurants are all reopening, the shops. People are coming back from the country, the sea, from trips on roads all jammed with cars. The station is very crowded. There are children, dogs, families with old pieces of luggage bound by straps. I make my way among them. It's like being in a tunnel. Finally I emerge onto the brilliance of the quai, beneath a roof of glass panels which seems to magnify the light.
On both sides is a long line of coaches, dark green, the paint blistering with age. I walk along reading the numbers, first and second class. It's pleasant seeing all the plaques with the numbers printed on them. It's like counting money. There's a comfortable feeling of delivering myself into the care of those who run these great, somnolent trains, through the clear glass of which people are staring, as drained, as quiet as invalids. It's difficult to find an empty compartment, there simply are none. My bags are becoming heavy. Halfway down the platform I board, walk along the corridor and finally slide open a door. No one even looks up. I lift my luggage onto the rack and settle into a seat. Silence. It's as if we're waiting to see the doctor. I glance around. There are photographs of tourism on the wall, scenes of Brittany, Provence. Across from me is a girl with birthmarks on her leg, birthmarks the color of grape. My eye keeps falling to them. They're shaped like channel islands.
At last, with a little grunt, we begin to move. There's a groaning of metal, the sharp slam of doors. A pleasant jolting over switches. The sky is pale. A Frenchman is sleeping in the corner seat, blue coat, blue pants. The blues do not match. They're parts of two different suits. His socks are pearl grey.
Soon we are rushing along an alley of departure, the houses of the suburbs flashing by, ordinary streets, apartments, gardens, walls. The secret life of France, into which one cannot penetrate, the life of photograph albums, uncles, names of dogs that have died. And in ten minutes, Paris is gone. The horizon, dense with buildings, vanishes. Already I feel free.
Green, bourgeoise France. We are going at tremendous speed. We cross bridges, the sound short and drumming. The country is opening up. We are on our way to towns where no one goes. There are long, wheat-colored stretches and then green, level land, recumbent and rich. The farms are built of stone. The wisdom of generations knows that land is the only real wealth, a knowledge that need not question itself, need not change. Open country flat as playing fields. Stands of trees.
She has moles on her face, too, and one of her fingers is bandaged. I try to imagine where she works–a pâtisserie, I decide. Yes, I can see her standing behind the glass cases of pastry. Yes. That's just it. Her shoes are black, a little dusty. And very pointed. The points are absurd. Cheap rings on both hands. She wears a black pullover, a black skirt. She's a bit heavy. Her brow is furrowed as she reads the love stories in Echo Mode. We seem to be going faster.
We are fleeing through the towns. Cesson, a pale station with an old clock. Rivers with barges. We roar through another place, the people on the quai standing still as cows. Tunnels, now, which press one's ears. It's as if a huge deck of images is being shuffled. After this will come a trick. Silence, please. The train itself begins to slow a little as if obeying. Across from me the girl has fallen asleep. She has a narrow mouth, cast down at the corners, weighted there by the sourness of knowledge. Her face is turned towards the sun. She stirs. Her hand slips down; the palm comes to rest on her stomach which is already like a Rubens. Now her eyes open without warning. She sees me. She looks away, out the window. Both hands are crossed on her stomach now. Her eyes close once more. We are leaning into curves.
Canals, rich as jade, pass beneath us, canals in which wide barges lie. The water is green with scum. One could almost write on the surface.
Hayfields in long, rectangular patterns. There are hills now, not very high. Poplars. Empty soccer fields. Montereau–a boy on a bicycle waiting near the station. There are churches with weathervanes. Small streams with row-boats moored beneath the trees. She begins looking for a cigarette. I notice that the clasp of her handbag is broken. We are paralleling a road now, going faster than the cars. They hesitate and drift away. The sun is hitting my face. I fall asleep. The beautiful stone of walls and farms is passing unseen. The pattern of fields is passing, some pale as bread, others sea-dark. Now the train slows and begins to move with a measured, a stately clatter as if of carriages. My eyes open. Off in the distance I can see the skeletal grey of a cathedral, the blue outline of Sens. In the station, where for a few minutes we stop, travelers pass along the broken surface of the quai, the gravel sounding beneath their feet. It's strangely silent, however. There are whispers and coughs, as if during an intermission. I can hear the tearing of paper on a package of cigarettes. The girl is gone. She has gathered her things and left. Sens is on a curve, and the train is leaning. Travelers stare idly from the open windows.
The hills close in and run beside us as we begin slowly to move away from the city. The windows of houses are open to the warm morning air. Hay is stacked in the shape of boxes, coops, loaves of bread. Above us, the sudden passage of a church. In its walls, cracks wide enough for birds to nest in. I am going to walk these village roads, follow these brilliant streams.
Rose, umber, camel, tan–these are the colors of the towns. There are long, rising pastures with lines of trees. St. Julien du Sault–its hotel seems empty. Shocks of hay now, bundles of it. Great squares of corn. Cezy–the station like scenery in a play that has closed. Pyramids of hay, mansards, barricades. Orchards. Children working in vegetable gardens, JOIGNY is printed in red.
We cross a small river, the Yonne, coming into Laroche. There is a hotel, its roof black with age. Flowers in the window boxes. We stop once more. One changes trains here.
Near baggage carts that seem abandoned we stand around quietly. A cart is selling sandwiches and beer. A pregnant girl walks by and glances towards me as she passes. Sunburnt face. Pale eyes. A serene expression. It seems that people, women especially, have become real again. The elegant creatures of the city, of the grand routes, the resorts, have vanished. I hardly remember them. This is somewhere else. Sheds on the far side of the tracks are filled with bicycles. Workmen in blue sit on sunlit benches, waiting.
From here on the line isn't electrified. The trip is slower. We pass green waters into which trees have fallen. Bitter whiffs of smoke come into the compartment, that marvelous corrosive smoke that eats steel and turns terminals black as coal.
In the corner, in a trenchcoat, her hair gleaming, sits a silent girl with a face like a bird, one of those hard little faces, the bones close beneath it. A passionate face. The face of a girl who might move to the city. She has large eyes, marked in black. A wide mouth, pale as wax. Around her neck is a band of imitation diamonds. It seems I am seeing everything more clearly. The details of a whole world are being opened to me.
The sky is almost completely covered with clouds now. The light has changed, the colors, too. The trees become blue in the distance. The fields turn dry. There are tunnels of hay, mosques, cupolas, domes. Every house has its vegetable garden. The roads here are empty–a motorcyclist, a truck, nothing more. People are traveling elsewhere. Outside a house two small cages are hung for the canaries to get some air. We are passing bricks of hay, casques. We are laboring along. The acid smell of smoke comes and goes. The long, shrill blasts of the whistle, lost in the distance, fill me with joy.
She has taken a caramel out of her handbag. She unwraps it, puts it in her mouth to ensure her silence. Her fingers play with the paper, rolling it slowly, tightening the roll. Her eyes are pale blue. They can stare right through one. The nose is long but feminine. I am curious to see her teeth.
She touches her hair, first beneath one ear, then the other. Her wedding ring seems to be enameled. An umbrella with a violet canopy is strapped to her luggage. The handle is gold, no thicker than a pencil. No polish on her fingernails. She sits motionless now and stares out the window, her mouth curved in a vague expression of resignation. The little girl who is opposite me cannot take her eyes from her.
I begin to look out the window. We are coming close now. Finally, in the distance, against the streaked sky, a town appears. A single, great spire, stark as a monument: Autun. I take my bags down. I have a sudden, little spell of nervousness as I carry them along the corridor. The whole idea of coming here seems visionary.
Only two or three people get off. It's not yet noon. There's a single clock with black hands that jump every half-minute. As I walk along, the train begins to move. Somehow it frightens me to have it go. The last car passes. It reveals empty tracks, another quai, not a soul on it. Yes, I can see it already: on certain mornings, on certain winter mornings this is almost completely hidden in mist; details, objects come forth slowly as one walks. In the afternoons, the sun imprints it all with cold, bodiless light. I pass into the main room of the station. There's a slowly as one walks. In the afternoons, the sun imprints it all with cold, bodiless light. I pass into the main room of the station. There's a newsstand with iron shutters. It's closed. A large scale. Schedules on the wall. The man behind the glass of the ticket window doesn't look up as I walk by.
The Wheatlands' house is in the old part of town, built right on the Roman wall. First there is a long avenue of trees and then the huge square. A street of shops. After these, nothing, houses, a Utrillo-like silence. At last the Place du Terreau. There's a fountain, a trifoil fountain from which pigeons are drinking, and looming above, like a great, beached ship: the cathedral. It's only possible to glimpse the spire, studded along the seams, that marvelous spire which points at the same time to the earth's center and also the outer void. The road leads around behind. Here many windows are broken. The lead frames, formed like diamonds, are empty and black. A hundred feet farther is a small, blind street, an impasse, as they say, and there it stands.
It's a large, stone house, the roof sinking, the sills worn. A huge house, the windows tall as trees, exactly as I remember it from a few days of visiting when, on the way up from the station I had a strange conviction I was in a town I already knew. The streets were familiar to me. By the time we reached the gate I had already formed an idea that floated through my mind the rest of the summer, the idea of returning. And now I am here, before the gate. As I look at it, I suddenly see, for the first time, letters concealed in the iron foliage, an inscription:VAINCRE OU MOURIR. The VAINCRE is missing its c.
Autun, still as a churchyard. Tile roofs, dark with moss. The amphitheatre. The great, central square: the Champ de Mars. Now, in the blue of autumn, it reappears, this old town, provincial autumn that touches the bone. The summer has ended. The garden withers. The mornings become chill. I am thirty, I am thirty-four–the years turn dry as leaves.CHAPTER 2
This blue, indolent town. Its cats. Its pale sky. The empty sky of morning, drained and pure. Its deep, cloven streets. Its narrow courts, the faint, rotten odor within, orange peels lying in the corners. The uneven curbstones, their edges worn away. A town of doctors, all with large houses. Cousson, Proby, Gilot. Even the streets are named for them. Passageways through the Roman wall. The Porte de Breuil, its iron railings sunk into the stone like climbers' spikes. The women come up the steep grade out of breath, their lungs creaking. A town still rich with bicycles. In the mornings they flow softly past. In the streets there's the smell of bread.
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 no one 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.
I stand in line in the shops, no one notices. The girls are moving back and forth behind the counters, girls with white faces, with ankles white as soap, worn shoes going at the outside toe, dresses showing beneath the white smocks. Their fingernails are short. In the winter their cheeks will be splotched with red.
They wait for me to speak, and of course it all vanishes then. They know I'm a foreigner. It makes me a little uneasy. I'd like to be able to talk without the slightest trace of accent–I have the ear for it, I'm told. I'd like, impossible, to understand everything that's said on the radio, the words of the songs. I would like to pass unseen. The little bell hung inside the door rings as I go out, that's all.
I come back to the house, open the gate, close it again behind me. The click is a pleasing sound. The gravel, small as peas, moves beneath my feet and from it a faint dust rises, the perfume of the town. I breathe it in. I'm beginning to know it, and the neighborhoods as well. A geography of favored streets is forming itself for me while I sleep. This intricate town is unfolding, detail by detail, piece by piece. I walk along the river on the bank between two bridges. I stroll through the cemetery that gutters like jewelry in the last, slanting light. It seems I am seeing an estate, passing among properties that will someday be mine.
These are notes to photographs of Autun. It would be better to say they began as notes but became something else, a description of what I conceive to be events. They were meant for me alone, but I no longer hide them. Those times are past.
None of this is true. I've said Autun, but it could easily have been Auxerre. I'm sure you'll come to realize that. I am only putting down details which entered me, fragments that were able to part my flesh. It's a story of things that never existed although even the faintest doubt of that, the smallest possibility, plunges everything into darkness. I only want whoever reads this to be as resigned as I am. There's enough passion in the world already. Everything trembles with it. Not that I believe it shouldn't exist, no, no, but this is only a thin, reflecting sliver which somehow keeps catching the light.
Cristina Wheatland–she was Cristina Cabaniss and born Cristina Poore–has a cool face, a little bony, and large, pale eyes. Her father was an ambassador. They led a brilliant life. She went to school everywhere, Argentina, Greece, the Philippines. I don't remember just how Billy met her, only that she was twenty-three and they fell in love right from the start. She was just getting her divorce. He was the one she should have married in the first place. He knew how to handle her. He's the only man who knows how to make her feel like a woman.
"Isn't that right, sweetheart?" she says.
"That's right, Bummy."
He's selecting cubes of ice from a silver bucket and talking with his back turned. She sits at the far end of the room, her legs curled beneath her. Paris. It's three in the morning. Their daughter, the servants, the whole building is asleep. She leans forward to let me light her cigarette and then falls back, floats really, into the soft cushions. She can't live in America any more, she says. That's the only thing that bothers her. She's gone back to visit. It just isn't for her. In the first place, she doesn't even know how to drive. Billy hands her the drink. She gives it back.
Excerpted from A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter. Copyright © 1995 James Salter. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Reading Group Guide
Questions for Discussion
1. The book opens with a train trip across France. What images are used to describe the landscape? What underlying emotion is communicated? How does the trip help to set up the story that follows? The narrator states, "I've said Autun, but it could easily have been Auxerre. I'm sure you'll come to realize that" (p.17). What does he mean by this? What role does France play in the narrative? Why does the narrator address the reader directly?
2. In the first chapter there many vivid, alluring portraits of women the narrator does not know. Why did Salter include these descriptions? What effect is achieved?
3. What does the narrator feel about being a foreigner in France? What is Dean's response? Do Dean's amorous adventures make him more at home in this foreign land?
4. The narrator says, "I am only the servant of life. He [Dean] is an inhabitant" (p.58), and "I breathe to the rhythm of his [life] which is stronger than mine" (p. 65). What does the narrator mean by these statements? What do they tell us about the narrator's relationship with and attitude toward Dean?
5. The narrator often quotes other writers to help illustrate the points he wants to make. He paraphrases Rainer Maria Rilke: "There are no classes for beginners in life, the most difficult thing is always asked of one right away" (p. 49). Later he states, "Great lovers lie in hell, the poet says" (p.100). What do we learn about the story and the characters from these passages?
6. Repeatedly the narrator refers to himself and Dean as criminals: "I search for the exact ciphers which serve to open it all as if for a safe combination" (p.65); "It's like the start of a crime of passion" (p. 80); "The simple mechanics of crime" (p. 182); "It's as if I've been in prison" (pp. 184-85). What are their crimes? How do their crimes affect our opinions of them? Does Dean view himself as a criminal?
7. The narrator says that Dean is "aware, for the first time, that she [Anne-Marie] is fully able to speak, to create images strong enough to alter his life" (p. 69). The narrator also imagines that Anne-Marie "understands effortlessly. LIfe is all quite clear to her. She is one with it. She moves in it liek a fish, never wondering if it has a bottom, shores, worlds above it . . ." (p. 73). Salter once stated, "In my books, the woman is always the stronger." Is this true in A Sport and a Pastime? What are Anne-Marie's strengths and weaknesses?
8. The narrator declares, "Some things . . . I saw, some discovered, and some dreamed, and I can no longer differentiate between them" (pp. 57-58), and admits, "I am not telling the truth about Dean, I am inventing him. I am creating him out of my own inadequacies, you must always remember that" (p. 85). What does this tell us about the story? In light of this, is the narrator reliable?
9. After Dean is pulled over by the police, the narrator says, "He knows he's been a fool" (p. 86). Soon he buys his first present for Anne-Marie; why? How has the incident with the police affected Dean?
10. Violent images sometimes appear in A Sport and a Pastime: "Worn knives with the edge of a razor have flensed them while their eyes were still fluttering" (p. 27), and "They seem to be carving the flock" (p. 111). Why? How do these kinds of images inform the story?
11. What happens when Dean finally meets Anne-Marie's parents? What does it mean for him and for her? The narrator observes of Dean: "He feels the unhurried gaze of the father on him. He tries to return it, is determined to, but involuntarily his eyes flicker away for an instant, and that is enough. It's finished" (p. 123). What has finished? What has transpired? Why does Dean not want his parents to meet or even know about Anne-Marie?
12. The narrator foreshadows Dean's death in numerous ways: "Suddenly it is quite clear how acrobatic, how dangerous everything is. It seems not to be his own life he is living, but another, the life of some victim" (p. 164), and "It is is only after the door to the room closes and he turns the key that Dean feels anything other than death" (p. 172). Is Dean's death sudden, or is it the result of a slow dissolution, the logical conclusion to the way that he develops in the narrative?
13. In the end, Dean promises to return for Anne-Marie. Does the narrator believe that Dean will come back? Does Dean believe it? If not, why does he say that he will? How does the narrator feel about Dean's departure.
14. What holds Dean and Anne-Marie together? What are the strengths and weaknesses of their relationship? How does their relationship compare to those of the married couples in the story? What are Dean's failings in his relationship with Anne-Marie?
15. Why did Salter choose the title A Sport and a Pastime? How does the opening epigraph serve the book? Which of the characters would view life as a sport and a pastime?
16. Throughout the book are images that blend the crude and the sublime, such as "They fuck in lovers' sunshine" (p. 128). What do these images accomplish? What was Salter trying to say about the sexual relationship between Anne-Marie and Dean.
17. The New York Times Book Review said of A Sport and a Pastime, "Archingly graceful like a glorious Fourth of July rocket, it illuminates the dark sky of sex," and called it "a tour de force of erotic realism." What makes the story so erotic?
18. In a recent interview, Salter discussed A Sport and a Pastime: "Usually in books the erotic passages are an aria, and the rest is recitative. I wanted to do the reverse, in which the eroticism was the recitative and just went on all the time, since it's so much a part of life." Does Salter achieve this goal? If so, how?