Home | BAC/Teze | Biblioteca | Jobs | Referate | Horoscop | Muzica | Dex | Games | Barbie





Index | Forum | E-mail


DESPERADO - Contemporary British Literature | There are two major directions in 20th century literature: the stream of consciousness and the Post-stream of consciousness, the latter being known as Postmodernism (including Post-Postmodernism as well)...


 + Click:  Grupuri | Newsletter | Portal | Referate online | Forum discutii | Premii de excelenta | Europa





  <  Back to index



British Desperadoes at the Turn of the Millennium

The Disappointed and Disappointing Memory-Land Reclaimer – Graham Swift

(born 1949)


Portrait by VIC (Cristina Ioana Vianu)

Graham Swift is a devious, Faulknerian novelist. He is also a very thrifty one. No detail without further use, no detail without further delay, so to speak. Every word he writes has a tail of on-coming revelations, which sure enough will postpone the end of the book. Does the book ever end? Not if the writer can help it. The flow of words could go on forever. Between words and incidents, Graham Swift constantly fights the waters of silence and reclaims every inch of a bewitched land of memories.

Waterland (1983) both confuses and gratifies the reader. First of all, it is one of the best examples of the contemporary hybridization of genres, as it mixes fiction, poetry, history, essay, diary, teaching (yet never learning), and so on. It is a premeditated medley, so characteristic of the Desperado way of writing that has reigned in the last decades of the 20th century, and will probably outlast the turn of the millennium.

Although the story is not complicated at all, the narrative is patched and piecemeal. Unlike Virginia Woolf’s avowed desire to smash our understanding of the story, which invariably ended in its very opposite (since we instantly put the pieces into place, the moment we have done reading, and all we preserve is the recollection of a pretty straight line), Graham Swift exhales bafflement without exerting himself in the least. The whole plot boils down to some adolescent recollections in the process – totally devoid of tranquillity – of a history teacher addressing his pupils. We (readers) are his alleged pupils, and the book itself is the syllabus of this very unconventional course in (personal, yet endlessly repeated, therefore world) history.

From the very first words, we are plunged into the deep waters surrounding the reclaimed land of the story. The author does not give a damn whether we can swim (understand, follow him) or not. We are fed incident after incident, revelation after revelation. The right connections between each detail and its subsequent development into drama (not unlike Hardy’s use of premonitions) overwhelm us before we have had time to raise our head above water and breathe.

However hard we may try, Graham Swift’s story cannot be retold in a coherent manner, because he beats Virginia Woolf at her own game, and makes the stream of consciousness the very stuff of his narrative. He seems eager to tell his story so that everyone may find it smooth, but there is no mistaking him. He was born long after Experimentalism waned. He is one of the Desperadoes at the turn of this millennium, a writer who wants his books both popular and different. We read him smoothly, though breathlessly, but the overall impression is one of frustration. At the end of the story we realize we have been led by the nose: information pours from every word and we feel battered. At the end of Waterland, Graham Swift pats our hand, empties his bag of surprises and, because of too much pressure and painful suspense, he is deserted by an exhausted reader.

The story begins with the brutal opposition between the ‘fairy-tale’ mood of the characters and the gloominess of ‘the Fens,’ land floating on water, stolen, menacing to crumble, thoroughly grim, very much to be escaped from, like Joyce’s Dublin. A universe of obscure guilt. We are taken back to the 1930s, but just for one chapter, as there is constant exchange of contemporary comments and past mysteries. Yet, first and foremost (see Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) is the secret of the unseen, yet unguessed, of the slow but sure to come.

What happens is, basically – and very simplistically – a boy-meets-girl story, boy gets girl pregnant (which we learn so much later), plus endless complications. The boy grows up into – of all the professions in the world – a history teacher. While recollecting the book (we keep wondering, Has this book ever been written? When is the author going to sit down and feed it to us in decent order? Or can we do that on our own? May we? Should we? Well – No.), the history teacher Tom Crick is on the point of being pushed into early retirement, and is terribly depressed at the almost certain prospect of his department being dissolved. The school (the world?) is giving up history.

One of the reasons why Crick has to go away is that his wife Mary (the former pregnant teenager who lost her child since that was what she wanted, and was left with the lifelong disability of ever bearing children again) stole a baby at the supermarket. She claims God promised her a baby. The infant is promptly returned, yet Tom has to pay the price of his wife’s becoming insane. It may not be mere coincidence that the only pupil in Crick’s class who actually has a name is called Price.

In the meantime, grandparents and parents die, the world goes on. It might seem that this book has no secondary characters. They are all main heroes. From whatever point in time we look at it, this Mona-Lisa-like narrative gazes back with the eyes of some major personage. The author will not allow us to doze off, close our eyes, get bored. He shifts the plot from back to back, until we feel we have to give up: everyone is the focus of attention, yet, from the dispassionate tone of the story-teller, we wonder if anyone gives a damn about anyone else.

Consequently, stories mingle. One of them is extremely intriguing. Tom’s mother had a first-born (Dick, Tom’s half-brother and even a bit more), conceived with her father. Dick is a ‘potato head,’ and he kills Freddie Parr, another teenager, because he thinks it was Freddie who got Mary pregnant. In his dumb way, he is of course in love with Mary, and he finally, very late, finds out the child was Tom’s. When Freddie Parr’s body is found floating, Tom realizes Dick is to blame, but says nothing. He has a few thoughts, but this is not a book of meditation, although it follows, apparently, the stream of Tom Crick’s memories. It is and yet seems it could not be farther away from the stream of consciousness.

We are not invited within the characters’ judgments. The story of a history teacher, this book deals with remembered facts. Hard facts, all of them. Cruelty smothers us, and we sigh while we struggle for breath. There is no fresh air, no freshness whatever in the book. It is a wrinkled, disabused text. All the author’s strength goes into keeping our interest alive. Like his contemporaries, he means to shock us into remembrance of things past. He is an adept at the bitter shock, the shudder which affords no pleasure, a book of sentimental horror and drowning meanings. Nothing seems to make sense any more. Not even literature.

The chapters are each in turn a history lesson, told either in the first person, or in the impersonal voice of incidents happening in a strange time, ‘out of joint,’ when something is really ‘rotten in the state of Denmark.’ The author uses every possible way out, leaving us utterly alone with the characters, mainly with Tom Crick, who pleads:

‘Children. Children, who will inherit the world. Children (for always, even though you were fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, candidates for the appeasing term ‘young adults’, I addressed you, silently, as ‘children’) – children, before whom I have stood for thirty-two years in order to unravel the mysteries of the past, but before whom I am to stand no longer, listen, one last time, to your history teacher.’

Instead of the horrors of the French Revolution, Tom Crick relates his private hell: the murder of Freddie Parr by his ‘potato-head’ brother, born out of incest; a secret abortion which leads to a lifelong tragedy; the rise and fall of the Atkinsons’ empire; the heart-rending enmities between teachers within a school; the haunting, desperate and vain awaiting of the experience of love. He could write A History of the Fens, but prefers talking it over with his disciples. He teaches a humanized form of very near history, and the already mentioned Tom Price, who begins as a rebel and ends as the teacher’s greatest fan, remarks:

‘The only important thing about history, I think, sir, is that it’s got to the point where it’s probably about to end.

This story Crick unfurls is incredibly tortuous. Even putting Hardy and Faulkner together, we could hardly explain the workings of Graham Swift’s mind. He is very often highly lyrical. The narrative is ostentatiously informal. The more defiant, matter-of-fact the story-teller becomes, the shyer the narrator, whose sensitivity somersaults, hides, poses, shouts or whispers. The major trick is that of running the movie backwards: the details are lined up from end to the very beginning, the truth is delayed and finally merges with its future – the history teacher’s old age. In the midst of this wilful confusion, the reader feels immersed in torpor and helplessness: Come what may, the unseen author knows it all, I can merely wait...

The whole book is a long wait, saved by suspense, which definitely means the story is very much alive. It even flirts with the year 1922 (when Ulysses and The Waste Land were both published), the year of the wedding of Crick’s parents. It dips its fingers deep into poetry. Here is one instance:

‘...I have not brought history with me this evening (history is a thin garment, easily punctured by a knife blade called Now). I have brought my fear.’

Some paragraphs are short blank verse poems. The whole book is a strange lyrical approach to the narration of memory.

Dick, the fruit of incest, the ‘freak’ who murders, who can hardly read or write, but is physically a miracle, reminds the reader of Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child. He begins and ends the book. Like the eels, he leaves the end of the book, to return to a secret place of renewal. Is he the main hero? Is his brother the main protagonist? Are there any main heroes at all? Is this a novel of fear or love? Graham Swift’s Waterland arouses more questions every time one re-reads it. No definition can fit it. To my mind, precisely because of this reason, it may be declared the paragon of Desperado fiction (meaning contemporary, at least): it puzzles.

To put things right and relieve our anguish, the history teacher states:

‘As long as there’s a story, it’s all right.’

And he goes on weaving the web of our disarray and discomfort, because negation of every conventional device and meaning is what contemporary Desperado writing is all about. I am not who you think I am, the writer claims; read (think) again. He does that by pushing his novel on to the brink of the essay, yet stops short (and aptly) before it becomes abstract. Sex is one path towards the very concrete. Swift’s directness is always steeped in lyricism. Here is the description of history given by his character who made ‘a profession out of the past’:

‘There are no compasses for journeying in time. As far as our sense of direction in this unchartable dimension is concerned, we are like lost travellers in a desert. We believe we are going forward, towards the oasis of Utopia. But how do we know – only some imaginary figure looking down from the sky (let’s call him God) can know – that we are not moving in a great circle?’

One of the tricks used to delay the plot in this novel is the constant interruption. Repeated interruptions of a story, which is thus broken into tiny bits of coloured glass, mingle together into a kaleidoscope of imagination. We come across details which are apparently insignificant, sentences which are apparently unrelated. The same as Julian Barnes (in Flaubert’s Parrot) mixes Flaubert criticism with pure fiction, Graham Swift mixes here the French Revolution, World War II, and a private, imaginary story. His point is that repetition is the key, that no matter how often a process is interrupted, the circle will be completed. The story, too. So, interruptions are there only to spur us into reading on.

Besides the reader’s bumpy advance into an unpredictable rough story, there is also in Swift a childish sweetness of the picturesque. The father tells his two sons (out of whom one is a freak, fruit of incest, while the other chooses to live in the past):

‘Do you know what the stars are? They are the silver dust of God’s blessing. They are little broken-off bits of heaven. God cast them down to fall on us. But when he saw how wicked we were, he changed his mind and ordered the stars to stop. Which is why they hang in the sky but seem as though at any time they might drop...

Mary’s abortion becomes part of a witch’s ritual; her decision to steal a baby forty years later is announced in ‘Greenwich Park, some fifty yards from the line of zero longitude.’ The eels only breed in the Sargasso Sea, while the history teacher has no offspring. Subhuman Dick falls in love with Mary, and the somewhat stream of consciousness description of his mood is the only mention of love in the whole book. Reality drips into more and more stories:

‘Ah, Mary (ah Price), we all wander from the real world, we all come to our asylums.’

And, finally, Waterland declares:

‘My humble model for progress is the reclamation of land.’

The book ends with Dick’s flight, with everybody’s flight, in fact. Mary leaves sanity, Tom Crick leaves his classes of history, we leave this text of interruptions and delays. Our imagination, held captive while the suspense lasted, steps out of both story and history, and bolts away.


The Sweet-Shop Owner (1980), Graham Swift’s first novel, is a slow story of solitude and death. Written before Waterland, it does not show any signs of that hybridization of genres which has given literature so much charm lately. The narrative uses two major tricks. One of them is the already familiar alternance of past and present, memory and the birth of experience, the moment that flits by even while we read. The second trick is the use of ‘I’ and ‘he’ for points of reference in the narrative. The book becomes a game which hurls together broken chronology and the point of view, both used in a Desperado way, a disabused attempt at being new, yet giving the impression the author does not care. The truth is he does care – a lot – but the right manner is hard to find. Inspiration is courted, and I am afraid The Sweet-Shop Owner ends before Graham Swift has managed to make its fruit irresistible to his readers.

Willy Chapman, the sweet-shop owner, lives in two worlds at once. He is described as ‘he’ when he remembers his two-year-now dead wife Irene, as well as when he faces Mrs Cooper (an elderly lady, sixteen years his assistant) or Sandra Pearce (a seventeen-year-old girl who helps) every day at the shop. He turns into ‘I’ whenever his daughter, Dorothea (‘God’s gift,’ he calls her), comes into the picture and he tries (in his mind, only) to explain his whole life to her. The book seems to extend over only one day, the day when, because of ‘Angina pectoris,’ the sweet-shop owner closes his business and deliberately dies. He succumbs to the pain, acquiescing:

‘All right. All right – now.’

These are the last words of his story, spoken in the first person, and inviting no lingering in the grim universe of the book, which – if we remember Alasdair Gray, Doris Lessing, Anthony Burgess, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Malcolm Bradbury – is typical for the dystopic Desperadoes.

Graham Swift is not the kind of author who will rejoice in being alive. Life is a burden. ‘The body is a machine,’ it inevitably gets old, out of use, extinct. One of his heroes’ favourite sentences might be:

‘But, sooner or later, there’s a last time.’

Before that final curtain, which darkens every little moment all over the narrative, as a matter of fact, there is a mysterious wife, who has no love to give, who can only give her husband the sweet shop (and the daily toil that came with it) and a daughter. Irene Harrison suffered from asthma. She barred everyone from her inner world: her father, her two brothers (one of whom died in World War II), her husband and her daughter. As Graham Swift puts it,

‘she did command, and he obliged.’

He imagines what she thought, but his venture does not make her less of a mystery:

And what she was really saying perhaps was: ‘Don’t talk of Father and Mother, or my brothers. I don’t want to discuss them. Don’t you see? I was the only daughter, I was the odd one of the family. I was a beauty. I had no life. That is why I chose you – with no talent, no initiative – for the justice of it, the symmetry. Don’t think I will change.’

Nobody and nothing actually changes during the time Graham Swift tells his stories. From the very first page, everything is settled, preordained. Even Willy’s fall off a step-ladder, his breaking a bone in his leg and displacing another in his back, his subsequent permanent limp and his inability to actually ‘see action,’ to really fight as a soldier in the war. Sixty-year-old Mr Chapman looks somewhat like T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock, who was not ‘Prince Hamlet,’ nor ‘was meant to be,’ who is merely an ‘attendant lord,/ One that will do to swell a scene or two...’ In his own words:

‘History would come anyway. Nothing touches you, you touch nothing.’

At a certain moment, Irene herself narrates in the first person, thinking into her husband’s mind. Unfortunately, her secret is not unveiled. Her philosophy is:

‘Wars pass but sweet shops remain.’

In Willy’s mind, sentences, blow ups, remote questions, innumerable upsetting moments alternate. The progress of the story, continued in minute instalments, becomes excruciating. The interruptions often create a text which almost makes no sense. Like the overwhelming ghost of the silent wife, the story withdraws gasping for breath, for the air of life and light. Longing for joy.

This novel has something Jamesian about it. Half-statements, double meanings, incomplete thoughts. Confusion is overdone. Since there is not enough psychology or enough plot to lure us, we feel like keeping unwilling company with an insufficient Henry James. The author never answers his own questions, such as:

‘If the word love is never spoken, does it mean there isn’t any love?’

Graham Swift is quite a miser: like most Desperadoes, he does a wonderful job of killing the very idea of a couple, of sentimental, fairy tale developments in his story.

‘Mr Chapman, the sweet shop man,’ is deserted by his daughter, who feels stifled by the oppressive atmosphere at home, goes to college, tries a PhD, gives it all up for a love affair, and insistently demands that she should be given her dead mother’s inheritance. Which she gets. No trip into her thoughts, no play upon actions and reactions. Willy Chapman dies alone, muttering:

‘Dorry. You’ll come. You’ll come back.’

When? Where? What to? Not to the loneliness of her father’s last breath. The author makes sure of that.

The strange thing about Graham Swift is that it takes a while to find your bearings in his stories, to know what to be looking forward to. And when you do see a faint glimmer of interest, you only end up by smashing into grimness. Strange heroes undergo half-revealed experiences and all along they wonder (we wonder, too) whether life is worth living. A life that ‘was set out like a map.’ No excitement. No promise. No future. This is, indeed, Graham Swift’s major Desperado feat: his novels abolish the future.

In his school years, Willy was the best runner around, which squeezes from the author a poetic image at last:

‘How brave, how solitary. The eternal athlete, the eternal champion, running into his future.’

Despite its deliberate dryness, Waterland abounds in poetry, it teems with starlets of feeling revolving loose. This novel manages a small spur only when fatherhood is at stake. But the daughter ends up ‘living with a historian,’ grabbing her dead parents’ money, while her father’s last thought questions her in vain:

‘And what will you buy with it, Dorry? History?’

On the last word page the sweet shop owner is dead, and we scurry from the story enveloped in a freezing blast. This Desperado has been taking us unaware to the North Pole of love.


Shuttlecock (1981) is a grumpy novel. It mixes two books in one, as a matter of fact. One is a record of Prentis’ life. Prentis is a thirty-three-year-old man, married, with two sons, who works for a kind of police secret archives. He has a fifty-three-year old father, who was a British agent in France during World War II, was captured by the Germans and managed to escape (or so he claims). Some ten years after the end of the war, he published a book on all this, and Prentis’ daily life is mixed with quite a number of pages from his father’s book. The title of the novel is in fact his father’s code-name during the war. Unfortunately, when he was fifty, the former agent went into a ‘language coma’: he stopped talking or reacting in any way to the outer world. A mystery that keeps us alert.

The mystery of his silence and his son’s desperate attempts to find the truth end in the confession of Quinn, Prentis’ boss, as to having withdrawn certain pieces of evidence that might shed some light on the file of Prentis’ father. His version of the truth is: ‘Dad’ (Prentis’ father, remembered as such all through the book – which reminds of psychoanalysis) did not just escape from the Germans. He betrayed another two agents and was spared his life. Quinn himself has an artificial foot because of that betrayal: the Germans killed his platoon and he himself was wounded, as a consequence of Dad’s having revealed their arrival in France to the Germans. Besides, ‘Dad’ also slept with his best friend’s wife. His best friend committed suicide. When all this becomes known, and Quinn and Prentis decide to burn the evidence since it is best forgotten, Prentis gets Quinn’s job (substantial promotion), since the latter is sixty-four and retires. Will the circle of silence be renewed? Have we really had a glimpse at the truth? The father never talks again. How are we to know?

Actually, we do not even care, whatever we are told. What matters is Prentis’ psychology, his well-analysed (though not terribly complicated) change. He begins by hating ‘Dad,’ as a child. Then goes on towards worshipping him, as a war hero. Becomes a Dad himself, and almost reiterates his own Dad’s pattern, when he finds out there is a very disturbing crack in the picture. Dad was/is not a hero. Prentis switches to more human standards, accordingly, and grants himself and his family a chance at the real thing: not veneration for a pedestal, but mere, humble, everyday love.

The novel is a dialogue between the first-person narrator (Prentis) and us, the readers (he calls us ‘you’). He declares:

‘...I am writing all this as thoughts come to me and as things happen.’

His interior monologue is as old as the hills, if we think of it as a narrative device. The idea of the institution which harbours Dad and other deranged people, the theme of madness, was a favourite stream of consciousness theme (T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf...), too. The ‘you’ of the story reminds us of T.S. Eliot’s ‘You! hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frère!’ (quotation by the British poet from Baudelaire – so, intertextuality again). Graham Swift uses all these tricks to score a point which he makes evident quite early in the book, at the end of chapter 7:

‘Perhaps, with the right words, the right question, I could shock him out of his condition. Perhaps I can ask him questions, now, say things, now, I would never dare utter normally. Like: I respect you Dad, I love you Dad. I looked up to you. I always did, though I never showed it. Why is it my own children don’t respect me?’

We soon learn the meaning of Shuttlecock, Dad’s code-name. It is

‘a thing you take swipes at and knock about, like a golf ball.’

Considering the trajectory of the reader’s sympathies, from the narrator to his father, then back to the narrator again (next move unknown, end of the book, end of the game – other games to follow?), this reader may as well be the shuttlecock. The narrator sets him going, then strikes him hard, sending him back where he came from.



Out of This World (1988) is an alert, captivating, even warm-hearted (as warm as Graham Swift can get) novel. The last sentence of the book explains the title:

‘And I was being lifted up and away, out of this world, out of the age of mud, out of that brown, obscure age, into the age of air.’
Ten-year-old Harry flies a plane and escapes all the tangles of our earthly daily conflicts, the bitter taste of our daily bread.

The story is again rather guessed than told. Harry and Sophie (with minor intrusions from Joe, Sophie’s husband, and Anna, Harry’s wife and Sophie’s mother) pour into our minds monologues which follow one another like Virginia Woolf’s Waves. Sophie is Harry’s estranged daughter, who ends up leaving New York with her ten-year-old twin boys, in order to attend her father’s on-coming wedding in England, to a woman forty years younger than himself, who is also bearing his child. This happens, as the first page of the novel announces, in April 1982. The rest of the stories are all mixed up, chronology is a puzzle, and the reader – surprise – this time around is never too tired to fit a new piece in. As a matter of fact, we expect more and more. Sensibilities open, characters bloom, and we are trapped into living their lives.

There are not many characters, and the author takes his time introducing them. No curtain falls in the end, which is a good thing, by contemporary standards. Since at the last moment we still want to share the characters’ inexhaustible memory, it could be said that the book falls short of the reader’s emotional expectations. It stirs him, makes him restless and goes blank. In their hurry to shock and impress, literary Desperadoes make a point of being insufficient.

The story has four generations lined up against the wall. Each memory aims and retrieves. It all begins, in time, with ‘Grandad’ (for Sophie) or ‘Dad’ (for Harry). Unwilling as Swift is to attach names to his heroes, we do learn eventually that his name is Robert Beech, founder of BMC (Beech Munitions). He lost his right arm in World War I, whereupon he came bravely home, to make more bombs, to blow up more limbs, to defend his country, which he loves. Good or bad? Unanswered question.
Harry’s mother died at his birth, and it seems to Harry his father is blaming him for the loss. Harry’s father lives to be seventy-three, and dies – coincidence – blown up by a bomb planted in his car by Irish terrorists, on the very eve of his son’s planned departure for Belfast, ten years before the beginning of the book:

‘And there we were. All three Beeches, in the family house. Grandfather, father and daughter. Even two little unborn semi-Beeches, pretending to be one. That was the night of 23rd April, 1972. Springtime in England – St George’s day! And under the back seat of the Daimler there was a bomb, and nobody knew.’

It is actually Grandad’s third (and final) encounter with death. Before that, he had a heart-attack and heart-surgery in midlife, and even before, he saw death with his own eyes during World War I. Harry remembers, mentally addressing his daughter:

‘One morning in March, Sophie, which must have been a very noisy and confused morning, in 1918, my father was standing in a trench in northern Picardy, when a grenade landed just a few paces away from him. This was near the town of Albert, ten miles north of the Somme, but at that time it must have seemed like nowhere on earth. The grenade, which landed some five yards from my father, happened also to land less than a foot from his commanding officer, who was lying at the time, unconscious and immobilized from a previous explosion, on the floor of the trench. My father ran to the grenade, picked it up, turned to throw it clear, and, as he did so, it exploded and blew off his arm.’

Images of the wars occur in almost all Graham Swift’s novels. This particular scene took place on March 30th, 1918, and Harry was born on the 27th of the same month, so his father lost an arm and he lost his wife, too, at about the same time. He also lost two brothers to that war. And he still had the strength to joke about himself as being ‘the best bloody advertisement BMC ever had,’ about ‘being in the arms business.’ In 1969, three years before his death, Robert Beech still enjoys life and its surprises: he sits up all night with his son, ‘watching those first moon-men take their first, shy steps on the moon.’ He is seventy, and he enjoys every minute of it:

‘And some time that night he leant across to chink his whisky glass against mine and said, without sarcasm, ‘I’ve lived to see men land on the moon.’ As if he truly found the fact momentous, as if he were proud that his life spanned the full, galloping gamut of the twentieth century.’

The novel is so well written, so emotionally poetic yet narrative at the same time, that it invites quotation constantly. Memorable sentences, short poems, almost haiku-like (with European countenance, though), pop up in every paragraph. The same thing happened in Waterland, one of Swift’s most intense novels, but the characters there were all grim, morose, closed up tight. Out of This World (written at least several years later, published five years after Waterland) takes us to the open field of several sensibilities. We breathe fresh air and accompany the writer as he is still in search of his unmistakable voice.

The second generation after Grandad is Harry, accompanied by his Greek wife, Annna Vouatsis. Harry tells us his story in more than half the book, while Anna, dead when Sophie was only five, gets a mere chapter. It is hard to put order in these details, and the author makes the job even more difficult for us by making each detail significant. It is a step forward after Virginia Woolf: we can no longer walk out of the narrative and instinctively bathe into natural chronology again. The thread of time is contorted and meant to be remembered like that, in the shape of gasping interior monologues. Sophie mentally addresses her psychiatrist (doctor Klein or K. – which reminds of Kafka, by the way, with his maze of fears), herself and her twins. Never her father. For some obscure reason, parenthood is extremely awkward with Graham Swift – as for all Desperadoes, actually. Harry talks to himself and to his daughter (like the sweet shop owner). Anna summons Harry’s attention, trying to explain. Joe (Joseph Carmichael) converses with the bartender, lonely and neglected as he feels.

Harry’s story is in fact the core of the book. He is the closest Swift gets to depicting an artist. Against his father’s wishes, Harry refuses to have anything to do with the family business (BMC and bombs), and becomes a photographer. He is ubiquitous, to the point of being nicknamed by his daughter and father the ‘Invisible Man.’ He becomes quite famous, especially after his Vietnam shots. He falls in love with Anna, a Greek translator, at Nuremberg, and they get married, then have a daughter, after which Anna cheats on him with Frank, his father’s follower at BMC. Anna is pregnant again, is suddenly called to Greece by her uncle Spiro, who brought her up after both her parents died in a fire, when she was twelve. She has an abortion there, not knowing that Harry found out about her affair with Frank, then boards a plane which falls down, so she dies to the story forever. Born in the village Drama, she expires on Mount Olympus. I am almost sure that if Graham Swift had tried to write this story in the shape of a volume of poems, he would have done a splendid job of it.

When he is talking to us, Harry has not seen his daughter – who moved with her husband to New York – in ten years, and he has never met his twin grandsons, Tim and Paul. He is sixty-four and is in love with twenty-three-year-old Jenny, an ex-art student, his present assistant. He has given up artistic photography and works for the air service. He is no longer a photo-journalist, he is an aerial photographer. He gave up covering the hot news in 1972, at the death of his father, when something snapped and he felt he could no longer stare the horror in the face, invade the privacy of disaster.

He confesses to us that, if he had not been a photographer, he would have been a pilot. The book ends with his father putting him on a plane, whisking him ‘out of this world.’ This most poetic book of all has a thick web of symbols. Here is the description of the art of photography:

‘A photographer is neither there nor not there, neither in nor out of the thing. If you’re in the thing it’s terrible, but there aren’t any questions, you do what you have to do and you don’t even have time to look. But what I’d say is that someone has to look. Someone has to be in it and step back too. Someone has to be a witness.’

Is photography an art? Does Harry feel fulfilment as an artist? Graham Swift, unlike John Fowles in Mantissa, avoids this train of thought. A photograph is a possible ‘invasion of privacy.’ That may be the reason why Harry never takes photos of Jenny. A photographer is also supposed to ‘shock’ (is the Desperado novelist not trying to do the very same thing?). Confronted with the idea of covering his own father’s death, Harry suddenly realizes photos are everything he thought they were not: shocking, offensive, displeasing, intensely and aggressively indiscreet. Consequently he ‘abandons photography.’ His description of a photo comes very close to Keats’ words about a work of art:

‘What is a photograph? It’s an object. It’s something defined, with an edge. You can pick it up, look at it, like a pebble from a beach, like a lump of rock chipped from the moon. You can put it here or there, in an album, on a mantelpiece, in a newspaper, in a book. A long time after the event it is still there, and when you look at it you shut out everything else. It becomes an icon, a totem, a curio. A photo is a piece of reality? A fragment of the truth?’

Swift heads from Keats to Wordsworth (with his suspension of disbelief) when he writes:
‘A photo is a reprieve, an act of suspension, a charm. If you see something terrible or wonderful, that you can’t take in or focus your feelings for – a battlefield, the Taj Mahal, the woman with whom you think you are falling in love – take a picture of it, hold the camera to it. Look again when it’s safe. I have always loved flying.’

Which is the exact feeling we get from this novel: all the words have an emotional bright urgency that instils in us a feeling of elation. We are remembering with Harry, feeling guilty with him, falling in love and wondering about the ultimatum of age.

The whole plot of the book boils down to sixty-four-year-old Harry writing to his daughter that he is getting married and asking her to be there with him. In between, there is a parade of highly interesting heroes, vivid inner worlds, joy of life, joy of frustration, even. The author will not give in, he is determined to enjoy bitterness to the last drop. All the appealing thoughts he shares with us make Out of This World a really beautiful, enticing, challenging book. Harry, the shy hero, leaves a seal on the soul.

Sophie’s presence is more a prop for Harry than a full life on its own. She is a point of view. Henry James taught Swift his lesson of discreetness and multiplicity. She is the bitter side, but her decision to go to her father’s wedding redeems her, lends her human warmth. Before she decides to go, she has a ‘problem’ and goes to an analyst, to sort her life out. She gradually finds out that she loves Dad as much as she loved Grandad, in spite of the fact that Dad was never there for her. Except the moment when he saved her from drowning (she was still very small).

She never allows two things in her house: toy guns and cameras. Both Grandad and Dad are thus rejected. She goes back to Greece to find her mother and brings back a husband, whom she at present has stopped loving and is actually cheating on. Her emotions are sharp and rather uninteresting. Her view of Harry makes him even more overwhelming in the book. That is probably her part, after all. She ends up on the plane, with her two sons, entreating them:

‘Let’s just be together, here, above the world. There are more important things than movies. And it’ll be tomorrow sooner than you think. It’ll be tomorrow before it’s even stopped being today. And your mother has only six hours.’

The nails of our sensibility get bitten to the quick. For the first time in a Graham Swift novel, we do not want to stop reading. We want more. We feel like asking the author: Why have you stopped thinking? Urge him, in Eliot’s voice: ‘THINK.’


Ever After (1992) is a novel about ‘death-in-life and life-in-death,’ to quote W.B. Yeats (and Coleridge, more remotely). It is mainly a (romantic) novel of (Desperado) lost love. The hybridization of genres mixes here with the Joycean monologue. Bill Unwin (can his name be a negative of win?) talks to others, he mainly talks to himself, then inherits Matthew Pearce’s Diaries (mid 19th century) and quotes from them; he also writes short essays imagining what might have been, what the man was like, retrieving him, reclaiming him from the land of the dead. The plot of this novel is almost non-existent. A sentence could summarize it: for some unknown reason, Bill Unwin commits suicide, but is brought back to life and to the story of Matthew Pearce, which he sets about writing with diligence. In between, as usual, we are besieged by a mass of stream of consciousness details.

The book begins by a warning, which gradually turns out to have been a false alarm:

‘These are, I should warn you, the words of a dead man.’

In his early fifties, Bill Unwin has experienced three major deaths: his much loved wife Ruth (the actress Ruth Vaughan), his mother Sylvia, and his step-father, Sam Ellison. Death is the very substance of this novel. It shortens drastically the ‘Ever After.’ Bill’s real father, Colonel Philip Alexander Unwin, shot himself in Paris on 8th April, 1946. It turns out later in the story that Bill’s true father was an engine-driver, who died in the War. Every page is a trip into non-existence. The narrator himself feels dragged back from the other world and forced to continue a nightmare. The ghost of Bill Unwin ‘summons’ the ghosts of other dead people, and, in the process, paradoxically, the book is filled with life.

Instead of a plot, Ever After offers several major characters’ stories. The main thing these heroes have in common is whatever connects them to the narrator. It is, in fact, the narrator’s mind which is on stage: it recreates lives, explains (or half-explains – the trick is old by now) mysteries, it fumbles into imaginary sequels. Fact is that, in the end, all the protagonists are still dead, except the story-teller, who repeats to himself:

‘He took his life, he took his life.’

He means Colonel Unwin, but Ruth also committed suicide, and so has the narrator tried to do himself. Existence is beginning to look like a disease which must be cured.

The main hero of this book is probably love. Lost love. Bill Unwin’s love for Ruth, Matthew Pearce’s love for Elizabeth (in the 19th century). Tinged with death as it is, the feeling does not seem very appealing. It is more like a mummy which exhales sadness. Ruth is the haunting presence, the symbol of fulfilled love. Bill meets her as a student of English literature, while she is preparing to become an actress. They both need part-time jobs to survive, so they meet at the Blue Moon Club in Soho, where he is a part-time bar-assistant and she dances. It happens in June 1957. The book ends with Bill’s memory of their first night together. The chapter is written in the form of stage directions for a theatre scene, using ‘he,’ ‘she,’ ‘they.’ The final curtain has dropped, Ruth has played her last part (Cleopatra, queen of the Nile), and then committed suicide before lung cancer killed her. Bill has to live with the emptiness:

‘And nothing is left but this impossible absence. This space at your side the size of a woman, the size of a life, the size – of the world. Ah yes, the monstrosity, the iniquity of love - that another person should be the world.’

Meditating on Ruth’s untimely death, Bill tells himself that all people are ‘consumed,’ they are ‘fuel, fire, ash.’ Ruth was a flame that made Bill happy. He devoted his life to her, became her manager, giving up his ‘blooming career as a third-rate academic.’ He states she held his world together:

‘I protected her so she would protect me.’

She could not bear the thought of the coming disintegration, and left him. Which brings about the idea of suicide:

‘It’s wrong, of course. Suicide. My father was wrong. Ruth was wrong. I – But I’m still here. We don’t have the right. To take ourselves from ourselves. And from other people. It’s cowardly. It’s selfish. The mess it leaves for others.’
Ruth’s last note to him says:

‘I never could stand drawn-out farewells...’

The whole novel is an endless goodbye. The process begins with his father’s suicide. It turns out that he may have been a spy (Graham Swift must have a sweet tooth for spy-stories). The reason of his taking his own life remains unknown. Several possibilities are suggested. Since he was considerably older than his wife, the latter had a younger lover (Sam) and the Colonel found out. Besides, she also told her husband that his son was not really his. And aside all that, he may have had a hand in the dropping of the atomic bomb, at the end of World War II. The man enters the book as a stiff stranger, and walks out in the same garb. The author’s and our own feelings are not stirred in the least.

The other two deaths, Sylvia’s and Sam’s , are also quite emotionless. Sylvia dies of larynx cancer, in hospital, at seventy-eight. We never get to know her. As she used to sing herself while younger, we are left wondering:

‘Who is Syl-via? What is she-e...?’

Twenty-one years younger than her first husband (who shot himself when he was fifty-five), and twelve years older than Sam, her second husband, Sylvia is a sensuous, selfish presence, whom the narrator neither worships, nor hates. As far as Sam is concerned, Bill feels somewhat like Hamlet, bound to kill ‘uncle Claudius,’ although he doubts the fact that Sam had anything much to do with his father’s death. As a matter of fact, Bill tells us he likes Sam, in spite of himself. Only fifteen years his senior, Sam is an American, who lays the foundation of ‘Ellison Plastics (UK)’; he has a fling with Sylvia in Paris, finds himself trapped into marrying her when her husband shoots himself. Later in life, he naturally starts cheating on her, but she stays in control. He himself dies ‘of a heart attack in a Frankfurt hotel room, aged sixty-seven,’ while in the company of a call-girl. It is Sam who makes Bill a rich man, ensures a College Fellowship for him for life, and also discloses to him the fact that he is (maybe) a bastard.

The last death the book deals with is Matthew Pearce’s, the real reason for using intertextuality. Sylvia gives Bill a

‘little mantel clock with a rosewood case that was made in 1845 by Matthew’s own father, as a present for his son and his bride, and which served as a wedding gift over successive generations ever since.’

Ruth and Bill receive it in 1959. Besides the clock, when Sylvia dies, Bill enters in the possession of the ‘Matthew Pearce notebooks and his last letter to his wife, Elizabeth.’ On the clock Bill can see ‘Amor Vincit Omnia’ inscribed. Is it true, for this book? Death prevails. Matthew’s life is like a foreboding. Piece by piece, Bill puts it together, after his own return from the Ever After land. To start with the very beginning, Matthew was born in March 1819, the son of a clockmaker from Launceston, in Cornwall. Two major incidents shape his life and finally lead to his death at the age of fifty. The two are closely related. First:

‘The thing was that he saw an ichthyosaurus. The thing was that he had come face-to-face with an ichthyosaur, on the cliffs of Dorset in the summer of 1844 (age: twenty-five).’

Second: having married Elizabeth, daughter of Rector Hunt, his discovery that he no longer believes in God brings about the Minister’s anger and then his divorce. The theoretical premise for this broken life (and Bill’s essay in history) is, of course, Darwin, known in mid 19th century for his theory of the evolution of species. The hybridization of genres goes a step further here, and we are confronted with a melting pot of ideas: from fiction (Bill repeatedly states he definitely makes up this story, imagines everything, on the basis of the Pearce manuscript) to history, sociology, travel (especially to the New World), unexplained mystery (Matthew’s encounter with the ‘monster’ is quite briefly mentioned, never enlarged upon).

Matthew’s mother dies while he is still a boy. His father, John Pearce, sends him to study Geology at Oxford, whereupon he becomes a surveyor. Bill reiterates:

‘I invent all this. I don’t know that this is how it happened. It can’t have been like this simply because I imagine it so.’

While inventing, Bill alternates a lost present with a possible (imagined) past, and dwells copiously in possiblity.

Bill’s half-fictional, half documented piece of scholarly literature continues with Matthew’s marrying Elizabeth on 4th April, 1845. They live together and have four children (John, Christopher, Felix and Lucy). At the age of two, Felix dies of scarlet fever. After his death in 1854, Matthew begins writing his Notebooks, and refers to the period between 1845-1854 as ‘the ten happiest and most fragile years of my life.’ The Notebooks are written between 1854-1860. In 1860, Matthew leaves his wife and children for ever, as a consequence of his newly found, firm conviction that the words of the Bible are ‘mere fancy, mere poetry,’ which he cannot believe. In his mind, the laws of God fight the laws of evolution formulated by Darwin, and reason wins.

On 12th April 1869, Matthew writes to Elizabeth (who has remarried in the meantime) after nine years of separation. He is to sail to the New World on the following day, on the Juno. Actually, the ship sinks and Matthew appears on the list of those lost. Yet, Elizabeth, who receives his Notebooks at last, keeps them and obviously passes them on, together with the clock, until they both reach Bill Unwin. Matthew confesses he has never stopped loving his wife. Elizabeth’s keeping the Notebooks is also a sign of love. Their minds separate them, though. This is what Bill fails to understand. If he could have kept Ruth alive, he would have been prepared to embrace any belief.

But Matthew was a marked man. There is a shattering reason for what he calls ‘The moment of my unbelief. The beginning of my make-belief...’ He comes to face the solid proof of prehistory, and Bill notes, using his own sensibility as a resource:

‘He feels something open up inside him, so that he is vaster and emptier than he ever imagined, and feels himself starting to fall, and fall, through himself.’

The universe opens up, much wider than the story of God. No God can compete with the infinite void. Is Felix’s death a punishment for disbelief?, Matthew wonders. He fights his own nature for a while, he may have tried to ‘exorcise the ghost,’ but, in the end, the Rector cannot prevail or offer plausible explanations for Felix’s death. Or for the ichthyosaur. Matthew writes:

‘Question: Is the Creator to be viewed as a mere Experimenter?’

His burden, from now on, is to find the truth. His religious father-in-law shouts powerlessly, ‘Damn you Darwin!’, but this does not prevent Matthew’s mind from fathoming a much vaster universe than that of the Bible, nor his body from being drowned in a storm. End of life, but not end of the story.

Matthew’s ‘revival’ enables Graham Swift to use a variety of formulas: novel, drama, essay, letter, diary, conjecture, inner monologue, supposition, confessions. Hybridization works. It does not confuse us, but it makes it almost impossible to assemble the plot along a straight chronological line. The novel is in many ways like Eliot’s Waste Land, a ‘heap of broken images,’ a mass of incidents which refuse to be pasted into a coherent story. Has the novel been defeated? Is a new genre born?

Graham Swift offers, here and in all his other novels, the formula of memory retrieved. His texts are all a reclaiming of memory-land, attempted by a disappointed and at the same time disappointing intelligence, one and the same all through the novel. We end by identifying with the handler of his and our minds. In the case of Ever After, we accompany a particularly chilling ghost: the soul of a life temporarily retrieved from death. Bill Unwin has the halo of this and the ‘ever after’ world. He is both painfully here and frustratingly there. We are sorry for him. We are afraid of him. We avidly devour all information he can squeeze from his unknown and unfathomable train of thoughts.

If we rearrange Bill Unwin’s scattered statements, we can begin, under the sign of love again, by quoting him:

‘I was born in December 1936, in the very week that a King of England gave up his crown in order to marry the woman he loved.’

He is ‘a little past fifty’ now, when he addresses us. Time seems to have come to a halt, since we do not see him growing any older. He feels old, though, because he describes his meditations as ‘the ramblings of a prematurely aged’ man. He has just gone through the rare and undesirable experience of being ‘returned to life from almost-death.’ The same as his remote ancestor, Matthew Pearce, he is a marked man. He also has faced a monster. He feels changed. Slowed down, he says, and immaterial, we could add. He seems to have settled in between worlds. He does not belong to any.

The reason of Bill’s attempted suicide, the same as Matthew’s reaction to the monster, remains unknown:

‘What is important, what you are dying (excuse the phrase) to know, is what brought me to the pitch of staging my own death in the first place. I could get out of this by saying that since I am a different person now from what I was then (only three weeks ago), how can I possibly tell you? But it is not as simple as that. Perhaps these pages will eventually explain. Perhaps they will give me an explanation.’

The last words on the last page send us to the suicide of the man who was not really his father (‘He took his life’). All along, we witness constant hints at Hamlet (To be or not to be?), although Hamlet’s anger melts as we learn more, and Bill fights the final, fatal duel. He just stays alive. His discourse is quite complicated. It may be good gymnastics for our curiosity, if it were not for the delay of suspense. The charm of the book is concealed at first.

When he writes this book, Bill has stopped being Ruth’s manager (she died), which he was for fifteen years. He was an ‘unillustrious university lecturer’ for ten years, and is now back to the academic life, in spite of what his colleagues deem to be his very meagre achievement. It so happened that his step-father, Sam Ellison, the false uncle Claudius, who dies before Bill/Hamlet decides upon revenge, discovered that

‘a former Ellison, John Elyson (d. 1623), had been a senior Fellow of this College, this place where I am now myself an inmate. Which gave him an hereditary stake in the hallowed ancient walls; and gave him the nerve, in his sixty-seventh year, to boost the college finances by a handsome endowment, the one (secret) condition of this munificent gesture being that it should provide for a new college fellowship, the Ellison Fellowship, whose first incumbent, whatever the outward form of selection, should be me.’

We notice here the American returning to England:

‘he partook of that post-war spirit of inverse colonialism,’

Bill says. Just like the American who buys Darlington Hall, stock and barrel, in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. We also come to know the inner frictions, the rivalries in the Academic world (favourite space of many Desperado writers), the meanness of Professor Potter (significant name), Bill’s unwillingness to part with the Pearce manuscripts. Potter wants them to boost his career. Bill simply feels the need to share Matthew’s life, and allows his imagination to feed on him. The author allures our imaginations to follow the tortuous path of his own sensibility.

Unlike Graham Swift’s other novels, Ever After does not invite quotation for poetical reasons. It is mainly epic. The poetry in it is probably limited to the constant and numerous associations of symbols, all of them converging upon love and death. What we feel like quoting in this novel is either bare facts (for which we take the narrator’s word for granted), or the essayistic outbursts, the deeper thoughts about life, love and death, such as:

‘Why should I resent my situation? I am restored to life. The sun shines through a punkah of green, tender leaves. Life! Life! Does it matter, so long as you breathe, who the hell you are? Or where you are? Or what you remember? Or what you miss? Why should I hate the man – who is dead anyway, and whom I liked – who has provided me with all this? Who has taken away from me – good God, how life can change, how everything can change in the space of less than two years – all worldly cares? But I have not told you yet the nub of my hatred, the nub of my forty years’ vicarious habitation of Elsinore as my second home. There is nothing worse than Revenge Refuted. You see, I thought Sam killed my father. So to speak. But now I know he didn’t. My father killed my father. And this in more ways than one.’

We quote more prosaically here, which means that the novel has stepped away from lyricism, and is merging into a more abstract realm of recorded thoughts. Like Matthew’s Notebooks, Graham Swift’s hero might well state about these pages:

‘Keep them burn them – they are evidence of me.’

He is, professionally, the specialist in Elizabethan and Jacobean plays (whether an academic or as a Hamletian manager of his wife’s career), emotionally in love with his wife for ever (and after), and, in all hypostases, he calls himself ‘a man behind the scenes.’ Walter Raleigh is his ancestor. Bill does not compete with him, but he is a buccaneer of memory, to say the least (sometimes he becomes a surgeon, too). His trips into memory-land take place ‘in this curious post-mortal condition of mine,’ when ‘everything might be beginning again. This is my second life, my reincarnation.’ And he chooses to spend it on reclaiming Matthew Pearce. He ‘chooses to believe’ that meeting an ichthyosaur is the same kind of fall down the slide of time as death itself. Both experiences make life look unreal and human time inessential.

Somewhere, towards the end of the book, Bill urges:

‘Let’s read between the lines. Let’s be brutal and modern...’
The question that follows is, what comes first, the heart or the mind? Elizabeth and Ruth or the religious (ideological) crisis and its discovery by an academic born a century later? The same question is asked about Darwin, the great pirate of religion, the black hole of our limited truths: ‘Was he a man or a mind?’ Bill’s mind is definitely the support of this book. He explains:

‘...mors, mortis? That it turns you (surprise, surprise) into a nobody. That my little bout with it has left me with a ghostly disconnection from myself – I am wiped clean, a tabula rasa (I could be anybody) – and a strange, concomitant yen, never felt before, to set pen to paper.’

So he does. He writes and writes, just like his author. And he exclaims, exhausted:

‘The struggle for existence? Ha! The struggle for remembrance.’

It seems more important to Bill to discover, by means of writing, who he was, than to address posterity. The writer in search for himself. The novel as a constant question mark. The reader pushed between the lines. An insecure text, using memory as its fragile foundation. Memory-land can be reclaimed all right, but the hurricane of literature can break it any time, by a mere brush, the horrifying, ‘You are not the first.’ Disappointed and deliberately disappointing, Graham Swift binds himself to the mast. Let the mermaids lure, let the winds of never before blow. He has found a track and steers his whole being to follow it. The struggle with the dragon called yourself. Ever after.



Vrei sa studiezi limba engleza la facultate? - Intra la www.limbi-straine.ro !  | RAAS - Visit the American Studies Website!

LIDIA VIANU | Desperado - Contemporary British Literature


Home | BAC/Teze | Biblioteca | Referate | Games | Horoscop | Muzica | Versuri | Limbi straine | DEX

Modele CV | Wallpaper | Download gratuit | JOB & CARIERA | Harti | Bancuri si perle | Jocuri Barbie

Iluzii optice | Romana | Geografie | Chimie | Biologie | Engleza | Psihologie | Economie | Istorie | Chat


Joburi Studenti JOB-Studenti.ro

Oportunitati si locuri de munca pentru studenti si tineri profesionisti - afla cele mai noi oferte de job!

Online StudentOnlineStudent.ro

Viata in campus: stiri, burse, cazari, cluburi, baluri ale bobocilor - afla totul despre viata in studentie!

Cariere si modele CVStudentCV.ro

Dezvoltare personala pentru tineri - investeste in tine si invata ponturi pentru succesul tau in cariera!


 > Contribuie la proiect - Trimite un articol scris de tine

Gazduit de eXtrem computers | Project Manager: Bogdan Gavrila (C)  


Toate Drepturile Rezervate - ScoalaOnline Romania