All great novels illuminate the human condition. By identifying with the characters of a story we experience as real what is fictionally portrayed.
James Salters erotic love story "A Sport and a Pastime", first published in 1967, is a classic exemplar of this.
Written in lyrical prose and set in rural France it unfolds the intoxicating love affair between an American university dropout and a young French woman.
The title is taken from a verse in the Koran:
"Remember that life in this world is but a sport and a pastime".
It is a tale of love, attachment, separation and loss that unfolds the relationship between Phillip Dean and Anne-Marie Costallat. The relationship becomes increasingly intimate and passionate yet is recounted in subtle and delicate tones.
One senses in the desperate longings of the young couple that they sense that this cannot last. Somewhere the sinister forces of Providence will gain the upper hand and bring the dream to a heart-breaking finale.
And indeed the couple must separate. The departure scene rivals that of Bogart and Bergman on the runway in the movie Casablanca:
"...a minute or two until the warning whistle.......the train begins to move. It picks up speed very quickly. I can see him waving....in that instant I think of her solitary, her head bent forward to the morning's work.......I cannot imagine what she feels. I can only sense it by her absolute, her utter silence as the train curves, crosses the viaduct high in the morning air."
And at the conclusion the narrator adds:
"Silence. A silence which comes over my life as well.......the fields are becoming dark, the swallows shooting across them......"
Yes the story is a universal one but told with great delicacy and poignancy. It touches our nostalgic longings for things lost, an idealized past. The narrator captures our fickle memory and the distortions we are prone to:
"Certain things I remember exactly as they were. They are merely discolored a bit by time, like coins in the pocket of a forgotten suit.....one alters the past to form the future. But there is a real significance to the pattern which finally appears, which resists all further change......the myriad past, it enters us and disappears. Except that within it, somewhere, like diamonds, exist the fragments that refuse to be consumed. Sifting through, if one dares, and collecting them, one discovers the true design".
This passage could be taken as an illustration of the psychotherapeutic journey: the narrative reconstruction of the past in the service of a renewed future, the discovery of the true self.