Set in provincial Burgundy in the early 1960s, “A Sport and a Pastime,” the 1967 novel by the American writer James Salter, depicts a love affair between an aimless Yale dropout named Dean and an 18-year-old local shop girl, Anne-Marie, through the lushly fragmented, elegiac recollections of an unnamed narrator who knew them.
Now widely considered a masterpiece of erotic fiction, the novel did much to cement Salter’s literary reputation, if not his mass appeal, in the years leading up to his death in 2015. The book’s visceral, unvarnished, sometimes disturbing depictions of sex helped set artistic terms for the then-unfurling sexual revolution.
And yet after reading “A Sport and a Pastime,” which was based in part on Salter’s own experiences while deployed to southeastern France by the New Jersey Air National Guard in the early 1960s, what stayed with me most were the descriptions of France, “the real France,” as Dean calls it in the novel — Burgundian villages like Châlons-sur-Seine, Beaune, Sens, Auxerre, through which Dean and Anne-Marie drive in his hulking 1952 Delage convertible, living “in Levi’s and sunlight.” But most of all, I was gripped by the descriptions of Autun, a sleepy hilltop commune about 185 miles southeast of Paris, where the 34-year-old narrator goes at the book’s outset to stay in the vacant family home of friends.
“This blue, indolent town,” Salter writes. “Its cats. Its pale sky. The empty sky of morning, drained and pure. Its deep, cloven streets. Its narrow courts, the faint, rotten odor within, orange peels lying in the corners.”
This isn’t the Burgundy of sunlit vineyards and joie de vivre, but of haunted blue mornings, the smell of soil, of weathered stone walls behind which life goes on in muffled tones. Autun exists in the book like an evocation, a dream place, eternal and yet always slipping away. But it also feels as real, as alive, as any travel writing I’ve encountered. I had to go there.
So I began, like the narrator does, on a luminous September day at the Gare de Lyon in Paris, still the main send-off point for train travelers due southeast. The coaches described in the book — “dark green, the paint blistering with age” — were replaced long ago with sterile and streamlined high-speed TGV trains, but as I boarded, I could recognize the same “comfortable feeling of delivering myself into the care of those who run these great, somnolent trains, through the clear glass of which people are staring, as drained, as quiet as invalids.”
Inside the carpeted, industrially lighted interior of the TGV, it was hard to connect the people slouched over smartphones and laptops, reaching absently into the crumpled foil of potato chip bags, with Salter’s sensuous, plaintive description of the scene in the train. Yet as we exited Paris and headed deeper and deeper into “green, bourgeoise France,” the rush of scenery out the window was much as he described. There were century-old stone farmhouses, walled pastures, “canals, rich as jade,” “the blue outline of Sens,” then after boarding a new train in Dijon that cuts straight through the Burgundy wine regions of Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beaune, miles and miles of golden-hued vineyards.
If the Autun that Salter depicted in the 1960s was sleepy and forgotten, many lifetimes past its prime as an important seat of power in the Roman world, the town today is doubly so. Due, at least in part, to questionable budgetary decisions by the local government, Autun was excluded from both the A6 highway system and the TGV train line, the two major land routes between Paris and Lyon, and in 2017, the last regional train pulled out of the station.
I arrived the only way a carless person can these days: by bus. But I first saw the town just as Salter’s narrator did: “ … in the distance, against the streaked sky, a town appears. A single, great spire, stark as a monument: Autun.”
Autun sits amid the rolling blue-green Morvan highlands, and you have to walk uphill through the town to reach the oldest section, where Salter’s narrator stays in a large, stone house “built right on the Roman wall,” on a small street behind the magnificent 12th-century St.-Lazare Cathedral. I had looked online for the nearest approximation and found the Hôtel Les Ursulines, a 43-room budget hotel set in a lovely, albeit atrociously renovated 17th-century stone convent overhanging the old Roman ramparts at seemingly the exact location of the house in “A Sport and a Pastime.”
Like Salter’s narrator, I awoke early to find the town covered in a dense, cool mist that concealed nearly everything. The garden outside my window was blanketed in white. Only the base of the cathedral’s studded spire remained visible. And like him, I spent my mornings walking Autun’s winding stone streets as the mist gradually lifted and then burned away. “Slowly now, the shape of things is revealed,” Salter writes. “Roofs emerge. The tops of trees. Finally the sun.”
Salter’s nameless narrator spends the autumn photographing the town for some vague future project that grows increasingly obsessive and immense. It’s from his notes to these photographs that he says he is assembling the novel.
I started out, as he did, “beneath the long, sulking flank of the cathedral” and then descended, cataloging streets and buildings, the smallest details: rue Dufraigne; rue du Faubourg St.-Blaise; place d’Hallencourt, where the “trees stand like brewers”; huge crumbling stone walls; the cemetery “that glitters like jewelry in the last, slanting light”; the central square, Champ de Mars, where the narrator watches cars full of American G. I.s circle, afraid one of them is Anne-Marie’s former lover, come to enact revenge on Dean.
At the Place du Carrouge, where Anne-Marie lives in an alleyway above a Corsican fruit seller, I saw a white-haired, heavyset woman smoking out an open window, from which a shard of light fell over the darkened street.
Eventually I arrived at what was once the Grand Hotel Saint-Louis, a frequent haunt of the narrator, now boarded up. I pressed my face against the window and saw its opulent interiors frozen in time, darkened and coated in a thick layer of dust. I asked around, but no one seemed to know why or when it closed. “They don’t want to pay and so fermé,” said a local innkeeper, using the French word for “closed.” “I think it never will be a hotel now. It’s too late. It was very beautiful, dommage [shame].”
It was all still here, much as Salter described. And yet, insists the narrator: “None of this is true. I’ve said Autun, but it could easily have been Auxerre. I’m sure you’ll come to realize that. I am only putting down details which entered me, fragments that were able to part my flesh.”
There are many passages like this in the book that cast doubt on the narrator’s account, and I had wondered before coming whether the real Autun would even resemble the one in the book. That it’s so very similar points to Salter’s deeper project — to question the nature of experience and memory. Our lives, he suggests, consist of fragments of stories, of shifting and illusory perspectives.
I can’t tell if it’s the town or the book that does it — probably a combination of both — but walking the streets of Autun, I found myself gripped by a powerful melancholy, a sense of passing time, of my own mortality. There are tacky sports bars now along the Rue de la Grille, where locals sit under the blue glow of televisions, but it was not enough to break my reverie. In the evenings I ate rich Burgundian meals of snails and beef and coq au vin at the restaurants flanking the cathedral. I spoke to no one, and no one spoke to me.
It’s something any frequent solo traveler knows: Spend enough time wandering alone through a foreign town, and it will begin to enfold you. You acclimate to incomprehensibility, to a detachment that causes past and present to blur. Reality appears in fragments, and so you give yourself over to moods, to emotion. It’s hard to imagine a place that captures this feeling more than Autun “in the blue of autumn,” and it occurs to me that what Salter is actually writing about is the way we walk through our memories like a stranger in a forgotten town.
“The myriad past, it enters us and disappears,” he writes. “Except that within it, somewhere, like diamonds, exist the fragments that refuse to be consumed. Sifting through … one discovers the true design.”
On my last day in Autun, I visited a few local booksellers, curious whether any of them had heard of James Salter or “A Sport and a Pastime.” No one had. I looked for a recent history of Autun, hoping for information on the Grand Hotel Saint-Louis. In the end, all I could find was a faded and used black-and-white postcard depicting one of its rooms — the “Chambre Historique de Napoleon” with a message scrawled in red pen on the back and addressed to a “Madame Ballot.” I tried to make sense of it, but the script was faded and smudged, impossible to discern.
Charly Wilder is a frequent contributor to the Travel section.