Pondlife: A Swimmer’s Journal
(Bloomsbury USA, 2014)
Al Alvarez is a poet, novelist, poker aficionado, former mountaineer, reluctant ager, and lifelong swimmer. Pondlife: A Swimmer’s Journal is the account of his year-round visits to the ponds of Hampstead Heath, London, as he wades into the twilight of his life. Once a beloved hobby, swimming has become for Alvarez a singular solace in the face of inexorable decrepitude, the water a final battleground for his fast-fading identity. He’ll swim in any weather, in fact preferring the cold both for its exclusivity (but a few stalwart souls brave the ponds in the dead of winter) and for providing an adrenalin rush otherwise available only to the robust. “Cold water tests your fortitude a little and your fitness not at all,” he says, perfect for an ex-athlete for whom “vanity has always been physical, not intellectual.” At the end of a long and eventful life, when habits become memories and goals become fantasies, swimming abides for Alvarez, and he is loath to let it go. “I swim, therefore I am.”
As a book, Pondlife remains true to its subtitle, the entries arriving according to the movements of Alvarez’s spirit, rather than in pursuit of an aesthetic completion. As such, its casual style lists toward aimlessness, a record of whatever thoughts or observations occur to Alvarez as he reflects on his regular swims. Spanning the period of his mid-’70s to early-’80s, the predominant topics are air and water temperature, wildlife sightings and communions, interactions with lifeguards and fellow swimmers, and perfunctory encomia to swimming’s panacean qualities. “The aches and pains melt away as I swim, the muscles smooth out, the noise in my head disappears,” he tells us repeatedly, though the prosaism of the prose suggests that his heart isn’t in it (he’ll summon far more floridity to describe the “monsters” of the literary world). Alvarez is thoroughly bitter about his body’s betrayal, and the water is the only place his old joints won’t remind him with every rickety step of the man he no longer is.
So writing about his passion becomes a rankling ambivalence for Alvarez. A valiant last stand against old age’s implacable march would seem abundant with poetical pickings for such a seasoned writer, and it is unfortunate that, as time wears on, he prefers to cast effort aside in favor of a more passive resignation. The journal entries for the year 2002 fill 84 pages in Pondlife; 2011 required almost two. “The truth is I really am falling apart depressingly fast. This book about old age seems more and more unlikely ever to be done […] I don’t write because I have nothing to say and no desire to say it. Yet the swimming remains delectable.” Somehow, while even the mind lies besieged, stubborn decline cannot penetrate the surface of the ponds of Hampstead Heath, where swans preen and threaten, and herons keep majestic company, and the water itself “feels soft as milk.” Here, Alvarez is himself again.
A journal, or diary, makes for tough reading, unless it is placed in a compelling context (see: Anne Frank). For better or worse, a reader naturally seeks out what an author is “going for,” so as to have an opinion about its success as a book. Few readers like to feel adrift, and if asked what a book is about, one would like to have an answer. Pondlife is about swimming, and it is also about getting older. The questions follow: Well, what about swimming? And what about getting older? The reader turns his eyes down to his copy, slowly, contemplatively, perhaps palpates the cover in a demonstration of careful thought. Then, bereft of pith, he looks back up at his interlocutor and says, “Swimming is great. And aging is terrible.”
Alvarez would have it just so simply. As the entries become more infrequent, there is the sense that the reason he isn’t writing is because he doesn’t want to, but the reason he isn’t swimming is because he can’t:
[Old age] is the end of wisdom, the end of curiosity, the end of energy, intellectual as well as physical, the end of appetite and delight. Bodily decrepitude is a prison. You are shut in with a boring and vindictive jailer, who happens to be yourself.
Yet the swimming, what’s left of it, remains delectable, always delectable, even when Alvarez, the accomplished swimmer, the regular at Hampstead Heath since age 11, needs a life jacket; even when the friendly lifeguard has to button his trousers for him, or get special permission to have him driven in and dropped off pond-side, since he can hardly walk; even when the effects of a stroke have left him far from himself: “My mind is elsewhere—on my now chronic inability to walk or stand up straight or read or see one thing at a time instead of two. I’m trapped in and by this foolish, failing wreck of a body and can’t get loose or see beyond it.”
Alvarez writes the book’s final two entries nine months later. He offers no conclusions for the unmoored reader, no attempt at a redemptive philosophy. Death is the only certain conclusion, fast approaching it seems, and it needs no words. So don’t say, simply do. It turns out that even if you can’t walk and you can’t dress yourself and your brain is hardly your own, you might find that, while adrift in the chill waters of Hampstead Heath in mid-April, “England is the most beautiful place in the world.”