- Ekko Von Schwichow
Novelist Graham Swift was born in London in 1949.
He was educated at Dulwich College, Queens' College, Cambridge, and York University. He was nominated as one of the 20 'Best of Young British Novelists' in the Book Marketing Council's promotion in 1983. He is the author of several novels. The first, The Sweet Shop Owner (1980), is narrated by disillusioned shopkeeper Willy Chapman, and unfolds over the course of a single day in June. The narrator of his second novel, Shuttlecock (1981), winner of the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, becomes obsessed with his father's experiences during the Second World War.
Waterland, his acclaimed third novel, was published in 1983. Narrated by history teacher Tom Crick, it describes his youth spent in the Norfolk fens during the Second World War. These personal memories are woven into a greater history of the area, slowly revealing the seeds of a family legacy that threatens his marriage. The book won the Guardian Fiction Prize and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize. It was followed by Out of this World (1988), the story of a photojournalist and his estranged daughter, and Ever After (1992), in which a university professor makes a traumatic discovery about his career.
Swift's sixth novel, Last Orders (1996), which won the Booker Prize for Fiction and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize (for fiction), recounts a journey begun in a pub in London's East End by four friends intent on fulfilling a promise to scatter the ashes of their dead drinking-partner in the sea. A film adaptation of the novel starring Michael Caine and Bob Hoskins was first screened in 2001. His novel, The Light of Day (2003), is the story of a murder, a love affair and a disgraced former policeman turned private detective. Tomorrow (2007), explores complex themes of parenthood, coupledom and identity via the personal thoughts and memories of the protagonist, Paula, as she lies awake one night in bed. His latest novel is Wish You Were Here (2011).
His first non-fiction book is Making an Elephant: Writing from Within (2009).
Graham Swift is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He lives in London.
Since being awarded the Booker in 1996 for Last Orders, Graham Swift has been recognised as a premier novelist whose tales of peculiarly English alienation and belonging marry serpentine narrative with psychological richness.
Many critics and readers saw his coronation with that novel as long overdue acknowledgement of his status as a key voice in contemporary British fiction. From the outset, Swift's novels have all been ambitious in their thematic and narrative scope, and have repeatedly tackled difficult ideas of narrative, history and conflicts between the generations. They are frequently organised around an underlying mystery, and his oblique and non-linear narrative technique lends itself to a gradual revelation of events in a manner reminiscent at times of the nineteenth century detective novel.
Swift’s first work The Sweet-Shop Owner (1980) laid much of the groundwork for his subsequent imaginative creations. Like many of the books that would follow, it was a one-day novel, with a tight focus on the experience of its eponymous central protagonist and his recollections of a long marriage, in a style that amounted to what critics have since called “operatic intensity” (The New Republic, 2003). But as Hermione Lee has written of his use of the one-day conceit, “Swift, like Woolf, cheats the form: even when he holds himself to the classical unity, he stretches its boundaries as far as they will give” (The Guardian, 2003). In doing so, the novel announced that this was a writer who revelled in carefully unfolding stories that used complex narrative strategies to tackle themes of memory and recall.
Underpinning these narrative experiments is Swift’s obsession with the reality of history, a theme that is central to Shuttlecock (1981), Waterland (1983), Out of This World (1988), and Ever After (1992). In all these novels Swift considers the nature of the relationship between personal and public histories, between self-created and orderly narratives and the disorderly nature of actuality. In Shuttlecock the protagonist Prentis struggles to identify how much reality there is in his father's self-declared World War II heroism. In a similar fashion in Ever After the central character, Bill Unwin, becomes aware that his own vision is colouring his allegedly factual reconstruction of the life of his great-great grandfather from his ancestor's nineteenth-century notebooks.
In Waterland Crick the history teacher interlaces an account of the seminal events of his own life with an account of events and personalities from the Industrial Revolution to the present. Crick interweaves the personal, the regional and the national, and sets all these against the historical perspective of the natural world and the landscape of the Fens. In Out of This World different generations look back from differing stances on the professional activities of their parents in wartime situations, creating narratives that are mediated through memory and personal resentments so that they have no objective existence.
History as narrative is for Swift primarily a personal rather than a factual reality, a fact reflected in his use of a predominantly first person narration in what is almost a stream of consciousness manner. Story telling is central to Waterland, as Crick debates the very nature of history and the relationship between past and present. The novel is essentially a dramatic monologue, the history teacher in the classroom recounting his own life story as well as that of his ancestors. Swift's narrators generally interact to a minimal degree with their addressees, although the awareness of their presence can create a distinctive tone of voice. The schoolboys of Waterland are addressed directly, if not always aloud, as 'children', and the fact that Crick's tale is full of adult horrors (suicide, murder and abortion) makes the contrast between his narrative mode and the tale he tells all the more unsettling. Both Shuttlecock and Ever After (1992) play with the idea of the narrative within the narrative. Shuttlecock contains the memoirs of the apparently heroic father and his World War II exploits. The narrator in Ever After finds himself in possession of his great-great grandfather's nineteenth century letters, and temporal boundaries are further blurred by the way in which the narrator within the narration becomes a presence in the novel's present tense.
Narrative in Last Orders (1996) is carried by an even greater multiplicity of voices. The four central characters of the novel come together to carry out the last wish of their recently deceased friend by scattering his ashes from the end of Margate Pier. Their day is presented in an interwoven series of first person narratives, shifting between times and tenses, as memories of and revelations about the dead man are woven into the recriminations and irritations of their immediate situation. The blackly farcical events of a day in which four men come together in a procession towards the final resting-place of their friend is unmistakably reminiscent of the Hades episode in Joyce's Ulysses; Swift creates something of the same sense of unease, coloured with the same grim humour.
The significance of history and the presence and influence of earlier narratives is evident in the way in which Swift himself makes use of previous literary traditions in his work. Last Orders alludes not only to Ulysses but also to Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. Perhaps his most important novel, Waterland, set in the East Anglican Fens, conjures up the similar landscape of Great Expectations, and in its epigraph explicitly draws on Dickens to reinforce the powerful presence of the flat marshland. Also in the background of the novel is George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss, with its lock setting and emphasis on the place and power of water in man's working life. Ever After, with its account of a recovered nineteenth-century manuscript, and the depiction of the rivalries and intrigue of the academic world, presents a dark and conspiratorial world reminiscent of Henry James's The Aspern Papers.
Swift's emphasis on personal history and the subjective nature of memory leads him to raise questions about the differing perspectives of the generations. In Shuttlecock three generations of the Prentis family meditate actively on their interactions, while in the fourth generation the central protagonist's sons are a passive and silently critical presence. Women are often peripheral in Swift's novels to the interaction between the men. In Last Orders the dead man's wife is present chiefly as adjunct to and cause of the competition and secrecy among the four men. Relations between fathers and sons in particular form a recurrent strand in Swift's novels; the way in which macho posturing, whether over wars, careers or women, is crucial in creating these relationships forms a central strand of Shuttlecock, Out of this World and Last Orders.
Graham Swift's novels deal with the extraordinary in the ordinary. In their settings, language and characterisations Swift's novels are sparse and consciously drab. His protagonists are often ordinary men, middle-aged clerks or teachers or accountants. In their voices Swift ponders some of the bigger issues of life - death, birth, marriage and sex - as well as the everyday politics of relationships and friendships. His intricate narrative patterns raise questions about the relationship between personal histories and world events, between personal and public perceptions. He highlights the impossibility of creating a single objective reality, fictional or otherwise, and through fiction investigates the very nature of fiction.
After the unanimous praise of the Booker-winning Last Orders (which was later filmed in 2001 starring Michael Caine, Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren) Swift retreated from the literary scene for seven years. He returned in 2003 with The Light of Day, a novel focused on incarceration and whose focus on London’s SW19 allowed Swift to add an autobiographical tinge that had sometimes been lacking in his previous works. The narrative games remained quite similar, but wearied some readers. Compared with the success of the interspersed narrative elements of much of his fiction, Light of Day left many cold. To Hermione Lee, the novel’s “exasperating flatness is entirely at odds with Swift's previous work, which has been distinguished by the density and the richness of its prose and its psychology.” Perhaps, she speculated, “with this, his third attempt at the one-day novel, he has exhausted the form's potential.” (The Guardian, March 2003)
Tomorrow (2007) once again adopted a South London setting and an intense interior monologue to unravel a saga of family secrets at the moments before their imminent revelation. This time, the internal voice was that of 49-year old Paula, speaking as if to the teenage children asleep in the next room. With her husband asleep by her side, the novel relied on the tension of what the coming ‘tomorrow’ of the title would bring for the family. How would family secrets be revealed and how would the secrets be disclosed?
Some, such as Anne Enright, applauded something of the magical old Swift at work in these questions and conceits, as the book "weaves and undoes its quiet magic, making and scattering different kinds of ‘family’ [...] this is part of Swift's overwhelming honesty as a writer: he writes the way that life goes.” Unfortunately, to others, the questions the novel posed were far less interesting, and some concluded that Swift’s narrative techniques had reached an impasse. To Carol Birch in the Independent, these narrative devices didn’t work, and felt like “a bit of a cheat.” Adam Mars-Jones agreed, suggesting that, "if you're going to withhold a secret for many pages, it had better deliver a frisson when it comes. In practice this means that it must concern sex or death, and preferably both.” (The Observer). The secret was so mundane, thought Lionel Shriver, that “maybe we should let her keep her secret."
The most recent novel, Wish You Were Here (2011) is a rural family drama set in Devon, and recalls the enveloping charm of Waterland in its tale of young lovers and the revelatory depictions of the powers of landscape. This was another leisurely and restrained character portrait, taking us inside the mind of the farmer protagonist Jack as he considers suicide on a caravan site on the Isle of Wight. Swift’s narrative flexibly offsets the often reticent musings of its character against a more omniscient guiding voice, is a development that commands more of a force than the strictly-maintained interior monologues of his previous works had managed to do. Carol Birch once again critiqued the novel, described the work as “not a book for impatient readers”, and this might be considered a touchstone comment for Swift, a writer whose attentiveness to the minutiae of evolving inner consciousness operates at a pace that, when it works, is thoroughly beguiling and seductive.
To some, however, Swift’s most interesting book of recent years is his collection of autobiographical pieces, Making an Elephant (2010). The memoir form lent itself very well to the reflective concerns of memory that have always pervaded Swift’s fiction. The various sketches and other prose forms that made it up offered a series of meditations on the power of family, and it was hailed in particular by the New York Times who praised this “engrossing new book” as representing a powerful and timely attempt to “chronicle his evolution into a novelist by weaving together two decades’ worth of essays, interviews and poems”. It was a welcome and timely piece of stock-taking by one of Britain’s foremost writers whose somewhat mixed fortunes in recent years have done little to diminish his prestige and eminence.
'I believe it would be a bad day for a writer if he could say, "I know exactly what I'm doing", and I am wary of making statements about my work. If I have any abiding allegiance in my writing it is to the power of the imagination, and I hope my imagination will always surprise and stretch me and take me along unsuspected paths, just as I hope it will continue to bring me up against certain things which I will have to recognise as my own peculiar territory - though that too is a process of discovery, not of preconception. I have no wariness about the potential of fiction as such, or the privilege and joy (despite many an agony!) of writing it. Where else can you have such licence of expression? Where else can you combine so richly and intimately the world of ideas with the world of concrete reality? And where else can you know - or at least hope - that for each individual reader, each act of collaboration between author and reader, the experience will be something different? I have enormous faith in that invisible collaborative experience, though when I write I never think of the reader. Fiction seems to me only to do in a specialised, concentrated way what we all need to do: to enter, in our minds, experiences other than our own. That is no small or simple thing - all our moral and social pretensions rest upon it. So I have no wariness about fiction's importance either.'