Tuesday, February 04, 2014
the last book I read
It's the mid-1960s, and there's not much for young American men to do while mooching around avoiding the draft except to go off to Europe and have adventures. That's what our un-named narrator is doing, hanging out in a house owned by some friends in Autun, a small mid-French town near Dijon. Just generally swanning around, hanging out with similarly indolent expatriate American types, drinking too much and half-heartedly lusting over other people's wives, until he one day encounters twentysomething college dropout Phillip Dean.
The two strike up a friendship, and no sooner have they done so than Dean in turn strikes up a relationship with a young waitress, Anne-Marie Costallat, and the two are soon at it like rabbits. Once this preliminary scene-setting is out of the way (we're about a third of the way into a slim 190-page book at this point) most of the rest of the book is an account of a sort of meandering road trip taken by Dean and Anne-Marie in an old convertible that Dean has "borrowed" in slightly murky circumstances from an American friend. Their principal activities on this road trip are a) driving around, b) having dinner and c) fucking, and really the first two are just extended foreplay for the third.
Eventually, as all wistful accounts of That Last Golden Summer do, things come to an end - Dean comes to the end of his money, or at least to the end of the series of top-ups he's engineered by borrowing money from his friends, the narrator included, and has to cash in his remaining funds to pay for a flight home. Naturally there are protestations of love and promises to return that no-one really believes, though presumably the expectation would have been of a gradual petering-out of letter-writing through apathy, rather than the more shocking conclusion of Dean's death in a car crash, news which the narrator has the responsibility of breaking to Anne-Marie.
As anyone who skims the shortlists for the Literary Review's annual Bad Sex Award will know, writing about sex convincingly and without it being either horribly un-erotic or unintentionally hilarious is a very difficult thing to pull off (ooer), so if, as here, you're hanging an entire book off it (a book in which precious little else actually happens) you'd better make sure you get it right. And to be fair, this is very good, neither ridiculously flowery and metaphorical, off-puttingly mechanical, nor framed in any sort of Hollywood-esque soft-porn soft focus where no-one has any body hair, both partners always come at the same time and no-one farts halfway through or has to sleep on the wet patch afterwards.
It was still fairly racy to write about this sort of stuff when A Sport And A Pastime was published, in 1967, and it's still pretty graphic by modern standards. It's amusing from a historical perspective to note that while there is a whole uninhibited variety of standard fucking, and a couple of fairly matter-of-fact excursions into anal sex, the single episode of fellatio in the book is framed as something thrillingly transgressive. But it's commendably modern in Anne-Marie's hungry and enthusiastic involvement - she's not just coyly compliant while Dean is getting his rocks off, she wants hers too, and there's no suggestion that she's unrecoverably scarred when Dean abandons her to return to America. A few tears, a bit of Gallic shrugging and a Gauloise and she's as right as rain.
Of course, the quality of the writing aside, one has to ask, while reading: these are the narrator's words, not Dean's, and since we can presumably rule out either the narrator being psychic or Dean having handed over his personal sex diary for publication before jetting off home and emulating his namesake's demise, how does he know all these details? We're presumably invited to infer, again, some level of unreliable-narrator-hood here, with an undercurrent of what one might call Gatsbyitis, i.e. a sub-textual love story between the older, wiser, more inhibited narrator and his fabulous, unfettered, tragic friend whose experiences he lives vicariously through.