Swimming in the Dark – Thoughts and Questions

I’m not crying, you are.

Our Book Club pick for September was the incredible Swimming in the Dark by Tomasz Jedrowski, a coming-of-age love story set in Soviet-controlled Poland. A one-way ticket to heartbreak city and a dive into an otherwise forgotten slice of history, this has to be one of my favourite books of the year.

But first, here’s some questions to get you thinking:

1) Swimming in the Dark takes the form of one continuous letter from our narrator Ludwik, addressed to his lover Janusz. How did you feel about this structure?

2) Ludwik is both terrified and fascinated by James Baldwin’s novel, Giovanni’s Room. Why do you think this had such an impact on him? What do you think about his conflicting emotions towards the book?

3) The setting – Poland in the 1980s- is a major factor in the decisions that Janusz and Ludwik make. Were you surprised by this? Why?

4) While Ludwik is raring to leave the country, Janusz is against it. Considering the life that Janusz now has to lead, why do you think he is so reluctant to leave Poland behind?

5) How did you feel about the ending? Do you feel there was closure? Was this a realistic way to end the novel?

Thoughts on Swimming in the Dark

After what felt like a hopeful, post-covid August, September has been a messy month – not just politically and economically, but the threat of another lockdown has drained me emotionally. Reading Swimming in the Dark, however, felt like dipping my toes in beautiful pool of light, distracting from the hellscape we find ourselves in.

Occupied Poland, early 1980s. Ludwik Glowacki is an anxious and disillusioned graduate (aren’t we all), tired of the ever-controlling, ever-threatening Soviet government. Along with the rest of his class, Ludwik is sent to agricultural camp for the summer where he meets Janusz. After a dreamlike summer together, they find themselves confronted by the harsh reality of life in the USSR, where secrets are the most dangerous weapons of all.

“No matter what happens in the world, however brutal or dystopian a thing, not all is lost if there are people out there risking themselves to document it. Little sparks cause fires, too.”

What struck me immediately about Swimming in the Dark was that I had zero idea life in Poland in the literal eighties was this tough. It’s Orwellian – medicine shortages, rising food prices and extreme censorship all taking place under the watchful eye of the Party. I guess this was a reality I’d associated with East Germany – I’d never related it to Poland before now.

“The odds had been stacked against us from the start: we had no manual, no one to show us the way. Not one example of a happy couple made up of boys. How were we supposed to know what to do? Did we even believe that we deserved to get away with happiness?”

In the midst of it all is Ludwik – a boy acutely aware that he doesn’t fit the mould society would have him squeeze into. The start of Swimming in the Dark focuses on Ludwik’s battle between what he knows deep down – his homosexuality – and the desperation to squash it down, to be the same, to toe the Party line.

It’s only when Ludwik dares to read James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, a forbidden book in Poland, that he seems to reach some level of acceptance. For the first time, he sees himself reflected on the page. While Giovanni’s Room brings a form of relief in that now, at least, Ludwik knows why he feels the way he does, it also shows him that a life outside Poland could give him the freedom to love who he chooses.  

“Because you were right when you said that people can’t always give us what we want from them; that you can’t ask them to love you the way you want. No one can be blamed for that.”

Janusz, however, is not on the same page. I think this baffled me the most throughout the novel. While Janusz is open and adventurous in some parts, he has a loyalty to the government and to Poland that ultimately clouds his sense of self.

If you did read this book, you’ll know how heartbreaking it is throughout. In the discussion, literally every single one of us admitted we cried at some point. Very cathartic. I loved it.

For the rest of October, we’ll be turning our attention to some spooky reads! All info will be on the groupchat & Twitter.

Published by Lily Evans

writing about books

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