Friday, March 7, 2014

Uses of nostalgia: A Sport and a Pastime

 If someone starts off by insisting he is telling the truth, the effect is usually the reverse of what he intends. That's not even close to an original thought. But what about the reverse? When a guy insists he is lying, do you tend to think he is really hoping to hide something? Do you think, "Maybe this story isn't a factual account of anything that actually happened but there is stuff here the story teller doesn't want to reveal about himself"?

And there you have the genre that A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter fits into. It's a genre in which a man lets his fantasies run wild and thereby manages to express some rather aggressive and frankly male truths that otherwise might not get said. We don't seem this sort of novel much these days but I think it's a legitimate genre and a very male genre at that. The most famous example is Huck Finn.

It's also a very American genre. Despite having Shakespeare and his poetic heirs to draw on, the English don't write novels like this and neither do the French or Russians. The other thing about it is that there is Eros between men at the core of it. It's a peculiarly American thing to write novels that are intensely homoerotic without being gay.

The feminist critique writes itself and isn't completely beside the point. The love interest, she isn't distinct enough to be an actual person, is a fantasy figure in a genre that used to be called exotica back in the 1920s and 1930s. The plot is always the same. Upper middle class (or even plain middle class) American goes to another country where standards of living are considerably lower than they are at home. That enables him to hang around for a long time while living a pretty rich lifestyle by local standards. He meets a girl and falls in love but, alas, he cannot stay forever because, well, just because, so he leaves her.

Our heroine, Anne-Marie is, as you would expect, given what was a-cliché-and-then-some by the early 1960s, a remarkably convenient girl. She is eighteen, she is easily available, she is highly excitable, she is agreeable to anal sex and apparently likes it, finally, and probably most important of all, she is skilled at not getting pregnant because, get this, her mother has instructed her on the matter. Ah, those French mothers, so unlike the mothers of nice girls at home.

As damning as all that sounds, the male love interest, and he is very much a love interest for our narrator, isn't any less a fantasy figure. Indeed, to complain that these two are fantasy figures is to miss that that is what they are meant to be. Our narrator, a francophile photographer who has gone to a small provincial city in France hoping to become famous, fantasizes them into existence. He doesn't care whether they live or die.

CAVEAT: Spoilers and some vulgarity uncharacteristic of this blog start here

In fact, he kills one of them off and the effect is staggering for the lack of difference it makes. The character is named Philip Dean and no one ever shed a tear at his death for he is a fantasy from the get go. He is 10 years younger than the narrator of the story and he shows up in a  Delage that he has sort of borrowed and sort of stolen that is ten years old!

A Delage is a real car but it is, as you can see from the image below, also a dream car; it is the car every man of a certain age wishes he'd been able to drive into the places one would like to drive a car shaped like this:

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar but there are other times where the phallic imagery is blunt enough that the only comparison blunt enough to count is, well an erect penis. So when a man in his mid thirties gets a crush on a boy in his twenties who drives a car that a man in his thirties fantasizes about but a man in his twenties would think silly and old, you should be able to figure out that the story is next going to involve a girl of the older man's dreams who is going to let the younger man park the car that isn't really his in her garage.

Dean, and he is referred to as "Dean" more often than Philip, drives the Delage expertly and, usually, fast. The car starts to rust and age over the time that Dean stays ...

... because he stays too long. He stays until his money runs out and then he stays some some. He takes advantage of others, including women, to make ends meet. He is clearly abusing the hospitality of our narrator, whom he stays with, and the man who was foolish enough to lend him the Delage. Most of all, he is abusing the trust of Anne-Marie who thinks this very rich (as compared to her) young man will marry her.

I found myself wanting to complete every mention of "Dean" with "Moriarty". Salter's character has a lot in common with Kerouac's. You know you shouldn't trust him but you do because he does stuff that you want to do, stuff you don't have the courage to do because ...

Well, why don't we have the courage to be men anymore?

Here is the Dean situation. He's with Anne-Marie. He can see that he is going to have to leave. He knows that he'll tire of her. He knows they aren't really compatible. He knows that she is hoping for more than he will deliver. But he stays. What, against that barrage of good reasons not to do this, convinces him to stay? He stays because, "Her — is sopping."

I know, I usually eschew that sort of language but I think it has a genuine artistic purpose in the novel and that is why I quote it here. Sometimes, quite often actually, you find yourself torn between something you really want to do and a lot of good reasons not to do it. The problem is that they're the sorts of good reasons that your teacher, your priest and your mother always hit you with. Even after you start to see that prudence really is a virtue you will continue to resent those people and their good reasons. You will think, and rightly, that while it would be a bad idea to pull a Dean now that it wouldn't have been such a bad thing to have done it back when you could have, back when they were most determined to stop you. And, now that it's too late, you want to turn around and hit them in the face with, "Because her ... was sopping, that's why!"

The whole thing is a fantasy just like Huck Finn lighting out from sivilization. It's the sort of fantasy you might have actually puled off but you didn't so it's just a story you tell yourself now. The thing that I loved most about the novel is the great lengths Salter goes to the drive this point home and the equally extreme lengths some critics go to miss the point. The only real thing in this story is the narrator. The fantasy really is his fantasy and that is the scandalous thing. That's the thing that men feel and we are increasingly made to feel like we aren't allowed to feel.

"I want you to express your feelings," says the woman. Okay, you think, here are some ... . Silly you, you didn't realize that the feelings you're supposed to express are the ones she gives you permission to express. No, it's worse than that: you are required to express the permitted feelings even if you don't actually feel them.

To return the fantasy point. There are a few scenes set in Paris where our narrator interacts with a couple of rich American expatriates who are so utterly fictitious that Salter may as well have cut and paste them out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. He did that on purpose. Almost all the rest is set in small provincial French city that doesn't exist. In the unlikely event that a high school class put this on as a play, a couple of simple painted backgrounds would be all that would be needed to invoke the two places. They don't have any real existence beyond what they can evoke. It's telling that our narrator is a photographer because photographs of the places would be all you would need.

A related point: reading the criticism, I see that Hemingway is often invoked and that is odd because there is nothing of Hemingway in this book. The Paris scenes are a Fitzgerald pastiche, they are like Daisy and Tom Buchanan do Paris. The most important stylistic echoes we find in this book are a mixture of Henry Miller and Lawrence Durrell. If you'd given Miller the draft of Justine and asked him to do for Durrell what Pound did for Eliot's Wasteland, you'd have gotten something close to A Sport and a Pastime.

There is a great touch towards the end of the novel when our narrator has to drive the Delage. Up until now, at the hands of Dean, this car has been a magic carpet, always moving smoothly and easily; with the narrator at the wheel, it drives like a truck. And of course it would. The dream sports car of your youth can barely keep with traffic now.

The narrator of the story is often described as an unreliable one in the criticism but that is the opposite of the truth. He's an absolutely reliable narrator of his own fantasies and thereby tells us more than he realizes. When he tells us that,
In his clothing he conceals, like an assassin, a small tube of lubricant
we get the point. The trick isn't getting Dean to talk Anne-Marie into anal sex. The thrill comes from narrator/author letting himself have the right to think this way. Try it. What small tube of illicit desire do you have hidden on your person? Imagine talking your girlfriend, your wife, or that woman two tables over at Starbucks into doing it. You're allowed to think of these things and your girlfriend or wife should be woman enough to deal with your thinking them and expressing them, which is not to say she will agree to let you do them. It's 100 percent okay to look at a woman, even a friend, and think, "I'd love to ..." You're not a monster for having the thought.

Men who came back from various wars in the mid 20th century had the courage to confront this. (Salter flew 100 missions in Korea!) Lately, we men have allowed ourselves to be whipped into being submissive little boys about this. This book is a healthy antidote. What you actually do with your sexual feelings is a more complex question but trying to pretend they aren't there will only bring you regret and pain. There isn't one ounce of regret for Dean or Anne-Marie in this book but there is the pain of an old wound that goes with the suppressed fantasy, the chances  that were never taken.

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