“The Swimmer” a short story by American author John Cheever, was originally published in The New Yorker on July 18, 1964, and then in the 1964 short story collection, The Brigadier and the Golf Widow. Originally conceived as a novel and pared down from over 150 pages of notes, it is probably Cheever’s most famous and frequently anthologized story. At one point Cheever wanted to parallel the tale of Narcissus, a character in Greek mythology who died while staring at his own reflection in a pool of water, which Cheever dismissed as too restrictive. As published, the story is highly praised for its blend of realism and surrealism, the thematic exploration of suburban America, especially the relationship between wealth and happiness, as well as his use of myth and symbolism.
In 1968, “The Swimmer” was adapted into a film with the same name, starring Burt Lancaster.
The story begins with Neddy Merrill and his wife lounging at a friend’s pool on a mid-summer’s day. On a whim, Neddy decides to get home by swimming across all the pools in the county, and starts off enthusiastically and full of youthful energy. In the early stops on his journey, he is enthusiastically greeted by friends, who welcome him with drinks. It is readily apparent that he is well-regarded and from an upper-class social standing.
Midway through his journey, things gradually take on a darker and ultimately surreal tone. Despite everything taking place over just one afternoon, it becomes unclear how much time has passed. At the beginning of the story, it was clearly mid-summer, but by the end all natural signs point to the season being autumn. Different people Neddy encounters mention misfortune and money troubles he doesn’t remember, and he is outright unwelcome at several houses which should’ve certainly been beneath him. His earlier, youthful energy leaves him, and it becomes increasingly painful and difficult for him to swim on. Finally, he staggers back home, only to find his house decrepit, empty, and abandoned.
“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy; he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar?”
Waiting for Godot, the play in which ‘nothing happens – twice’ is now recognised as a major influence on post war drama. ‘It was about two tramps waiting nowhere in particular for someone who never shows up.’ The two tramps (Vladimir and Estragon) are waiting for someone called ‘Godot’ although they are vague as to why, who he is, and whether he will come. To occupy the time they eat, sleep, converse, argue, sing, play games, exercise, swap hats, and contemplate suicide – anything “to hold the terrible silence at bay”. Author Samuel Beckett refused to explain the piece, but the wait can be seen as a metaphor for life, and our need to give it meaning and purpose.
When Peter Hall had staged the British premiere in 1955, the play’s avoidance of a clear linear plot, or any attempt at realism, caused consternation among the critics. While a few recognised its brilliance, many saw no literary merit in the form of the piece. ‘His work … holds the stage most wittily, but is it a play?’ said one. Audiences were also divided, and ‘Godot’ became a hot topic in the media. Now the play is recognised as probably the single most influential work of the 20th century, which inspired future writers such as Harold Pinter, Joe Orton, Edward Bond and Tom Stoppard to name a few.