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Critical Review by Lorna Sage
SOURCE: "Unwin Situation," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4638, February 21, 1992, p. 6.
In the following review, Sage examines the themes and structure of Ever After.
Graham Swift's last novel, Out of this World, was a "dry" book—abstracted, diagrammatic. There he levitated for once out of the mulch of family-plot emotions with the aid of a metaphor from aerial photography. This time [in Ever After] we're back on low-lying Waterland territory. Not the Fens, but a wet (tear-stained) world of stories that flow into each other like meandering tributaries joining their river. Again, it's a form of family saga, meditating on relations and filiations, past mysteries of birth, and a future without posterity except for the kind you can father in fiction.
The narrator, Bill Unwin, announces himself in the opening sentence as "a dead man". He is boasting, however: it's merely that he has survived the recent deaths of everyone close to him (mother, stepfather, wife), and recovered, humiliatingly, from a botched suicide-attempt. He's living, in fact, in limbo—exiled in academe, where he's impersonating a Fellow in a crumbling college, conducting distinctly unscholarly and extra-curricular researches into things like the meaning of life. The whole set-up, we realize, is suspect. Bill's fellowship was endowed by his stepfather; his research materials are part of his mother's legacy, notebooks belonging to a nineteenth-century ancestor, Matthew Pearce, recording his loss of faith in the face of bereavement; and his own claims to don-status are dubious—he once taught English Literature, true, but for years he was his actress wife's manager, and reflected glory from her fame is his only distinction. Our narrator, this grieving, grey man in his fifties, is no professional processor of information, just someone doomed—or privileged—to be the repository of others' lives, his imagination the point where their themes converge. In other words, he is the author's reluctant and amateurish alter ego, and his ramblings are the cover-story for Graham Swift's elaborate and cunning cross-associations.
Their main topic—Swift's main topic—is indeed loss of faith, the contemporary kind, that is, which makes it so difficult to affirm the value of particular lives, which (in turn) is a consequence of our inability merely to record things realistically. The retired photo-journalist in his last novel pondered on this one: "When did it happen? That imperceptible inversion. As if the camera no longer recorded but conferred reality." And here it's a matter of the plasticity of truth, the ambiguity that surrounds events and leads to the vertiginous conviction that everything could have happened quite differently. Thus Bill's American stepfather, Sam (a post-war plastics magnate), preaches the timeliness of "substitoots" for organic materials, and practises what he preaches by being discreetly unfaithful to Bill's mother, Sylvia ("prostitoots"). And yet, all those years ago, Sam's affair with Sylvia was surely significant enough to prompt Bill's father's suicide? Or was it, as he's told later, that his father found out that he wasn't his father (nor was Sam)? With the multiplication of versions you lose your sense of individuality, your very identity, and so suffer a contemporary version of the crisis that Victorians faced when Lyell and Darwin undermined human uniqueness, and the belief in personal immortality. Suddenly, people's lives were dwarfed in the long perspective of geological time, the individual was submerged in the species, and even species were shown to have ended in extinction. This is where the nineteenth-century notebooks come in:
25th October 1856 If Lyell is right … then the entire record of human history is as a wink in the world's duration. And if the world existed so long without Man upon it, why should we suppose … that we occupy any special and permanent place in Creation?
Ever After is structured as a palimpsest—the present's nightmare of bereavement intercut with that of Swift's imaginary Victorian, Matthew Pearce, who is thrust over the edge into atheism and ostracism by the loss of his son Felix. In both times what's being lost, in essence, is a sense of individual value.
It's this preoccupation which makes Swift seem Hardyesque, even when he's not invoking a particular patch of country. Hardy, indeed, scrutinizes and describes Wessex topography so intently precisely because the landscape bears witness to his characters' mortality—it's their entirely local "place" and will outlast them. In a sense, all Hardy's landscapes are graveyards. Swift is akin to Hardy in his insistence that the naive questions about extinction matter. Bill gets into trouble with his college colleagues for his tutorials because he believes that "A great deal of literature … only states the obvious. A great deal of literature is only (only!) the obvious transformed into the sublime." Rescue the obvious, and you contrive a miracle that can stand in for the resurrection, bring the dead to life. For Bill, this was what his wife Ruth could do on the stage: "She represented life to me. I know that, now she is dead…. It was her job: to represent life to people." Telling stories, making connections between his nineteenth-century ancestor, dead Ruth, a found fossil, and so on, he too tries to turn "unbelief" into "make-belief":
You have to picture the scene. You have to imagine these scenes in which for most people nothing changes, nothing is essentially different—all this drama and fuss, a passing storm, a twisted ankle—but for some people the world falls apart. I think that's perhaps what Ruth did…. To picture how the world might be—how it might fall apart or hold, incredibly, together—in the eyes of other people….
A flapping tarpaulin. Sticky gobs of rain, a bruised, galvanic sky. The long, toothed jaw; the massive eye that stares through millions of years. He is the creature; the creature is him. He feels … himself starting to fall, and fall, through himself. He lurches on to the path … passes a startled young woman, who has fallen also….
A quotation of some length is necessary to demonstrate the further shores of the style, its ambition to hold things together, but sketchily, as though they are also always falling apart. The young woman with the twisted ankle has perhaps fallen out of Persuasion (we are in Lyme, but the dates seem wrong). Along with the ichthyosaur, Ruth, Matthew and the rain, she is part of a momentary conjunction, a temporary "world". The author with no underpinning from God the Creator—no real place he can inherit—has to engineer such fragile and short-lived triumphs.
The effects of depth and unity are certainly fleeting, and—in my experience—work better the second time round, since they so often depend on verbal slippages, like the one in the quotation above about "representation". You move from a casual everyday meaning ("she represented life to me") to a mimetic and theatrical one, and from meaning to performance. A lot of the plot is generated, it almost seems, by punning (for example, on "plastic"). Swift's mannerisms stick out. He likes emphases and repetitions: "They say I should write her biography…. But it seems to me it would be … a sham. It's not the life, is it, but the life? The life." Then there are the parentheses, employed locally at sentence-level, but also of course narratively, in the palimpsest technique with its bracketed times. This enables Swift to break up the conventional sequence so that he can end, in splendidly theatrical style, with Bill's and dead Ruth's "first night" together. The hope, fairly transparently, is to redeem a sterile, suicidal statement ("He took his own life") by turning it round into a creative act, a celebration of people's irreplaceableness: tragedy, not postmodern farce. The title Ever After comes from the fairy-tale promise, and the book wants to make it true, for a moment:
That moment when the performance begins!… When the pretend thing, the made-up thing, becomes the real thing, and the audience, in their dark rows, turn into ghosts…. That moment when things come alive.
Graham Swift is the kind of contemporary writer who regrets his condition of fictionality, and whose virtuoso effects are meant to auto-destruct, and leave you clutching a wet hankie. Ironic, then, that he will surely alienate readers by the very calculatedness of the route he takes to arrive at the obvious. No wonder his narrator's called Unwin. In this bind, can you?
This section contains 1,374 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)