Swimming Studies

Leanne Shapton, Swimming Studies, London: Penguin Books, 2012.

Here is Leanne Shapton’s website: leanneshapton.com

I am reading Leanne Shapton’s Swimming Studies, yes I am.

Shapton is a Canadian artist and former elite swimmer, who almost made it to the Olympics. Nowadays, it seems that she is equal part author, publisher, illustrator and recreational, but regular swimmer.

Swimming Studies tells the story of her rise as a swimmer, or rather, her experiences as a competitive swimmer. For, in this book at least, she cares little for the glory of winning or setting of personal best times. Instead, she focuses on the sensations of being in water, of using her muscles, and the smells that are a part of the everyday life of a swimmer.

Swimming Studies - Small

The book – perhaps it is most easily classifiable as a memoir – is also a tale of family and domestic life. Leanne shares her swimming with her older brother, Derek. She eventually becomes a faster swimmer than him, for she has, according to her coaches a natural affinity with the water. She asks if it bothered him and he replies to say, no, ‘it meant more to her’. Yet, Leanne never really betrays this sense of full emotional engagement with her competitive swimming. Although she states that, at one point, she is ‘clinically depressed’, this is not directly linked to her swimming. It’s just another temporary sensation. The reader is only left to guess that perhaps it might be.

Shapton seems to swim because she is good at it. And that it is something she has grown up doing. Swimming is a skill that she has developed through her 5am morning practices for which she depends on her mother’s endless to-ing and fro-ing from training. There seems to be much love between them; but, it is not the tenor of the book. Shapton instead recounts the smells and rhythms of her mum’s life, rather than stating open affection. Her mother becomes another part of the aesthetics and everyday life around the thing of swimming.

Swim Suit - Small

Swimming Studies is enhanced by the inclusion of photographs of the swimming suits Shapton has collected throughout her times as both elite and recreational swimmer. The suits are neatly photographed on a vintage cloth mannequin, and each suit is accompanied by a brief note on where it was brought and where she wore it for the first time. The suits give an indication of the the changing attitudes towards the female body: something to be covered as much as possible, to being something athletic and capable of moving fast. The suits shift from hindering mobility to enhancing it.

Shapes of Pools

The shapes of pools

Shapton addresses swimming in an original manner. She remembers the textures of swimming, its smells and its sounds. Her portraits of other swimmers, her re-drawing of the shapes of pools (above) and her paintings of swimmers swimming capture something very watery about the feeling of swimming. For me, the weakness of this book is its relative absence of plot or central focus. The plot, the subject matter, the focus are somewhat diluted. It feels like reading a series of disconnected notes on the practice of swimming. So be it. Perhaps it is aimed at being a Walter Benjaminian encounter with the overly focused and directed world of competitive sport. The strength for me, of this book, are the very personal and bare insights Shapton gives regarding her ambivalence as a swimmer. The inclusion of her paintings make up for any textual weakness.

*portrait of Leanne Shapton by Simon Watson

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