“The Swimmer” and The Swimmer
May 27, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
It’s John Cheever’s birthday, and courtesy of 92Y, you can listen to a recording of the author reading his most famous story, “The Swimmer,” in December 1977. It’s easy to shrug off such a canonical piece of fiction, especially when its hero is named Neddy. But if you, like me, haven’t glanced at it since it appeared on one syllabus or another, “The Swimmer” is worth rereading; though its more surreal elements feel contrived to me, the prose still glitters and the dark humor survives:
It would storm. The stand of cumulus cloud—that city—had risen and darkened, and while he sat there he heard the percussiveness of thunder again. The de Haviland trainer was still circling overhead and it seemed to Ned that he could almost hear the pilot laugh with pleasure in the afternoon; but when there was another peal of thunder he took off for home. A train whistle blew and he wondered what time it had gotten to be. Four? Five? He thought of the provincial station at that hour, where a waiter, his tuxedo concealed by a raincoat, a dwarf with some ﬂowers wrapped in newspaper, and a woman who had been crying would be waiting for the local.
I hadn’t known, though Google suggests it’s common knowledge, that “The Swimmer” was adapted into a feature-length film, released in 1968, starring Burt Lancaster as Neddy. According to a thorough assessment at Turner Classic Movies, The Swimmer succeeds in adapting the unadaptable:
It succeeds brilliantly as a fascinating, enigmatic drama that ponders middle-age disillusionment and failure. It’s one of those lucky accidents that occurred in the sixties when Hollywood was still open to experimentation because most studio executives were completely insecure in predicting commercial hits. After all, Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate (both 1967) had blindsided the industry with their unexpected box-office grosses. So maybe audiences were ready for more challenging films like The Swimmer? Unfortunately, the film was a box-office flop, but part of its commercial failure was due to poor marketing by Columbia.
Poor marketing indeed. All of Columbia’s efforts seem to have been built around an ominous, pseudointellectual slogan: “When you talk about The Swimmer, will you talk about … yourself?” Picture the average suburban moviegoer emerging from the cinema, running his mouth in enchantment—“Holy toledo, whatta crazy flick, glad I’m not that guy”—only to realize the film was … about him! And his upper-middle-class malaise!
The trailer is especially heavy-handed in this regard, though it does give the movie a perverse appeal, by virtue of how poorly it’s aged:
In spite of all that, the film collected a certain reluctant critical regard; in the Times, Vincent Canby wrote that it “has the shape of an open-ended hallucination. It is a grim, disturbing and sometimes funny view of a very small, very special segment of upper-middle-class American life.” And Cheever himself gave his imprimatur, in a way—one of the film’s party scenes features a cameo from the author, seen here inexplicably dubbed in Spanish.
Then again, Cheever doesn’t have many kind words for Hollywood—the industry or the place—in his interview for the Art of Fiction series:
Writers of my generation and those who were raised with films have become sophisticated about these vastly different mediums and know what is best for the camera and best for the writer. One learns to skip the crowd scene, the portentous door, the banal irony of zooming into the beauty’s crow’s-feet. The difference in these crafts is, I think, clearly understood, and as a result no good film comes from an adaptation of a good novel. I would love to write an original screenplay if I found a sympathetic director. Years ago René Clair was going to film some of my stories, but as soon as the front office heard about this, they took away all the money.
What do you think of working in Hollywood?
Southern California always smells very much like a summer night … which to me means the end of sailing, the end of games, but it isn’t that at all. It simply doesn’t correspond to my experience. I’m very much concerned with trees … with the nativity of trees, and when you find yourself in a place where all the trees are transplanted and have no history, I find it disconcerting.
I went to Hollywood to make money. It’s very simple. The people are friendly and the food is good, but I’ve never been happy there, perhaps because I only went there to pick up a check. I do have the deepest respect for a dozen or so directors whose affairs are centered there and who, in spite of the overwhelming problems of financing films, continue to turn out brilliant and original films. But my principal feeling about Hollywood is suicide. If I could get out of bed and into the shower, I was all right. Since I never paid the bills, I’d reach for the phone and order the most elaborate breakfast I could think of, and then I’d try to make it to the shower before I hanged myself. This is no reflection on Hollywood, but it’s just that I seemed to have a suicide complex there. I don’t like the freeways, for one thing. Also, the pools are too hot … eighty-five degrees, and when I was last there, in late January, in the stores they were selling yarmulkes for dogs—my God! I went to a dinner and across the room a woman lost her balance and fell down. Her husband shouted over to her, “When I told you to bring your crutches, you wouldn’t listen to me.” That line couldn’t be better!