Our Spring Revel is on April 12. In anticipation of the event, The Daily is featuring a series of essays celebrating James Salter, who is being honored this year with The Paris Review’s Hadada Prize. If you’re interested in purchasing tickets to the Revel, click here.
There may have been less startling primers on adult sexuality than James Salter’s novel A Sport and a Pastime for me to read as a young man, but few could have been as illuminating or comprehensive. Anyway, as with cold water, it is best to jump in. Or as the novel’s narrator explains, citing Rilke, “there are no classes for beginners in life, the most difficult thing is always asked of one right away.” The erotic passages are justly famous, scandalous in 1967 and still instructional, in a practical sense, decades later. There was much to learn: about terminology (the male organ is rightly called a prick), positions (nothing tantric, but interesting for a teenager), and accessories (“In his clothing he conceals, like an assassin, a small tube of lubricant”). Salter is a great celebrant of the human anatomy and its various uses, but is equivocal about the emotions that sex produces: it can be tender, selfish, thrilling, boring, and, at times, even murderous, producing a “satanic happiness.”
The more significant education, however, came from Salter’s sensibility, his mature insistence that sex is more than just a private act conducted by two people in the dark, that it exists as a part of history, with a past and future as well as a present. Also: that sex is central to love, which is central to life; that greatness and heroism exist in even the most common of places; and perhaps most striking, that “straight” men could be in love with each other.
The novel follows an affair in France between Phillip Dean, an American, and his lover, a young Frenchwoman named Anne-Marie, and is told from the perspective of a voyeuristic, sometimes obsessive third person, the narrator, who feels from Dean “the pull of a dark star.” Dean may be petulant and inconstant, but he is in some essential way pure.