The Short Version: A young Yale dropout embarks on a passionate affair with an eighteen year old French girl, while an older (thirtysomething) narrator later recounts the tale – but how much of it is true? How much is really the narrator’s imaginings? And does it matter?
The Review: When James Salter passed away last week, I was struck by the immediate need to go find a copy of this book. How had I never read it, or anything else in his oeuvre? And I was stymied for several days this past weekend, when seemingly every bookstore in Manhattan had sold out of a copy – I, it seems, wasn’t the only one with this idea. But I stumbled across a copy tucked away on Monday and set to it, just in time for some of the hottest days of the year so far.
And there’s no denying it: this is a hot book. It’s not Tropic of Cancer (a book oddly forgotten in Reynolds Price’s introduction) or the Marquis de Sade – but I sure as hell blushed on the subway a few times. Let is also be noted that the sex in this book is some of the best sex-in-a-book I’ve ever read. That’s an odd acknowledgement in many ways, to be sure, but we’ve all seen a lot of bad sex in literature – certainly more than we see good sex. There is a carnality that comes across on the page that is not overindulgent nor icky but, instead, feels honest. And if you’ve been in a relationship where the physical attraction just clicks, you’ll smile knowingly at the way Salter writes about Philip and Anne-Marie.
But the sex isn’t the reason to read this book. In fact, the great Will Chancellor said to me that the sex is probably the less-interesting writing in the book – and I’m inclined to agree. See, I did a thing that I rarely do, when reading this book: I read the introduction. So often, when classics get reprinted, the introduction is either boring, spoiler-filled, or both. This is, I suppose, because publishers assume that people reading this book have probably already read it – after all, it is a “classic” for a reason. I hate this line of reasoning, coming as late as I have to so many classics, and I usually skip them. But Reynolds Price’s introduction, I read. I can’t exactly tell you why; I can only tell you that I’m very glad that I did. For he points out the fact that our unnamed narrator is fundamentally untrustworthy, from the beginning of the book to the end – a fact that it is relatively easy to forget or gloss over in the reading, even as he repeats throughout that he is making things up, that he dreamed some of these moments, that he wasn’t there so he couldn’t possibly know.
It is strange, how easily we’re willing to ignore a person’s faults, even when they say them to us directly. It’s the “murders & executions” thing, you know? We find reasons to explain away these things, or even just simply forget about them. And Price’s introduction made sure I never let our unnamed narrator off the hook. And that’s what made this book so interesting, if elusive.
I think this book is, actually, a meditation on desire – and on the way desire, in particular, clouds the mind. I don’t believe that our narrator has any romantic/sexual interest in our young lovers – but I believe he is fundamentally jealous of them, even if it is subconsciously so. For he is sexually unfulfilled, despite the various women flitting around him: the failed set-up with Alix, the apparent interest shown him by his friend’s wild wife Cristina, the non-starter longing for Picquet… is it because he’s a little older, a little less carefree? Did he ever have a wild, adventurous sexual summer like the one being carried out adjacent to his own current life? Or is he truly just longing for something he has never really had.
Because, admit it: you do that. You see an attractive person on the street and briefly fall in love. You see a couple who are so into each other and a little piece of your mind spins off imagining their lives together. But did/do you have those things? Maybe, maybe not – but right then and there, it’s all in your mind, in that moment. Salter’s brilliance here is being able to evoke that internal life, that richness of our imaginations, while simultaneously bringing out the inherent unreality and absurdity of it.
He’s also just a very fine writer, in general. Let’s step back from the ideas and consider just the bigger picture that he paints. I’ve been to Paris a few times, rural France only once – but this book evokes those places and their very distinct memories for me in a way that felt just right. France is so often given over to the stories of big romance and Romance but it is a crueler country, a sharper country – and Salter brings both of those things to this novel, making for an all the more richly constructed experience.
Rating: 4 out of 5. For all its beauty and its raciness and its formal & informal daring (remember, a book like this coming out in ’67 is far different from it appearing today), there is something a bit smoky, occluded, unknowable about this book. It’s something that others have done before and since – for example, you can see the influence of Graham Greene but also the way Salter will then influence Ian McEwan (and that’s just one single genetic strand) – but Salter does it nearly to a T here. The only problem with that is that the center of the novel, the affair between Anne-Marie and Philip, comes off as slightly more… well, ethereal than it should be. Perhaps that’s why the sex works so well; it’s imagined, still left somewhat to the imagination. But it leaves the center of the novel empty, leaves us without something to hold onto. Because who is our narrator? We never know. And that vacancy remains, even as the rest of the novel (the great writing, the blush-inducing sexual adventures, etc) rushes in to fill the void.