Graham Swift | Critical Review by Hermione Lee

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Graham Swift.
This section contains 824 words
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Critical Review by Hermione Lee

SOURCE: "Shutter and Lens," in The Observer, March 13, 1988, p. 43.

Lee is an English critic, editor, nonfiction writer, and educator. In the following mixed review, she discusses stylistic and thematic aspects of Out of This World, noting, in particular, Swift's focus on mythology and photography. Although she praises the volume's focus and aims, she concludes that the work's "good ideas float about on the surface, and haven't sunk down into the rich, vividly realised depths of Shuttlecock or Waterland."

The history teacher of Graham Swift's marvellous novel Waterland told us that life is one-tenth Here and Now, nine-tenths a history lesson. The past may drown us, but to be amnesiac would be idiocy.

In that book, water was the element; now in Out Of This World, it is air. History was the lesson then, now it is myth. The sad, contemplative voice of the middle-aged narrators in Waterland and the earlier novels, investigating secret family pasts that come to stand for a national history, have changed to a more brittle, edgy, 'modern' tone. 'New' metaphors of photography, space and air travel replace the rivery language of drowning and drainage in Waterland. But though the new novel feels different, it is still asking Swift's characteristically painful, intelligent, difficult questions about the world we have to be in.

This time the family story is told by an estranged father and daughter, in a split narrative which enacts the dislocation it describes. Harry Beech, now (in 1982) in his sixties, is an aerial photographer, once a ruthless photo-journalist, 'shooting' in the 'lunatic zones'—Dresden, Nuremberg, Vietnam—where 'somebody had to be a witness'. His Greek wife Anna died in an aircrash, he has abandoned their daughter Sophie, and he has only now found a love—'out of this world'—for a much younger woman.

His whole life has been overshadowed by his father, Robert Beech, wounded 'hero' of the Great War, arms manufacturer, public servant, who was blown up in 1972 by an IRA bomb outside his 'idyllic' English home. After the catastrophe, Henry gave up his job, and Sophie, pregnant with twin sons, fled to America, 'the land of cancelled memories, the land without a past'.

Sophie is trying to tell her life to a shrink called 'Dr K'. This is (deliberately?) somewhat banal. The plot comes at us bittily and the voices sound thin, Harry's virile and tight-lipped, Sophie's tiredly neurotic ('you really have a way of cutting through the crap', etc). But the style makes a point. The world has become unspeakable: it has lost its memories and its meanings. So everything is broken or in bits; Robert's arm ('swapped for a medal'), his pace-maker heart ('soon I will be all spare parts'), his body, 'blown to little pieces', his memorial bronze (head only, to avoid the fake arm). Disinherited Henry, dislocated Sophie spill out 'strange bits' of their lives.

The art for this world is not storytelling but photography, and much of the novel is a meditation on its problematic appropriateness. The camera can 'show the point at which the story breaks down', avoiding aesthetic content and composition, simply 'holding open the shutter when the world wants to close its eyes'. But by 'separating the image from the thing' (some disturbing wartime examples of this process are given), photography can confer, rather than record, actuality. In the end it seems that nothing can happen until claimed by film, 'as if the world were the lost property of the camera.'

The novel suggests that photography has replaced classical mythology, and tries out all kinds of comparisons on this theme. The cinema is the substitute for the classics, the cameramen walk the war zones as if immune, 'like those immortal gods and goddesses who flitted unharmed round the plain at Troy'. It may even be that the taking of photographs is meant to allay the horror of the facts, as sacrifices once propitiated the anger of the gods.

Swift takes savage care, though, not to go in for golden ageism. 'Arcadia' is a cafe in Nuremberg, 'Paradise' a house in occupied Greece. The old myths were as brutal as the new: 'What else was Homer singing about so deathlessly,' says Sophie, 'than these guys with spears sending other guys down to Hades?' There's no decline or progress, just monstrous repetition. Vulcan, deformed god of metal, comes back as Robert Beech; Britain grotesquely refights the Trojan    r for the Falklands; St George, our own mythological hero, was always 'a chain-mailed thug'. And, as ever, the women (here given strong voices for the first time in Swift's writing) are sacrificed. The story of Iphigeneia continually recurs.

All this is serious and interesting. Yet, for all its craft and care, the novel is something of a disappointment. It feels painstaking and discursive; its good ideas float about on the surface, and haven't sunk down into the rich, vividly realised depths of Shuttlecock or Waterland. It is a book to respect, but not to fall in love with.

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This section contains 824 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Hermione Lee
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