Of Sport and a Past Time: James Salter 


They say you can’t choose friends. Or is it family? It’s all such a blur. Such maxims are equally confusedly applicable to novels. But we all have those that feel like our own; as though written for us in the manner of poets once scribing for Royalty. I forget how James Salter’s Of Sport and a Past Time novella fell into my hands, but it wasn’t through recommendation, it was more serendipitous than that, a prod from the book god; a right as opposed to a left, or perhaps it was just the cover.

Before being taken over by Random House, the Harvill Panther imprint was beautifully eye catching; black spines, with ornately coloured strips providing it with the continuity of a record label. They provided understatement in an age when covers were designed with the taste of Turkish Premier League Footballers with too much access to marble.

From their small office in Victoria SW1, Harvill strove to establish a list of classic 20th Century titles fallen out of print or the public eye; a typically idiosyncratic trip with an eye to art as opposed to, unfortunately, profit. Few books came greater than James Salter’s 1967 ‘Of Sports and a Past Time’. Never has anyone transferred their skills from piloting F-86 ‘Hunter’ class jet fighters in the Korean war, to such nuanced descriptions of the innate tragedy of human hearts and condition. If they have they’ve kept quiet about it. Mind you, war teaches you more about waiting than killing people. And perhaps the fact that days, or even weeks, of pre-operation planning, for the sake of a 10 second burst from wing-mounted 12.7mm canons, fed into the accuracy of his writing.

That the rush of new publications eclipsed this novella demonstrates how older works can become neglected, though not weakened; like powerful slack water at high tide, lost amongst the glory of the break. A recent example of this is John Williams’ Stoner, a novel still sunning itself in the glory of having sold over 200,000 in the UK alone, without (yet) having been made into a film starring tom Hanks,

Of Sport and a Past Time certainly contains my favourite sentences ever written, during which the world pauses breathing, the only accompanying noise being birds plummeting, stunned by the beatific prose, from flight. It begins “I have a coffee in the Café St. Louis.” Which is obviously a fantastic opening line to unwritten number one records. It later gently continues:

“It’s as quiet as a Doctors office. The tables have chairs still upturned on them. Beyond the thin curtains, a splitting cold. Perhaps it will snow. I glance at the sky. Heavy as wet rags. France is herself only in the winter, her naked self, without manners. In the fine weather, all the world can love her. Still it’s depressing. One feels like a fugitive from half a dozen lives.”

Once I regain breath (it never ceases to pinch), I notice Microsoft spell check has suggested ‘consider revising’ some of those lines, which makes me want to shove a hardback copy of Henry Fowler’s The King’s English into the nether regions of Bill Gates’ empire; with protruding steel bookmarks.

With such simplicity of prose and clipped poetic turn, Salter can, as someone once suggested, break your heart in a single sentence, and they didn’t mean “Your girlfriend’s left you…for me.” Instead, through netting those fleeting, wordless bewilderments that accompany our existence, James Salter returns them to us flawlessly captured. In the romantic tradition of universal truths uncovered by individuals, Salter captures the hopeless awe in which men are caught when in the proximity of beautiful women, along with the far reaching, and often blinding, stains of lusting hearts. Most importantly, he celebrates those transient connections between people, those moments when the distances between us are closed. As Michael Chabon pinpointed (admittedly about something else), ‘bright sparks might leap across the gap, as between electric poles. And we must be grateful for their momentary light.” This novella is a gently precious whisper of quieter moments in our loud, overpopulated times.

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