Graham Swift | Michael Levenson

This literature criticism consists of approximately 10 pages of analysis & critique of Graham Swift.
This section contains 2,811 words
(approx. 10 pages at 300 words per page)
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Michael Levenson

SOURCE: "Sons and Fathers," in The New Republic, Vol. 206, No. 25, June 22, 1992, pp. 38-40.

In the following review of Ever After, Levenson discusses the novel's focus on academia, its nationalistic outlook, and its thematic relation to Swift's other novels.

How could any comment more sharply irritate Graham Swift than the cruelly recurrent, dully obvious opinion that neither his two novels written before Waterland (1983) nor the two written since even belong on the same shelf as that strong book? But so it is. Swift is only 42—only, let us say, halfway there—and, smart and conscious as he is, he must sometimes face the thought that his career is building to a point where it will either recede into the plodding of the minor novelist or leap again into the upper air while all our craning necks turn to follow.

The publication of Waterland sent out a gusty wind of respect on which Swift can still be seen floating. Here in the United States his first two books were belatedly issued, and the sudden focusing of the camera eye in 1985 gave the impression of a steep upward curve of the writing talent, the arrival of the latest young Dickens. In certain quarters Swift was named a "major novelist," one who "may prove to be the most outstanding English novelist of the final quarter of the twentieth century." But two bland books later the curve no longer seems to be rising, and Waterland begins to look less like the gateway to literary paradise and more like a wondrous freak. Now, with his new novel Ever After, with the film of Waterland set to arrive later this year, and with the imminent republication of the earlier novels, Swift enjoys a second moment under the glass.

To read his five novels all together is to see the ordeal of fiction, and to remember the dignity of those who submit to its afflictions. Behind the lives of the characters in Ever After, you can often hear the wheezing of the determined author: it looks as though it doesn't come easy nowadays to Swift, this novel writing—the contriving of situations, the painting of emotions, the choosing of names, the manufacture of sentences, all the apparatus of fiction. Do you think this makes Swift less admirable, less worthy? Quite the contrary. He is a figure to learn from, the hardworking novelist with one significant success (which may never be repeated, and so what?), the professional in the imagination business who delivers his goods every few years, who raises no boasty thumbs in praise of his own talents but who doggedly composes 200 pages of serious story, without pandering either to those who write the reviews or to those who write the checks.

Something else is taught by an encounter with the complete works of Graham Swift: the persistence of a compulsion, a compulsion to invent, again and again, a certain plot. Call it the plot of the Weak Son, the plot that returns through each of the novels and burrows beneath their surface variations. It goes like this. A man living in the present knows himself to be ineffectual and talentless. He is scarcely able to conduct decent human relations, and sees his life as determined by stronger forces that have placed him where he is, that have made him what he is. He may own a shop (The Sweet-Shop Owner, 1980); he may work in a government office (Shuttlecock, 1981); he may manage his wife's glittering stage career (Ever After), but wherever he works and whomever he loves, he endures the perception of his impotence—of not living up to the past, of being little, being vague, being small potatoes, not much good at anything. Ever After is the story of one Bill Unwin—"un-win" as in "lose," "fail," "surrender."

The Weak Son has a father, heavy with paternity, not clearly distinct from the fatherland he often serves in military garb. This Big Pop stands like a monolith casting long shadows. He is wealthy or famous or arrogant, or all three, and wherever he goes, he brings the close aroma of domination. The Son often has a wife and child of his own, with whom he has disastrously ill-tuned relations, and it is always clear that his rickety, unsubstantial life will only improve when the father gets out of the way.

In the early Shuttlecock, the narrator sags under the burden of his father's heroic reputation as a military agent who made a daring escape from the Gestapo. The son leads a wreck of a life, child-abusing, wife-hating, until his superior at a government office shows him documents purporting to prove that the father's heroism was all a fraud, that he cracked under German interrogation and merely invented the tales of grandeur. In Swift's world, this is what such parents deserve. In Out of This World (1988), the oppressing father, Robert Beech of Beech Munitions Company, war hero and decorated manufacturer of arms, a "life member of the valor club," is blown to bits by the IRA. And now, in Ever After, the father is doubly disabled—first identified as a cuckold driven to suicide and then unmasked as no father at all, as merely the convenient husband masking the traces of his wife's lover.

These relentless generational conflicts belong to a much larger history, a national history summoned in the new novel when the narrator mocks his father's ambitions to "sort out" the world. Sort it out for what? For "some old, dream-world restored, in which implacable British sergeant majors bawled forever over far-flung parade grounds and men followed well-trodden paths to glory and knighthood"? The Weak Son is modern England. This is the connection toward which the books are driven: that in their portraits of individual failure and powerlessness they are also sketching a nation's fate. "You wouldn't believe," writes Swift in Out of This World, that England was once "big, plump, and bossy," not this England that is now the infirm and wayward child, the flabby heir to the Father of Empire. The fall from imperial pomposity, from the culture of the Great Fathers: this is something that Swift accepts with scarcely a hiccup of nostalgia. But what has put him in such a tight box recently, and what has made his last two novels seem forced, and even frantic, is that he so fiercely attacks the old illusions without any idea of what might go in their place.

Toward the end of Out of This World the photographer son of the arms manufacturer comes to a piercing insight:

I used to believe that ours was the age in which we would say farewell to myths and legends, when they would fall off us like useless plumage and we would see ourselves clearly only as we are. I thought the camera was the key to this process. But I think the world cannot bear to be only what it is. The world always wants another world, a shadow, an echo, a model of itself.

I see this little piece of commentary as a perfect placing of Swift's own uneasy writing space. Part of the strength of Waterland was that Swift found a way to get past the crippling conflict between the real and the imaginary. In the fens of England, in the history of canals and breweries, flood and drainage, he found a borderland where reality and mythology were not clearly distinct, where history and story were not enemies but twins. How he achieved such a fusion, and why it has not returned, no one can say. The lighting upon an image that glows, the discovery of a rhythm that makes the pen dance, these are not things that you can will into being. Ever since Waterland Swift has spoken haltingly where once he sang.

His new book twists its protagonist into new contortions. Bill Unwin is a recently failed suicide, a widower, who finds himself in the academic easy-chair because his step-father has made an irresistible offer to an unnamed British university: take my handsome endowment of a professorship with the condition that my stepson is its first holder. So, like many another Swiftian son, Unwin's life has been chosen for him, and like the others, comfort brings no ease. He is, and knows himself to be, a superfluous man: without family, without talent, without mission.

The twist that winds the plot, that links the superfluous man back to the world, is his discovery among his dead mother's papers of the notebooks of a Victorian ancestor, one Matthew Pearce. This is an academic bonanza for poor Unwin. The Pearce notebooks are the intimate record of a spiritual agony, the rich immediate testimony of the crisis of faith that usually comes to us as an abstract category in histories of the nineteenth century. In the summer of 1844, Matthew Pearce saw the fossil of an ichthyosaurus, and from the moment of that glimpse he began to live out the Victorian drama in which science erodes the security of faith.

Pearce marries a rector's daughter; the rector becomes a second father, another of Swift's dominating traditionalists; and when Pearce finally confesses that he believes no more, he suffers the fate of the spurned son. Losing the father's affection, he loses everything else besides: wife, children, home, work, nation. At every stage Pearce understands that the demand to know the truth is tearing him away from those he loves. And still he cannot control the knowledge lust. When his place in the family affections (and in his wife's bed) is usurped by a conventional replacement, Pearce departs for America, leaving behind those notebooks that ultimately find their way into Unwin's shaking hands.

This has been one of Swift's recurrent themes, that knowledge is an ambiguous virtue, that to make a fetish of full consciousness, consciousness at all costs, is simply to court another human disability. Unwin looks back on his late tormented Victorian progenitor whose refusal to accept illusions led him to tear his life to pieces, and in contrast he chooses blind love for his dead wife. After all the wreck of his life's mythologies, he lets himself love her fading image. If there's nothing else, at least there's that: Ever After.

Swift knows this to be a perilous conclusion, knows that in cynical times it looks mawkish and trite, and what gives an uncomfortable edginess to his recent fiction is that he writes as if he expects contradiction. He defends Love with clenched fists, ready to strike anyone who mocks or teases. It's clear from Ever After that he expects trouble on two flanks, and rather than wait for the charge to come, he strides belligerently forward.

On the first flank stand those academics into whose fetid ranks Unwin has fallen. In one of the story's main threads, Unwin finds himself challenged by a vain, ambitious, and pleasure-seeking professor named Potter. Potter wants the Pearce manuscripts for himself—"the spiritual crisis of the mid-nineteenth century is my subject"—because he wants to make his name among Victorianists by delivering this luscious scholarly find. He flatters, taunts, and berates Unwin, dangles his wife as sexual bait, all the while managing his own sordid affair with a graduate student. He is all head and loins with no beating heart between.

"It sounds terribly clichéd," Swift has recently said, "but one does write from the heart." The worry that a commitment to feeling, to the life of emotions, will be a cliché hangs over Swift's novel, and it arouses the heavy satire of those mockers of love, the academics. Professor Potter is a stick, a lifeless, loveless caricature. And yet it's not simply a personal crotchet that drives Swift to draw such a figure; it's a plausible recognition that academic values and the writing of fiction are at odds. Plato's ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry is now being played out between the professoriate, with its huge apparatus for generating critical discourse, and writers like Swift, who live outside academic walls but feel the encroachments of critspeak. It is easy to see why Swift would feel embattled, but the antagonism helps no one. Swift's writing is awkwardly distended by the need to defend its emotions; some of the disappointments in his work are clearly due to this need to insist on the heart.

On the second flank we stand, the Americans, who are no more gently treated in Ever After. After the suicide of Unwin's supposed father, his mother marries her lover, an American named Sam Ellison, heir to a plastics fortune, who after World War II extends his empire to Europe. It is Ellison the stepfather who forces Unwin on the university, and Ellison who incarnates all the swollen authority of the Swiftian father, bullying, lecherous, coarse, impossible. "You gotta accept it, pal … the real stuff is running out, it's used up, it's blown away, or it costs too much. You gotta have substitoots"—this is the way that vulgar plastic Sam is made to speak in his "indelible Cleveland accent." He dies making love to a prostitute.

The usurping American stepfather dominates the weak English son. This is not only the latest version of the Swift family conflict; it belongs to this next, agitated phase in British-American cultural relations. The threat of American cultural empire is not a new worry, but recently it has become more barbed and stinging. Last year, in A. S. Byatt's Possession, the literary detective plot turned on the nefarious (and extravagantly well-funded) attempts of an American professor to appropriate English literary treasures to his own scholarly empire. The Mercedes-driving, checkbook-toting Professor Cropper is literally a grave robber, willing to open any coffin in order to seize a cultural relic. Indeed, the plot similarities between Possession and Ever After are striking—the contest over rediscovered Victorian manuscripts, the struggle against academic vultures, the caricatures of American venality—and they must have given Swift's publishers some serious pause. But what is for some an awkwardness of publishing can stand for others as the symptom of a persistent intercultural tension too sharp to ignore.

The sense that monied American enthusiasts stumble blindly among the subtleties of English culture, that a native new-world boorishness insists on arranging old-world lives, that our acquisitiveness will devour an island's ancient civilities—this is neither new nor adequate as a reading of our national character. Still, if it has become so marked in the past few years, there is a reason. A generation of English writers has now grown whose early personal memories are of an empire withdrawing to the island where it all began, who watch the steady triumph of American monoculture, of McDisney and friends, and cannot quite shake the sense that while they weave the fine old web of English literature, the barbarians are at the gates.

Swift's Ever After, like Byatt's Possession, goes in search of a haven for national identity, some place where a diminished Britain can protect its threatened virtues. When Bill Unwin is told that his biological father was not the squarechinned Colonel but a train engineer "on the main line west" whom his mother illicitly loved, then he is set free from unsustainable pretensions of grandeur, set free to be linked through the blood to an honest England, the England of Victorian doubter Matthew Pearce and that of his "nameless, engine-driving, killed-in-the-war father." In Possession, the romantic conclusion turns on the discovery that the young scholar fending off the rich American Cropper is improbably descended from the two Victorian poets she studies. In both Swift and Byatt, this holding fast to biological descent appears as a saving refuge. What the academics cannot ruin and the Americans cannot appropriate is precisely this blood connection, this history written into the genes, this national biology.

Swift's is anything but a vulgar nationalism, and yet the anxieties that trouble his fiction are the anxieties of a national identity grown acutely uncertain. Of course, Britain is not unique in this; but because its literary achievement still counts heavily for many of us, its trembles are worth recording. At the moment Swift is a trembly writer who has chosen to make weakness his muse. A recent interview closes with these words: "What else do you write from but the fact that you yourself are a vulnerable human being, full of your own faults and weaknesses?"

You might have expected this last phrase to perform the usual balancing of strength against weakness, but instead it heaps weaknesses on top of faults. And there you have Swift, committing himself to a literature based on loss, failure, decline, corrosion. His recent fiction stands as a record of the good life under siege, of England in decay, and much of its unpleasantness comes from his willingness to keep staring downward. But finally it won't do, it can't do, this division of the world into sensitive little chaps who know their faults and the burly others, the soldiers and the professors, who smash statues and twist noses.

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This section contains 2,811 words
(approx. 10 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Michael Levenson
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