11 March 2008

Spoiler Alert

If you plan to read James Salter's novel A Sport and a Pastime and do not wish to know how it ends, then read no further. However, before I get to the spoilers, I will say this book is not linear. Knowing its ending before reading it detracts not one whit from its full enjoyment. In fact, it is on one's second reading that the book achieves a new depth.

Sport is filled with longing and sadness. Tristesse. It is the story of a privileged, Ivy League ne-er do well slumming through small-town France. It is the story of a simple shopgirl's giving of herself totally to a charismatic cad. It is the story of one man's failed attempt to plumb the sensuous and sensual truth of France (and, by extension, life) through the static lens of photography. It is the story of an ordinary man confronting his own fears and inadequacies and failures when he encounters an extraordinary one. It is a story of Eros and the failure of love. It is a story of facing one's own mortality. It is a story of the play of memory and imagination in fashioning reality and understanding another human being. It is a story of one person becoming conscious of the mind of another, slowly, incrementally, painfully. But what's more, it is a story that teaches the reader how to understand it.

The ending of the book is a text-book for novel endings, much the way Chekhov's endings are for the short story:
The sunlight of that icy morning falls on my face through enormous windows, through flats of glass with tiny flaws, purified by bitter, Sunday silence. The smoke floats blue in the cheap bars at dawn. The veterans cough. Nancy, where she was born, where she learned to write in that young, undistinguished hand:
...there is nothing that is not yours, all I think, all I am able to feel. I am embarrassed only that I do not know enough. But I don't care if you never belong to me, I only want to belong to you, just be hard with me, strict, but don't leave, just do like if you were with another girl—Please. I will die otherwise. I understand now that we can die of love.
I receive a letter from his [Dean's] father, sent on to me in Paris, asking me to forward the personal effects. Cristina will take care of that, she says. I assure her there isn't much. As for the car, it's a curious thing—it's registered in the name of Pritchard, 16 bis rue Jan, and they know him. He's off in Greece for the summer, they think, but they'll handle that, too. Perhaps. It's parked under the trees near the house and locked, but like a very old man fading, it has already begun to crumble before one's eyes. The tires seem smooth. There are leaves fallen on the hood, the whitened roof. Around the wheels one can detect the first, faint discoloring of chrome. The leather inside, seen through windows which are themselves streaked blue, is dry and cracked. There it sits, this stilled machine, the electric clock on the dash ticking unheard, slowly draining the last of life. And one day the clock is wrong. The hands are frozen. It is ended.

Silence. A silence which comes over my life as well, I am not unwilling to express it. It is not the great squares of Europe that seem desolate to me, but the myriad small towns closed tight against the traveler, towns as still as the countryside itself. The shutters of the houses are all drawn. Only occasionally can one see the slimmest leak of light. The fields are becoming dark, the swallows shooting across them. I drive through these towns quickly. I am out of them before evening, before the neon of the cinemas comes on, before the lonely meals. I never spend the night.

But of course, in one sense, Dean never died—his existence is superior to such accidents. One must have heroes, which is to say, one must create them. And they become real through our envy, our devotion. It is we who give them their majesty, their power, which we ourselves could never possess. And in turn, they give some back. But they are mortal, these heroes, just as we are. They do not last forever. They fade. They vanish. They are surpassed, forgotten—one hears of them no more.

As for Anne-Marie, she lives in Troyes now, or did. She is married. I suppose there are children. They walk together on Sundays, the sunlight falling upon them. They visit friends, talk, go home in the evening, deep in the life we all agree is so greatly to be desired.

And that's it: "deep in the life we all agree is so greatly to be desired." Wow. Just WOW.

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