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27 April 2022

Ten years of Swimming Home

A decade on, the author returns to her Booker Prize-nominated novel, and finds conflict and mortal danger among the waves.

By Deborah Levy

“I have measured out my life with coffee spoons”
“The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock” by TS Eliot

I have measured out my life with anchovies on buttered bread. It’s all ha ha eating anchovies in Hackney oh yes like a wind blowing in from Capri. I have measured out my life with whelks mussels clams oysters winkles and crab but not the scallop which is like eating the human earlobe.

I have measured out my life swimming in various rivers and lakes with dragonflies and humble ducks. But what about the plump carp basking in that weedy warm lake in August 2012? Oh no, that was not a good swim. There was a summer house painted green on the edge of that lake, and a rowing boat moored between two submerged trees. When I look back on that swim I can now see it was the end of one sort of life and the start of another. The fat carp were the lies I had told myself to keep love alive.

Of all the bodies of water in which I have swum (including the Atlantic and Indian Oceans) the most inspiring is the Bay of Angels in Nice, the fifth biggest city in France. I have never glimpsed one single fish or felt it flick my feet in that stretch of water and often wonder why.

Swimming far out from shore that summer, then turning around to face the town, I saw the rooftops were covered in snow. At that moment I decided to write a novel called Swimming Home, set in the French Riviera.

Yet when I look at early drafts of this book, I can see it’s not all ha ha among the waves and creepy cypress trees and casinos. There are notes I have made on war. The ambulances have no fuel, the hospitals have no water, a child is smuggled through a Polish forest in 1943. He will arrive safely in Whitechapel, London. This child is now an adult man and he is on holiday in the French Riviera.

What happened to his mother, what happened to his father? He tells us his parents are night visitors, meaning he only meets them in dreams.

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Also, in these early drafts, there is a quote from Sylvia Plath (The Bell Jar) in which a nurse says to an unhappy young woman, “Show us how happy it makes you to write a poem.” In Swimming Home there is a fragile young woman with fierce intelligence and long red hair (her mother is a cleaner) who writes a poem. Maybe she’s ha ha happy, maybe she’s not. You will find her collecting pebbles on the beach of the Bay of Angels in a summer dress, where the sky is always blue and the rooftops of the houses are carpeted in the seagulls that I first mistook for snow.

I have measured out my life with the sea urchins that have pierced my feet with their spines. I have now lost my fear of sea urchins. I don’t know why. There are other fears I would prefer to lose, after all. I know they have to survive in the wilderness of the ocean, their cousins are the sea star and they can grow for centuries. There are sea urchins that are almost immortal, older than the mortal mothers and their mortal children fleeing from wars.

Life is only worth living because we hope it will get better and we’ll all get home safely. If we were to measure out the love of mothers for their children with coffee spoons there would never be enough spoons for that kind of love.

“Swimming Home”, published by And Other Stories, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2012

[See also: Day and age]

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This article appears in the 27 Apr 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Sturgeon's Nuclear Dilemma