The Swimmer - NotWednesday, February 03, 2010
He took off a sweater that was hung over his shoulders and dove in. He had an inexplicable contempt for men who did not hurl themselves into pools. He swam a choppy crawl, breathing either with every stroke or every fourth stroke and counting somewhere well in the back of his mind the one-two one-two of a flutter kick. It was not a serviceable stroke for long distances but the domestication of swimming had saddled the sport with some customs and in his part of the world a crawl was customary. To be embraced and sustained by the light green water was less a pleasure, it seemed, than the resumption of natural condition, and he would have liked to swim without trunks, but this was not possible considering his project. He hoisted himself up on the far curb – he never used the ladder – and started across the lawn. When Lucinda asked where he was going, he said he was going to swim home.
The Swimmer, John Cheever
As I was writing the blog yesterday about my lifelong infatuation with Charlotte Rampling I kept thinking of The Swimming Pool, a 2003 film directed by François Ozon, a spooky but sensual film, equal parts Eric Rohmer and Alfred Hitchcock. That film, in English made me remember another fine Ozon film, in French (also with Charlotte Rampling ) called Under the Sand (2000) which also had some haunting water scenes.
Visions of Rampling poolside competing quite well at her age with the much younger French star Ludivine Sagnier persisted. From The Swimming Pool my thoughts instantly drove me to take out from one of my living room bookshelves, John Cheever’s, The Stories of John Cheever. I went for the index and found that story I had read back in 1979, The Swimmer. It is one of my favourite short stories even though I have never really liked shorts stories. I prefer the longer journey of character development of the novel. I read my share of short stories and particularly science fiction short story compilations in the 50s and in the 60s.
To this day The Swimmer holds up as did the 1968 film version of the story (which I saw years after I read the story). The film was directed by Frank Perry and Sydney Pollack and it features the beautifully athletic body (in swimming trunks for the duration of the film) of Burt Lancaster. The film is depressing as you watch Lancaster become older and older as he transverses the swimming pools of his suburban Connecticut town. There is a beauty, a sensuality, in his performance that I recognized in Rampling’s presence in The Swimming Pool.
I have no idea if Rampling can swim. For sure, Lancaster can and does so in The Swimmer. In some way Lancaster and Rampling combine to project images of my mother, who was the consummate swimmer. Her crawl was flawless and her back stroke never produced even the tiniest of ripples as she swam from one side of a pool to another.
I never saw or remember my father swimming. Yet when I asked his former wife (he had been married before he met my mother) if my father danced the tango I was met by a look of surprise. My mother had often told me how well George danced the tango and how when they danced in the cabarets of Paseo Colón people would stop to stare at them. It seemed so, his former wife said, that George was a beautiful swimmer. “He taught me to swim. We often went swimming.” The swimmer danced the tango and the tango dancer swam, But his women never did catch on that he did both.
Not only did I inherit my mother’s beautiful legs I also inherited her beautiful feet. "Some day you are going to be a fine swimmer," she would tell me. And for years she asserted that I would inherit my father’s talent for tango. For many years both of my mother’s predictions became lead weights in my mind. I was much too shy to dance in my high school years and suffered for it by not having girl friends. Swimming parties were always an embarrassment because my efficient breast stroke could not hide my pitiful crawl.
In 1975 I tried to address my swimming flaws and took stroke improvement classes at the YMCA. My swimming improved just a bit but the breakthrough was that I photographed a French Canadian woman who placed my pictures in the frames of the gift department of Holt Renfrew where she worked. That led to portrait jobs with the wealthy Vancouver Cohen family and an eventual job at Vancouver Magazine via fashion editor Gabriel Levy.
Perhaps some 12 years ago I decided to learn the Argentine tango. I took lessons. I became an efficient dancer, no more and no less.
I have made efforts to swim and tango back into my past to no avail. I can only remember the noise of the waves in Mar del Plata when my grandmother must have taken the snap you see here of my mother with the little boy who would one day grow not to be a swimmer or a tango dancer.