Elizabeth Benedict

He treats life as fragile, to be handled with care

A review of A Sport and a Pastime and Light Years, by James Salter
The Philadelphia Inquirer, Feb 2, 1986.

Admirers of James Salter's fiction speak of it reverently, with delicacy, almost in awe, expressions of enthusiasm benefitting the work. He writes about the fragility of things — families, love, sexuality, success — in prose that is as clear as water, as graceful and light as a structure made of eggshells.

Salter, born in New Jersey and now living on Long Island, will be 50 this year. Of his five novels, A Sport and a Pastime and Light Years are the best to own. In them, life is lived at the dining room or kitchen table, in restaurants, in hotel rooms, in bed with a lover, a wife, not always one's own.

The main character in both books is Salter's extraordinary voice, at once **der, exultant, unbadshedly sexual, sensual, profoundly sad.

A spare four-line exchange between two characters can break one's hear. In Light Years he writes, "The power to change one's life comes from a aparagraph, a lone remark. The lines that penetrate us are slender, like the **kes that live in river water and **ter the bodies of swimmers."

First published in 1967 and out of print for the last several years, A Sport and a Pastime has just been reissued by North Point Press. It's a fine companion to the publisher's edition of Light Years (1976), reissued in 1981. These paperbacks are pricey, but they're beautiful to look at, to hold, to read. Best of all, the bindings are sewn so pages don't fall out, even if they've been turned again and again.

The less compilcated of the two books, A Sport and a Pastime is set in France perhaps 25 years ago. it's the story of a highly erotic, exhaustively documented love affair — remarkable ** large part because its most intimate details are imagine by our nameless first-person writer.

The lovers are Anne-Marie, an 18-year-old shop girl from a French village — "pretty byt cheap" — and Philip Dean, an aimless Yale dropout in his mid-20s and a friend of the narrator. In Paris the narrator carouses half-heartedly with rich, dissolute friends like Billy, "to whom Cristina used to whisper in those early days that she wanted to leave the party and go make a little boom-boom."

Billy and Cristina offer him their house in the small town of Autun. There he takes photographs, reads An Illustrated History of France — reading about life instead of living it — and is visited now and then by Dean, when he takes a break from his steamy romance. But mostly what our narrator does is fantasize about his friend's affair and present those dreams to us as the central narrative of this lush and doleful novel.

"I am not telling the truth about Dean," he tells us, "I am inventing him. I am creating him out of my own inadequacies, you must always remember that." It is precisely that that we forget, and Salter wants us to forget, because for page after page we are in bed with Dean and Anne-Marie, privy to the marvelous details of every act of love ("She begins to roll her hips, to cry out. It's like ministering to a lunatic. ... Afterwards she lies strewn across him"), every intimate exchange, every fantasy — the ones the lovers think about and the ones they act out: "She is very playful. As they enter her building she becomes the secretary. They are going to dictate some letters. Oh, yes? She lives alone, she admits turning on the stairs. Is that so, the boss says."

Like our poor, lonely narrator, we must keep reminding ourselves that these are his own fantasies; he has actually been told very little by Dean. "I am afraid of him," he says of Dean, "of all men who are successful in love. That is the source, of his power."

Though told largely in the present tense, A Sport and a Pastime is the narrator's somewhat distant recollection of this period of several months. Using the present tense gives the events — the love scenes, the lovers' final parting, when Dean decides to return to America — the immediacy and reality the narrator wishes they had had for him.

The narrator wonders "over the empty plates in restaurants, in cafes where only the waiters remain, [whether] by any rearrangement of events, by any accident could she ... have become mine?" She is his in his fantasies, in the same way that she is ours, as a character in a book.

Fiction — no less so than this narrator's dreams — is an artifice, an author's invention. It is the tension between the thrilling immediacy of this affair and the frequent reminders from the narrator — on behalf of the author, on behalf of all of us who dream — that it is all "made up," that give A Sport and a Pastime its haunting quality. And it is Salter's remarkable prose that carries one along on this lonely, lustful journey.

Light Years, first published almost 10 years later, is a masterpiece about the life of a family, the husband Viri, the wife Nedra — they are about 30 in 1960 — and two daughters, Franca and Danny, as they grow from children to young women. They live what appears to be a charmed life in a big, slightly rundown Victorian house — "a house as rich as an aquarium" — outside Manhattan, just up the Hudson. Viri is an architect, Nedra is beautiful, selfish, sensual — they have dinner parties and many friends. They are erudite, witty, upscale bohemians. To outsiders — somnetimes even to themselves — their lives are nearly perfect:

"There is no happiness like this happiness; quiet mornings, light from the river, the weekend ahead. They lived a Russian life, a rich life, interwoven, in which the misfortune of one, a failure, illness, would stagger them all. It was like a garment, this life. Its beauty was outside, its warmth within."

Slowly, in the course of this immensely moving book, in scene after quiet scene, we are shown the dissatisfactions, the infidelities, the children growing up, the dog growing old, the marriage disintegrating, the marriage enduring: "We live untruth amid evidence of untruth. How does it accumulate, bow does it occur?"

Seasons change, time passes, the most precious things perish — and to Salter everything is precious, everything celebrated. "Life is weather. Life is meals. Lunches on a blue checkered cloth on which salt has spilled. The smell of tobacco. Brie, yellow apples, wood-handled knives." One Christmas when the children are young, "Franca received a Polaroid camera with a shriek of pure joy as she unwrapped it; she almost wept. They took pictures of each other, of their rooms, of the tree."

One falls in love with this family, their house, their dog, their friends. Like Viri and Nedra, we want to ignore what is wrong for as long as possible. We hope that the surface beauty of their life together — and their very real affection for each other — will carry them through.

It doesn't, alas. The house is abandoned, the girls grow up, old age and death close in. The most precious things perish, except perhaps the love of one's children. "Of them all," Nedra thinks as she looks at the adult Franca, "it was the true love. Of them all, it was the best. That other, that sumptuous love which made one drunk, which one longed for, envied, believed in, that was not life."

In Light Years and A Sport and a Pastime, we are in the presence of an enormously gifted writer brimming with knowledge of life's immense beauty and sadness.

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Elizabeth Benedict
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