My favorite literary dispute of all time occurred several years ago in the letters pages of the London Review of Books. I’m not much for literary disputes, but since this one involved mention of Rupert Brooke’s penis, and since so few of the letters in literary journals mention the male member (much less such an eminent one), I was naturally compelled to pay close attention. It seems, if I remember the details correctly, that a reviewer of a recent volume about the early-20th-century British poet had mentioned a curious ability of Brooke’s: in full view of his literary friends he would leap, naked and flaccid, into the cold water of the sea and emerge only moments later proudly displaying a full erection. The reviewer, wondering how such a transformation could be effected with such speed, suggested that the coldness of the water perhaps had a unique stimulating effect.

Several readers–several men, I should point out–were skeptical, and a group of them undertook an experiment on their own. Removing their clothing, they repeatedly leapt into the ocean to see if the cold water would have a similar effect on, er, them. It did not; in fact, as they reported in a letter to the London Review, if anything the cold water caused a certain deflation. Several months later the intrepid group attempted the experiment again in the warmer waters, I believe, of Australia, with equally dispiriting results. So the mystery of little Rupert remains unsolved, and I have seen no further correspondence on the matter.

This episode is not, oddly enough, mentioned in Charles Sprawson’s Haunts of the Black Masseur, a strange and evocative volume of reflections on the cultural history and meaning of swimming in which Brooke, ironically, figures prominently. I hope Sprawson corrects the omission in a future edition; it’s one of the few flaws in a small masterpiece of the British Imagination. And very British it is, too. Haunts of the Black Masseur is a book as mysterious, in its way, as its oddly enigmatic title and one that is difficult to categorize. The book’s subtitle, “The Swimmer as Hero,” suggests its content–it is about swimming–but not in the least its spirit.

Sprawson, a British art dealer, has had since his youth an odd and unusually literary obsession with swimming. Growing up in India the son of a headmaster, he was sometimes allowed to swim in the “flooded subterranean vaults” of the palace of an upper-crust alum of his father’s school, “among columns that disappeared mysteriously into black water.” For many of us in the midwest, lacking easy access to oceans and subterranean palace vaults, swimming may evoke relatively prosaic memories: dutiful laps at the health club, the musty odors of locker rooms, murky lakes and bratwurst. For Sprawson, though, swimming has always been draped in an aura of mystery and desire, and it is this aura that his book so effectively evokes.

The book had its origin in the notes, compulsively scribbled, that Sprawson began to make on the subject while teaching classics at an (unnamed) Middle Eastern university, stranded far from the soothing balms of the ocean–and unable, it seems, to enjoy the local culture much. “In Arabia,” Sprawson writes, “the only form of amusement was reading, so in the long afternoons, while the whole town was sleeping, I devoured book after book among the shadows of the courtyard of our mud house. . . . As there was nothing else to do I made extensive notes on everything I read. The heat, the parched atmosphere and the non-existence of pools made me acutely sensitive to the slightest trace of water, any passing reference to swimming.” He jotted down descriptions of swimmers in Hemingway and Sinclair Lewis, of fountains in Hawthorne. “In the strange, unnatural climate in which I existed all such details struck me as extraordinarily significant,” he writes. “Novels and poetry seemed to revolve around water and swimming.” Sprawson’s notes, reflecting a preoccupation that verged on obsession, took on what he calls a “crazed irrelevancy.”

On one level, Sprawson’s book is a colorful, and charmingly old-fashioned, anecdotal history of swimming from the classical age to the present–essentially a transcription of his own literary jottings. The book is made up of a series of related essays, focusing mainly on English attitudes toward swimming in the 19th and 20th centuries, with brief excursions into mid-20th-century America, Germany, and Japan. Sprawson makes little effort to be comprehensive, however; he simply writes about what interests him. It’s a frankly idiosyncratic work, not a history that would stand up to any contemporary academic standards–there are no footnotes, no historical arguments, none of the trappings of scholarship. But it’s an unabashed delight. The anecdotes Sprawson has uncovered are remarkable in themselves, and he conveys his own fascination with the subject with an artfully understated grace.

Luckily, Sprawson’s fascination is infectious, and this book astounds with the exuberant eccentricity of its details. For centuries, Sprawson explains, the English took their swimming lessons from frogs–the human pupils lay on floors, on tables, on stools, watching the small creatures paddling away in basins on the floor and imitating their movements. Some preferred the learning to the doing: one character in a 17th-century British novel confessed that he never attempted swimming in the water. “But I swim most exquisitely on land,” he explained. “I content myself with the Speculative part of swimming, I care not for the Practick.”

The sport seems to have drawn out the extremes of British eccentricity. In the Victorian era, as Britishers flocked to newly built seaside resorts, one enterprising (or simply exhibitionist) gentleman posed as a mermaid for the benefit of curious travelers. According to one contemporary account, the man, who was later to become the vicar of Morwenstow, placed himself “on a rock some distance from shore, wearing a plaited seaweed wig which hung in lank streamers halfway down his back. He enveloped his legs in an oilskin wrap, and otherwise naked sat on the rock, flashing the moonbeams about from a hand mirror, and sang and screamed until attention was arrested.”

Philosophers, writers, and poets as well as vicars have taken to swimming with a passion, and sometimes with results that are more than passing strange. Bertrand Russell, emerging from a swim “without a costume,” once ran into Prime Minister Asquith on the banks of an isolated stream. The meeting, Russell later recalled, was “a great surprise to me. It was no occasion for dignity, or for serious discussion of great political problems. I put on my clothes as quickly as I could while he conversed in an amiable manner.” (That was the last time, Russell noted ironically, that the two were able to have a civil conversation, given their political differences.) Russell was not the only great thinker to find himself in such an awkward state of public undress. According to one of his friends, Goethe once emerged from the water in the company of several women with his bathing suit so twisted around that “something which Goethe had thought carefully covered was bared and showed that he was physically as well endowed as he was mentally.”

The anecdotes are only a small part of what makes this book fascinating, however. In many ways, the work is (as Sprawson says of the novels of one obscure swimming enthusiast) disguised autobiography. Sprawson’s book is as much a chronicle of his own obsessive imagination as of its ostensible subject. Though he refers only occasionally, and with more than a little reticence, to events in his own life, the book captures Sprawson’s character, his sensibility, to a remarkable degree. Describing the swimmer as “someone rather remote and divorced from everyday life, devoted to a mode of exercise where most of the body remains submerged and self-absorbed,” Sprawson seems to describe a kind of ideal. Swimming, he realized early, “appealed to the introverted and the eccentric, individualists involved in a mental world of their own.” In other words to people like him.

According to Sprawson the British have always looked upon swimming with a certain ambivalence. They’ve taken to the water with considerable reluctance, assuming, as George Borrow wrote, that respectable “gentlemen” should be above such primitive vices, “for to swim you must be naked, and how would many a genteel person look without his clothes.” Yet in the 19th century, as Sprawson shows, the British found that despite their legendary stolidity, “anything to do with water seemed to exert an extraordinary fascination.” Like Maggie in George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, the Brits were “in love with moistness.” They were known around the world both for their swimming prowess and for their continual boasting about it.

Sprawson obviously shares this British ambivalence toward the pleasures of swimming: the stories he dwells upon the most are suffused with a Victorian temperament, filled with eccentric individualists at once fascinated and ashamed by sensual pleasure. He is especially drawn to those who have made of swimming “an obsession, an urgent, compulsive indulgence that could tingle the nerves and transport them in Swinburne’s words to ‘another form of life'”–to those who have what one German writer called “an irresistible longing to bathe.” He peoples his book with literary and artistic types, like himself, who see in the primitive rituals of swimming an escape from the effete incertitude of the purely intellectual life, from what the poet Arthur Clough described as his “thought-riddled nature.” For Rupert Brooke, one of the most devoted of the literary swimming fetishists, “the process of stripping naked and plunging [into water] assumed . . . the form of a rite, a sexual and physical awakening and metamorphosis.”

For Sigmund Freud, water in dreams was a symbol of the womb, of the ultimate regression, and for many in Sprawson’s account the pleasures of the swim are of the most primal sort. When threatened with despair, Clough yearned for the “calm protective atmosphere” of the deep. Walt Whitman was inspired by what he called the “soothing rustle” of ocean waves, and when swimming, according to one contemporary, he “hugged [the water] with a lover’s enthusiasm.” Poet Paul Valery saw water as the “universal element.” “To plunge into water,” he gushed, “to move one’s whole body, from head to toe, in its wild and graceful beauty; to twist about in its pure depths, this is for me a delight only comparable to love.”

Athletes as well as poets have been moved by the sensual pleasures of swimming. Talking to Murray Rose, a former Olympic gold medalist, Sprawson is fascinated by the swimmer’s awareness of the sensuality of his sport, his almost mystical “feel for water.” He learns from Rose that swimmers shave their bodies not so much to eliminate the drag of hair as to accentuate their “sensual awareness of water,” to unleash “the sudden surge of power like that experienced by ballet dancers who remove their hair to activate their nerve-endings.” According to Sprawson, the art of shaving has become quite complicated. “The secret is not to overdo the shaving or the thrill is lost,” he writes, “to restrain the shaves so that more hair comes off when required.” Like the poets, professional swimmers prefer unmediated contact with the water. Women swimmers drape themselves in nylon suits that cling to the body like skin; the Australian swimmer Dawn Fraser, Sprawson notes, “claimed she could have broken every record in the book if allowed to swim naked.”

Like so many of the swimmers he describes, Sprawson seems obsessed, in his own genteel manner, with nakedness: he refers to it again and again. The wonderfully understated Victorian grace of his prose is also most evident in his descriptions of the sensuality, not to mention sexuality, just below the surface of a fascination with swimming. Describing how in ancient Rome “swimming . . . seemed to inspire the imperial vices,” Sprawson notes that the emperors Tiberius and Elagabalus frolicked with young boys in the water, in Tiberius’s case teaching the boys to nibble on his genitals as he swam. “Caligula was unable to swim,” Sprawson adds dryly, “and so was denied the opportunity for such forms of amusement.” In the classical age, baths became “the haunts of homosexuals and voyeurs,” the voyeuristic Sprawson goes on to observe. “Those who were genitally well-endowed were said to have evoked applause in the Baths,” he stolidly remarks, “and in the reign of Elagabalus advanced to high honors.”

Many of the most obsessive bathers in Sprawson’s account are homosexual, and the most gloriously melancholic writings in the book are not expressions so much of an “irresistible longing to bathe” as of an even more irresistible longing for bathers–particularly for what the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins described as the “boisterously beautiful” bodies of boys and young men. Homosexuals–at least those literary eccentrics to whom Sprawson is most drawn–seem to be at once pariah and aristocrat, romantic outsiders who embody the writer’s ideal. “Towards the turn of the century swimming was to become a particularly exhilarating, predatory pursuit for homosexuals,” he remarks, “who were made to feel at the time somehow outside the common run of humanity.”

He describes the “self-styled Baron Corvo,” an especially enthusiastic homosexual Victorian swimmer, as “the most extreme example of the swimmer who suffers from a form of autism, a morbid self-admiration and absorption in a fantasy world of his own creation.” (Corvo, a poverty-stricken aristocrat wannabe, lived for a time aboard a leaky boat in a Venice lagoon that was “constantly attacked by voracious rats,” writing a series of semiautobiographical novels about eccentric swimming enthusiasts.) The sexuality Sprawson describes is repressed, sublimated–and in many cases, unfulfilled. The voyeuristic homosexual bathers in his account (like, one suspects, Sprawson himself) have transformed their most basic longings–for sex, for sensuality–into obscure, if deeply felt, aesthetic obsessions.

When Sprawson refers to homosexuals he means only men, and in general he refers to few women, who figure only incidentally in this account whatever their sexual orientation. They’re not entirely invisible, however. Sprawson describes, for example, the career of Annette Kellermann, a popular turn-of-the-century underwater ballerina, in some detail. Her appeal to the public was not only artistic; one Harvard professor described her body as the most physically perfect of some “ten thousand women scientifically tested.” (The water apparently preserved her remarkably well. Sprawson includes a photo of her at 60: still underwater and still spry, she looks half her age.)

The cover of the book features a wonderfully sensuous photo, taken in 1919 by Jacques-Henri Lartigue, of a young woman, her face hidden in shadow, sitting languorously on a British beach. It’s a marvelous, evocative image–I would love to know more about the woman, the photographer, the beach, anything–but we never find out anything about them. And the further Sprawson moves from those he truly identifies with–repressed Victorian men–the weaker, the less focused, his discussion becomes. The chapters on Japan, Germany, and the United States seem dutiful additions to what had been a labor of love.

Some of the most interesting, least dutiful sections are autobiographical. Sprawson fills the book with digressions, often cryptically short, about his own adventures in swimming–in many cases attempts to re-create the swims he’s read about in books. He “risks prosecution” to swim “a few pathetic yards” in a spring on the site of an ancient Greek temple, “after changing furtively beneath an overhanging willow tree.” He is arrested while attempting, like Byron, to swim the Hellespont. After plunging “alone and naked into the spring waters of the marble baths of the New Orleans Athletic Club,” he submits his body (as Tennessee Williams had done before him) “to the hands of the Black Masseur who . . . still haunts its recesses.” (This one reference near the end of the book is the only explanation of its unusual title, and it’s really no explanation at all.)

Only with the story of the Hellespont swim does Sprawson provide anything more than the briefest sketch. But in many ways the very offhandedness of his remarks is what makes them so charming, as if his eccentric excursions were simply an ordinary, unremarkable part of life. “It was not long ago,” he announces at one point, a propos of nothing in particular, “that I was swimming on a dark February evening in a series of open-air pools above Kassel with a group of joyous naked Germans beneath the falling snow.” It sounds like the beginning of a novel–and a potentially interesting one at that–but in fact, that one sentence is all there is to the story.

It is rare for an author’s character, his sensibility, to so inhabit a book that, if we had to classify it, would be classified as history. Sprawson is a charmer, and so the effect is mostly charming–though his exaggerated admiration for the aristocrats of swimming can be off-putting to anyone with an egalitarian bent. But I’m drawn to Sprawson’s aristocratic obsessions almost as if they were my own. If one is to be an aristocrat, it might as well be on aesthetic grounds. By so lucidly and engagingly explaining his own obsession with swimmers and swimming, Sprawson has earned himself a place among those literary eccentrics–from Byron to Baron Corvo–whom he most admires.

Haunts of the Black Masseur: The Swimmer as Hero by Charles Sprawson, Pantheon, $23.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Will Northerner.