Graham Swift is one of Britain's most successful living literary authors. Yet in a new collection of non-fiction the man himself is almost invisibleby Jonathan Derbyshire / April 26, 2009 / Leave a comment
Making an Elephant By Graham Swift (Picador, £18.99)
There is a famous photograph, taken by Lord Snowdon in 1983, of Granta magazine’s first cohort of “best young British novelists.” Ian McEwan and Martin Amis, their shoulders rubbing collusively, are perched on stools slightly to one side, as if in premonitory acknowledgment of future distinction. Julian Barnes stands in the middle, at the back, powerfully projecting every inch of his 6ft-odd frame. And at the front, beside a startlingly youthful-looking Kazuo Ishiguro, sits the shyly bespectacled Graham Swift.
That same year, Swift was shortlisted for the Booker prize, for his third novel Waterland. He didn’t win, though he would eventually do so in 1996, with Last Orders. Yet, for all his public recognition—as well as the Booker, Swift has a Guardian fiction prize and the Winifred Holtby award on his CV, while both Waterland and Last Orders have been turned into films—Swift’s career in the intervening 25 years has been conducted at an altogether lower temperature than those of the more celebrated others captured in that picture.
One reason for this is that, as the novelist John Banville noted approvingly in his review of Last Orders, Swift has always kept himself at a distance from “what Gore Vidal witheringly refers to as ‘bookchat.'” Unlike Amis or Barnes, Swift has written little journalism and—as far as one can tell—no criticism whatsoever. What’s most immediately striking about Making an Elephant, in fact, is just how occasional Swift’s non-fiction has been. The book is a jumble of assorted fragments of memoir, interviews, a single piece of reportage (by his own admission, the only such piece he has ever done), and 40 pages of poems.
Away from fiction, Swift’s natural element seems to be what he describes in a short piece about the year he spent as an English teacher in Greece in the early 1970s as the “self-protective” atmosphere of “voluntary exile.” He had pitched up, he tells us, at the Strategakis School of English in Volos, a port on the east coast, after a three-year subterfuge during which he’d passed himself off as a PhD candidate at the University of York in order to find the time to write—or, rather, to find out whether he actually had the talent to write (which is not at all the same thing). It was in Greece that Swift wrote his first novel, later destroyed, and there that he came to know “for certain [that he] would be a writer.”
It’s hard to imagine his contemporaries having to discover that about themselves, but for Swift the discovery seems to have been hard won and somehow provisional, and thus something to be guarded—against Grub Street, book parties and other temptations of the metropolitan literary life. Among other things, therefore, Making an Elephant is an account of the material conditions of the professional writer’s life in the early 21st century, and an examination of the extent to which that life has to be lived in public. One essay deals with the structuring paradox of the public reading, an essential part of modern book PR that clearly sits uneasily against Swift’s preference for the “unseen contact” of private reading: “I suspect most people go to readings out of curiosity. Authors are not very visible and the reading public has an urge to witness these usually closeted creatures.”
It’s not only the public with whom Swift has had a less ostentatious relationship than his illustrious contemporaries. “For a long time,” he writes, “really till Waterland, I knew virtually no other writers.” And, for all the affectionate portraits here of his various “writer-friends” (Ishiguro, Rushdie, Caryl Phillips), one gets the sense that he could still happily do without the company of other writers. He writes admiringly of JM Coetzee, who won the Booker the year Waterland was shortlisted and pulled off the “brilliant tactical stroke” of being “serenely absent” from the award ceremony.
Of course, no serious writer readily admits to enjoying such occasions, but in Swift the urge to disappear runs deep. One of the longest pieces in Making an Elephant, originally written for Granta, is about an invisible man: the Czech author Jiri Wolf, whom Swift was dispatched to Prague to track down, in the midst of the Velvet revolution in November 1989. Those momentous political events figure as a kind of sideshow to Swift’s increasingly desperate attempts to find Wolf, a dissident who had recently been released from prison. “He was a writer,” Swift notes, “but he appeared to have no standing in contemporary Czech literature.” It soon becomes clear that he admires the recalcitrant Wolf much more than he does Václav Havel, whom he observes “being sucked into events at some cost to himself, a writer uprooted from his true vocation.”
Again, in an interview with the novelist Patrick McGrath, Swift is asked about the “fatalistic” theory of history developed in Waterland. It’s a theory expounded by the narrator and protagonist of the novel, Tom Crick, a history teacher eking out his last days in the classroom sharing memories of his childhood in the Fens when he should be telling his charges about the French revolution. Swift bristles slightly at the suggestion that the ideas in the novel are his: “You can call this sophistical if you like, but it’s my character who says those things, it’s Tom Crick who holds those views.”
Waterland carries more obvious intellectual freight than the later novels, but it resembles them not only in having a first-person narrator, but also in Swift’s attempt there to subordinate his own style to the style of his characters. As a novelist, he observes, “you are vital to the whole enterprise… yet you are also redundant.” By his own account, he has come closest to achieving this redundancy or superfluity in his last three novels, Last Orders, The Light of Day and Tomorrow. Each of those books is an experiment with ordinary speech, in which Swift takes a wager on a narrator (or narrators) who is not conventionally eloquent or articulate. As the critic James Wood has pointed out, there is considerable risk, not to mention daring, in this approach, for it requires of the novelist a commitment to the clichés and “thinned repetitions” of everyday language.
The final piece in Making an Elephant is an introduction Swift wrote to an edition of Montaigne’s Essays, a writer whom he admires almost as a negative image of his own writerly self. Where the novelist ought to disappear, he argues, the essayist is present in every line: the “real joy” in reading Montaigne lies in the “little gift of personality” and the author’s “unwithdrawing” proximity. In Swift’s non-fiction, such gifts are severely rationed—but that is because he is saving himself for his characters.