• Gail Wilson Kenna

Lúbrica y pura, licentious and pure: A Sport and a Pastime

I will return to the novel itself next week. Today I would like to share some of James Salter’s thoughts on writing A Sport and a Pastime. On page 316 of his recollection, Burning the Days, he writes: “It was not a maiden book. It was the book born in France in 1961 and 1962.” Salter goes on to explain how he stumbled across the words, lúbrica y pura. His ambition became to write, “an immaculate book filled with images of an unchaste world more desirable than our own, a book that would cling …and not be brushed away.” He says that during the writing, he felt great assurance; that everything came out as he imagined it. The title he regarded as partly ironic, a phrase from the Koran that expressed what “the life of this world was meant to be against the greater life to come.”

At the time of writing the novel, Salter was under the spell of brief fiction in which each page was exalted, like Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. He also mentions Flannery O’Connor. -😊 Salter calls the pace of these writers unforgiving; that they maintained that pace to the end; and he called the quality demanded to write this kind of literature… sisu, of courage and endurance.

Yet Salter’s publisher turned down his third novel, and many other publishers rejected A Sport and a Pastime. He was told the book was repetitive, his characters unsympathetic, that he had lost his bearings. Easier for us to understand this last claim if you think about the times. In the mid-1960s, few years had passed since Grove Press won its case against the U.S Postal System for confiscating copies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Salter depicts the sexual act in ways that Fitzgerald and Hemingway could only dreamed of doing because of censorship laws.

Here is the description on the back of my copy of A Sport and a Pastime: “Set in provincial France in the 1960s an intensely carnal story—part shocking reality, part feverish dream, of a love affair between a footloose Yale dropout and a young French girl… the pages burn with a rare intensity.” Who published the novel in 1967? George Plimpton, editor of The Paris Review, and the novel was renewed in 1995.

Salter writes on p. 189 of his recollection: “There were wonderful things in that novel, things that I am unable to write or even imagine again. That they were wonderful was not my doing—I merely took the trouble to put them down. They were like the secret notebook of the chasseur at Maxim’s, without ego or discretion, and the novel woven around them owed them everything.” This is truth telling from Salter, not arrogance. He writes, “To remember only yourself is like worshipping a dust mote.” He also writes that, “Art, in a sense, is life brought to a standstill, rescued from time. The secret of making it is simple: discard everything that is good enough.” (p. 333). And in the words of the southern writer, Reynolds Price, Salter’s novel is, “As nearly perfect an any American fiction I know.”

Next week I would like to show why Price says this and share why this novel has clung tenaciously to me.

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