Sunday, June 21, 2009

James Salter

"Why is the measure of love loss?" asked the narrator of Jeanette Winterson's Written on the Body (Vintage, 1994).

I am grateful of Google for finding this for me. I have just finished James Salter's A Sport and a Pastime (Farrer, Straus and Giroux, 1967), and this is the question that floated to the top of my mind when I closed the book and set it on the table.

Why is the measure of love loss?

Earlier this year, Lisa Moore wrote an essay on A Sport and a Pastime for the Globe and Mail (April 9, 2009). She concluded with this:

Don't read [Salter's book] in your 40s: It will fill you with bittersweet regret for all the time you did not waste, for all the sport you might have missed.

For myself, I find this isn't true. I'm in my 40s and am not filled with bittersweet regret for time I failed to waste. Also, it seems to me that if I had read this book in my 20s, I think I'd have thought it was a book about needing the make the most of each moment. That only fleeting happiness is possible. (Lessons I learned from Hemingway, way back when....)

Now, I think it's a book about the measure of love: loss. And about certain poor choices.

As one character explains to his sister:

"What I'm saying may sound mystical, but in everybody, Ame, in all of us, there's the desire to find those elements somehow, to discover them, you know? Sometimes I think they're the same for all of us, but maybe they're not. I mean, we look at the Greeks and say, ah, they build a civilization, why can't each of us, properly directed, build a life, I mean a happy life? Believe me, the elements exist. When you enter certain rooms, when you look at certain faces, suddenly you realize you're in the presence of them. Do you know what I mean?"

"Of course, I do," she says. "If you could achieve that, you'd have everything."

"And without it you have . . ." he shrugs, "a life."

"Just like everybody's."

"I don't want that."

"Neither do I."

And yet, that's exactly what he chooses. And because the arc of this story is tragic, the loss that occurs is absolute.

I count three major losses (and, warning, I'm about to reveal major plot points).

The narrator and his friend, Dean, are young Americans in France. The back cover of my copy says the action takes place in the early-1960s. What action there is, is focused on a love affair between Dean and Anne-Marie. The action is often imagined by the narrator, who is filtering the story through his memories and fantasies and knowledge of what happens: Dean returns to America without Anne-Marie and dies in a highway accident.

The losses are:
  • Dean to Anne-Marie
  • Dean to the narrator
  • Anne-Marie to the narrator

The narrator presents a full-on love story between Dean and Anne-Marie, but he also makes clear that he loves Anne-Marie, too, and that he feels unworthy of her. He tells the story of Dean and Anne-Marie to remember it, to control it, to makes sense of it, to give it the best ending possible.

As for Anne-Marie, she lives in Troyes now, or did. She is married. I suppose there are children. They walk together on Sundays, the sunlight falling upon them. They visit friends, talk, go home in the evenings, deep in the life we all agree is so greatly to be desired.

Is this irony we read here? Is Anne-Marie's provincial life to be desired? It is the life Dean turned away from when he decided to return to America alone. Or is the life of drifting fornicators to be preferred? That is the life of sport and pastime that fills most of the book (much of it pure speculation presented by the narrator in lovely, lilting, clear yet poetic prose).

The narrator, of course, achieves neither with Anne-Marie. His life of drifting pastime is full of quiet regret. He is incapable of love, incapable of stirring much interest in anyone else at all. That he can present the love affair with sweetness and a lack bitterness is remarkable.

Salter's choice to tell this story filtered through this hapless narrator is an interesting one. We remember the equally hapless Nick Carraway of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Another witness to a supposedly great love affair.

Both novels end with readers wistfully wondering about what might have been.

Why is the measure of love loss?

Jim Shepard's NYT review of Winterson's novel begins to explain why:

because, like Orpheus, the narrator looked back, out of fear and insufficient faith, and paid the price: the cursed position of having learned this wondrous new language only to see it go unfulfilled.

That works for A Sport and a Pastime, too.

Joni Mitchell put it another way: You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone.


I'll add one final comment, which provides an added dimension. From

Like Salter's other novels, this book is a study in hero worship. Here the hero is not a fighter pilot ("The Hunters") or an alpine mountain climber ("Solo Faces") but a lover, whose intensely erotic affair with a young French woman is imagined by the novel's narrator, a casual friend who scarcely knows him. Phillip Dean (like a real-life counterpart James Dean) is in his twenties, good looking, intelligent, and with a fatal attraction to fast cars. (Dean Moriarty of Kerouac's "On the Road" also comes to mind.)

Comment by Ronald Scheer

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