A response to George Orwell’s essay “Why I Write,” much of this book is less obviously about writing than I was expecting. But looking through Orwell’s four motives for writing just now [Sheer egoism; Aesthetic enthusiasm; Historical impulse; Political purpose], and I understand there is some context I was missing, as these are the four sections of the book, though in a diﬀerent order.
The book opens with “Political purpose” with her talking about a certain spring “when life was very hard” and she would cry when going up on escalators at train stations. She takes a trip to Majorca, to a pensión she has visited before, where one night she heads to the only restaurant open out of season and shares a bottle of wine with a local shopkeeper, originally from China, who asks her, “You’re a writer, aren’t you?” This leads into “Historical impulse” where she tells the story of her childhood in Johannesburg in the 1960s, going through her relationship with her nanny, a Zulu woman whose name is Zama but goes by Maria, and with Maria’s daughter Thandiwe, who goes by Doreen, “so the whites can say her name.” Her father was a member of the African National Congress and was jailed for four years, upon his return the family went into exile in England. “Sheer egoism” is about her adolescence in England during the 1970s, where she escapes from her household chores to go to a greasy spoon by the bus station and spend time writing, which for her is just the word “England” over and over on the paper napkins. “I had a vague idea this was how writers were supposed to behave because I had read books about poets and philosophers drinking espresso in French cafés while they wrote about how unhappy they were.” Finally “Aesthetic enthusiasm” ﬁnds her ﬁnished telling her story to the Chinese shopkeeper and returning to the pensión where she looks at an old notebook from when she was in Poland in the 1980s, one that includes ideas that eventually became her book Swimming Home.
I realised that the question I had asked myself while writing this book was (as surgeons say) very close to the bone: ‘What do we do with the knowledge that we cannot bear to live with? What do we do with the things we do not want to know?’
Her conversation with the shopkeeper had taken her back to times she didn’t really want to think about it, but those times came back to her, unbidden. “If I thought I was not thinking about the past, the past was thinking about me.” The shopkeeper tells her that the escalator was originally characterized as an “endless conveyor.”
When I ﬁrst ﬁnished this book, I felt let down by it. But looking through it again, I ﬁnd it quite brilliant, a faceted jewel of a book.