Swift, Graham 1949–
Swift, Graham 1949–
(Graham Colin Swift)
PERSONAL: Born May 4, 1949, in London, England; son of Allan Stanley (a civil servant) and Sheila Irene (Bourne) Swift. Education: Attended Dulwich College, 1960–67; Queen's College, Cambridge, B.A., 1970, M.A., 1975; attended York University, 1970–73. Hobbies and other interests: Fishing.
ADDRESSES: Home—London, England. Office—c/o Author Mail, A.P. Watt Ltd., 20 John St., London WC1N 2DR, England.
CAREER: Writer. Worked as part-time teacher of English at colleges in London, England, 1974–83.
MEMBER: PEN, Society of Authors, Royal Society of Literature (fellow).
AWARDS, HONORS: Geoffrey Faber Memorial Award, 1983, for Shuttlecock; Guardian Fiction Prize and nomination for Booker McConnell Prize, both 1983, Winifred Holtby Prize from Royal Society of Literature, 1984, and Premio Grinzane Cavour (Italy), 1987, all for Waterland; Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger (France), 1994, for Ever After; Booker McConnell Prize, and James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Best Novel, both 1996, both for Last Orders; D.Litt. from University of East Anglia and University of York, 1998.
The Sweet-Shop Owner, Allen Lane (London, England), 1980, Washington Square Press (New York, NY), 1985.
Shuttlecock, Allen Lane (London, England), 1981, Washington Square Press (New York, NY), 1984.
Waterland, Poseidon Press (New York, NY), 1984.
Out of This World, Poseidon Press (New York, NY), 1988.
Ever After, Knopf (New York, NY), 1992.
Last Orders, Knopf (New York, NY), 1996.
The Light of Day, Knopf (New York, NY), 2003.
Learning to Swim and Other Stories, London Magazine Editions (London, England), 1982, Poseidon Press (New York, NY), 1985.
(Editor, with David Profumo) The Magic Wheel: An Anthology of Fishing in Literature, Picador (London, England), 1986.
ADAPTATIONS: Waterland was adapted for film by Peter Prince and released by Palace Pictures, 1992; Last Orders was adapted for Sony Pictures Classics, 2002.
SIDELIGHTS: Some enthusiastic devotees of British novelist Graham Swift believe that he was brought up in the Fens region of eastern England, the setting for his acclaimed novel Waterland, according to Maclean's contributor John Bemrose. Swift, however, is a native of urban London and the son of a civil servant. "For Swift," wrote Bemrose, "the misconceptions about his origins only prove that he has done his job as a maker of fiction. 'I have enormous faith in the imagination,'" Swift told Bemrose. "'If your imagination cannot transport you mentally from where you are to somewhere quite different, then don't be a novelist, be something else.'"
Swift's reputation—particularly in the United States—rests largely on the merits of Waterland, which was nominated for Great Britain's prestigious Booker McConnell Prize in 1983. The novel is a complex, first-person account by history teacher Tom Crick, who relates his early romance, marital problems, and career difficulties all in obsessively analytical detail. Waterland begins with Crick recounting the discovery of a corpse in the Fens, a flat waterland where Crick's father works as a lock-keeper. After this episode the narrative shifts to an apparent classroom where Crick is discussing his dismissal from his teaching post. He reveals that his largely autobiographical lectures have prompted distress from school administrators who urge him to resign. Crick also discloses that his life has been unsettled by his wife's arrest—and subsequent commitment in a mental institution—for having kidnaped a child.
Waterland shifts back and forth between Crick's recollection of discovering the corpse and his account of his present private and professional difficulties. Interspersed among these autobiographical episodes are historical and philosophical analyses. Crick provides extensive background on the Fens and its inhabitants—past and present—while consistently debating the worth of this history. He acknowledges the possibly dubious nature of such history, yet he constantly returns to it as a means of explaining or understanding the present. The validity of history as a means of understanding the present is a major point of debate in Waterland, and one that provides much of the novel's philosophical tension.
Equally compelling, however, is the mystery of the corpse. As an adolescent, Crick discovers that a murder has been committed and that he and his family have been implicated. His detective work in identifying the killer—and his depiction of the sexual activities that prompted the murder—constitute what some critics consider the novel's most dramatic aspects.
Upon its publication in 1983, Waterland was greeted enthusiastically by British critics and was considered among the year's finest novels. The following spring, when Waterland was published in the United States, more reviewers hailed it as a wide-ranging, enlightening work. "Its textured descriptions of the English fens," explained Linda Gray Sexton in the New York Times Book Review, "invited comparisons with Thomas Hardy." Michiko Kakutani wrote in the New York Times Book Review that Swift's novel is "highly ambitious … a book that reads at once as a gothic family saga, a detective story and as a philosophical meditation on the nature and uses of history." Michael Wood noted in the New York Review of Books that Waterland is "formidably intelligent," and Charles Champlin declared in an appraisal for the Los Angeles Times Book Review that the novel "carries with all else a profound knowledge of a people, a place and their interweaving." Champlin called Waterland "a fine and original work."
Following the success of Waterland Swift's two earlier novels were published in the United States. His debut work, The Sweet-Shop Owner, concerns the memories and opinions of an industrious shopkeeper named Willy Chapman as he lives his final hours. Victimized by his marriage to "an insistently assertive shrew, a frigid near-hysteric who retreats into illness and invalidism," according to Frank Rudman in the Spectator, and by an ungrateful daughter who refuses to visit him even long enough to collect her inheritance, Chapman finally closes his shop and heads home to die, reflecting on forty years of unhappiness and lack of fulfillment. Writing in the New Statesman, Alan Hollinghurst called The Sweet-Shop Owner a "marvelous first novel," and American critics seconded that opinion. Michael Gorra, for instance, wrote in the New York Times Book Review that the work establishes Swift "as one of the brightest promises the English novel has now to offer." Like other reviewers, Gorra noted similarities between The Sweet-Shop Owner and the writings of early twentieth-century Irish novelist James Joyce. "There is a touch of Joyce," Gorra declared, "in … Swift's revelation of the hidden poetry of small men's lives."
Shuttlecock, Swift's second novel, is also an analytical tale about the past. The work's protagonist is a police department archivist who scans records to discover possible connections between various crimes. Like all Swift's protagonists, the archivist is obsessed with the past, particularly the life of his father, a former war hero in the French Resistance, once captured by the Gestapo and now confined in a mental hospital following his breakdown. Tension mounts when the archivist discovers evidence linking his father's past activities with information missing from police files—information that suggests, according to John Mellors in London, "that Dad's first breakdown had been in wartime, that he had betrayed other agents in the network, that his 'escape' had been set up for him by his captors as a quid pro quo." The narrator destroys the file that might have answered this question without reading it first, so the mystery remains unresolved at the novel's end. A reviewer for the Washington Post Book World, in assessing both Shuttlecock and The Sweet-Shop Owner, stated that "Swift's narratives twist and turn, knotting together inexorably the past with the present, sweeping us along steadily."
Swift's fiction collection Learning to Swim and Other Stories was published in the United States in 1985, but its American reception failed to match that accorded Waterland. While more than one U.S. critic found certain of the tales too studied and uncompelling, in Britain reviewers praised Learning to Swim as insightful and provocative. Hollinghurst, for instance, wrote in the Times Literary Supplement that Swift's "concentrated, enigmatic stories address their subjects with such intelligent conviction and clarity that their ambiguities are … challengingly displayed." Hollinghurst was especially impressed with "The Watch," a tale about a family whose males are assured longevity by a magical watch, and "The Hypochondriac," the story of a patient's seemingly imagined—but ultimately real, and fatal—pains. "Swift's ideas are large," Hollinghurst observed, "but his manner is meticulous, orderly and attentive."
Out of This World, Swift's next novel after Waterland, again closely examines the interplay between history and the present. The book consists of two interlocking monologues, those of former photojournalist Harry Beech and of his estranged daughter, Sophie. Harry's dedication to photography—his photos of violence in war zones and elsewhere in the world are famous—contributes to the alienation of his daughter. At the beginning of the novel, explained Times Literary Supplement contributor Anne Duchene, "there has been no communication between them for ten years, since Harry's father was blown up by a car-bomb and Sophie saw Harry taking photographs a moment later." Now in his sixties, Harry works as an aerial photographer, trying to understand the acts of violence he has witnessed. Sophie, now married with two healthy children, lives in New York City, where she consults a psychiatrist in order to resolve her feelings about her father and herself. Eventually Harry writes to Sophie, asking her blessing on his remarriage, and she flies to England for a reunion with him.
The success of Waterland inevitably prompted critical comparisons with Out of This World. J.L. Carr, writing in the Spectator, called Waterland "innovatory, moving, memorable"; but, the critic said, "although I read [Out of This World] with ringing ears, I was not unsettled by its protagonists' disasters…. Now and then, as the [father and daughter] pair tried to unload their little burdens of guilt upon me, I resentfully felt sorry for myself. What have they to complain about?" Duchene stated, "The writing … lacks the resonance of Waterland and the manic Kafkaesque energies of Shuttlecock." Readers, she continued, "might have wished to get more lift-off … from what we know to be the author's powerful, annealing imagination. We ask a great deal of him only because of his past flights." Sexton, writing in the New York Times Book Review, was more complimentary. "Swift's achievement is that the important story of [Harry's and Sophie's] self-education has been told with such simple, startling beauty," Sexton declared. "Not a book the reader is likely to forget, Out of This World deserves to be ranked at the forefront of contemporary literature."
Ever After, Swift's 1992 novel, is reminiscent of its predecessors in its examination of the effects of history and ancestry on people living in modern times. It is the story of Bill Unwin, an erstwhile university professor who has just gone through a traumatic period: within the past eighteen months he has lost his mother, his stepfather, and his beloved actress-wife. Seriously depressed, he attempts suicide, and it is while he convalesces that he begins to tell his tale. It turns out that Unwin's academic career was created for him—for many years he had been his wife's manager, and his seat at the university exists only because his rich American stepfather established it with the provision that Unwin was to have it. Unwin occupies his time at the university by editing the papers of a Victorian ancestor named Matthew Pearce, whose faith was shattered by the death of his son, his reading of Darwin's theories of natural selection, and his encounter with the fossil of an ichthyosaur on a beach in Dorset. Unwin is just as helpless to answer questions about Pearce's life as he is to answer questions about his own: why did his father, Colonel Unwin, commit suicide? Was Colonel Unwin really his father, and did news of his wife's supposed infidelity drive him to shoot himself? "A latter-day Hamlet," stated Pico Iyer in Time, "Unwin is driven mad by the sense that all of us are playacting, adrift in a world of 'suppose,'"
Like Out of This World, Ever After tempted comparisons with Waterland. "It seems to be a convention that when you are writing about Graham Swift, somewhere in the first paragraph or two you refer to Waterland," explained Hilary Mantel in the New York Review of Books. "It would be a great thing to kick over the traces and declare Waterland a mere bagatelle beside Swift's new novel; unfortunately, that is impossible." "How could any comment more sharply irritate Graham Swift," asked Michael Levenson in the New Republic, "than the cruelly recurrent, dully obvious opinion that neither his two novels written before Waterland nor the two written since even belong on the same shelf as that strong book?"
As was the case with Out of This World, reviews of Ever After were mixed. Iyer, for instance, referred to the novel as "a dense, literary text that race[s] ahead with the compulsive fury of a page turner." Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in the Washington Post Book World, "The multiple plot covers 150 years in 276 pages quite effortlessly, and though full of references, characters, events and second thoughts, it turns and doubles without confusion in time and space. It is masterfully done. Only it all seems, despite its dense, charged texture, a bit thin and arbitrary." "The prose is rich, lush and unhurried," declared New York Times Book Review contributor MacDonald Harris; "this is a modern British novel for the reader who is getting bored with the contemporary American mode of fiction and turns back, now and then, to [Anthony] Trollope, [Thomas] Hardy, or George Eliot." Lorna Sage, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, also compared Swift to Hardy "in his insistence that the naive questions about extinction matter." "Ever After," concluded Mantel, "may have deeply advanced Swift as a thinker, but sadly it has not advanced him as a novelist."
Critical consensus changed with Swift's 1996 novel, Last Orders. This work, which took Britain's most prestigious literary honor, the Booker McConnell Prize, confirmed in many critics' minds that the author had at last produced a worthy successor to Waterland. Last Orders, which takes place in the 1980s England of Thatcher and rising unemployment, follows four aging men as they journey from London to the seaside resort of Margate to deliver a fifth friend—recently deceased and now cremated—to that man's requested resting place: scattered to the winds off the Margate pier. For these working-class characters, memories of glory days during World War II and the conflicts of wives and children in the present dog them even as they recall the life of their lost comrade. "Little by little, a portrait of the man and his life emerges—petty, sad, frustrating," as an Economist critic stated. To Spectator writer Caroline Moore, "Last Orders contains many of the devices, the themes and concerns we have met before. There is the interweaving of past and present, of people and places—a web of lives shaped by ordinary guilts, warped by small but painful betrayals."
Noting that Last Orders includes a characteristic Swift plot twist whereby sons come into conflict with their fathers over career choices, Moore admitted that one "longs to know what [Swift's] own father did, and what he felt about his son becoming a writer." This psychology aside, Moore praised Last Orders as the work of "an intelligently subtle writer" who has created a story which "evokes a luminously complete and complex world."
Calling Last Orders nothing less than Swift's finest book to date, Oliver Reynolds in the Times Literary Supplement risked incurring the wrath of others who would accord that honor to Waterland. To Reynolds, this "emotionally charged and technically superb" story "is a wonderful example of the novel's power to resolve the wavering meanings of the life we all share into a definite focus, one where the clarity with which things are seen renders them precious." Both Jay Parini in the New York Times Book Review and John Casey of the Los Angeles Times lauded Swift for his use of the rich British idiom in Last Orders. This "slangy, scrappy" vernacular, in fact, caught Casey by surprise: "I may have not caught every nuance with my American ear. I wish I could hear it aloud; this novel would be a wonderful book on tape with each character played by a different actor."
Although the Booker judges recognized Swift's novel with the $44,000 first prize, controversy arose on the publication of Last Orders when reviewers compared the book's plot and theme to As I Lay Dying, a William Faulkner work of the 1930s. An Australian academic accused Swift of plagiarizing Faulkner's work, which charge infuriated Swift. Swift said that while he acknowledges authors are naturally influenced by each other, the idea of stealing was out of the question. Swift's assertion was backed by the Booker judges, who agreed that no plagiarism took place.
Swift's next novel, The Light of Day, concerns a murder and a love story. The narrative begins on the second anniversary of the crime; Sarah, the guilty woman, is being visited in jail by George, the man who loves her and who was acting as her private investigator when she killed her adulterous husband. While the storyline may conjure up a conventional detective story, The Light of Day is a unique book. "Swift has always combined narrative complexity—interwoven story lines and cunning shifts of perspective—with a perfect instinct for the moral and emotional plights that define us," wrote Sven Birkerts in Books. Birkerts felt that The Light of Day follows this pattern, and "comes at us with the puncturing clarity of a siren in the night." The real mystery to be solved is the motivations of the characters; as the book progresses, readers learn of George's disgraceful dismissal from the police force and his own corruption. The book is "at once perfectly balanced and eerily incisive. It is also unexpectedly redemptive. By the end of the novel we have seen deep into the soul of George Webb. We may have visited a place of fear and terrible vengeance but we come away feeling that a searching beam has been thrown in another direction—toward the hidden sources of love and faith," maintained Birkerts.
The Light of Day offers the hope that "even in the course of a single day, we are capable of remaking ourselves," observed Bill Ott in Booklist, going on to describe the book as "a remarkable feat of storytelling by one of our most accomplished novelists." Swift himself told Benedicte Page in Bookseller that he considers The Light of Day his most optimistic work. He explained: "George is a man who has found a new reason for living, and I think that's important. for us all to believe in, as life goes on, and as we all feel disappointments. For George it is a marvellous thing, and he knows it, and he is not wasting it."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 41, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1987.
Contemporary Novelists, 7th edition, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 2001.
Booklist, March 15, 2003, Bill Ott, review of The Light of Day, p. 1254.
Books, January, 1993, p. 18; May, 2003, Sven Birkerts, review of The Light of Day, p. 73.
Bookseller, December 6, 2002, Benedicte Page, review of The Light of Day, p. 35.
Buffalo News, June 8, 2003, Michael D. Langan, review of The Light of Day, p. F5.
Detroit News, May 19, 1985.
Economist, March 16, 1996, p. 14.
Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), September 1, 1984; February 8, 1986.
Guardian (London, England), March 1, 2003, John O'Mahony, "Graham Swift: Triumph of the Common Man," p. 20; March 8, 2003, review of The Light of Day, p. 9; April 5, 2003, John Mullan, "Last Orders: Week 1, Dialogue," p. 32; April 12, 2003, John Mullan, "Last Orders: Week 2, Clichés," p. 32; April 19, 2003, John Mullan, "Last Orders: Week 3, Interior Monologue," p. 32.
Library Journal, January, 2002, Nancy Pearl, review of Last Orders, p. 188; March 1, 2003, Barbara Hoffert, review of The Light of Day, p. 120.
Listener, January 6, 1983.
London, November, 1981, pp. 88-90.
London Review of Books, February 8, 1996, pp. 20-21.
Los Angeles Times, July 7, 1996, p. 6; May 21, 2003, Scott Martelle, review of The Light of Day, p. E9.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 1, 1984.
Maclean's, May 6, 1996, p. 61; November 11, 1996, p. 16.
Mirror (London, England), March 1, 2003, review of The Light of Day, p. 56.
Nation, March 31, 1980.
National Review, March 10, 1997, p. 58.
New Republic, June 22, 1992, pp. 38-40.
New Statesman and Society, April 25, 1980; March 18, 1983; October 7, 1983; January 19, 1996, p. 37.
Newsweek, April 30, 1984.
New York Review of Books, August 16, 1984; June 11, 1992, p. 23; April 4, 1996, pp. 8, 10.
New York Times, March 20, 1984; May 4, 2003, Anthony Quinn, review of The Light of Day, p. 6.
New York Times Book Review, March 25, 1984; June 23, 1985, pp. 11-12; September 11, 1988, p. 14; October 22, 1989, p. 38; March 29, 1992, p. 21; May 16, 1993, p. 40; May 5, 1996, p. 13; May 4, 2003, Anthony Quinn, review of The Light of Day, p. 6.
Observer (London, England), March 2, 2003, Adam Mars-Jones, review of The Light of Day, p. 17.
Publishers Weekly, February 22, 1993, p. 91; March 31, 2003, review of The Light of Day, p. 39.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 1, 2003, G.E. Murray, review of The Light of Day, p. F12.
San Francisco Chronicle, May 18, 2003, David Kipen, review of The Light of Day, p. M1.
Spectator, April 26, 1980, p. 23; October 8, 1983; March 12, 1988, p. 28; November 28, 1992, p. 40; January 27, 1996, pp. 33-34.
Time, April 13, 1992, p. 78.
Times (London, England), March 10, 1997, p. 1.
Times Literary Supplement, July 27, 1982; October 7, 1983; March 11, 1988, p. 275; February 21, 1992, p. 6; April 16, 1993, p. 22; January 19, 1996, p. 25.
Village Voice, July 2, 1985; September, 1993, p. 29.
Washington Post Book World, March 18, 1984; April 14, 1985; June 9, 1985; March 22, 1992, p. 6.
Writer, February, 1998, Lewis Burke Frumkes, interview with Swift, p. 19.
BookPage, http://www.bookpage.com/ (April, 1992), Adam Begley, interview with Swift.