• Great Beginnings: A Sport and A Pastime

    Posted Posted by David Duhr in Great Beginnings     Comments 20 comments

    A Sport and a PastimeIt’s been awhile since we’ve done a Great Beginnings, but James Salter recently kicked my ass with his exquisite novel A Sport and a Pastime, the opening of which is perfect for a discussion. Or maybe just an appreciation.

    It goes a little something like this:

    September. It seems these luminous days will never end. The city, which was almost empty during August, now is filling up again. It is being replenished. The restaurants are all reopening, the shops. People are coming back from the country, the sea, from trips on roads all jammed with cars. The station is very crowded. There are children, dogs, families with old pieces of luggage bound by straps. I make my way among them. It’s like being in a tunnel. Finally I emerge onto the brilliance of the quai, beneath a roof of glass panels which seems to magnify the light.

    Wicked good stuff, huh?

    So, what works about this opening paragraph? What doesn’t? What do we learn about the narrator? What images and feelings does this passage evoke?


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    Micah Webster

    I enjoy all of the imagery about the lighting. Luminous, brilliance, the glass panels magnifying the light. But if memory serves, this narrator is … not a happy dude. If I read this opener without knowing else about the novel, I’d think it’s going to be a hopeful narrative.

    Funny that he’s talking about all of this light, but summer is over.

    h. l. nelson

    Ah, I love this novel.

    The first two lines are widely quoted. And there’s a reason for it, they’re beautiful! Nice assonance, consonance, alliteration.

    The tone of this selection is certainly hopeful, as Micah suggests. We have “filling up” (which is funny, given the sexuality present through the narrative – the portion about “being in a tunnel” is funny, too), “replenished,” “reopening,” “coming back,” “brilliance,” “luminous,” etc.

    We also have reference to the “quai,” which gives us an indication of where we are geographically.

    Love it!

    Forrest Preece

    “September. It seems these luminous days will never end.” Hopeful and heartening; but by saying that the days will never end, the reader senses the narrator’s weight of sad knowledge that Indian summer’s fullness will all too quickly lead to winter’s blight and that we have to savor every second of this ecstasy. I totally agree with Mr. Duhr that this is an exquisite lead-in to a great novel. By the way, can you imagine turning in a paragraph like this one to a typical high school English teacher? I can just hear the comment on “The restaurants are all… Read more »

    Terry Persun

    I’ve bought dozens of copies of this book over the years, and given them to friends all over the U.S. It’s one of my favorite books by Salter. I agree with Forrest about high school English. Also, most editors at large publishing houses would not like this beginning from an unknown novelist. Trust me, I’ve been there. For most editors (and might I say critique groups) everything is missing from this first paragraph: who’s talking, where are they, what year (century) are we in. See, all those things we’re taught need to be in the first few lines, aren’t in… Read more »

    David Duhr

    It is September in Paris and I am an unnamed narrator of 34 years old. Thirty-four isn’t very old, I know, but I feel old, so remember to keep that in mind, because that’s partly what this story is about. In August a lot of people travel, but in September they come back for school and work and stuff like that. When a lot of people come back to a place at the same time, it gets crowded, duh. So I’m at this train station, which is, like, full of people with suitcases and stuff, and I have to walk… Read more »

    h. l. nelson

    HAHAHAHAHAHAHA! Greatness. :)

    Justine Tal Goldberg

    I agree completely. It’s likely that an MFA workshop would workshop this thing to death, and what a shame that would be. Sometimes I get very, very sad thinking of all the would-be works that were abandoned because someone told the writer that he needed to follow the rules.

    Forrest Preece


    Forrest Preece

    Bravo! I love it!

    Forrest Preece

    Thank you, Terry. Amen. Your example of a typical novel’s opening made me chortle. Sometimes I pull out one of my favorite pieces of fiction and find a random paragraph to savor. The older I get, the more I appreciate the simple things in life. This site seems to be a place I’ll enjoy revisiting.

    David Duhr

    “Sometimes I pull out one of my favorite pieces of fiction and find a random paragraph to savor. The older I get, the more I appreciate the simple things in life.”

    I like that, Forrest.

    The other day a friend told me that she is on a mission this year to unearth “nuggets of gratitude,” little moments where she’ll pause and realize she should be thankful.

    So I’m trying that as well, and most of my gratitude nuggets are coming from passages like the one we’re talking about.

    David Duhr

    (i.e., rather than coming from life outside of books.)

    h. l. nelson

    Aww, that’s no good. It may be time for a few changes?

    At least you have good books, though. And awesome writer buddies (who you can talk to anytime).

    h. l. nelson

    I like Forrest’s comment and I like Duhr’s: “So I’m trying that as well, and most of my gratitude nuggets are coming from passages like the one we’re talking about.”

    We should all be thankful that we can even read. Enjoying the words is the icing.

    Terry Persun

    Yes, having friends to discuss these things with means a lot. Reading and writing have been such a mainstay in my life that I wouldn’t want to live without either of them.

    Seth Greenwald

    I have not read the novel, but I may now have to pick up a copy and read it, just to see where it goes from here. And isn’t that what a first paragraph is supposed to do? This passage fills me with a great sense of unease. The narrator is using language with mostly positive connotations, but I can’t help think that he resents the return of the throng. It is as if he is describing the scene from the perspective of those he observes, one he does not share. The language turns darker with the description of the… Read more »

    Justine Tal Goldberg

    Hey Seth, interesting reading. “Bound by straps” caught my attention as a telling detail, too. I haven’t read the book–maybe a commenter who has can shed some light on the subject (pun intended)–but I wonder if this opening passage mimics the narrator’s internal journey over the course of the novel. Does he start out in a tunnel and eventually emerge into the light?

    […] week’s Great Beginnings was a treat. We discussed the opening lines of James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime, and the conversation moved from […]

    David Duhr

    This week in Great Beginnings we’re chatting about Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado … which is strikingly similar to the James Salter in a couple of ways.

    Join us here:

    […] A Sport and A Pastime […]

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