Swimming in Paris A life in three stories

Colombe Schneck, 1966-

Book - 2024

"A woman's personal journey through abortion, sex, friendship, love, and swimming"--

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FICTION/Schneck Colombe
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1st Floor New Shelf FICTION/Schneck Colombe (NEW SHELF) Due Jul 9, 2024
Autobiographical fiction
New York : Penguin Press 2024.
Main Author
Colombe Schneck, 1966- (author)
Other Authors
Lauren Elkin (translator), Natasha Lehrer (-)
Physical Description
x, 224 pages ; 22 cm
Includes bibliographical references.
  • Seventeen
  • Friendship
  • Swimming: a love story.
Review by Booklist Review

Schneck's Swimming in Paris is a brilliantly written, searingly intimate piece of biographical fiction, the story of a woman experiencing all of life. At 17, she is lucky and naïve, skating through life and refusing to acknowledge the undercurrents of past trauma and present pain. When she becomes pregnant, her life begins to change. Always fighting for control, she begins to wrestle with what being a woman really means. In her late forties and early fifties, Schneck grapples with the loss of her best friend, and later, Schneck begins to swim in the public pool and learns to love herself and life, in all its flawed and uncontrollable, soft glory. Schneck writes of herself at 17, at 30, at 40, at 50 and beyond with an understanding that is enviable. She unhesitatingly invites the reader into her blunt, beautiful, sometimes terrible thoughts, taking us through her triumphs and losses, and in the end reveals an unparalleled strength and empathy for herself as a woman, a friend, a lover, and a writer.

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

French author Schneck's beautiful English-language debut traces the development of her central character, also named Colombe, through childhood, adolescence, and mature womanhood. In the first of three sections, set in 1984, Colombe accidently gets pregnant at 17 by her first lover, a boy in her class named Vincent, and faces personal fallout after having an abortion. The second part focuses on Colombe and her best friend Héloïse as they come of age in Paris. Héloïse is from old French money; Colombe, the granddaughter of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe and the daughter of left-wing doctors, is nouveau riche. In a depiction emblematic of the bourgeois liberalism of those born in the wake of the May 1968 student uprisings in Paris, the girls are taken by their families to the opera and attend classes to perfect their British accents and their tennis strokes; they never go to shopping malls or borrow books from the library. In the final section, set in 2020, Colombe undertakes a heartfelt examination of the great love affair she's recently had with a man named Gabriel, whom she met when they were children, and of how perfecting her swim strokes allows her to release her fear of life's uncertainties. This is a gorgeous meditation on the vagaries of being alive. Agent: Susanna Lea, Susanna Lea Assoc. (May)

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Kirkus Book Review

Insight into a Frenchwoman's life from the woman who lived it. Colombe Schneck, the narrator of each of these three assembled novellas, engages in a careful dissection of various stages of her life. That the book's author is also named Colombe Schneck provides some clue as to how close to the bone Schneck is cutting here. In Seventeen, she parses the inevitability of biology and the shock of betrayal by one's own body (and the results of an unplanned teen pregnancy). Friendship explores a lifelong friendship between Colombe and Héloïse, allowing Schneck to examine, in subtle detail, the ethnic, class, and political differences between bourgeois households during the girls' formative years in 1970s and '80s Paris. A different kind of bodily betrayal is visited upon Héloïse in the account. Schneck's last remembrance, Swimming: A Love Story, recounts an affair Colombe embarks on after a season of romantic disenchantment. Among the other gifts Gabriel bestows upon her during the course of their relationship is an awareness of her body (and the development of a sense of autonomy over it). Repeatedly, the inevitability of life's unpredictability is made clear to Colombe, but it is only with later-acquired self-awareness that she is able to continue in the face of her doubts and emotional discomfort. Translated from French by Elkin and Lehrer, Schneck's matter-of-fact delivery of all aspects of her lived experiences--from a comparison of the Parisian apartments favored by the bourgeoisie to her panic at uncertainty--lends a universal quality to the narrative; these observations made by one woman are broadly recognizable. Acknowledging the influence of Annie Erneaux on her thinking and her ability to write about issues intensely personal to women, Schneck carries that frank discussion forward with grace and hard-won knowledge. No pulled punches here, just truth. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

SEVENTEEN I never told anyone what happened to me in the spring of 1984. Not my ex-husband and children, or my closest friends. The shame, the embarrassment, the sadness- I never told anyone how I accidentally became an adult. Last year, in an interview with the daily newspaper L'Humanité , Annie Ernaux recalled that "a solitude without limits surrounds women who get abortions." She experienced this solitude in 1964. She was twenty-three years old. At the time, abortion was a crime punishable by law. She describes looking through libraries for books in which the heroine wants to terminate a pregnancy. She was hoping to find companionship in literature; she found nothing. In novels, the heroine was pregnant, and then she wasn't anymore; the passage between these two states was an ellipsis. The card catalog entry for "Abortion" at the library only listed scientific or legal journals, addressing the subject as a matter for criminal justice. She felt even more resolutely cast back into her solitude, reduced to her social condition. Illegal abortion, in all its physical and moral brutality, was at that time a matter of obscure local rumor. Even if today abortion is protected by law in France, it still exists on the margins of literature. When, in 2000, Annie Ernaux published Happening (L'Événement) , a narrative about a clandestine abortion before the Veil Law (which legalized abortion in France), the book didn't make much of an impact. It was an upsetting story. A journalist dealt the following blow to her: "your book made me nauseous." Abortion isn't a subject worthy of literature. It's a war you come through, somewhere between life and death, humiliation, disapproval, and regret. No, it isn't a worthy subject. I listened to Annie Ernaux. What she said about silence, about embarrassment, about how "women can take nothing for granted" yet they "do not mobilize enough." At a time when, here in Europe, legislation on the voluntary termination of a pregnancy is constantly called into question, when we hear about abortion becoming "banal," when some people even go so far as to invent something called a "convenient abortion," I find that I have to tell the story of my own "happening": what it meant, and continues to mean. Neither banal, nor convenient. I have no choice; I have to talk about what happened in the spring of 1984. I'm seventeen years old and I have a lover. I'm not in love but I have a lover. I sing as I cross the Boulevard Saint-Michel, I'm seventeen years old and I have a lover, and I am very happy. I am not like my mother, I am not her loneliness. I am myself, a girl who's sleeping with a boy without being in love with him. I am seventeen years old and I have a lover. Not a boyfriend, not a sweetheart, not some adolescent crush, a lover, something grown women have. I am an independent woman. It is 1984. The Left is in power. The death penalty has been abolished, the Fête de la musique has been invented, and the compact disc, they promise, cannot be broken. The prime minister is thirty-eight years old, AIDS is, to me, a disease at once threatening and far away, the feminist revolution has ended in triumph. On television, we watch and listen to Apostrophes, Droit de réponse , and Claude-Jean Philippe's film club. We are all intelligent and modern. As I write this today, that world, which I thought indestructible, has ceased to exist. Comfort, parents, support, optimism, faith in power and in the women and men who embody it-all of it, gone. My lover is a boy in my class. His name is Vincent, he lives on the Right Bank. He's tall, with tortoiseshell glasses. He's cute and he has a scooter. I'm not in love with him but I like him a lot. I was the one who chose him. During this time, I am in charge of these things. I decide, I designate. Everything is so easy. I don't have to ask my parents' permission to stay overnight at his house, or to spend the weekend there. I'm not afraid, I've read so many erotic scenes in books, I'm hungry to experience the gestures and sensations that so fascinate me on paper. Will it all be as arousing, luminous, and exciting as it is in books? I read and reread Emmanuelle : "If she resisted, it was only the better to taste, bit by bit, the delights of letting herself go [. . .] the man's hand did not move. Using only its weight, it applied pressure to her clitoris [. . .] Emmanuelle felt a strange exaltation go up her arms, down her bare stomach, in her throat. A previously-unknown feeling of grey took hold of her." Could it be that good? We don't have as much experience with other people's bodies, we aren't lounging in first class on a flight from Paris to Bangkok, I'm not wearing nylon stockings or silk underpants, the hand on me isn't a stranger's but a classmate's. We are in a seventeen-year-old boy's narrow bed, in a room that still bears the traces of childhood-a map of the world, a Snoopy poster, a plaid throw. I want nothing more than that, and him. I don't tell him that he is my first, I don't want him to feel he has to be careful, or for him to think I'm inexperienced, or a prude. He is just the first of many, I hope. I make up some story about having been with an older man, but he is the man from Emmanuelle's plane, an American who barely speaks French. We quickly learn to touch like they do aboard the flight from Paris to Bangkok. All that's missing is the smell of the leather seats. We are always ready to begin again, we never get tired of doing it. His skin is soft, his skin is hard. It's very good. I am delighted. I have rid myself of my virginity, lived as if in a novel, I feel even more liberated. It is only the beginning. I am ready to make out with the entire world. And the next day, the first morning, Vincent's mother makes breakfast for him and his new girlfriend. We are in that part of the world where a girl and a boy can spend the night together, with their well-meaning, indulgent parents in the next room. That spring, one Friday evening, I am sitting between my parents on the sofa in the living room. We are chatting, and suddenly I ask them: -You don't happen to know any gynecologists, do you, in your group of friends? They are doctors, left-wing, they live on the Left Bank, they are open-minded, charming, cultured. This question strikes them as completely natural. They are delighted that their daughter is asking their opinion. They take this consultation very seriously: to whom can they entrust their daughter's body? Sitting on the large leather sofa, in the bright rotunda of a living room, spacious and warm, they think it over. My mother has a thing for Tunisian gynecologists. She herself goes to Dr. Lucien Bouccara, Lulu for short, who is also a friend of hers. That's how it works, on the Left Bank in Paris in the 1980s. My mother is persuaded that the best gynecologists are Tunisian. And that's not all: most of them also have blue eyes. For her it's a sign of professional competence. I do not agree. I do not want anything to do with Lulu, or Dr. Bouccara, the man who delivered me and who comes to dinner at our house. -I don't want to take off my clothes in front of Lulu, what are you, crazy? My father has a different idea. He thinks I should make an appointment with Dr. L., who is also Tunisian, to make my mother happy. He knows him, he's serious and gentle, with an office on the Rue de l'Université. That sounds fine. I make an appointment. I go alone. In any case, I won't have to pay anything. I grew up with an implicit understanding according to which doctors do not charge each other money. Many things are given to me without a price tag, it is only a question of asking, of serving myself. At the first exam, I don't remember being afraid, or having been in pain. I am confident, absolutely certain that everything is fine, that everything always works out. Dr. L. is friendly, and attentive, and takes the time to talk with me. On a sheet of paper he makes a few drawings with a felt-tip pen, explains how easily I can get pregnant. For now, while we wait for the pill to become effective, my boyfriend and I have to be very careful. And above all, I mustn't forget to take the pill every day. I feel like I'm in biology class; I'm slightly bored, and don't listen to everything. It's very simple: I want to go on the pill, I need a prescription. I leave feeling lighthearted. Everything is so easy. I'm studying for my exams, I'm wearing an agnès b. T-shirt with light blue and cream stripes, I'm sleeping with a boy, I'm on the pill. I'm not worried. In all of history has any seventeen-year-old girl ever had so much freedom? I have been allowed to read forbidden books for as long as I could read. My parents always find out later. I have very precise ideas about what I do and do not like. I am against: Patrice de Plunkett's editorials in Le Figaro , girls who wear too much makeup and dye their hair. I am for: no one imposing any rule on me, ever. After the two volumes of Emmanuelle , I read, with the same eagerness, Story of O and The Blue Bicycle . Then I read the magazine Fifteen, which teaches girls how to kiss boys, and Henri Tincq's articles in Le Monde on what's going on in the world of religion. I am completely carefree. The first week, I take the pill every evening. After that, I sometimes forget. It's less interesting, no longer a novelty or a major event, just an obligation. I have trouble with obligations. I discover In Search of Lost Time and nothing else matters. Nothing, that is, except sex, of course. Vincent and I explore each other's bodies, our earlobes, the tips of our noses, our ankles, the very soft skin behind each other's knees. Slide up the length of the thigh, the fold of the buttocks, linger, implore. June is approaching, soon it will be time to take the baccalauréat. In my high school the success rate is 99 percent. The exam is basically a formality. All year long, the teachers have encouraged students to dialogue with each other, kindling our imagination and creativity. May '68 wasn't that long ago. Hasn't the time come to get rid of this reactionary exam? And grades? And rankings? And term papers? Does any of it actually mean anything? The teaching staff try to boost our confidence. Our professors are all left-wing. They, too, wear clothing from agnès b. It's convenient; there's a boutique across the street from the school. Our school is the École Alsacienne, an experimental secular school that's been around for a hundred years but is still very modern. The director is Georges Hacquard, pedagogue and Latin scholar, kindly and generous. He knows all our first names, our stories, our strengths and our weaknesses. Yes, we have the right to have weaknesses. I don't listen in class, I don't do my homework, it's no big deal. I don't have to rebel against anyone or anything, not school, not my parents. Nobody forces us to obey, or to submit to any rule except that of responsibility to the collective and respect for other people. We have to make our own way, exercise our liberty, persevere with our will, be curious. Our parents and teachers have fought for that. We are the children of a new era. My father has devised a version of family life that suits him. He lives on the Quai de la Tournelle, on the ground floor of a seventeenth-century hôtel particulier . There he receives his friends and mistresses. He is for: life, free love. He is against: monogamy, boredom, habit. On the weekend, he comes to see his wife and children in the Rue du Val-de-Grâce. I tell him, accusingly: "you want to have your cake, eat it, and kiss the woman who baked it." Secretly, I think he's got the right idea. I wish so much that my mother would come out of her room, stop shying away from life. From time to time, my father lets me use his apartment. I like to be there, I settle in, I study for the bac, I read. I'm also allowed to see Vincent there. I look at the newspapers that pile up on the living room table. One day, I see a special issue of the Dossiers et Documents section of Le Monde , on the economic crisis. Another time, an issue of Libération from the winter. The editor in chief, Serge July, has written an editorial with the title: "Vive la crise!" Long live the crisis ! I am intrigued and worried. Crisis? What crisis? But it's true. In the neighborhood we begin to see what they're calling the " nouveaux pauvres ," the newly poor. Near my school, a woman with brassy blond hair and prominent roots asks me for money. Not so long ago, she went to the salon to get her hair colored, or bought a box of dye at the supermarket. She thought she was making herself beautiful and blond, she had time to take care of herself. That time is over. I glimpse the cracks that could appear in my world too. My father leaves me alone for the weekend. He's off to hike in Megève. My boyfriend has gone back to his parents' house. I make myself something to eat for dinner, taramosalata slathered on toasted bread, my favorite. At my father's place we kids don't have a room of our own. I sleep on a bench covered in a white woolen rug and Moroccan throw pillows. That night, I lie down and cry. I don't recognize these tears. I thought I was the luckiest girl in the world, sitting on the big leather couch between my parents, comfortable and warm. But I am hurling myself against something hard, something I don't understand. These are new tears. I alone have provoked them. I am crying because-I'm sure now-I'm pregnant. And I'm alone. Excerpted from Swimming in Paris: A Life in Three Stories by Colombe Schneck All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.