It’s hard not to see the context of how we live in now everywhere you look, even back. I watch a movie that features a club scene, and I think, “How can they stand to be so close?” I read about the so-called “plague years” of the AIDS crisis, and my mind instantly draws parallels (and contrasts) with covid-19. It’s especially uncanny, though, to read Tomasz Jedrowski’s fictionalized account of Poland in 1980 in his first novel, Swimming in the Dark. Lines snake outside supermarkets, citizens are ordered to stay at home, the economy collapses. A novel that attempts to capture the turbulent decline of Communism 40 years ago during feels, in many ways, relevant to the here and now.
Besieged Warsaw is both a backdrop to and a complicating factor in the romance on which Jedrowski’s book is centered. It occurs between the radicalized narrator, college student Ludwik, and Janusz, the man he falls in love with at an agricultural camp. Janusz works for the government and has a partial role in which books get published, which is to say that his trade is censorship. So often in modern discourse, when we talk about the roles of assimilationist and radical among gay men, it’s in reference to their relationship with their sexuality, at times reduced to an evaluation of “how gay” they are. (See: The past year and a half of public discussions about Pete Buttigieg.) Swimming in the Dark probes that divide from another perspective entirely and is more compelling for doing so.
It also, at times, half-rhymes with James Baldwin’s virtuosic 1956 novel about love and hate among men, Giovanni’s Room. Certain life experiences of Ludwig’s mirror (or provide alternate takes on) those of Giovanni’s Room’s protagonist, David. But the homage is most blatant in Ludwik’s savoring of the novel (which, because of its gay subject matter, was illegal in Poland at the time) and his passing it on to Janusz. By sharing Baldwin’s resonant meditation on the nature of love among men, Ludwik and Janusz themselves fall in love. “It felt as if the words and the thoughts of the narrator—despite their agony, despite their pain—healed some of my agony and my pain, simply by existing,” says Ludwik, connecting dots from almost 70 years ago to now.
Swimming in the Dark is a lovely, sensitive story in which a sentence whose prose could floor you is always around the corner. (Here is a passage from a reminiscent Ludwik that I particularly loved, which illustrates his great eloquence and inherent shortcomings all at once: “My memory has its limits, of course. It may color in the blanks without admitting to it, dramatize or revise. I guess there is not photographic memory for emotions.”) The manuscript of Swimming in the Dark inspired a six-way auction a few years ago, which resulted in a six-figure deal for Jedrowski. Jedrowski, who was born in Germany to Polish parents, told me about that “surreal” auction last week via video chat from the French countryside, where he is on lockdown. He also discussed his book, sexuality, and Giovanni’s Room. Below is an edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.
JEZEBEL: You speak five languages [Polish, English, French, German, and Spanish] but write in English. Is there anything about English specifically that has inspired your preference?
TOMASZ JEDROWSKI: I’ve never properly thought about it, myself. I feel like English is a tool that hasn’t been imposed on me. It’s not something that I happened to be born into. It’s just something I enjoyed from the very start, and I don’t feel like it’s my parents speaking through me when I’m writing in English, because we never spoke in English. I don’t think it’s society speaking through me, because I didn’t grow up in an English-speaking society. It’s my literary language, because it’s in English that I really started reading books properly. It’s this part of my mind that feels really intimate and private, but not the same as intimacy between me and my family or intimacy between me and my husband. It’s sort of self-intimacy.
Could you talk about the genesis of the book? What prompted you to write about two men in love in 1980 Poland?
For me the genesis of the book is closely linked to me deciding to write at all, when I dared to come out to myself as someone who actually wants to write. I used to be a lawyer and I [went through] therapy, because I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I found a writing course, and they asked me to write anything. I had decided I was going to be a writer, but I didn’t have an idea. It was more the idea of being a writer that I liked. When I had to write this thing for my writing class, I had this flash in my mind where I could see this guy, who’s a student, fancying this other guy and this sense of not really being able to live that love and also the other guy not feeling exactly the same. It was that image I started with and then I developed it.
Had it been brewing, though? I mean, do you identify as gay?
Yeah, I mean, I would say so. I came out as gay many years ago, but the reason I waited for such a long time is that I felt like it was such a prescribed identity and I didn’t feel like I wanted to fit in to that box. And then I was like, “Okay, in the absence of anything more accurate, I will go with that.” But it’s funny because there’s the moment in the book when Ludwik goes to see [his associate] Hania and he sort of tells her, “I’m a homosexual.” I thought it was a really important scene but then I didn’t want this to be the major message. Really what I care about is trying to discover those gray zones and, really, the truth. I guess when you put a label on something—“I am this”—we have to look at, “Well, what is this? What do people define it as?” I’ve always been more comfortable with what I do, with verbs rather than nouns.
I think it’s a very complicated taxonomy, but there’s a long history of gay men throwing other gay men under the bus by identifying as straight. A single word could never represent an entire human experience, but sometimes the absence of that word amounts to sheer deception.
Yes. It’s important that we have vocabulary and also that we develop vocabulary. It is really complex, and it’s also very subjective. Some people do it out of fear, and other people do it to control others, as a means of suppression. I’ve met some people like that in my life and I find them fascinating. I think that’s where Janusz comes from.
Did any of the premise of the book come from you wondering what life must have been like in the country from which your parents hail, back in the days when it was much harder to be out?
I had this scene in my mind of someone in a lecture hall, but it wasn’t me. It was a man who used to be friends with my father. He’s the first man that I met that identified as gay—openly so. I remember meeting him when I was 8, I was with my parents. I was very nervous about meeting him. I could just tell that we had something in common. I never thought about this guy, but when I had to think of a story that mattered to me, I saw him. I just assumed that he was in love with my father—the guy I saw this character fancying was my father. I wouldn’t say Janusz is my father. I worked a lot on changing these characters and making them their own people, but that was the starting point.
It was just this weird, deep self-identification with this person, or rather with the projection of that person. When I started writing Swimming in the Dark, I went to Warsaw. I felt like I had to be there. I was researching and writing, and I gave him a call. We met up and it was a bit disillusioning. I had an image of him in my mind and he wasn’t that. He was quite shocking in many ways. I grew up and my parents would tell me what Poland was like, and to me, in Western Germany in the ’90s, it was the most exotic thing on earth. It was a time when the end of history was proclaimed. It was the end of the Cold War. The message was: We’re going to be wealthier from year to year. To hear about a society that was so radically different, where you didn’t know where things would come from, where there was so much uncertainty, I found it just wild. The novel was an excuse for me to research it and know more about it.
I appreciated many things about your use of Giovanni’s Room, but especially that it immediately contextualizes your book in the larger history of gay literature. Was that a conscious choice?
I didn’t really aim for this book to be part of all that. It didn’t really occur to me that it could be. It wasn’t conscious but I guess the reason why I used [Giovanni’s Room] is because I wanted to pay homage to it. That’s all it was. It was really a way to celebrate it. I felt so deeply grateful to the book, and I hadn’t really been able to express it in any other way. Sure, I would speak to people here and there but I felt like no one really understood it. [That] book made me feel part of something, and that’s what I wanted Ludwik to feel as well. It really comes as a revelation. It’s not about Swimming in the Dark being part of all that, it was really about Giovanni’s Room being an important voice that people needed to hear, some people desperately. Something that you thought was so personal and so inside you that no one could have possibly felt the same before, but then when you read something and you realize others had felt it, that’s when you become part of this, for lack of a better word, a sort of brotherhood. A tradition. A tradition of people throughout history having thought in similar ways. That’s incredible.
I think of Giovanni’s Room as largely a tragedy. So much of it is coated in sadness, even the love—like when David talks about Giovanni’s love awakening a beast, explaining, “With this fearful intimation there opened in me a hatred for Giovanni which was as powerful as my love and which was nourished by the same roots.” It’s almost like a double helix of emotions. Baldwin was so wise, a true master of humanity, but your book isn’t nearly as melancholy.
I recently opened Giovanni’s Room and I was struck by just how sad it was. I’d sort of forgotten. I think the reason why it spoke to me when I first read it, in 2008 in New York, is I think I was that sad. When I started writing Swimming in the Dark, I had a lot of sadness in me, and I think it was a way of digesting it. The first couple of years [writing it], I didn’t know where the book was going. I didn’t know what I was trying to do with it. I knew it was an unhappy love story. I’d written scenes where Ludwik was desperately in love with Janusz and threw himself out of a window and then he sat in a hospital. I had to get all of that out. I was reading it, thinking, “This is so over the top. This is not good literature. There’s nothing to learn from this.” It was kind of what I was going through in life as well. I didn’t really know where I was going. I didn’t really have a formula for how to live and what I believed in. And then I did this meditation course, a 10-day silent retreat, and I came out of that course and felt like my brain had been rewired. I accepted in my life for the first time that I wanted to be happy, that I wanted to feel joy. I think it was because of all of the years of suppressing who I was. When I started writing again, I could finally see that I could give Ludwik hope, because I had actually found it.
Did you have any philosophy regarding writing about sex?
I didn’t have a strategy. I wanted something that would feel real. For me, sensuality is really, really important. It’s funny because when they first have sex and Ludwik enumerates Janusz’s body parts and at the end, he says, “Cock,” in the Polish translation they censored that to “you know what.” To be honest, I had the idea of wanting it to be tasteful, whatever that means. I didn’t feel the need to shock, I didn’t want anything too graphic, but I definitely wanted them to enjoy the sex. I wanted that sense of you losing your head a little bit, like when sex makes you lose your head and transforms time and makes everything else unimportant. That’s what it can be like, especially when you’re discovering it with someone you care about.
Your book set off a buying frenzy that culminated in a six-figure deal in the U.S. What was it like to be a sensation before you were even published?
I was really happy, but I think your brain isn’t really made to deal with it. We’re not really wired to process it. What do I do with that? I think what it does is create a new space in your brain and obviously gives you a lot of stimulation. It’s stimulation that you didn’t think you could feel and it feels amazing. But then, you want more. This is nothing compared to what people have reached in terms of success and fame, but I did experience a tiny bit of it and I thought, “Now I understand why some celebrities finish so tragically.” It’s never enough. And then you start defining yourself by that and then you understand why Michael Jackson would have been upset because one year he got that many Grammys and the next year he didn’t. That’s the danger of allowing other people to give you value. In a way, I’m still dealing with it and I think the best way to get out of it is to continue working.
Do you feel pressure for your next book?
Some, but I think writing is really the opposite of feeling all of those things. Writing is connecting with other voices and connecting with the subconscious and drowning out the external world. When I’m actually writing, I don’t feel pressure, but sometimes I have that little voice saying, “Oh, but what will reviewers say about that?” which I never had before. But it’s an amazing luxury to have that. This is going to sound weird, but I look forward to disappointing people. What I’m writing now is so different from Swimming in the Dark, so I know already that there are going to be readers that are going to be disappointed. That’s their right. And again, that’s a luxury, presuming that people will even be interested in the next book.