In Inferno, while on a stop in the second circle of hell, Dante hears the story of a woman who fell into an illicit romance with her brother-in-law after they started reading a romance novel together. The lesson here is clear: life often takes its cues and permission directly from art. A similar exchange sets off an illicit romance of a different kind in Tomasz Jedrowski’s devastating debut novel Swimming in the Dark (William Morrow). During a hot, laborious summer at an agricultural camp in 1980s Poland, the protagonist, Ludwik, reluctantly allows a handsome stranger named Januszto borrow his copy of Giovanni’s Room. This is no trifle. Homosexuality is forbidden in the Communist country, and James Baldwin’s seminal gay novel is all but banned. The sharing of this book, however, sparks an intense, carnal affair between the two young men that continues when they return to Warsaw. Here, in the heavily surveilled, economically flailing capital, worker revolts and brutal government crackdown form the backdrop to Ludwik’s search for love and possibility while living in fear of being discovered. Jedrowski prose captures the strain of such desires, alongside heady moments of freedom where “the shame inside me melted like a mint on my tongue, hardness releasing sweetness.”
The 34-year-old author, who lives in the French countryside an hour outside of Paris, was born in Northern Germany to Polish parents. His research for the novel involved delving into the confusing, unexplored world that his parents inhabited in their youth. One particular influence was the memory of a family friend he saw on trips to Poland as a child. “He was the first man I ever met who was out,” Jedrowski recalls. “I had a feeling he was in love with my father. I was fascinated with what his life must have been like during Communism. That was the starting point, this society in which there was no space for his kind of love.”
Jedrowski originally went to school for law and was working at a firm in London in 2012 when, unfulfilled as a lawyer, he joined a writing group. It wasn’t long before the story of Ludwik came to life on the page. Jedrowski eventually quit his job to focus on the novel. He moved to Warsaw for a time to soak up the atmosphere, working in showrooms for fashion brands such as Lanvin and AcneStudios to pay the bills. Through it all, he kept coming back to the aching power of Giovanni’s Room, which he read by chance in his early 20s on a trip to New York City. “Its poke to me like a book never had before, like a kindred spirit who had gone through what I had gone through.” That was the impetus for putting it in his main character’s hands. “I felt like Ludwik needed an ally.”
Grooming: Kyoko Kishita.