I’ll start by saying that Enza Gandolfo’s novel Swimming tackles certain complex and difficult things: for example, betrayal, loss, despair, & terrible rage.
It’s also very interested in memory and forgetting; in families that work and families that don’t, and in how the ones that don’t seem on the face of it to work still have life in them & a reason to go on.
And it dives deepest into matters of work and art, of parenthood and the frustrated longing to be a parent, and of love, loyalty, and friendship.
In other words, it’s about things that we care for, and need to ponder and contemplate over and over, because we will never come to the end of their pain, their beauty, and their usefulness.
There’s always a strange and deep pleasure to be got from reading a novel that’s set in the part of the city you live in.
Enza’s book is wonderful about the suburbs of Melbourne’s old west – the small weatherboard houses, the modest beaches, the sorts of trees that grow in its back yards, and the handicrafts its older women engage in, which Enza describes with loving respect:
Kate’s mother goes over to the sideboard and takes out a plastic bag; inside, wrapped in white tissue paper, there is a tiny white blanket. ‘For the baby’s cot’. Kate holds the lacy blanket against her cheek and then spreads it out on the coffee table and admires her mother’s work. "Butterfly, daisy, snowflake lace and fishtail stitch,’ her mother says, pointing to each small square and naming it. The blanket has both texture and contrast, dips and rises, creating the illusion of many shades of white.
The novel starts quietly and carefully, and I felt at home in it right away because it gives off the serious glow of old-style, pragmatic, domestic feminism, the sort I like, and that we don’t hear much about any more, in these days of Brazilian waxes and people getting their heads kicked on King Street at 4 am and footballers who glass their girlfriends in glamorous apartment blocks, though I refuse to believe that the same old beloved modest family struggles aren’t being played out every day in kitchens and bedrooms and high school staffrooms across the nation.
But just when I thought I could relax into this familiar, genially cranky element, Gandolfo raises the stakes.
We find that the baby for whom the exquisite blanket has been crocheted will never make it into our world.
The grieving of the woman whom Gandolfo calls ‘the barren, infertile and then abandoned wife’ is the book’s central sorrow.
And that sorrow, in the long run, is what makes its narrator, Kate Wilks, into a writer.
Gandolfo creates one of the gentlest, yet toughest portraits of an artist’s marriage I’ve read in Australian writing. Kate is a high school teacher who falls in love with a talented sculptor called Tom. When they marry, they move into a house she owns that has some beautiful, well-established trees in its garden. In a burst of generosity she agrees to the building of a studio in the back yard, for Tom to work in. To fit the studio in, a maple and a hibiscus will have to be cut down, and the jacaranda will cop a savage pruning. She swallows hard, and agrees to this.
Tom is excited and happy about the studio.
Kate longs for him to see that she is sad about the loss of the trees, but he doesn’t notice.
And he doesn’t say thankyou.
This problem, which seems on one level so trivial, opens the story out into a study of the demands of art and the artist, and the age-old question of the sacrifices women make to support the art of men.
It reminded me once more of the extreme need that people - - not just women - - have for their sacrifices to be noticed. It’s not a demand for gratitude. It’s a need that one’s sacrifice should be acknowledged – that the beneficiary should sense that it’s a gift of love that involves a loss, and not simply take it as his due.
This struggle between artists and the people who love them goes very deep, and it can lead to acts of destruction.
I once heard a very famous Australian sculptor tell the story of something that happened between him and his first wife when they were young. They were on their way back to Sydney from the United States, where he had just spent a fruitful year on some sort of scholarship, and had produced a lot of work. They were travelling by ship. At some point of the voyage the wife became enraged by something the artist had done – perhaps it was to do with sexual jealousy, I forget now. Anyway, she went down to their cabin, opened the porthole, and threw out of it the piece he most treasured of all the work he was bringing proudly home. When he told this story (quite genially by the time he was an old man), the artist drew from it the following moral: ‘When the chips are down, women don’t give a fuck about art.’
On the contrary, the women in this book care a great deal about art. As the story develops, it darkens and becomes richer and more challenging. A woman’s inability to bear a child is linked in profound and painful ways with her struggle to become a writer, and with her sense of what material she has the right to make use of.
‘As a writer,’ says Kate, ‘I’m a thief, more the lissom cat-burglar than a common gun-toting criminal. I steal from myself as well as from others… No one is safe or out of bounds. I justify this shameless pilfering to myself in the name of art and of life, in the belief that valuable insights come from this narrating of life.’
The act of destruction I mentioned comes fairly late in the piece and when it does it’s very shocking, almost crazy. It’s an expression of jealousy and violent rage at a betrayal, but it’s linked somehow to Kate’s own creativity and her sense of self-worth.
Enza Gandolfo folds the plot of the novel in a subtle way, moving back and forth over a period of 20 years, so that the existence of the destructive act is not revealed until she has made the reader fully ready to understand it. This is a serious achievement and I admired it. There are no hollow gestures here. She brings her story round in a clever curve into a resolution we have no hesitation in believing and embracing.
‘I realise,’ says Kate, at the age of 60, about her long-gone, long-remarried husband Tom, ‘that we have finally been able to acknowledge each other.’
The book is also a touching study of long-term friendship between women. I love the character Lynne, Kate’s oldest friend, the old leftie activist with a mouth on her, who is now suffering from dementia. Everything she says cuts through the other characters’ hesitations and timidities. ‘Don’t feed me that crap,’ she says when Kate tries to comfort her. ‘We both know how this is going to end.’
As Lynne’s mind closes down, Kate finds she is now the custodian of the memory of their lifelong friendship. ‘I have loved her for years, for decades,’ Kate says. ‘I have loved her longer than I have ever loved anyone else.’
It’s a terrible thing to know that you are now the only person in the world who understands why certain things are funny: and that for the rest of your life you will have to laugh at them alone.
But through the story runs very delicately written imagery of water and swimming, their power to restore and heal.
‘I discovered,’ Kate says, ‘that every swim is a new swim, that the ocean remakes itself over and over again; and I learned to remake myself.’
I was very happy to see this remark towards the end of the book. It seemed a restatement in swimmer’s terms of a wonderfully useful sentence I found in the work of the British psychoanalyst Marion Milner -- I’m always quoting it to people, and I have it pinned to the wall over my desk for moments when I get a desperate feeling that nothing I’m writing is new:
‘Everything that one thinks one understands must be understood over and over again, in its different aspects, each time with the same new shock of discovery.’
I’d like to congratulate Enza on her beautiful novel.
Congratulations to Helen Cerne of Vanark Press, a valiant little outfit that I didn’t realise was based just round the corner from where I live in the famous inner west.
Reading Swimming was a very rewarding experience for me, and I warmly recommend it to you.
I’m happy to declare it launched.
HELEN GARNER published her first novel, Monkey Grip, in 1977. She was best known as a fiction writer (The Children’s Bach, Postcards from Surfers, Cosmo Cosmolino, My Hard Heart) and freelance journalist until 1994, when The First Stone, her account of a university sexual harassment case, provoked a national controversy. Since then she has become one of Australia’s most respected writers of essays and non-fiction. In 2004 she published the bestselling Joe Cinque’s Consolation, about the murder of a young man in Canberra in 1997. The Spare Room, her most recent novel, was the winner of the Victorian Premier's Literary Award (2008), the Queensland Premier's Literary Award (2008), and the Barbara Jefferis Award (2009).