Nationality: British. Born: London, 4 May 1949. Education: Dulwich College, 1960-67; Queens' College, Cambridge, 1967-70, B.A., M.A.; York University, 1970-73. Lives in London. Awards: Geoffrey Faber Memorial prize, 1983; Guardian Fiction prize, 1983; Royal Society of Literature Winifred Holtby award, 1984; Premio Grinzane Cavour (Italy), 1987; Prix du meilleur livre étranger (France), 1994; Booker prize, 1996. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1984. Agent: A.P. Watt Ltd., 20 John Street, London WC1N 2DR, England.
The Sweet Shop Owner. London, Allen Lane, 1980; New York, Washington Square Press, 1985.
Shuttlecock. London, Allen Lane, 1981; New York, WashingtonSquare Press, 1984.
Waterland. London, Heinemann, 1983; New York, Poseidon Press, 1984.
Out of This World. London, Viking, and New York, Poseidon Press, 1988.
Ever After. London, Picador, and New York, Knopf, 1992.
Last Orders. New York, Knopf, 1996.
Learning to Swim and Other Stories. London, London MagazineEditions, 1982; New York, Poseidon Press, 1985.
Editor, with David Profumo, The Magic Wheel: An Anthology of Fishing in Literature. London, Picador, 1985.*
"History and the 'Here and Now': The Novels of Graham Swift" by Del Ivan Janik, in Twentieth Century Literature (Hempstead, New York) vol. 35, No. 1, 1989.* * *
"Can it be a kindness not to tell what you see? And a blessing to be blind? And the best aid to human happiness that has ever been invented is a blanket of soft, white lies?" asks one of the characters in Out of This World. These questions sound the central theme of Graham Swift's six novels: does human happiness depend on understanding or on feeling? While the question is asked as if for the first time in each novel, Swift's answer remains, with one exception, the same: "soft, white lies" are necessary to human happiness. In keeping with his belief that feelings matter more than understanding, Swift also adheres to a model of authorship that prioritizes self-expression above communication with readers.
The Sweet Shop Owner spans a single hot summer's day, the last day of the life of widowed shopkeeper Willy Chapman. Throughout much of the day Willy carries on an internal dialogue with his estranged daughter. He remembers his marriage to an unloving wife, Irene, who attempted to compensate by bearing him the child: "You were her gift." His scholarly daughter has forsaken her father, and, according to Mrs. Cooper, won't return. Refusing to accept this, Willy quietly kills himself in the hope of finally reuniting with his daughter. "Don't you see, you're no freer than before, no freer than I am? And the only thing that can dissolve history now is if, by a miracle, you come."
A single suspicion brings about the climax of Shuttlecock. Immobilized by the heroic figure of his war spy father, Prentis, a Dead Crimes Investigator, bullies his wife and two sons. The suspicion that his father may have been a traitor has multiple effects. It frees Prentis: "Something had collapsed around me; so I couldn't help, in the middle of the ruins, this strange feeling of release. I had escaped; I was free." The threat of the publicity of this suspicion also may have driven his father mad. The suspicion illustrates to Prentis the power—and the danger—of knowledge: "I stared again at the file. I thought of the number of times I'd opened the cover of Shuttlecock hoping Dad would come out; hoping to hear his voice. Was I afraid that the allegations might be true—or that they might be false? And supposing, in some extraordinary way, that everything Quinn told me was concocted, was an elaborate hoax—if I never looked in the file, I would never know. I read the code letters over and over again. C9/E … And then suddenly I knew I wanted to be uncertain, I wanted to be in the dark." Rather than confirmation or denial of his father's betrayal, it is the suspicion—the "soft, white lies"—that ultimately proves more valuable because it preserves the possibility of a heroic man.
Like Charles Dickens's Great Expectations, Waterland is a bildungsroman about a young boy from the Fens of East Anglia. Unlike other Swiftian characters, Tom Crick, the history teacher protagonist, is drawn to face the truth of his family's tortured history: "I'm the one who had to ask questions, who had to dig up the truth (my recipe for emergencies: explain your way out)." But the price Tom pays for his knowledge is high. His wife abducts a child. His half-brother commits suicide.
The split between understanding and feelings structures Out of This World, which is narrated through the alternating monologues of photographer, Harry Beech, and his estranged daughter, Sophie. The latter has forbidden cameras (a metaphor for realist understanding) in her house. We learn that Sophie glimpsed Harry photographing the wreck of the car bombing of his own father: "I saw him first, then he saw me. He was like a man caught sleep-walking, not knowing how he could be doing what he was doing, as if it were all part of some deep, ingrained reflex. But just for a moment I saw this look on his face of deadly concentration. He hadn't seen me first because he'd been looking elsewhere, and his eyes had been jammed up against a camera." Appalled by her father's detachment, she has refused to speak to him for 10 years. At first Harry resists Sophie's point. Ultimately, Harry acknowledges that a lie reunited him with his estranged father. His father's lie, which shielded Harry from his wife's infidelity, demonstrated his father's love. Harry reciprocated by reaching out to his father: "We strolled to the end of the terrace. As we turned, I wanted to do that simple but rare thing and take his arm…. He said, 'I've never told you, have I?"' The split between understanding and feelings also structures Ever After, which is narrated through the alternating monologues of Victorian Darwinist Matthew Pearce and widowed English professor Billy Unwin. Whereas the Victorian Pearce sacrificed his wife and family to remain faithful to his Darwinist beliefs, Unwin would sacrifice the few beliefs he holds to bring back his deceased wife. "I would believe or not believe anything, swallow any old make-belief, in order to have Ruth back. Whereas Matthew—Whereas this Pearce guy-" After a seduction plot momentarily tempts Unwin to forget the memory of his wife, life no longer appears to be worth living to the professor, who attempts suicide. His revival leads him to the discovery that it is the "soft, white lie" of the memories of his wife that gives him a reason for living.
Like Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, the polyphonic Last Orders is narrated through the friends and family of a recently deceased man on the burial journey. Londoners Ray Johnson, Lenny Tate, Vic Tucker, Vince Dodds, and Amy Dodds are bound to the recently deceased Jack Dodds through decades of love, friendship, and secrets. Vince is Jack's adopted son, who ran away as a teenager. Ray fought with Jack in World War II, and has been in love with Jack's wife, Amy, for as many years. Amy remembers the foundering of her marriage as Jack refused to acknowledge their mentally retarded daughter: "He won't mention June so I won't mention Ray. Fair dos. What you don't know can't hurt." Here the lies sometimes serve not only to protect, but also to create a better community. "So when Vince Pritchett, but forget the Pritchett, dropped into my lap, into our lap," says Amy, "I ought to have known it wouldn't help a bit, it wouldn't win him back. You can't make a real thing out of pretending hard." Regardless of her denial, it is through "pretending hard" that Amy has created a family: After years of resentment, Vince has reunited with his adopted parents.
The importance of "soft, white lies" is apparent in Swift's attitude towards authorship. Some authors write to communicate with their readers a necessary piece of social criticism, a rationale which has its roots in the Realist tradition of social responsibility. Other authors write to express themselves, a rationale which has its roots in the Romantic tradition of self-expression. A quote from Swift expresses the Romantic tenet that deep feeling is the essential ingredient of art: "I am absolutely not a formalist, because what does matter to me are things as felt, and feeling seems at least to stand in opposition to form: form is to do with control and discipline, and feeling is to do with liberation…."
While expressing himself may be Swift's intention as an author, it's suspect that this self-expression is "liberation." After all, what kind of "liberation" can obsessively rewriting the same plot be called? Immobilized by the excessive expectations of her parents, Irene in The Sweet Shop Owner could neither fully reject, nor fully participate in her family life. Immobilized by the heroic figure of his father, Prentis in Shuttlecock is freed by the revelation that his father may have been a traitor to the English. Immobilized by the expectations of her father to become like her sanctified mother, Mary in Waterland goes mad. Sense a pattern here? Regardless of which book by Swift one chooses, one meets the same plot: an adult frozen in childhood must free him-or herself from the overpowering example of an idealized parent. The repetition of a single plot suggests that Swift has supported a rationale of writing as self-expression from necessity rather than from choice. Even if Swift had wanted to write for his audience, one wonders whether he could do so. As Swift has said, "I write a lot by sheer instinct, groping around in the dark."
Expressing himself may have been Swift's foremost aim, but communicating with his readers is a necessary aim of any author. Swift fails—as several reviewers' comments indicate—to communicate with his readers. Too many perspectives, none of which are authorized by the obfuscating narrator has been the frequent charge of reviewers. "Mr. Swift is so committed to seeing around perspectives, undermining his own assertions, squeezing the narrator between the pincers of the past and present, being ironic at the expense of what somebody didn't know but somebody now does, that the effect he creates is rather like a three-ring circus," a New York Times Book Review critic said of Waterland. "One yearns for a whiff of directness. …" Stephen Wall of the London Review of Books also protested that the multiple perspectives in Ever After were not resolved: "Despite its manifestly humane intentions, the different areas of narrative interest in Ever After disperse, rather than concentrate attention. Although its varying strands are conscientiously knitted together … they don't seem significantly to cohere." In failing to organize the multiple viewpoints, Swift violates the assumption that the author will provide a "hierarchical organization of details." Instead, the reader is left alone to make meanings; a job she could have done without the reading of any of Swift's novels.
Why this refusal to guide his readers? An answer lies in Swift's admiration of "vulnerability." Swift's characters are often proud to say, "I don't know." In Shuttlecock, Prentis says: "'I don't know'… It seemed to me that this was an answer I would give, boldly, over and over again for the rest of my life." According to Swift, when an author shows the reader his vulnerability, he gains the reader's trust: "An author ought to have authority … It makes sure the reader trusts the writer … Often that stems from the realization that the writer is prepared to show that vulnerability." When Swift has shown vulnerability, however, his reviewers have not trusted him. Just the opposite. Swift has said, "I am desperate to avoid a sense of power derived from form." His fear of authority is indeed evident in his novels.
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