DECEMBER 9, 2018
DRIVING AROUND FINLAND last summer, I was overwhelmed by the color blue. Flecks of orange salmon flesh and veins of forest green leaves were drowned out by the acres of blue spanning between sky and sea. In Finland’s Lakeland, an area so dominated by water that in satellite photos it resembles a large pond dotted with occasional blooms of algae, even the pitch dark of night was a shade of blue. It came, I think, from the water. As day turned to dusk, the water’s depths threatened not just to embrace you, but to swallow you entirely. My toes, dangling over the edge of our rowing boat, disappeared and reappeared, volunteers in a vanishing act each time a dark swell lapped at them.
The experience of swimming naked through that inked mystery was so singular that later I felt compelled to hold on to it, writing it into the pages of my notebook. I wrote about how up close, the night water wasn’t as opaque as it had seemed from the boat. My arms glowed through the surface in front of me, tinged slightly yellow-green by the darkness. The lake carried and consumed me; opening your eyes underwater, you thought, with calm acceptance, that perhaps it had taken your sight too. I wrote about how when swimming back to the shore, my limbs lost their milky-citrus hue as we climbed out and left drops of dark blue on the pebbles behind us.
At the time, I knew that my urge to write about the swim, that sensation of my body’s submersion, was something shared and most likely inspired by contemporary writers such as Philip Hoare, Amy Liptrot, and Jessica J. Lee. Expanding the bracket, I was not only paying tribute to these authors, who mix memoir and swimming in what have been called “swimoirs” or “waterbiographies,” but also the parent group they have dovetailed from: the personal nature writing of authors like Helen Macdonald, William Fiennes, and Robert Macfarlane. What all these authors specialize in, through their particular strand of what some call “literary nonfiction,” is taking their niche subject of interest — swimming, falconry, walking — and broadening its appeal to a wider audience. Like Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, the books’ specific subjects end up serving as unique kaleidoscopes through which to approach universal intrigues such as identity, love, and grief.
In recent years, the younger descendants of Macfarlane et al. have seemingly inverted the concept; in their work, the “literary” of “literary nonfiction” not only applies to the techniques and style of the writing but also to its subject matter. In the work of authors such as Lara Feigel, Elif Batuman, and Philip Hoare, literature and cultural history are at the forefront, the middlemen through which the books edge into wider reflections. Like many others, I found these books captivating, particularly Hoare’s RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR, which amalgamates the “swimoir” and literary nonfiction. But what I know now is that they are in fact indebted to and eclipsed by a work written in 1992, which stands as the grandfather of this particular strand of literary nonfiction. The author is Charles Sprawson; the book, Haunts of the Black Masseur: The Swimmer as Hero.
A cult classic at the time of publication, Sprawson’s work arguably instigated a genre now almost oversaturated. But if neither the name nor book are ringing any bells, don’t feel disheartened by ignorance — after an enormous initial splash, Sprawson was largely forgotten by the literati. He wrote one or two articles for The London Review of Books and The Spectator, and then, due to ill health, disappeared from the public eye. Vintage Books is now trying to turn things around; 25 years after the book’s original publication, they have reprinted a new edition. The profit will go toward Sprawson’s health care and support to finish his second book. For now, it is a welcome reminder of a text many successful contemporary authors are deeply indebted to.
On the back cover of Vintage’s new edition, the generation gap between Sprawson and our current household names becomes clear — Haunts of the Black Masseur does not come under “Biography” or “Memoir” but is classed as a “Social and Cultural History.” Though this classification may put many readers off, Amy Liptrot’s introduction rightly reassures that “Haunts of the Black Masseur is not just for people who like swimming. It’s for anyone who enjoys reading; for those who would find pure pleasure in a sentence.” It is not only, as Liptrot identifies, “much more than a book about the history of swimming as a sport […] this is a book about literature and symbolism,” but also a book whose aquatic viewpoint quietly tells readers much about humanity itself. Like those mentioned above, for Sprawson swimming is a kaleidoscope for viewing literature and humanity. The subtle expanse of its scope is hinted at in the mysteriously ominous title, a reference to the short story “Desire and the Black Masseur” by Tennessee Williams, a literary hero of Sprawson’s. Equally, an acknowledgment list that thanks Iris Murdoch, Michael Phelps, and David Hockney points to the extraordinary range of Sprawson’s research.
While those who have followed in Sprawson’s wake mainly rest the authority of their writing on their own personal experiences, Haunts of the Black Masseur works the other way around. The pronoun “I” is a rare occurrence in Sprawson’s book, the majority of which is narrated with a gentle (but distant) touch: “No one before Byron had recorded the thrilling sensation of swimming […] Lame as he was, swimming gave him some of the most exhilarating moments of his life.” While there seems to be a fascination in contemporary nonfiction with authors’ identities and personalities, Sprawson hardly ever allows his own thoughts or feelings to infringe into his watery world and the historic characters who people it. Writing about the Romantics’ fascination with swimming, Sprawson notes that “[l]ike Narcissus many of the swimmers suffered from a form of autism, a self-encapsulation in an isolated world, a morbid self-admiration, an absorption in fantasy.” The absolute opposite is true of Haunts of the Black Masseur — in his book, Sprawson allows his own voice and passion for swimming to be submerged beneath the world he chronicles.
Yet the little-seen first person is not an absence, reading instead like an invisible presence. Whether recounting that in the Roman era “fish were pampered and often cherished more than human beings,” or that in the Elizabethan age “frogs were kept in tubs by the sides of pools as a means of instruction,” moments of calmly delivered humor reveal much about the author who puts them before us. For example, in his inclusion of a passage taken from Thomas Shadwell’s 1676 The Virtuoso, one senses Sprawson reveling in further absurdities of the past:
Lady Gimcrack is describing her husband learning to swim thus: “He has a frog in a bowl of water, tied with a pack-thread by the loins, which pack-thread Sir Nicholas holds in his teeth, lying upon his belly on a table; and as the frog strikes, he strikes, and his swimming master stands by, to tell him when he does well or ill.” When asked if he had ever tried out the stroke in the water, Sir Nicholas replies: “No Sir, but I swim most exquisitely on land. I content myself with the Speculative part of swimming, I care not for the Practick [sic]. I seldom bring anything to use, ’tis not my way.”
Leading readers from a school pool in India to the Hellespont in Turkey, Byron’s pool in the Cam to Zelda Fitzgerald’s dives in Alabama, Sprawson fills his pages with histories, stories, anecdotes, and quotations centered around the swimmer’s world. At the back of the book, the index extends to over a thousand subjects. But the magic lies in the way that Sprawson is able to include so much within such a pleasurable reading experience. The assured tone with which he quotes from sources not always cited becomes far more convincing than multitudes of superscripted numbers and corresponding pages of notes. The book is like a literary pearl — Sprawson undoubtedly dove to the depths of the ocean and spent years prying it open and polishing its secrets — but to the reader, evidence of the process is humbly hidden away. Placed in the palm of our hands is a perfectly smooth globe, a treasure made from fragments of another world. As though preempting inquiries about its origins, however, Sprawson explains in the preface, the most openly personal section of the book: as a self-confessed “obsessional swimmer,” when lecturing on “‘classical culture’ in an Arab university,” Sprawson found that,
the only form of amusement was reading […] I devoured book after book […] As there was nothing else to do I made extensive notes on everything I read. The heat, the parched atmosphere and the non-existence of pools made me acutely sensitive to the slightest trace of water, any passing reference to swimming.
And from these notes came Haunts of the Black Masseur.
Occasionally, this personal fixation of Sprawson’s surfaces in the text. The most well known of these is his description of his own heroic swim across the Hellespont with his daughter. Although a (satisfyingly mundane) fear of sharks lead Sprawson to admit “I swam sidestroke to avoid looking down,” the completed feat only leads to further challenges: “On my return to England I was disappointed to read that Byron had found his crossing of the Tagus estuary at Lisbon a far more hazardous adventure, so the following summer I felt obliged to book a holiday in Portugal.”
Another personal anecdote results from a trip to a church in Rome. The church was constructed of original columns from Diocletian’s Baths, and Sprawson was “distracted recently by the sight of these startling columns and that of a gypsy’s naked breast feeding a pendant infant, I lost through her liquid fingers all the money in my possession.” Later, Sprawson indirectly explains to readers the source of his book’s title: “[A] certain sympathy for Tennessee Williams has made me want to swim wherever he bathed.” One such example was in the marble baths of the New Orleans Athletic Club:
[I]t seemed only proper to submit my body to the hands of the Black Masseur who mangled the poor clerk in the Williams short story and still haunts its recesses. As my limbs were wrenched and stretched on the stone slab, I felt for the demented clerk who died so happily in his arms.
In the Athletic Club anecdote, we also see how for Sprawson, though infinitely appealing, much of the water’s allure is in its dangerous sensuality, its corporeal eclipse that offers an almost narcotic immersion in Homer’s wine-dark sea. Many “experienced through their swims the classic constituents of an opium dream: ‘the feeling of blissful buoyancy, the extension of time, contrasts of temperature, the bliss of the outcast.’” But this metaphorical escape could quite easily take too literal a turn. On the very second page, the reader is told of Samuel Scott, whose custom it was “to execute a number of acrobatic feats before plunging into the water, and to create a sensation he used to imitate, on a scaffold on Waterloo Bridge, a public execution by hanging. This was to prove his undoing, as in the summer of 1841 the noose slipped and strangled him.” On the next page, we hear of Graham Greene’s attempt at suicide, the 20 aspirin swallowed before he went swimming in the school baths: “I can still remember the curious sensation of swimming through cotton wool.”
Other broader suggestions haunt Sprawson’s book. Its chapters — “The English Ascendancy,” “Classical Waters,” “The Eton Style,” “The Byronic Tradition,” “German Romanticism,” “The American Dream,” “The Japanese Decade” — are as much periods from a certain viewpoint of world history, a charter of the rise of capitalism, as they are accounts of the swimmer’s progress. We sense he could not have missed the insinuation in his lines on the German breaststroke: “The breaststroke in Germany was essentially a military stroke and had been taught to their soldiers for many years. According to an army manual it was the stroke that ‘best utilised the power of the German legs’ that spread wide then slammed together with maximum force.” Yet Sprawson’s insinuations rarely develop into direct comments; with calm precision, Haunts always remains objectively grounded by its aquatic subject matter.
In the notes on my phone, there is a lengthy list of books to read. It gets longer at a rate faster than I can shorten it. Sprawson’s book could replace this list; instead, I’d make my way through his sea of references, the surely inexhaustible reading list lovingly recounted through his enormously humble scholarship and entertaining anecdotes. But I can’t quite yet, as Sprawson’s gem falls short in attention to women, both in literature and in the water. In her introduction, Amy Liptrot recommends a companion piece to Haunts: Jenny Landreth’s “waterbiography” Swell, on the history of women and swimming, and their battles to be allowed in the water. With both books in hand, I would happily leave my phone and its list on shore.
And what about the author himself? Sprawson’s daughter tells me that he is currently living in a care home in southwest London. Completing his second work is proving difficult. In a book that consistently privileges its subject over the author’s identity, the closest description I get to my impression of Sprawson is unintentional, through his own admiration of the competitive swimmer Murray Rose: “I admired too the softness of his name, his cool intelligence, the quiet control he seemed to exert from the start, his graceful, easy style.” Second book or no, one hopes that Sprawson knows how many readers admire the same qualities in himself.