Swimming in Shame

In 1911, my great grandfather emigrated from what was Russian occupied Poland and claimed to be an orphan. He wasn’t; but in my teenage, closeted years, I told myself he swore off his family, his culture, his life, and moved for better opportunity to the United States because he was gay, secretly, and needed to escape Krakow. In reality, he married a Ukrainian immigrant and fathered eleven children. We tell ourselves stories, eh?

Poland, to me, is a fantasy. I’ve never been to Warsaw, never swam in the Baltic, never folded pierogis, edges crimped with a fork while a baba shouts orders at me from behind a wooden bowl and spoon that she may throw at my head. The Poland I know is Americanized: English language Catholic mass, slowly pronouncing your last name for your teachers, kielbasa on white bread, attending the Polish-American festival that smells like fried onion and powdered sugar, telling jokes about how stupid Polacks are, correcting your teachers’ pronunciation of your name, having an uncle Stanislaus. These things are accoutrements to my American identity, the sauerkraut on my Big Mac.

My family had a few photos of Karol Józef Wojtyla, later Pope John Paul II, a right-wing resistance fighter against the Soviet Union, a point of Polish-American pride. To the best of my knowledge, my family didn’t fund Polish resistance, but cheered it State-side, proud of our ancestral countrymen for finding a national identity, for ending history in 1989. The nascent resistance fighting against the weakening stranglehold of the Polish Workers’ Party in Warsaw form the background of Polish writer Tomasz Jedrowski’s debut novel, Swimming in the Dark.

The novel eavesdrops on the narrator, Ludwig, as he recounts to his lover Janusz his recollection of their love affair in the summer of 1980, while Ludwig is in a lifeless Brooklyn having defected from the Soviet Union. Janusz doesn’t speak outside the retold dialogue from Ludwig. The novel switches between the present tense of Brooklyn a year later from the past tense events in Poland. The immediate question the novel presents is to what extent does this looking back into memory provides clarity for our narrator, or simply a conceit to tell a story.

For the most part, this construction stops at artifice. Swimming, subject to a six-house bidding war in the UK won by Bloomsbury, and then a six-figure deal for US publishing rights from William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins, pitches itself as Call Me By Your Name but set in end of Communist-era Poland and for the first half of the book, Swimming matches that novel’s elegiac quality.

When the boys enter a sort of Polish “Garden of Eden” where they will camp and make love, Jedrowski’s prose is at its finest. Ludwig recounts “a clearing filled with a large, brilliant lake, lined by high grasses like a secret.” The walls of grass protect them from onlookers and Ludwig’s “knees weak with discovery” as they arrive, “protected” and “soothed.” When they make love, Ludwig describes a “sensation of lightness and power and total inconsequence.” The world doesn’t exist beyond those grass walls, there is their love and only their love. The time spent there brings a “thaw” over Ludwig, releases “warmth from the dormant.”

The boys bond over Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room and the connection to its magnificence forms an undercurrent of these passages. Ludwig and Janusz see themselves as Polish versions of David and Giovanni, instead of trapped in a Parisian studio, they are let loose in the wild; free in communion with love and nature. Ludwig’s fascination with Baldwin and Giovanni’s Room deepens so much, that later he applies for a PhD in English from the government college, connecting the workers struggle inherent in Polish Communist thought with the struggle for racial justice in the United States, though the depths of Ludwig’s ability to walk out this connection end there. Therein lies a persistent problem with these characters.

The boy’s fandom of Giovanni’s Room is just that, and at no point do they consider the fact that the power differences, specifically class differences, in Giovanni’s Room has some reflection on their love. Ludwig is from a comfortable, though fatherless, middle class city family, while Janusz comes from the working-class south. If the inability of these boys to see the ways in which they occupy both roles in novel they read is intentional by the author, then Swimming is a meta-textual masterpiece, but the authorial voice, stunted by the limits of the first-person narration doesn’t intervene to give the principle characters such considerations.

Yet, the discussion of Giovanni’s Room, our novel-within-a-novel has some charm to it. Queers, whom amongst us has not passed on literature to a lover and gotten naught? Ludwig feels that despite the novel’s “agony” and “pain,” the novel “healed” some of his own. The writing in this passage is slick, and the sentence “There was something about the rhythm, the language, about the knowledge implied and the sense of internal doom, that spoke directly to me,” holds passion from Jedrowski about his subject and compassion for Ludwig’s relative innocence that provides affect when he connects the desire and shame of Giovanni’s Room to his own. However, this sentence demonstrates Jedrowski’s hesitance to commit to his taxonomy of desire and shame, indefinite nouns he relies on a great deal that exist as two sides of the same coin. “Internal doom” is a good way to describe Ludwig’s shame; his desire, then, is external doom. This battle of wills, this dichotomy of shame and desire forms the thematic center of the novel.

For Jedrowski, desire and shame battle, and desire tends to win out, but shame behaves like a guerrilla warrior, always behind another corner, always crouched in the eyes of a stranger. Most of what can be called homophobia in the novel occurs in looks or gazes from strangers or people in the city. And then what is the nature of this shame? For Ludwig, it may be better be termed anxiety. When he is caught embracing another boy, Ludwig feels shame “heavy and alive,” it is a “newly grown organ.” He is not chided or punished for embracing the boy, they receive looks, glances, which though even an askance eye can contain a world, Jedrowksi through Ludwig names it shame, an unfortunately indeterminate word, that lays in bed considered, but not deepened, meditated on, neither privatized nor publicized.

Ludwig’s shame is interior, singular. Shame, at least how it is normally conceived, requires a social naming of the crime outside the norm. Detailing the contours of a social crime isn’t the only element of shame, but, it is the first. The people in a social situation should know what code was broken, but Ludwig, despite the novel’s narrative being a looking-back-upon of events, cannot name homophobia, it is alluded to, lurking. Instead, the conception of homophobia in the novel requires the reader to bring along notions, which in itself is not a criticism so much as a note to consider. Here is the criticism. The homophobia within the novel is fairly understated, nearly ontological to the content of Ludwig’s shame and fear. We are expected to know/accept/bring with us notions of homophobia, the Catholic Church, Poland, and freedom. These things aren’t elucidated by the characters, they don’t have vision or thoughts about them, or their significance in their lives, and while that ends up being one of the central concluding points from Ludwig, it felt particularly galling to have a narrator prepare a PhD proposal on Baldwin and lack a political vision: Ludwig remembers correspondence between Baldwin and Malcolm X, then considers “oppression and self-defense” and proceeds to “write furiously.” What he wrote isn’t detailed.

There are two moments that stand out as indicative of the form homophobia takes in the novel. The first, a recounting of Michel Foucault’s entrapment and harassment by the KGB, which Janusz uses as a cautionary tale to Ludwig to “avoid risks, be smart,” but leaves Ludwig “defeated.” This form of gay blackmail isn’t a new or innovative rendition of homophobia even to this day, but the irony is that the “harm” done to Foucault was being sent back to France, where by all accounts, he ended up having a fairly successful career and life. Here, there is an opportunity for Ludwig to assert his growing belief that the West would be better for them as lovers and the chance goes missing for past-tense Ludwig with no intervention from present-tense Ludwig. This absence comes as a surprising missed opportunity because Ludwig knows what he believes at this point in the novel and the stated purpose of retelling his story to Janusz is something Ludwig “need[s] to write” because the story “has been on [his] mind too long.”

The second instance where Jedrwoski outlines his conception of homophobia comes when a park cruising session becomes a lesson in gay life. An older gay man tells Ludwig after their sex, that as a “ciota, a fag,” he will “always be lonely. And he will learn to bear it.” The tale recounted by the older, lonely closet queen is a tired one. Gays are deviants, and their deviance is punished with the asymptote of desire that love between men on earth is, never to reach the line of heterosexuality, always alone. I will return to discuss how the novel concludes with gay loneliness later on, but for now, in reference to the homophobia elucidated here, Ludwig rightly denies the old man’s assessment of his destiny and the reader has no reason to not believe him. Ludwig casts that concern out and away from his mind. He says “I never wanted to be like him” and he decides to “never let the bad in me take over.”

This moment is important for Ludwig as he affirms a plentiful life, one outside the loneliness ascribed to him by the older man in the park. It is, in essence, a rejection of homophobia. The older man, delivering societies’ preconceptions to the younger man, recycles homophobia and passes it on. The irony in this scene comes from the tragic knowledge in the opening pages that Ludwig ends up lonely, however. We are set up by this moment to believe forces outside his control, such as homophobia, lead to this loneliness, when in the course of the story, we find out, in fact he chooses loneliness, fits back into society’s wishes that he be isolated, partner-less, and away from his homeland. Late in the novel, Janusz sleeps with a woman, fulfilling Ludwig’s fears, and Ludwig vows to leave Poland for a better life in the West, but there is actually no reason in the novel that we should believe a better life exists for him there, and in fact, the Polish world Jedrowski writes may be more gay-friendly than the West.

The conflict that dominates the second half of the novel is born then of flimsy politics from Ludwig and an inability of Janusz to connect the dots for him about how they will remain together. Janusz wants Ludwig to stay in Poland and begin to figure out a life together, while Ludwig demands they run away to the West, where they can “be free.” Jedrwoski writes Ludwig’s dialogue in these arguments as if the reader should be on his side in this argument: the West is more “beautiful. More free.” Jedrowski writes in English, attended school in the U.K., and lives in Paris according to his biography.

But, what is striking is the certainty with which Ludwig speaks about life in the West for gays considering in the present tense, he is in 1980s Brooklyn, and his experience there being gay should have some bearing on his recollection. Further, we know from the outset that in the present tense loneliness covers Ludwig “like night-blue tar.” The invocation of the West and the implicit presumption of the superiority of the West for gays fits nicely within present-day discourse from European Union propaganda, a discourse from which Jedrowski writes. The West is LGBT friendly and LGBT life is important to EU expansion. Many candidate states have LGBT rights and protection provisions that far exceed those of current member states. For example, Bosnia & Hercegovina is expected to legalize domestic partnerships before it becomes a candidate country, while Italy, an original member state, only recently legalized them in 2015. Poland, member since 2004, doesn’t have legal same sex marriage, but by all other measures, now is “The West.” This conception of the West, friendly to LGBT rights, acts as a rhetorical cudgel to the former socialist states and encodes a hagiography of progressive values onto the West.

The novel sits within this discourse and propagates it, rather than deepening our understanding of it. At the same time, the earlier elegiac scenes of love and sex occur in the Polish countryside. There was space for Jedrowski to meditate on the meaning of those spaces, the natural world and its relationship to our desire, the ways in which there is a vision for a better Poland, one that liberates gays, one that exists outside of history, beyond reality, similar to how Aciman delivers us an Italian fantasy world of gay desire and romance.

Reading the passages where past-tense Ludwig desires freedom without present-tense Ludwig’s commentary on how actualized that freedom is represents authorial thematic malpractice. Ludwig’s desire for the West occurs, unanswered, all the while, the reader and the author knows that in 1980s Brooklyn, homophobia was alive and well and just around the historical corner sits the gay erotic evil of AIDS. It’s like knowing the hand that feeds cooked poison and devouring the meal. To be clear, spare me another AIDS novel, spare me another novel that rolls around in the pig slop of homophobia and laments at our collective plight. I’m asking for a novel that commits one way or another to reckoning with homophobia or ignoring it outright. But that’s not this novel.

Instead, the novel in front of us relishes the opportunity to adjudicate the problem of gay loneliness and then sentence the principle characters to lives of secrets and shame. In the climactic scene, Ludwig comes out to the daughter of a powerful party official, the same woman Janusz slept with previously, and feels no longer shame, but release. The author has Ludwig’s desire sublimate and narrow to the pin-point contours of a singular identity: “I am a homosexual.” His struggle to say those words is absent from the rest of the novel, he finds himself struggling with questions of freedom, not identity, and yet, to find relief, he becomes a person with a positionality. To quote poet Lucy Biederman, Ludwig’s coming out is “tragedy without friction,” the tragedy of homophobia must have existed within the novel and exists within Jedrowski’s world, but we are not privy to its friction.

There is a deeply frustrating scene in the early part of the novel where Ludwig’s friend, Karolina takes him to a gay café and they are safe to drink and be merry. They don’t; Ludwig is nervous, which is understandable, your first-time hurts, but he misses the opportunity to meditate on something wonderful: gays, queers even! gathered together, flinging “darling,” and “sister,” together in one place, at one time. Friends, joy, community, solidarity.

The potential for irony then exists when we return to that very café to tell Karolina about his love affair. But that potential passes the author by. A place of previous shame becomes a place of joy, Ludwig is not actually alone; gay desire has existed for centuries and his personal shame is misplaced by the author onto “The Nation,” a nation that in this very café accommodates sexual difference. So then, Ludwig’s flight to Brooklyn should be narratively shocking; in the world of the novel where there are more queens portrayed in Warsaw than Brooklyn, Ludwig made the wrong choice. This turn could be a brilliant flipping of the narrative, but because the novel relies on a priori notions of the place it devolves into a contradiction that isn’t a good-time, send ‘em up, but one that ends on the deeply frustrating realization that the discourse of Swimming in the Dark rehashes and reinstantiates the superiority of the West, despite it’s obvious lack. If gay literature, in this vein, wishes to litigate the complexities of shame and desire, it must reckon with the internal irony that a feeling of pride still exists, nearly everywhere.

The shame in this novel ends with Ludwig’s loneliness in Brooklyn and the novel insists, implicitly, that shame is constitutive to homosexual desire. The novel capitulates to the reactionary idea that gay life leads to such loneliness, when present-tense Ludwig says their relationship failed because Ludwig and Janusz “had no manual, no one to show [them] the way.”Gay loneliness, the keystone, where the belief that gay shame and desire meet at the anus, is a reactionary vision of gay life, one trotted out in the halcyon culture wars of the mid-2000s that amidst another economic collapse in my short lifetime feels not only antiquated, but also a beyond-the-pale lamentation, a “wait what about me!” form of oppression peddling that finds its worse tendencies in gay liberal identity politics.

Perhaps, Ludwig would’ve been released from his shame and loneliness if he reconciled that the truth of his identity “homosexual” hinges on desire and desire alone, and shame need not be part of that architecture.

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