Thursday, 13 September 2012

Ian McEwan and Swimmer in the Secret Sea

Swimmer in the Secret SeaMany years ago, in bookshop days, the shop where I worked used to sell a lot of William Kotzwinkle, this in his pre-ET days. The shop was big on cult books, so his Doctor Rat and Fata Morgana were key texts. One of the workers, now no longer with us, Keith Leonard, was a big fan. I could barely read a word of them but he suggested I read Kotzwinkle's very different Swimmer in the Secret Sea. This is a novella, set in a Maine winter during which the two characters in the book go to hospital to have a child, which is stillborn. The book was particularly important to Keith as his first child, Robin, also did not survive. Swimmer brought me to tears, not just because of the subject matter but also the book was so beautifully written, and showed just how much can be done with a novella.
This was around about 1980. The book was not a big seller in this country and largely sold to fans of the cult books, who might have been surprised by the difference.
I held on to the memory of the novella and was pleased to republish it in 2010, in a joint edition with the American publisher Godine. Given the involvement of Godine, it was a lovely publication. Save for a great review in the Times Literary Supplement the book came out here to little interest and quickly sales subsided to the occasional customer order. So it goes.
Two or three weeks ago we started to receive orders for the book again, singles, from bookshops, wholesalers and Amazon. What gives? It took a few days to find out. It turns out to have been mentioned in Ian McEwan's new novel Sweet Tooth in which the couple Serena and Tom (I've taken this from the New Statesman review) disagree about modern fiction “at every turn”... “I thought his lot were too dry,” Serena writes of their favoured authors, “he thought mine were too wet.” And she recalls: “During that time, we managed to agree on only one short novel . . . William Kotzwinkle’s Swimmer in the Secret Sea. He thought it was beautifully formed, I thought it was wise and sad.”
I've read every McEwan book, since First Love, Last Rights in the mid-seventies but had not yet read Sweet Tooth, though I will soon. It would have been more fun to have come across the quote at first hand but the minor mystery was also fun.
It would be nice if McEwan was one of the small number of readers of our edition, but also nice if he, too, had hung on to the memory of the book for thirty years before doing something with it. Either way, we are grateful for his mention as it has brought the book to the attention of some new readers.

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