Learning to Swim by Graham Swift, 1982
LEARNING TO SWIM
by Graham Swift, 1982
Graham Swift has written that "the story is a process by which the familiar can be made suddenly strange; or more powerfully, it is a naked, uncompromising encounter with strangeness itself." His collection of stories, Learning to Swim, consistently demonstrates his own ability to deliver on this statement. Almost all of the stories are versions of the family romance—protective inventions attempting to cope with tensions and rifts within families, whether parents and children or husbands and wives. The ties that bind people, the positive and negative effects they have on one another, the happiness, embarrassment, and pain they cause their friends, their partners, and their children—these are Swift's main subjects. Yet there is no cozy domesticity or bourgeois interiority in his fiction. These are "stories of interruption—points of estrangement and severance, of sudden shifts in the zones of experience … brief tangential encounters with other worlds which are authentic because their strangeness is authentic." Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the title story of the collection.
"Learning to Swim" has a tripartite structure that echoes without narrowly demarcating the fact that there are only three characters: Mr. Singleton, Mrs. Singleton, and their son Paul. The first part of the story describes the unhappy marital history of the couple, first from her point of view and then from his. This merges into the second segment, which narrates their current situation, on holiday yet simmeringly discontented and using their son as a pawn in an unstated battle of wits. The final short section culminates in Paul's confusion and anxiety during his swimming lesson and in his suggestively enigmatic choice, both about swimming and about the future course of his life. Despite the focus on inner thought rather than outward action, the story is told in the third person by a seemingly omniscient narrator. The style is the usual Swiftian technique of precise, spare prose strung along in an analytical, almost scientific cleverness of nuance and tone and occasionally illuminated by a dazzling metaphor or acutely succinct observation.
The structure and tone of the story is mimetic of the attitudes and lives of the two central protagonists. The story is measured, unemotive, and reiterative, in fact, conventional and predictable to the point of being mundane. We never learn the first names of the husband and wife. They remain Mr. Singleton and Mrs. Singleton throughout, as distant from the reader as they are from each other. The opening sentence is repeated with variations at the beginning of successive paragraphs. Thus, "Mrs. Singleton had three times thought of leaving her husband" becomes "the second time was …" and then "the third time." Swift's story echoes their thought processes exactly, "Mr. Singleton had twice thought of leaving his wife" becomes "the second time was …" Even their opinions about one another's shortcomings are synchronic. "On the plane she'd thought: He hadn't enjoyed the holiday" finds its counterpart in "He thought: she knows nothing of this." The husband and wife are too conventional to surprise one another, too bored to be angry, and too apathetic to change. Akin to the fact that Lear was mad but Shakespeare was not, it is Swift's talent to take the reader right to the disconcerting core of two painfully boring and bored people with a style and panache that retains our undivided attention.
As the story unfolds, we learn of Mrs. Singleton's erotic aestheticism and of Mr. Singleton's virtually Neanderthal physicality. She sees herself as a passionate martyr, sacrificing her ideals for the benefit of her uncaring husband, "She had to educate him into moments of passion, of self-forgetfulness which made her glow with her own achievement." He defines himself by his solitary, independent masculinity, compromised by material and marital pleasures: "And always it seemed that as he swam he was really trying to get beyond water … step where no one else had stepped before. When he made love to his wife her body got in the way; he wanted to swim through her." They are unable to reach or to understand one another outside their own myopic egocentricity, and their marriage has turned into a weary game of petty triumphs and defeats. Their holiday begins in ritualistic disagreement, "They had to incur injuries so that they could then appreciate their leisure, like convalescents." Mutual forgiveness becomes part of the ritual, another stage in the game, "Mrs. Singleton was used to this process, to the tenderness that was the tenderness of successively opened wounds."
The final section of the story centers on Paul's swimming lesson. Both parents compete for the boy's attention and affection, using him as a counter enabling one or the other to be "outmanoeuvred." Mrs. Singleton believes that Paul is loyal to her and will not swim without her. Mr. Singleton wants Paul to swim so that he can relive his childhood dreams and possibly leave his wife. Paul is caught between them, fearing his mother's accusations of desertion if he swims and his father's antagonistic disapproval if he does not, "There was no way out; there were all these things to be afraid of and no weapons." Yet he is aware of "unconsciously pretending, even to himself, so as to execute some plan." The last line of the story describes his first proper swim, "half in panic, half in pride, away from his father, away from the shore, away, in this strange new element that seemed all his own." He has learned to swim, learned his lesson, but it is open to interpretation what other lessons and choices have been made. He has certainly struck out from both parents, although perhaps Mr. Singleton will be the happier. Indeed, it is just possible that Paul may have become a prototype of his father, a lonely, questing swimmer, and that his newfound independence will finally force his parents to face up to their loveless marriage.