The Swimmer as Hero
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 One of the strangest and most stylish books of the year: a cultural history of swimming, by a dealer in 19th-century paintings. Sprawson learned to swim as a boy in India, at a school where his English father was headmaster. He still swims today, and one of the many pleasures of this aquatic rhapsody is his occasional foray into autobiography, as he struggles across the Hellespont (now clogged with ships) in homage to Byron, or paddles in pools where Tennessee Williams once trolled the waters. Like his natant heroes, Sprawson belongs to a singular society, ``divorced from everyday life, devoted to a mode of exercise where most of the body remains submerged and self-absorbed.'' In the 19th century, the British were the champions of this worldwide fraternity, favoring the breast-stroke and using frogs as their model for kicking. Sprawson dives lustily into the English tradition of the poet as water sprite, which reached its apotheosis with Byron, who exemplified muscular, endurance swimming, and Shelley, who was obsessed with water but never learned to float and who died by drowning. Rupert Brooke swam as a celebration of youth; for Baron Corvo, it was an expression of homosexuality. Meanwhile, across the great briny, Eakins's paintings, Whitman's poems, and London's tales Americanized the sport; later, it became a staple of southern prose as an expression of decadence or sexual release (Sprawson's title comes from a Tennessee Williams story and refers to an incident in a bathhouse). Swimming had its glory days in other nations, too, mostly those that celebrated physical prowess. In Germany, swimming became for Goethe, and later Leni Riefenstahl, a declaration of freedom and beauty. In Japan, it expressed the samurai ideal. But whether East or West, the swimmer is always ``in a continuous dream of a world under water''--a poet of the deeps. Positively liquescent with brilliant images and insights. (Photos--16 pp. b&w--not seen.)

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1993
ISBN: 0-679-42051-7
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Pantheon
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1st, 1992