Graham Swift | David Leon Higdon

This literature criticism consists of approximately 8 pages of analysis & critique of Graham Swift.
This section contains 2,103 words
(approx. 8 pages at 300 words per page)
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David Leon Higdon

SOURCE: "'Unconfessed Confessions': The Narrators of Graham Swift and Julian Barnes," in The British and Irish Novel since 1960, edited by James Acheson, Macmillan Academic and Professional Ltd., 1991, pp. 174-91.

In the following excerpt, Higdon offers stylistic and thematic analyses of The Sweet-Shop Owner and Shuttlecock.

Graham Swift's first novel, The Sweet-Shop Owner, establishes the topics, themes and techniques that dominate his later first-person narratives. In all his novels we see Swift exploring difficult relationships between parents and child, between private and public histories, between past and present, as his memory-lines loop and coil, and as his characters find symbols through which to communicate in their streams of consciousness both the unsaid and the unsayable. Over all, though, towers Swift's interest in his characters' confessions, his concern for chronicling their moments of recognition, and his deep commitment to viewing them within the historical ties linking past and present. When Willy Chapman, the protagonist of The Sweet-Shop Owner, says to his daughter's boyfriend, 'History. Now I've always been fascinated by history', he is as much speaking for his creator as he is making idle conversation.

The Sweet-Shop Owner follows Willy Chapman from the moment he awakens at 4:30, a June Friday morning in 1974, until approximately 7:30 that evening, when he dies. Throughout the day his angina, aggravated by physical stresses he deliberately inflicts on his body, swells from 'the usual pain' until it 'seemed to rock inside him like a weight that would overturn him'. Willy is knowingly committing suicide, and has, moreover, selected his daughter's birthday as his deathday.

The opening words of the novel, 'In the end', foreshadow the direction the novel will take, and numerous other phrases on the first page also concentrate the reader's on closure. Four days earlier, Willy had received a letter from his estranged daughter, thanking him for sending her £15 000 from her mother's estate. Willy is convinced that she will return to see him at least one more time, and fantasises how she will find his body and how '[s]he would go down, weep, clasp his knees, as though she were clasping the limbs of a cold, stone statue that stares out and beyond, without seeing'. 'Without feeling' might be more accurate, because Willy has substituted money for feelings in most of his relationships. 'They were paid' becomes his silent farewell to his surrogate sweet-shop family throughout the day as he over-tips his paper boys, slips generous bonuses to his shop assistants, and, in the mid-afternoon heat, walks to his Pond Street shop, 'gasping, sweat pouring off him' so that he can close his books. It might appear from these actions that Willy Chapman is an extraordinarily manipulative, vindictive, blinded man, a descendant of Jonas Chuzzlewit or Paul Dombey. At the same time, though, it is evident that Willy is attempting to buy sympathy or perhaps approval, even as he himself was bought.

As Willy nears death, his memories hurl him back to his courtship and marriage in 1937, and we see the psychological oddities which doomed his marriage and his offspring. Raped in a Brighton field by a family friend, Irene Harrison (eventually Willy's wife), feels betrayed by her parents, who had 'nursed [her] beauty like a rare plant'. Unable to tell them any more than that the friend in question 'was not good to me', Irene feels that she has somehow failed her parents, and three days after meeting Willy an engagement of sorts seems assumed between them. The Harrisons are wealthy, educated, talented people, so the marriage is an upward social step for Willy. After the marriage he feels 'like a toy in its box', and sees himself as being 'only something to occupy her with'. Irene has married out of a complex need to distance herself from her family, to insulate herself from sexuality, and to punish herself for the unidentifiable wrong she has committed. She soon retreats behind psychosomatic asthma; one of her doctors tells Willy, 'there are times when your wife almost seems not to want to get better'. She purchases Willy's physical, sexual and emotional distance by giving him a sweet-shop to run, and refuses all ties between herself and her daughter.

Dorry (Dorothea) has no reason to read her parents' marriage as anything other than a failure exacerbating the weaknesses of both members. Seeing her mother as a thoroughly heartless, calculating woman, and her father as her mother's 'slave', Dorry 'stopped wondering and began to despise [Willy] instead'. Willy cannot bring himself to correct her views or to voice his love for her, although he wonders, '[i]f the word love is never spoken, does it mean there isn't any love?' Once, and only once, do Willy and his daughter talk. This occurs in 1970 when they are alone while Irene is hospitalised. The scene, distributed among several chapters, is quite important in that Willy tries to untangle family history for her and asks his daughter's forgiveness and understanding, without seeing that he has damned himself even more unforgivably in Dorry's eyes. Believing that her father knowingly married for money without ever loving her mother, Dorry does not see that the money is tainted. The money that had created the Harrison laundries and made the Chapman sweet-shop prosper may cloud her marriage just as it did her parents' marriage.

In most retrospective fiction, the act of looking back and telling the story in some way transforms the person doing the telling. Because he is not consciously telling his story, Willy Chapman's case is more problematic and open, depending as it does on the reader's comprehension of symbolic connections. In a series of brilliantly cross-cut scenes, juxtaposing Willy's walk across the Common with his 1931 mile run for his school, Swift finds a more than adequate metaphor for his protagonist's situation. The 1931 scene leaves Willy on the track, the finish line in sight, about to be overtaken by his future brother-in-law, Jack Harrison. His chest pains him; he has '[b]egun his final spurt early'. We never see the final moment of the race, but Swift's rhetoric strongly suggests that Willy wins, just as he may have 'won' his race with his daughter. Not by coincidence do the two scenes close with the same words: 'All right—now', words which tell him to begin his kick to the finish line and also tell death to come to him now. In the present, he finally understands the grotesque joke Irene has played on him and on her family, and he wishes to escape from the patterns she and life have imposed on him.

Like Swift's later protagonists, Willy dies in an ambivalent state. He has destroyed himself, achieving along the way only minimal enlightenment. He is unable to express love successfully as he struggles clumsily to extend it. He has allowed routine to serve as a substitute for life. He issues too many conditions for those around him, never for a moment seeing that he could go to his daughter even more easily than she could come to him. Yet he still has within him the capacity for grace which he is striving to achieve at the very moment when he attempts to manipulate those around him.

In Shuttlecock Swift expands the present from one day to one year, while moving freely through the characters' pasts. His protagonist, Prentis, is half Willy's age, and there is a shift from omniscient to first-person narration, the latter point of view more aesthetically appropriate to the 'unconfessed confessions' here and in the later novels. Like The Sweet-Shop Owner, Shuttlecock is a study of power exercised by one human being over another and, as such, its analogies and symbols acquire a generality not evident in Swift's first novel. In his second novel, Swift has found his 'voice' in the form of first-person retrospective visions of souls lost in the powers of memory and history.

Prentis, the senior clerk in the 'dead crimes' division of the London Police Department, is virtually paranoid when the reader meets him on an ordinary Monday morning in April 1977. His world has become increasingly shaken by doubts, suspicions and fears. His father has lapsed into a profound silence necessitating confinement in a mental hospital; his superior at work, Quinn, seems to be playing an unnerving mind game with him; and his relations with his wife and two sons have become a round of loud voices, disappointments and threats. As he walks nightly from the Clapham South station to his home, he has 'the distinct sensation of being watched', and hurries himself into a truly devastating question: 'Supposing they're all in it, all together?'

Prentis's problems are compounded because he must come to terms with two patriarchal figures, and impenetrable mysteries cluster around each man. Two years earlier, his father experienced 'some sort of sudden breakdown' and fell into 'a kind of language-coma', perhaps brought on by his wife's death or by a mysterious blackmail threat growing out of his war memoirs. Shuttlecock: the Story of a Secret Agent attracted considerable attention when it was published, and, since his father's silence, Prentis has been 'poring over it'. He thinks that some secret key lurks within its words, and that if he reads it attentively enough he will find a way to restore his father's ability to speak. 'Perhaps, with the right words, the right question, I could shock him out of his condition', he thinks, but he also confesses that he 'wanted to step into Dad's shoes … I wanted what he had'. In his book, the father had used the image of a burrowing animal in describing his escape from a Gestapo prison, an image which intentionally draws the reader's attention back to the opening lines of the novel when Prentis remembers Sammy, the hamster he received on his tenth birthday. Although he remembers playing with and caring for Sammy, he more clearly remembers tormenting Sammy, playing 'bird of prey', pinning him to the floor on his back, and once placing him in the oven. The analogies between the father in the hands of the Gestapo, Prentis in the hands of Quinn, and Sammy under Prentis's control are inescapable, and this metaphor of power extends to Prentis's family, because Prentis also dominates and torments his wife and sons, sensing that he 'can never act simply and straightforwardly'.

The complex interplay between torturer and victim achieves its fullest expression in Swift's exploration of the relationship between Prentis and Quinn. Prentis wishes to displace Quinn as much as he wishes to displace his father, but Quinn is no silent man in a mental institution. Rather, he is an adroit antagonist holding considerable power. His power game involves giving Prentis an assignment and then purposely, perhaps maliciously, hiding several essential files. Quinn also spies on Prentis through his office window 'with the air of a scientist surveying some delicate experiment'. In particular, Quinn has assigned the inquiry into the ties between X, Y and Z to Prentis, and as Prentis struggles to fill in the gaps left by the missing files, he begins to see that the affairs of these three men may unlock his father's mystery.

The inevitable confrontation achieves a thematic clarity and psychological power seldom seen in thriller novels.

Cover of Ever After.Cover of Ever After.
Quinn disarmingly confesses that he has noticed certain qualities in Prentis—suspicion, craftiness, imagination—necessary to his own job, and he asks, 'Have you had moments in your life, Prentis, when you've found yourself asking the simple question: Is it better to know things or not to know them? Wouldn't we sometimes be happier not knowing them?' Quinn asks if corruption or the desire to do good abuses power more, and gives Prentis the very Conradian advice that '[t]he straight course is to curb the imagination'. He tests Prentis further, offering him the missing file.

Willy unknowingly encased himself in ignorance; Prentis knowingly embraces it. He feels it is better, at times, not to know. Ironically, his desire not to know brings the freedom we usually associate with the enlightenment brought about in the moments of recognition. 'It seemed', he tells us, 'I'd emerged out of some confinement'. At the moment Quinn places in Prentis's power the possibility of destroying his father, Prentis feels that '[s]omething 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'. Just as he regards his father as a text to be interpreted, Prentis knows that he too constitutes a text, and that like his father, he too 'is actually torn between the desire to construct this saving lie and an instinct not to falsify himself completely—to be, somehow, honest'.

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This section contains 2,103 words
(approx. 8 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the David Leon Higdon
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