Book Review: A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter


3/5 Stars.

What makes this modern classic so interesting isn’t the story itself — a love affair between an aimless young American and a beautiful French woman — but Salter’s interesting narrative choices.

The love affair is recounted by a nameless narrator who was once acquainted with the couple, Philip and Anne-Marie. But within the first 10 pages, we’re given a subtle warning: What we’re reading may not be wholly true. Of course, this completely alters the reader’s approach to the novel.

We know that the narrator is somewhat of a timid, solitary man; although he admires many beautiful women from afar, he never finds the courage to approach them. Inevitably, he becomes somewhat infatuated with Philip, who is in many ways his opposite: confident, charming, sexually experienced.

The narrator recalls the love affair between Philip and Anne-Marie with such explicit detail that the reality of it is entirely unclear. Did he simply observe the couple from afar throughout the course of their relationship and fill in all the details himself? Did Philip tell him about his and Anne-Marie’s passionate private life? Or is it possible that Philip doesn’t even exist at all — that he was conjured in the narrator’s imagination as a product of his deepest insecurities and fantasies?

It’s undoubtedly a fascinating approach, and it’s always interesting to encounter an unreliable narrator who is so self-aware and forthcoming of his delusions. I can understand why this book is so critically acclaimed, with its unique narrative and crisp, simple prose. However, coming at this from a purely subjective perspective, I wasn’t all that interested in the story itself, and never felt fully engaged. In stories like this, I prefer getting deep into the heads of the characters, but that’s just not what Salter was going for here.

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