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Critical Essay by Del Ivan Janik
SOURCE: "History and the 'Here and Now': The Novels of Graham Swift," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 35, No. 1, Spring, 1989, pp. 74-88.
In the following essay, Janik, an American educator and critic, discusses the relationship between history and the present in Swift's first three novels.
The publication of three novels within a period of four years marked the debut of Graham Swift, who has already established himself as a major novelist and may prove to be the most outstanding English novelist of the final quarter of the twentieth century. The Sweet-Shop Owner (1980) and Shuttlecock (1981) both received highly favorable reviews; Waterland was chosen as the best English novel of 1983 by the Guardian and was short-listed for that year's Booker Prize. In his novels and in the short stories collected in Learning to Swim (1982) Swift has begun to establish for an unpromising swath of South London the kind of fictional superreality that is implied in the phrases "Hardy's Wessex" and "Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha." The South London of Swift's novels has the same kind of physical presence and the same potential for mythical status as the Nottinghamshire of Lawrence or the Dublin of Joyce. Like those places it gains in intensity from its very ordinariness, which in Waterland is set off by the flatness—concealing human and elemental drama—of the Fen country of East Anglia. Swift's characters, too, are ordinary—on the surface they might seem hopelessly dull—but their experiences and their responses to experience cut to some of the central issues of life.
Through Swift's three novels there runs a concern for the meaning of history, in itself and especially in contrast with the immediate present, the Here and Now; related to this concern is the recurrent theme of the value and danger of knowledge. Except perhaps in Shuttlecock, the issues the novels raise remain unresolved, and the fact that the narrative, thematic, and symbolic neatness of Shuttlecock was followed by the expansiveness and complexity of Waterland is a good omen for Swift's further growth as a writer. The Sweet-Shop Owner is, not surprisingly, the least technically ambitious of the three. It depicts the final day in the life of Willy Chapman, the owner of two sweet-shops in an unidentified middle-class section of South London, interspersed with flashbacks to earlier events from his schoolboy days in 1931 to the fictional present, a sunny June day in 1974. The novel's abrupt shifting of time and point of view is reminiscent of Virginia Woolf's narrative technique in Mrs. Dalloway, and Swift, like Woolf, communicates a sense of the seamlessness of experience—which is particularly appropriate for Willy, a character who has changed very little in forty-three years.
The Sweet-Shop Owner is also reminiscent of another early-modern British novel, Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier, in that like Ford's it is a story of defective hearts. Will Chapman and his wife Irene, unlike Florence Dowell and Edward Ashburnham, do actually die of physical heart disorders, but like Ford's characters Swift's suffer more poignantly from an absence of "heart" in the metaphoric sense. When Willy commits suicide by purposely overstraining his weak heart he ends a life in which all attempts at the expression of love had been thwarted. His marriage to Irene, a beautiful, well-to-do young woman who had been left emotionally damaged by a rape, was a bargain whose terms she established immediately: she would give him her beauty, her body, a home and shop, a pattern of work and leisure in material comfort, and, eventually, a daughter who she vainly hoped might make up for her lack of warmth; in return Willy would play the outward role of the husband but would never seek—indeed never offer—love.
The pattern of emotional distance established on their honeymoon lasted nearly four decades, until Irene's death from heart failure, and it was perpetuated in the next generation. Their daughter Dorry, far from becoming the emotional substitute Irene had hoped to offer Willy, inherited her mother's coldness with her beauty. She grew up resenting her mother's indifference and her father's weakness, and nine months after her mother's death she returned home in secret from Bristol, where she lived with a graduate student of history, to carry off Irene's clothes, furs, and jewelry. The extent to which Willy's own values have been shaped by Irene's example is demonstrated by his response to Dorry's rejection of him. He sends her £15,000, in the hope that the gift will prompt a reconciliation. After two months of disappointment he decides, on Dorry's twenty-fifth birthday, to kill himself by bringing on a heart attack.
Willy becomes representative by his total lack of distinction; he is the kind of person one meets daily across a counter without remarking anything but a few superficial traits: an ever solemn expression, a limp acquired in a fall from a ladder. Even as a schoolboy he had avoided distinction, having formulated the survival plan that later fitted him so well as a husband for Irene:
So that he didn't mind about his school reports (he was only good at woodwork and distance running) or that his parents were disappointed, or that those others around him in that chalky class-room would get on better than him. Let them go to meet history. History would come anyway. Nothing touches you, you touch nothing.
Willy is passive, like a puppet, continuing for months after Irene's death to walk through the routine she had established for him. She had found him a journeyman printer who was content to take orders and to create order with ink on paper: "He planned nothing, though every day had its pattern and was spent in making patterns." She gave him new patterns, first the predictable formulas of courtship, then the routine of the shopkeeper who specialized in ephemera: tobacco, sweets, newspapers, and magazines; "none of it—that was the beauty of it—was either useful or permanent." Life became for Willy a series of patterns: the patterns of activity in the High Street, the habits of his employees and customers, the pattern of Irene's progressive illness, the pattern of Dorry's progressive estrangement.
Seen as pattern, experience begins to seem false, a matter of going through the motions, of playing a role; and Willy is acutely aware of the unreality of the patterns he has adopted. From the beginning, he sees that his work as a shopkeeper is a disguise behind which he and Irene both hide. Even on his last day, Willy is playing a part. Having announced to his assistant's amazement that he will walk rather than drive to his second shop with the week's pay packets, he steps on to the Common "as if entering some long-rehearsed scene," and as he walks with difficulty in the hot afternoon sun past his old school he recalls the mile race he had won years before:
The race is decided. It's over as soon as it starts. They think it's a battle but it's only a performance. They think it's action but it's only a pattern. You move and keep your eyes on what is fixed.
When he returns to his main shop, exhausted and suffering from angina, he serves his last few customers in the usual way; "You had to perform to the last." It is only when the shop is closed that he can begin to put off his role:
Half-past five. It seemed as if he were making his escape. He had always known it would be like this. Tomorrow they would discover the fraud, the deception: the costume discarded, the things left untouched so as to make it seem nothing had changed…. He felt like a conjuror, amidst his tricks, for whom, alone, there is no illusion.
Willy Chapman's attempt to define—or conceal—himself in patterns and playacting is in part an attempt to reconcile his feelings of being both a part of and apart from history. The theme of the relationship of the individual to history that dominates Waterland is present in embryonic form in The Sweet-Shop Owner. Willy reflects at the beginning of his last day that he will soon be history, yet nothing will change; as he later recalls thinking as a schoolboy, there is no point in seeking distinction, in going to "meet history": "I didn't believe, in spite of being at grammar school, that the future belonged to me. I thought: things would come to you anyway, and when they did they would already be turned into history."
He had been a poor student, especially of history, yet in attempting small talk with Dorry's lover he asserts, "History. Now I've always been fascinated by history." If that is true, the fascination manifests itself as an apparent indifference. At several points in the novel the narrator calls attention to the headlines of the newspapers Willy deftly folds and hands to his customers, but Willy only reads the headlines so that he would not appear completely ignorant if a customer should mention one of the day's events; Willy liked the newspapers for their "columns, captions, and neat gradations of print," the "patterns" into which the world's events could be gathered. Irene read the papers, but "not because she liked news. It was only to take stock, to acquaint herself, to hold sway over the array of facts and regard them all with cold passivity."
On their honeymoon in 1937 Irene had announced, turning from the papers, "There will be a war, Willy," and when it came both Willy and Irene were essentially untouched by it. Willy was sent off to an army camp in Hampshire to parcel out helmets and sidepacks and Irene counted ration books for the Food Office, but war—living history—remained an abstraction. "History was drawing up its inventory…. What was the connection? What war? What action?" The large events which become the stuff of history have no immediate meaning.
For Willy history is another pattern with which to screen out private reality; for Irene, history is a refuge:
No, it wasn't war, destruction that she feared. It almost protected her, that great ominous blackness, as if she knew where she stood with it—shielded her from sunlight; and she was saved,perhaps, so long as there were bulletins and blackness … from bright moments which urged: No, there is beauty, we do not belong to history.
History can provide escape exactly because of its irrelevance to the everyday experience of the ordinary individual. That in life which is most real, sometimes most fulfilling but often most painful, is expressed not in terms of history but in the spots of time, the moments, in which personal experience is concentrated: what in Waterland Swift calls the Here and Now. The most explicit exposition of this idea comes in one of Willy's mental addresses to Dorry:
What was the name of that thesis you were writing, Dorry? "Romantic Poetry and the Sense of History"? And now you are living with a historian. What do you learn from history, Dorry? Was it history that made you come and plunder your father's house? Or the opposite? Did you want to escape history, to put it all behind you—me; her, those twenty-odd years in that house? To have your moment, your victory at last, with one wild gesture? But—don't you see?—it's the moment (framed in the doorway with your heavy box of loot) that captures you…. Don't you see, you're no freer than before, no freer than I am? And the only thing that can dissolve history now is if, by a miracle, you come.
The moment, the Here and Now, may bring transfiguration; more often it will bring pain; but it is the locus of real meaning. At several points in the novel Willy returns to a phrase that reflects the intense reality of the Now, the moment in which meaning coalesces. Early in the war Irene's family gathers in her parents' garden to pose for a photograph. Willy, not wanted in the pictures, focuses the camera: "The moment captured: gallant figures locked in the view-finder. Why did he wince holding the camera? All right. Now!" The phrase appears again when Willy, walking painfully across the Common, recalls his one triumph, as a schoolboy runner in competition with an unfamiliar dark-haired boy whose sister he later marries: "He could force him back, if he wanted to run faster. The power was there. Thirty yards to go. Neck to neck. Sun in their eyes. Twenty, fifteen. All right. Now." The novel ends with another such moment, as Willy sits at home transfixed and helpless in an armchair, and with the phrase that now reflects the balance of remembrance and immediacy that Willy has achieved in the course of a day during which, with periods of exertion and rest, tablets of digitalis used to counteract a punishing walk in the sun, he has timed his own death:
Can you capture the moment without it capturing you? His chest was transfixed. You stood on the edge of the diving-board. It seemed you might be poised there forever. He couldn't move. He was a powerless skittle towards which was hurtling an invisible ball. Not yet. You stood on your toes, raised your arms. She will not come. The lilac shimmered. The garden framed in the window was like a photograph.
All right. All right—now.
The relationship of history to the present moment forms a more prominent theme in Shuttlecock, Swift's second novel, and it is an important factor underlying the book's structure. The title leads one to think again of Ford's The Good Soldier, in which Nancy Rufford, the ward of Edward and Leonora Ashburnham, goes mad after Edward's suicide and is able to speak only the phrase "Credo in unum Deum Omnipotentem" and the word "Shuttlecocks"—the latter a reflection of her earlier feeling that she had been tossed back and forth between the "violent personalities" of her guardians. Swift's novel is named after a book of war memoirs written by the father of Prentis, Swift's protagonist and narrator. Prentis' Dad, as he invariably calls him, had during World War II been an undercover agent whose missions caused him to be shuttled back and forth between England and occupied France: his book's dust jacket bore the image of a parachutist, painted to resemble a badminton shuttlecock, presumably being dropped behind enemy lines. The image applies also to Prentis himself, who feels in his work as a police archivist that he is being tossed about like a plaything, and who in his personal life is buffeted by his feelings for Dad, who now lives in a mental hospital because he (like Ford's Nancy Rufford) has withdrawn into silence, and his wife and children, who fear his outbursts of temper and seem to have lost all affection and respect for him. The narrative structure resembles that of The Good Soldier in that Prentis, the narrator, begins to write his story in an attempt to understand his circumstances, without knowing where the tale will lead him. Like Ford's John Dowell, he learns new facts and gains new insights as he writes about events that are unfolding in the fictional present. He is, like Dowell, an unattractive character. His opening description of the way in which he tormented a pet hamster named Sammy when he was a child is an appropriate introduction to a man who resents, fears, and suspects his superior at work, bullies his children, and virtually ignores his wife when he is not leading her into unspecified but apparently quite eccentric forms of sexual experimentation. Unlike Dowell, however, Prentis seems to be a reliable narrator; at the end of his tale Dowell still finds it a mystery; Prentis chooses to let some important mysteries remain, but he does so with a clear understanding of the consequences.
Prentis is a historian of a kind, for his work consists of answering inquiries from the police and the courts by researching the records of "dead crimes," unsolved crimes which, usually because the principals have died, have ceased to be acted upon. History begins to become real and pressing for Prentis when Quinn, his superior, starts giving him assignments that lead him toward files involving circumstances apparently related to Prentis' Dad. At the same time, in an attempt to understand the reasons for his father's "linguistic coma" Prentis rereads his memoirs—in fact becomes obsessed by them—and begins to see connections between Dad's wartime activities and the individuals referred to in the mysterious files. Past and present meet in other ways as well. The images of Dad's confinement as a prisoner of war recall Prentis' own feelings of being closed in: within the high walls of his garden at home, in the underground on the way to work, and especially in the archives where he and his colleagues work in a cellar beneath the sidewalks of Central London. Prentis feels himself tortured in the way—if not to the degree—that the Nazis had tortured Dad and that he, as a boy, had tortured Sammy the hamster. Prentis had manipulated Sammy much as he feels Quinn is manipulating him in sending him on wild-goose chases for missing files while holding before him the prospect of promotion to Quinn's own position.
In a further parallel, reminiscent of Joyce's story "Counterparts," Prentis treats his sons as Quinn treats him, setting them pointless tasks in the garden as punishment for failing to greet him when he comes home. Meanwhile he treats his wife Marian almost as a prostitute while he sentimentalizes over the lost passionate innocence of their lovemaking by the seashore years before. Powerless and put upon at work, he acts like a tyrant at home, albeit one who recognizes and is ashamed of his tyranny.
Prentis' historical research in Dad's memoirs and Quinn's files becomes a quest for understanding, not only of Dad but also of himself and his motivations. He recognizes that part of his discontent comes from having a hero for a father; even now he goes to Dad as to a confessor, seeking explanation if not absolution, and he keeps trying, as he reads Dad's account of his wartime exploits, to put himself in his place. He measures himself against Dad and inevitably comes up short:
Sometimes … I would reflect that, in the possibility of exposing singlehandedly some malpractice in the office, lay the opportunity of bringing into my life a faint note of daring, decision—integrity. But then, supposing my gamble failed? And I wanted that promotion…. And then it would strike me that there were really two promotions I wanted. For, quite apart from prospects at work, I wanted to step into Dad's shoes…. And then there was Quinn…. I wanted his job. I wanted to sit in his leather chair. I wanted to look down, like him, through his glass panel, at the underlings I had once worked beside. And yet it seemed … that what I wanted was not so much the promotion itself, but to be in a position where I would know; where I would no longer be the victim, the dupe, no longer be in the dark.
When Prentis' quest for knowledge and self-knowledge finally leads him to confront Quinn about the mysterious files, Quinn's revelations remake Prentis' life, thrusting him into the Here and Now, one of "those moments which made you realize life won't ever be the same again." Prentis learns three things: first, that Quinn has been "with-holding—or destroying—information [from the archives] so as to spare people—needless painful knowledge"; second, that he is to be promoted to Quinn's position; and finally, that there is considerable evidence in the files that Dad may have betrayed his fellow agents in order to be allowed to escape from the Nazis. Prentis also learns that the implications of knowledge—of "knowing"—are considerably more complex than he realized:
I was experiencing the capsizing feeling that the very thing I sought most—Quinn's job—was the thing I wanted least. The old suspicion that Quinn was mad—and, in his shoes, I would be mad too. For a moment, I really wanted to be ignorant, an irresponsible underling.
But Prentis now has knowledge, partial knowledge, of his father's secret, and he is faced with a choice: to confront Dad with what he knows in the hope that it will shock him out of his silence, or to remain silent himself and avoid causing Dad more pain. Quinn offers another choice. He has withheld unread a crucial file containing letters that may lead to conclusive proof of Dad's guilt or innocence, and he proposes that he and Prentis should destroy it, on the ground that "perhaps uncertainty is always better than either certainty or ignorance." Prentis chooses uncertainty, burning the file in a garden incinerator.
Prentis' decision turns out to be liberating, enabling, and even redeeming. On the way home he experiences a feeling of having "emerged out of some confinement." Earlier, in trying to explain his childhood torturing of his pet hamster, his surliness toward his children, and his manipulation of his wife he had observed, "We are all looking for a space where we can be free, where we cannot be reached, where we are masters." Now, in the acceptance of uncertainty, of the ambiguity that comes with being human, Prentis has found that space. He no longer badgers his mute father with unanswerable questions, having found "the perfect balance" of mutual ignorance. He no longer bullies his children, having learned to accept their need for space in which they can mature. He returns to his wife with affection instead of domination and "pointless sophistication." He is able now to live in the present, not because he has conquered history but because he has learned to live with its ambiguities.
Swift's first two novels thus are explorations of related questions, within a restricted scope. In The Sweet-Shop Owner both a brooding immersion in the past and a failure to acknowledge one's part in history come to seem equally destructive, and the only resolution Willy Chapman can find is suicide. In Shuttlecock Prentis undertakes a direct confrontation with history and finds that it is not knowledge but the acceptance of uncertainty that is humanizing; ambiguity enables him to live in the Here and Now.
Swift's third novel deals with some of the same issues, both more explicitly and with greater complexity. Waterland's epigraph is a definition of the Latin word historia: "Historia, æ, f. 1. Inquiry, investigation, learning. 2. a) a narrative of past events, history. b) any kind of narrative: account, tale, story." All three parts of the definition are relevant to the novel. The narrator, Thomas Crick, is a history teacher who comes from a family of storytellers who lived in a "fairy-tale place," the Fens of East Anglia. His story is both a history lesson, a series of tales, and an inquiry; it also incorporates a series of lessons in the natural history of its setting, a place remarkable for both its ordinariness and its mystery, a landscape that is the nearest possible equivalent to water, "a landscape which of all landscapes, most approximates to Nothing":
The Fens were formed by silt…. For centuries the Fens were a network of swamps and brackish lagoons…. What silt began, man continued. Land reclamation. Drainage. But you do not reclaim a land overnight. You do not reclaim a land without difficulty and without ceaseless effort and vigilance. The Fens are still being reclaimed even to this day. Strictly speaking, they are never reclaimed, only being reclaimed.
From the outset the Here and Now of the Fens and the process of land reclamation on which they depend are contrasted with what we normally think of as history: "So forget, indeed, your revolutions, your turning-points, your grand metamorphoses of history. Consider, instead, the slow and arduous process, the interminable and ambiguous process—of land reclamation." But Waterland takes place in a shifting fairy-tale country, and the contrasts turn out not to be so simple.
On one level, Waterland is a series of history lessons, the lessons Crick teaches in the last few weeks before he is forced into early retirement after thirty-two years. As such, they are often wildly inappropriate: the nominal topic of his class is the French Revolution, but he alludes to it rarely, only to illustrate a point about the family and personal events that form most of the narrative's substance. On another level, Waterland is a manifestation of man's need to tell stories to keep reality under control, and Crick can be seen in much the same light as Prentis, a man telling his story in an attempt to cope with its implications.
The novel's structure is rambling and recursive, intermixing episodes from three major elements. The first of these elements is a history of the Fenland and of the prominent entrepreneurial Atkinson family and the obscure, plodding Crick family, from the seventeenth century to the marriage of the narrator's parents after World War I. The second consists of events of the 1940s: Mary Metcalf's adolescent sexual experimentation with Tom Crick and his "potato-head" half brother Dick (who in his demented father/grandfather's eyes is the "Saviour of the World"), Dick's murder of Freddie Parr, Mary's abortion, Tom's revelation of Dick's incestuous conception and Dick's consequent suicide by drowning, Tom's return from the war and his marriage to Mary. The final element involves events of 1980, the narrative present: Mary's religious visions, her kidnapping of a baby (whom she calls a "child of God") from a supermarket, her committal to a mental institution, and Tom's loss of his position as a history teacher. The structure is not chaotic, for each of these three major elements, as it comes to the forefront of the narrative, is treated more or less chronologically; but as a whole the novel conforms to Tom's characterization of history: "It goes in two directions at once. It goes backwards as it goes forwards. It loops. It takes detours" because "there are no compasses for journeying in time."
Tom Crick's stories, which would form a continuous narrative if they were rearranged chronologically, are also interrelated by a number of parallels that resemble in kind but far exceed in complexity the recurring images of confinement in Shuttlecock. One set of parallels involves the concept of history itself, with its emphasis on constructions like Rise and Fall or Revolution. Tom Crick occasionally returns, in his classes, to the subject of the French Revolution:
Children, do you remember … how I explained to you the implications of that word "revolution"? A turning round, a completing of a cycle. How I told you that though the popular notion of a revolution is that of categorical change, transformation—a progressive leap into the future—yet almost every revolution contains within it an opposite if less obvious tendency: the idea of a return. A redemption; a restoration. A reaffirmation of what is pure and fundamental against what is decadent and false. A return to a new beginning….
As Robespierre and Marat sought not a futurist utopia but a return to an idealized Rome, Crick's students demand his reinstatement when the headmaster acts out their spoken contempt for the subject of history; generations of Cricks devote themselves to reclamation of the land; the last Atkinson brewer seeks to reproduce the purity of his family's original ale; and Mary Metcalf tries in a Lewisham supermarket to regain the motherhood she had relinquished more than three decades before in a filthy Fenland cottage. The parallels are indirect and inexact, redolent not of literary contrivance but of Tom Crick's notion of history as a series of loops and detours in the journey through time.
The duality of History and the Here and Now that played an important role in Swift's first two novels comes to the forefront in Waterland, and virtually all of the elements of the novel contribute to Swift's exploration of this theme. Tom Crick's meditations lead him to define and redefine history, in ways that are sometimes contradictory but from which a pattern ultimately emerges. History is, in the first instance, an academic subject that is about to be retrenched at Crick's school because the headmaster considers it "a rag-bag of pointless information." While Crick admits that history is distinct from the usually much less eventful everyday reality, that it is "reality-obscuring drama," he nevertheless insists on its value in helping us to shape our responses to that reality: "even if we miss the grand repertoire of history, yet we imitate it in miniature and endorse, in miniature, its longing for presence, for feature, for purpose, for content."
Confronted by a rebellious class that doubts the value of history, that asks in effect "Why the past?," Crick at first resorts to the pat answer that the "Why?" itself is the reason for studying history, that man is "the animal which asks Why." But in the face of present reality—a job that is about to disappear, students who are convinced that history is about to end in nuclear holocaust, and a wife who has lost her sanity—he is less confident about history as explanation; perhaps it is only a matter of telling stories and hoping to find meaning through them. The study of history is also an attempt at reclamation, based on the desire to "discover how you've become what you are. If you're lucky you might find out why. If you're lucky—but it's impossible—you might get back to where you can begin again. Revolution." History is a matter of reflection, the attempt to retrieve or find or impose logic and order on what is neither logical nor orderly; it is the creation of public reality.
But as Tom Crick states early and keeps demonstrating, "history is a thin garment, easily punctured by a knife blade called Now." That other realm, the immediate life-transforming moment, the Here and Now, is history's mirror image: it is a matter of chance or impulse; its logic is the logic of madness or of nonsense; it is and creates the most intense kind of private reality. Price, the self-appointed leader of Crick's bored and rebellious students, introduces the term when he insists, "What matters is the here and now," setting Crick to wondering just what "this much-adduced Here and Now" really is:
How many times, children, do we enter the Here and Now? How many times does the Here and Now pay us visits? It comes so rarely that it is never what we imagine, and it is the Here and Now that turns out to be the fairy tale, not History, whose substance is at least forever determined and unchangeable. For the Here and Now has more than one face. It was the Here and Now which by the banks of the Hockwell Lode with Mary Metcalf unlocked for me realms of candor and rapture. But it was the Here and Now also which pinioned me with fear when livid-tinted blood, drawn by a boat-hook, appeared on Freddie Parr's right temple.
The Here and Now is not simply present daily life, as Price would have it; "life includes a lot of empty space. We are one-tenth living tissue, nine-tenths water; life is one-tenth Here and Now, nine-tenths a history lesson." The Here and Now comes in "surprise attacks" that "bring both joy and terror" and "for a brief and giddy interval announce that time has taken us prisoner."
History and the Here and Now thus are not opposites but polarities, two aspects of experience. Both emerge out of the empty space of daily life. Making history, like the Atkinsons, and telling stories about it, like the Cricks, are two different ways to outwit the emptiness we glimpse (and fear) at the heart of reality; to "assure ourselves that … things are happening." It was a series of surprise attacks of the Here and Now in the summer of 1943—Freddie's murder, Mary's pregnancy and her abortion, Dick's suicide—that seriously involved Tom Crick in the study of history, which had seemed only a set of fairy tales:
Until the Here and Now gave a sudden urgency to my studies. Until the Here and Now, gripping me by the arm, slapping my face and telling me to take a good look at the mess I was in, informed me that history was no invention but indeed existed—and I had become part of it.
The Here and Now—the moment of penetrating, inescapable reality in which one is poignantly alive and aware—thrusts one into history, the equally inescapable awareness that decisions are irrevocable and actions have consequences.
History and the Here and Now have the same sources, the most potent of which is curiosity. It was Tom's curiosity about his forebears, the Atkinsons and Cricks, his need for an explanation, that led to the stories he tells in Waterland, and it was Mary's sexual curiosity that led to the series of events that touched off the need:
Curiosity which, with other things, distinguishes us from the animals, is an ingredient in love: It is a vital force. Curiosity, which bogs us down in arduous meditations and can lead to the writing of history books, will also, on occasion, as on that afternoon by the Hockwell Lode, reveal to us that which we seldom glimpse unscathed (for it appears more often—dead bodies, boathooks—dressed in terror): the Here and Now.
Curiosity is endangering, but it is also potentially redemptive. It is their lack of curiosity that most worries Crick about Price and his other students:
Children [he warns them,] be curious. Nothing is worse (I know it) than when curiosity stops. Nothing is more repressive than the repression of curiosity. Curiosity begets love. It weds us to the world. It's part of our perverse, madcap love for this impossible planet we inhabit. People die when curiosity goes. People have to find out, people have to know.
Curiosity in its manifestation as the study of history contributes to the preservation of life and its value. Tom Crick explains to Price that he became a teacher of history because of his discovery, in the rubble of postwar Germany, that civilization is precious: "an artifice—so easily knocked down—but precious." History does not promise endless progress, in fact it tends to teach that "the same old things will repeat themselves," and it thereby offers a model of worthwhile human endeavor. A person, a generation, a people have been successful if "they've tried and so prevented things slipping. If they haven't let the world get any worse." Crick expands on this idea when he addresses the school on the occasion of his forced retirement:
There's this thing called progress. But it doesn't progress. It doesn't go anywhere. Because as progress progresses the world can slip away. My humble model for progress is the reclamation of land. Which is repeatedly, never-endingly retrieving what is lost. A dogged and vigilant business. A dull yet valuable business. A hard, inglorious business. But you shouldn't go mistaking the reclamation of land for the building of empires.
The Rosa II, the silt-dredger where Dick Crick works and dies, is a reclaimer of land, performing the work of staying even, the unglamorous but essential business of "scooping up from the depths this remorseless stuff that time leaves behind." The student of history has the same task: to keep scooping up the detritus of time in the attempt, if not to get ahead, at least not to leave things worse than they were. In his last confused, drunken hours on the dredger Dick unconsciously acts out that imperative:
He's here. He knows his place. He knows his station. He keeps the ladder turning, the buckets scooping…. And the smell of silt is the smell of sanctuary, is the smell of amnesia. He's here, he's now. Not there or then. No past, no future. He's the mate of the Rosa II.
And he's the saviour of the world….
Considering the nature of Dick's work, the valediction is only partially ironic. In two of Waterland's crucial events—Dick's death and the return of the child Mary kidnapped—the Here and Now and the principles of history meet and clash, with uncertain results. The "Saviour of the World" drowns himself, and the "child of God" is restored to his natural mother and an ordinary life. The world cannot afford saviors, cannot support them. The only salvation is in the continual task of reclamation of the land.
Waterland continues explorations that Swift had begun in his earlier novels, though without dropping a final curtain as in The Sweet-Shop Owner or even coming to the kind of tentative conclusion Prentis reaches in Shuttlecock. Willy Chapman achieves a release through death, and Prentis finds solace in ambiguity. As is suggested by the fact that Waterland ends not with a resolution in the fictional present but with Dick's suicide some four decades earlier, Thomas Crick finds ambiguity but no resting place. The Sweet-Shop Owner and Shuttlecock are well-made novels, works of art in which all aspects of the craft of fiction combine to create a satisfying whole; the excellence of Waterland is excellence of the type of Joyce's Ulysses or Lawrence's The Rainbow: the novel confronts crucial human concerns in ways that evoke their complexity and throw them into intense emotional relief at the same time as it satisfies our desire for good stories. Graham Swift is a writer who has achieved artistic maturity but shows every sign of further growth in his efforts to contribute to the work of "reclaiming the land."
This section contains 6,207 words
(approx. 21 pages at 300 words per page)