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Critical Review by Patrick Parrinder
SOURCE: "Verbing a Noun," in London Review of Books, Vol. 10, No. 6, March 17, 1988, pp. 17-18.
An English educator and critic, Parrinder has written several books on H. G. Wells and science fiction. In the following excerpt, he offers a positive assessment of Out of This World, discussing the work within the context of twentieth-century history and Swift's earlier works.
[Graham Swift is a novelist who] is burdened by history, and for whom the central theme of modern life is our own historical self-consciousness. The 20th century, for [this writer], is the historical century par excellence. The 19th, by contrast, was less exhaustively documented and now seems to have been nourished on chauvinistic legends rather than the brutality of facts.
For 'facts', however, we must doubtless read 'representations'. These representations, in modern times, have been overwhelmingly photographic in nature. Even the literary and narrative arts have (as is well-known) been transformed by cinematic techniques. Storytelling is shot through with notions of the frame, the picture, and the narrator-as-camera….
The triumphantly strait-laced 19th century held onto its secrets almost to the end, which was why the Fin de Siècle was such a profoundly liberating period. Now, as we enter a different sort of fin de siècle, few secrets remain to be revealed and all illusions of 20th-century grandeur were lost long ago. The image of an unnaturally and catastrophically violent century was fixed by 1945 at the latest, and has been endlessly recycled and reproduced since. How much of our sense that we inhabit exceptionally violent times derives from our experience of constant bombardment with photographic representations of actually and potentially violent events? Can we say that the two world wars are lodged so firmly in the memory not just because they involved killing on a mass scale but because they have been so comprehensively and pervasively illustrated—the mass killings and mass illustrations reinforcing one another? Since 1945 there have been many further wars, not global in their extent but continuously adding to the stock of global war footage. Our inherited photographic images tend to be confirmed by the reporting and representation of each new war; the same patterns of association remain. At the end of Out of this World the main character recalls his first trip abroad, on a visit to France to mark the tenth anniversary of the Armistice in 1918. Flying home, he felt that he was being lifted 'out of the age of mud … into the age of air'. This childhood memory is being recalled in 1982, at the time of the Falklands War, and it seems quite natural that in the Eighties 'mud' should still suggest Flanders mud, trench warfare and the poor bloody infantry, while 'air' evokes pictures of the Second World War.
Like Graham Swift's earlier novels, this one is a family history in which behind the ostensible story lurks a further story, one that haunts the narrative and yet is never entirely dragged to the surface. Out of this World is, however, much closer to The Sweet Shop Owner and Shuttlecock than it is to Waterland, its immediate predecessor. In Waterland the narrator was a history teacher recalling the traumatic events of a Second World War childhood overshadowed, in part, by the after-effects of his father's shell-shock, suffered in the First World War. Nevertheless, the Fenland landscape provided the occasion for a genially expansive narrative and for a much longer historical perspective. However bleak its underlying vision, this is deservedly Graham Swift's best-loved novel, and not only amongst East Anglians. The Sweet Shop Owner and Shuttlecock are very different: less exuberant, more austere, and more truly searching in their exploration of family relationships. In these rather puritanical texts, Swift deploys understated emotions and a strong plot to achieve an acute sense of psychological tension. The same technique is present in Out of this World, which once again pursues the theme of hatred between father and daughter or father and son (only now it is both), and returns obsessively to wartime experiences as a source of bitter and indissoluble memories.
All Swift's novels have been confessional in form, and in his new book he uses a sequence of brief monologues, arranged as if to compose a dialogue in absentia between father and daughter, to evoke three generations of the Beech family—a dynasty which spans the 20th century. Robert, a First World War hero in his youth, became a successful armaments manufacturer, dominating the family and the family business until he was killed in 1972 by a terrorist car-bomb just outside his house. Harry, his son, refused to take over the Beech Munitions Company and became instead a professional photographer. He trained in RAF Intelligence, analysing the 'morning after' photographs of bombing raids over Germany, and towards the end of the Second World War he began to compile a historical record of Bomber Command. The best of his pictures—a shot of a dying pilot, for example—were censored in case they should damage morale. Later Harry attended the Nuremberg trials, and became a news cameraman shuttling to and from the world's trouble-spots. He took some famous pictures of Vietnam, and his two books, Aftermaths and Photos of a Decade, made him something of a Sixties celebrity. His confessions are silently addressed to Sophie, his estranged daughter who emigrated to the United States in 1972 immediately after her grandfather's funeral. Her own side of the story is confided for the most part to her analyst, an obvious father-substitute.
Sophie loved her grandfather (though without understanding him) and has always felt rejected by her father; Harry, the cameraman who has intruded on the grief of suffering people all over the world, has himself suffered at the hands of his own father and of Sophie's mother, an emotionally-disturbed refugee from wartime Greece who regards herself as 'one of the world's walking wounded'. But Sophie's mother is now dead, and Harry, in semiretirement working as an aerial photographer for an archaeological survey, is on the verge of marrying again. Logic and his stubborn, unforgiving family background seem to argue against the belated happiness which he believes he has found. Can a Beech, of all people, retire into private life? The very existence of arms manufacturers and news photographers seems to argue against the notion of the integrity of private life. At the end a reconciliation between Harry and Sophie is a distinct possibility, but this will do little to alleviate the novel's further mystery, or perhaps double mystery. For the family estrangements run so deep that they serve to implicate the whole 20th century; and, in particular, what actually happened on the Western Front on that day in 1918 when Robert, the founder of the dynasty, won the Victoria Cross will never be known. Officially, he saved the life of his commanding officer by picking up a live grenade and throwing it away. The grenade went off too soon, and he lost an arm. (The two consequences, it is implied, were causally linked. Soldiers quite often threw away grenades, without suffering injury from them, and without winning the VC either.)
To the extent that Out of this World turns on Harry Beech's questioning of his father's heroism, it might be seen as a re-run of the plot of Shuttlecock, in which the main character discovered the shameful truth behind his father's tale of a daring escape from the Gestapo. Both novels rather blatantly set out to debunk the Boy's Own Paper ethos. Nevertheless, Shuttlecock was an exploration of the spy mentality, probing the connection between imaginative invention—lying, or fiction-making—and courage in the face of the enemy. (Perhaps the two are quite often the same.) Out of this World develops a different sort of moral conundrum. Robert Beech has never deliberately misrepresented his actions, and can scarcely be said to have represented them at all; it is not until he is over seventy that he even tells his son what happened. All he has done is to accept the VC, which implies its own mode of representation.
According to Harry's sense of the modern world, everything is always already subject to representation. Life is 'this vast display of evidence, this exhibition of recorded data, this continuously running movie'. In his and Sophie's reminiscences and confessions the metaphor of the picture or snapshot—but of course it is much more than a metaphor—is pervasive. What they remember, what they look forward to, and the way in which they project their lives, are all, in effect, a series of visible scenes: still photos, or moving pictures, captured from a particular standpoint (their own), fixed and developed, and then stored as if in some psychic album. The seen and recorded impressions exclude the not-seen—that which is either suppressed or cannot be visualised. Though every picture tells a story (as the journalist says), the heart of the story may well consist in something which in its nature could not be photographed, or if photographed, would not get shown.
One of Harry's best-known pictures was of a US soldier in the act of throwing a grenade. Seconds later, the soldier was killed, but the world only got to see the one picture even though Harry had kept on filming. Harry's speculations about his own father's potentially suicidal grenade-throwing must reckon with the fact (or rather, the apparent fact) that no camera was present at the incident. The same should have been true of the IRA bomb explosion in 1972, which killed his father just outside his front door. Harry was in his bedroom at the time, packing for a flight to strife-torn Belfast, and instead of sprinting downstairs to give help, his first instinct—witnessed by his unrelenting daughter—was to grab his camera and move to the window.
There are times when the weight of history sits starkly and heavily on this novel. Yet it is told with deceptive simplicity and a compelling imaginative intensity. There are no wasted words or ineffectual images here. In Swift's two principal younger characters, the brittle and resentful Sophie and her rather commonplace husband Joe, we see an attempt to escape from wartime obsessions and from the shadow of the 'walking wounded'. Yet Sophie is emotionally distraught (she cannot abide the sight of toy guns) and Joe, refusing a stake in the family firm, has set up as a Manhattan travel agent and British-heritage merchant. For him, we have moved into 'the age of fun, the age of leisure, the age of the holiday'. Perhaps this is also the age of hot air. Poor Joe's vision of life suggests nothing so much as Philip Larkin's 'High Windows', with its images of the 'long slide' and the 'deep blue air, that shows / Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless'. In that respect, Harry's final position, working as an aerial photographer with a pretty young wife in a picture-book cottage, is somewhat equivocal. We are not going to get out of this world, with its accumulations of images and memories and deposits of mud, as easily as all that; the power and fascination of each of Swift's novels, including this one, rest on some such dogged affirmation.
This section contains 1,850 words
(approx. 7 pages at 300 words per page)