Graham Swift | Critical Review by Anne Duchêne

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Graham Swift.
This section contains 889 words
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Critical Review by Anne Duchêne

SOURCE: "By the Grace of the Teller," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4432, March 11-17, 1988, p. 275.

In the following review, Duchêne relates Swift's focus on storytelling, remembrance, knowledge, and family relations in Out of This World.

It cannot have been easy to follow Waterland, Graham Swift's last novel and a wonderfully dark-veined mass of story-telling, so perhaps it is not surprising that Swift chose for this new book [Out of This World] a very spare form—two rapidly antiphonal monologues, two or three supporting characters, very little physical setting. Happily, his themes remain constant: What do we know? What makes us think we know it? What do we do if we don't think we can know anything?

One suggested solution in Waterland to the discovery that "life includes a lot of empty space" was that "you can tell stories", and "telling", of a more confessional kind, is very important here too: between the pain of remembering and the pain of forgetting, "either way, you're in a mess. But the answer to the problem is to learn how to tell. It's telling that reconciles memory and forgetting."

The "telling" here is chiefly by Harry, now sixty-four, once the kind of news photographer whose pictures from the more acutely atrocious parts of the world—Algeria, Vietnam, Belfast and the rest—became famous in other parts of the world. For ten years now, however, he has been employed by an amateur archaeologist as an aerial photographer, scanning Wiltshire for signs of Bronze Age settlements. His interlocutor, as it were, is his daughter, Sophie, learning to "tell" on an analyst's couch in New York. There has been no communication between them for ten years, since Harry's father was blown up by a carbomb and Sophie saw Harry taking photographs a moment later.

This is an extraordinarily closely laminated little story; layer upon layer about violence and insufficient loving. Harry's father, who lost an arm and won a VC [Victoria Cross] in the First World War, is a very rich arms manufacturer. After her mother's early death, he brings up Sophie as tenderly as emotional strangulation and pressure of work allow; Sophie reaches the analyst's couch after seeing her own sons playing with borrowed toy guns. Harry, also a motherless child, decided that if he trusted to vision, never tried to look beyond it, he would become less frightened. Harry and his father are both the kind of defective father-figure who haunts almost all this author's stories.

(This takes no account of two interpolations, one from Anna, Harry's dead Greek wife, who died pregnant by another man owing to the absences abroad of insufficiently loved and loving Harry; the other from Joe, Sophie's diligently blinkered husband, from Tottenham originally, who apparently does believe that everybody ought to enjoy himself. Try as one may, one cannot find that these single intrusions epitomize anything but unavailing, wasted loyalty.)

Harry's voice and Sophie's are closely interleaved, like short "takes", cinematically speaking, or even sometimes like slides in an epidiascope (a still photograph, Harry remarks, can represent "a reprieve, an act of suspension, a charm"). What happens is that their "telling" does reconcile memory and forgetting, and so allow their own reconciling. Harry is able to write to ask Sophie's blessing on his second marriage; Sophie is able to fly, with her blessing and her sons, to England. This is a fable about, if not loving, then trusting.

Reluctantly, given that this is an author who in an almost absurdly short time (roughly eight years) has created so many fine "tellings", reservations must be expressed. Not, certainly, about the lack of linearity: the cinema has taught us about that, and the whole tale is spun rapidly and richly to its point. The writing, though, lacks the resonance of Waterland and the manic Kafkaesque energies of Shuttlecock, and presumably this is due, not so much to the upward shift in social mobility, to make Harry's and his father's occupations tenable—though "photojournalists" and arms manufacturers do, of course, encourage cliché—as to a wish, respectable and in itself desirable, to witness to all modern experience from 1939 onwards.

Sometimes this can be a grace; as at the book's opening, where Harry and his father, briefly united, watch the moon-landing in 1969, and then go into the garden—"I suppose all over the world people must have done that that night: left their TV sets and gone to stare at the sky." Sometimes it seems a bit gratuitous (Harry meets his future, first wife at the Nuremberg trials, for instance); and Sophie's defensive glibness on her couch is in a mode made very familiar by writers of very much smaller compass.

Harry, in the end, claims he has left his father's "age of mud" for "the age of air". Well, bully for him; but his radiantly beautiful, understanding twenty-three-year-old new wife in Wiltshire encourages such unconvincing writing—"she makes me feel that the world is not so black with memories, so grey with age, that it cannot be re-coloured by the magic paint-box of the heart"—that one would really rather have seen Harry slog it out alone, on the road to reconciliation. Or else the reader might have wished to get more lift-off into this empyrean, 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.

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This section contains 889 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Anne Duchne
Literature Criticism Series
Critical Review by Anne Duchêne from Literature Criticism Series. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.
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