Learning Uncertainty: On Colombe Schneck’s “Swimming in Paris”

By Madeleine CrumMay 12, 2024

Learning Uncertainty: On Colombe Schneck’s “Swimming in Paris”

Swimming in Paris: A Life in Three Stories by Colombe Schneck

LEARNING TO SWIM involves learning to stay calm in an uncomfortable environment. First, there’s the task of breathing; breathing is a task now. Exhale while changing directions, somersaulting; inhale through mouth angled just above water’s surface. Keep head and hips aligned, conjoined, your spine rigid, a rod; hips ought not to sink. It’s a lot to keep track of: breathing, not sinking. The effect, like that of meditation, is more synchronicity between awareness of one’s mind and awareness of one’s body. More attention paid to staying alive, less attention reserved for pettier anxieties.

Colombe Schneck, author of Swimming in Paris: A Life in Three Stories, a collection of three autofictional novellas published this year in English (translated by Lauren Elkin and Natasha Lehrer), took up swimming in middle age, first as a hobby shared with a man she had nothing else in common with, and then, after he left her (they were too different, he said—but that was the beauty, she said), as a personal pursuit as liberating as it was arbitrary. “I didn’t know what to do, so I went swimming,” she wrote, characteristically frank. What follows is her introduction to “an unexplored, parallel world, the world of sensation,” where “words are unnecessary.”

Schneck is one of many contemporary autofiction writers and memoirists who consider swimming alongside their investigations of gender and autonomy. In Love Me Tender (2020), Constance Debré intersperses confessions about her divorce and an exhausting custody battle with a catalog of swims, a habit that gives her arms a clear shape and her life a steady habit. Deborah Levy, author of The Cost of Living: A Working Autobiography (2018), is a swimmer; so is Anelise Chen, whose So Many Olympic Exertions (2017) asks when it’s right to quit a lofty pursuit, whether it’s a dissertation or a marathon. Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water (2011) uses her career as a competitive swimmer as an entry point for considering her fluid sexuality and her resistance to straightforward narratives. Leanne Shapton’s Swimming Studies (2012) is formally fluid too: she collects paintings of memories of pools; remembers her over-aware relationship with time, affecting even her use of her microwave; and details the history of bathing as opposed to swimming, leisure as opposed to strained ambition.

What makes this “world of sensation,” the lap pool, so suited to the historically feminist practice of self-writing? There are some obvious parallels: swimming is an individual sport, a repetitive and self-reliant effort; it involves a lot of time spent alone, submerged, in one’s head. Submerged, in one’s head, it’s hard to perceive others’ perceptions of you; the feedback loop between self and other is cut off, at least for 30 minutes or so, and along with it, some of the pressure to perform. Which isn’t to say there’s no audience while swimming—as with writing in a diary, an imagined audience stands watching, even if that imagined audience is just one’s future self.


The arc of Schneck’s three novellas—Seventeen, Friendship, and Swimming—is away from, and finally back toward, a conscious relationship with her body, which at first unpleasantly historicized her, binding her up and making her too aware of the ways in which she wasn’t free, and which decades later became a place where she could shake off her anxieties and philosophize more plainly.

Seventeen centers on her abortion, a legal and almost absurdly easy transaction, she reflects in hindsight. She dedicates her confession to Annie Ernaux, and though she takes on a style similar to the Nobel winner’s—she’s direct, she uses run-ons as if eager to finally come forth, she rarely reaches for metaphor—the material she draws on, her life, is inherently wieldy and less taboo by comparison. Schneck’s parents belonged to a set of post-1968 upper class liberals in Paris; Ernaux’s ran a cafe in a working class neighborhood in Normandy. Ernaux’s abortion, chronicled in Happening (2000) many years after the fact, was illegal; Schneck, on the other hand, writes of her access to adequate care: “[I]n all of history has any seventeen-year-old girl ever had so much freedom?”

The implied next sentence: And yet. Given plenty of advantages—a “utopian” childhood, a wardrobe from agnès b., teachers and parents who encouraged her to be brash and assertive and silly, rugs warm underfoot in winter, and a doctor able to perform an abortion, very few questions asked—she still felt “diminished” by her body’s “fragility.” Shocked, she dissects the word “pregnant, its lack of neutrality, pregnant.” This was not the sexually liberated teenage experience she had been raised to expect. Betrayed, she “decided to let it go, this incompetent, banal body.”

It makes sense, then, that the collection’s middle story, Friendship, slips into the third person; it’s as though Schneck’s memories from the time are of rote actions, less deliberate and felt less consciously. At the story’s center are two friends, Colombe and Héloïse, a daughter of Jewish immigrants and a daughter of aristocrats respectively. Their class differences are slight, but they’re significant to young Colombe, who “prefers illusion to reality,” and who won’t “admit that her parents are rich” for many years. Other such illusions abound. Unlike Colombe’s parents—who, taking cues from Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, have an open marriage that’s theoretically free but often dramatic and draining in practice—the girls anticipate that their own relationships “will be ‘normal and happy.’” (Both women wind up getting divorced.) And, if they eat enough superfoods, they’ll live to be 120. (Héloïse is diagnosed with cancer in middle age, and tragically denies its seriousness until the end of her life.)

As in Seventeen, Schneck details the fantasies of freedom that underlie Colombe and Héloïse’s carefree choices. Sometimes she’s remorseful; sometimes, though not often enough, she’s wistful. We were glib, she suggests, and it was almost worthwhile; you should’ve seen the shirts, the villas, the little school shoes. These moments of ambivalence are among the most moving in the book. Another friend, on her deathbed, tells Colombe that her pajamas are from Brooks Brothers, and that her funeral will be a great time soundtracked by Bob Dylan; it’s too bad she won’t be able to make it. Reveling with her friend in the pleasantness of soft fabrics and party planning, Colombe confesses flatly that she’s no longer afraid of dying.

In Swimming, Schneck falls in love with a man whose aesthetic sensibilities are utilitarian, and his sagging IKEA couch is almost enough for her to call things off. His passion is straightforward—he loves her because she’s “pretty,” “beautiful,” he says—and he refuses to promise her a secure future, poking fun at her need for certainty. Later, he insists on separating, but some of his asceticism, and his comfort in his own body, affects her. She keeps up their swimming practice, first in hopes of getting back together, then for her own sake.

“My gestures improved, became more fluid. I saw male bodies swimming beside me, and I swam past them, I was delighted, my breasts got smaller, my uterus stopped working,” Schneck writes.

My body, by showing me who I was, allowed me to become fully myself: not a woman, but a living being who likes to put on makeup, wear dresses and high heels, cook, do nothing, be in love, spend time with friends, have conversations, particularly with people with whom I disagree.

“Swimming taught me uncertainty,” Schneck continues. The material constraints, which in Schneck’s case were also comforts, giving her bourgeois life a rigid shape, recede as she focuses on repetition, breathing: on the fact of the body she has tried hard not to think about since it betrayed her as a teenager. This new calm, she suggests, is the precondition for her writing: now, less caught up in her illusions, she can report on her life bluntly; she can confess to her abortion, which she’d kept a secret; and she can admit to herself that she’s more suited to friendship than romantic partnership. “There are a thousand ways to be friends,” she writes, “whereas there are only a few ways to be in a couple.”

Schneck’s rediscovered bluntness sometimes reaches beyond the scope of her own life, toward broader insights. When Héloïse is dying, Schneck reports that “there is no such thing as empathy, no one can put themselves in her place or take on even a little bit of her pain.” After her breakup, she writes, “[L]ove is naked truth. It has no material concerns, no decorative beauty.” And while remembering a beach vacation she took as a teenager, she observes that “the bodies of the rich are not more beautiful than the bodies of the poor.”

For Schneck, what’s unadorned is freer, and pure weightless freedom is not only possible but also the highest imaginable achievement. Swimming in Paris reads like the act of stripping down for a swim; it involves baring herself, but oddly, the story stops there. We don’t follow her for long into the water, that open space that allures and frightens her, where queer writers like Yuknavitch and Debré express their fluidity, and where writers like Chen, burdened by expectations of success in the public sphere, express their ambivalence, their desire to use their freedom in order to retreat, not to continue ahead, their motions rote.

Each of these writers comes to the subject of swimming from a different context. Some grew up racing for scholarship money in Lubbock, Texas; others were pushed into a more competitive relationship with the sport by family members or were free to laze back and forth, back and forth, to experience “the world of sensation.” A pool may drown out sound, may limit one’s peripheral vision, may be a space where it’s possible for a stretch of time to become less aware of others, to subordinate oneself less actively, but it is not a vacuum. A pool exists in a building or surrounded by gates, maybe, within a neighborhood within a state.

Schneck’s class doesn’t exempt her from considering something so confining as a history or an awareness of her place within it, as convenient as it would be for her to maintain a fantasy of becoming an unburdened body drifting nowhere. Her context happens to be that of a wealthy liberal woman in Paris, a fact she doesn’t ignore; actually, she repeats it directly so often that its meaning chips away, revealing some defensiveness.

Schneck also grew up in the wake of second-wave feminism, that fight for bodily autonomy which, for all its gains, was only beginning to consider such frustrating questions as whose bodies? and what, exactly, might freedom look like? “All those slogans from the 70s” seemed “out-of-date” to her as a girl, she writes in Seventeen, implying that later, from the place of writing, they rang true.

Swimming in Paris is an honest work of self-writing in the style of Ernaux. At times, it works like a control case: is a girl who has it all still held back by her gender? (We might’ve guessed so; now we know.) But more time spent in the pool, the uncomfortable place where Schneck learned to dispel her illusions, quiet her anxieties, and write with stunning directness, might’ve made these stories more faithful homages. Ernaux’s style gave us confessional work that pushed taboos into regular, declarative sentences. Now that Schneck is feeling freer, what might she declare next?

LARB Contributor

Madeleine Crum is a writer in Brooklyn. Recently, she has written for Literary Hub, The Scofield, Vulture, and HuffPost, where she was a books editor and culture reporter. She is from Texas.


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