Graham Swift

The Here and Now

As Steven Connor says in the English novel in History, the novel has always been a useful resource for ordering history. This is because time is essential to every aspect of the novel. Firstly, to write a novel takes a great deal of time. A novel cannot be written in an afternoon, like a shortstory or a poem, and thus time is at the forefront of the novelists mind from the very outset. A novel cannot be entirely consumed with a passing fad or topic, because if it depends on being relevant to a timely issue, it will be irrelevant by the time it is published. A novelist must have a broad scope, and so the novel, by its very bulky nature, must have a broad scope of time. That is the basic structure of the novel, like four joints are the basic structure of a table; like the table, the interesting and artistic thing about it, is in the construction of those basic elements. There are many ways to leg a table: simply, so that joints are obviously pinned together, or so ornately and complex that the legs seem to grow into the top; or any variant there between. In the end, the creation will depend on the artist’s idea of construction. The same is true of the novel. All artists deal with history and time differently, and how they do so reflects an idea of the construction of the world and the human condition.

Much has been said about what is referred to as the 19th century novel’s way of dealing with time: that is, in a grand, linear, flowing narrative, which, for the first time in the 19th Century, became the ordering factor above all others, dethroning the categorization and listing formats that preceded it. This high-ordering innovation on the novel is said to reflect the way people viewed their lives in the 19th century – as a part of an ever-marching procession of the present. Middlemarch, as the classic example of this, clearly tells the tale of a typical town, and its typical people, in a linear fashion, all viewed from the outside by an omniscient narrator, who has access to, but does not speak from within, the minds of its characters. World events are brought in as they would honestly affect this town and its townspeople: through economic fluxuation, young men being drafted for the war, and European political and artistic pursuits.

Then came the modernists, who turned the lens of the novel inwards, and began exploring the affects of history, both personal and academic, through perception. Narration took drastic turns, with the linear, particularly present-tense linear becoming increasingly subservient to what is being perceived during that here and now that the Victorians recounted. Every tense of what was most important to the human mind was explored – the past, present, and future, most thoroughly by Proust, Joyce, and Kafka, respectively. Proust explored the way the past is ever-affecting the future. Joyce, mined the present moment to see what importance lie therein. And Kafka wrote complete narratives on his nightmarish visions of the future. All three authors frame their stories in relationship to history, and make it subservient to their mental narratives. Joyce tries to overthrow the history of imperialized Ireland and tries to secularize and even make literary the history of the Catholic church, while Kafka’s visions draw straight from the political present of his life.

With all these innovations now in the hands of the modern novelist, the varieties and multiplicities of tactics one can employ allow for some of the most nuanced representations of that joint-work construction, time. Many argue that this creates the post-modern polemic of inability, with its disjointed state leaving novelists unable to reform history as they once could, applying personal sensibilities and perspectives to historical events. Those people argue that all the novelist can do now, is show how the unstoppable, unalterable narrative of history imprints certain things on contemporary man.

Steven Connor argues against this. He says that with its current repertoire, and massive publication and reading base, the novel can even further entrench history with its narrative power, reconstructing the hierarchies-of-affect of historical events, and thus actually shape present history. This surely seems true of a novel like Waterland, in which Graham Swift weaves an incredibly nuanced narrative, which reflects a highly personalized view of the human condition and its place in history, and alters history by giving a grand, distinct, and poetic voice to the fens.

Waterland is a masterpiece in its own way. With its very thorough history of the fens, played out through a multi-generational epic of one of the prominent families in that history, fictionalized through one of its invented branches, it stands among any thoroughly culture-defining book, from Anna Karenina, to Moby Dick.

It begins: “’And don’t forget,’ my father would say, as if I may up and leave at any moment and go seek my fortunes in the wide world, ‘whatever you learn about people, however bad they might turn out, each one of them has a heart, and each one of them was once a tiny baby sucking his mother’s milk…’” In a nutshell, that’s the view of history portrayed in the novel: time is an inevitable progression that may turn out nasty but begins somewhere in a far removed childhood. That is where the story begins, in the fairytales of the narrator’s childhood, and the story therein. There is a mother, a father, and a brother. Then there is the storyteller, in the second chapter, and his reason for telling the story: he is telling the story for the oldest reason in the book, to order the universe, time, history. He is trying to justify his present, or his ‘Here and Now,’ as he puts it, just as pre-history man told stories to justify their present, to order their world, time, and the universe, to explain their existence.

Professor Crick, history teacher, boy told fairytales by his parents, always tried to order the world with history. For most of his life, he looks at the broad events in history. But twice in his life, he had reason to look at other histories: a local history, and then a personal history. First because he learned about his brother’s unnatural past, and then because his wife looses her mind. When there is personal crisis, personal history supercedes the history of textbooks, that is the first view on history proposed in the book, and it is made clear by Professor Cricks’ actual changing of the curriculum when faced with his personal crisis. And even his most skeptical pupil sees that this is a progression in the teaching of history.

This presumes something about human experience that Graham Swift is willing to support. “The key to the universal is in the particular and local,” he has said in interview. So what does Waterland say about the universal human relationship with time in his particular story about the fens? First it says that even personal history is not made up in that ever-present march of time the Victorians believe in. The narrative of Waterland follows the human mind of Professor Crick, as he weaves together three stories: the history of his family, his childhood, and his present predicament. These are the three ‘Here and Now’s’ he sees creating his life, and they do so in a patchwork manner. In this way he is following in the line of the modernists. He says, “I think that moving around in time…is more truthful to the way our minds actually deal with time. Memory doesn’t work in sequence, it can leap to and fro and there’s no predicting what it might suddenly seize on. It doesn’t have a chronological plan. Nor does life, otherwise the most recent events would always be the most important.” And they’re surely not in Waterland, they’re the result of sucklings from a distant past, just as Proust said in response to the Victorians.

In this case, the important past is the history of the fens. Drawing attention to the strength of the natural history therein, Crick points to human nature, like that seen in all his characters, as the impetus for events. Though Mary does not tell stories, her sexual curiosity is propelled by a need to know, and like the broader history of WW2 in which it is set, sexual exploration cannot be completely controlled, but will have un-predictable affects on the future.

Because of Mary and Crick’s haunting childhood abortion, Mary cannot have children of her own, which Crick, through his mental organization of events, believes leads to her mental breakdown years later, which causes her to kidnap a child, ending his own career. This can be seen as an allegory for the world events against which it is staged. But the allegory itself is not the most enlightening element therein. What’s most interesting is how it frames history. Crick’s account of Mary and his narrative, like any account of history, is anecdotal. He only draws the lines he does because of the events that stick out to him. We have no idea what may have transpired in the meantime that has been left out. And even within the text, the lines he draws are not the only lines drawn. The principle gives an entirely different account of what has happened. Yet the novel does not condemn this sort of coping mechanism. Two ways of dealing with the violent events of history are highlighted in Mary and Crick.

After her abortion, Mary represses her human need to explain the world with stories. She chooses to close her eyes and turn to religion to guide her. Crick on the other hand, spends his life trying to figure out the awful events of his life by placing them in every context possible. Even if his assumptions end up being incorrect, he is the one left with his sanity and a deeper understanding of the causes of his plight. Swift’s narrative implies that if we stop framing history with our personal stories, we lose our ability to cope with the modern world – an attack on that tenant of post-modernism.

However, the greatest example in this book of Steven Connor’s point that the novel can re-frame and even reshape history is its oft-commented-on mythisization of the fens. Through his highly educated narrator, who has the capacity to trudge-up any story even widely connected with the one he is telling, Swift gives himself a sort of linguistic and literary freedom in this novel characteristic of all epics. He reaches back to the very development of the fens to tell his own story, and the result is a masterpiece of the highest order: a multi-generational story that shows the propelling force of family history, and shaping force of the land from which they came. Whenever man strikes out against nature, as Crick’s grandfather did by loving his wife, and his forefathers did by draining the fens, nature strikes back, mentally crippling Dick and also giving him a deep conscious, and washing away man’s creations, respectively.

Crick describes his impression of the fens thus: “Because they did not forget, in their muddy labors, their swampy origins; that, however much you resist them, the waters will return; that the land sinks; silt collects; that something in nature wants to go back.”

Water, like history, cannot be controlled. Despite the draining of water from the Fens, the human attempts to create land, breweries and railroads, ultimately nothing will leave a permanent impression. Again, in Crick’s words, “so that while the Ouse flows to the sea, it flows, in reality, like all rivers, only back on itself, to its own source; and that impression that a river moves only one way is an illusion.”

For Swift, giving history a narrative force shows its cyclical aspects, and thus gives it a present force. While that is shown in the very personal story of Waterland, the fact that broader aspects of history – on the first level, the fens, and on the next, world politics – shows that Swift believes it is true there as well: that the Britain’s imperial history, as a narrative force, will act as a cyclical force on the present, and does in his character’s lives. After all, his students have nightmares about nuclear holocaust.

In Waterland Swift leaves the joint-work of his novel exposed: it is a work of art on history open for the exploring, showing the connection between personal curiosity and world events, and then the return affect of those world events on personal curiosity. Being open with his art gave Swift the ability to reach out in unseemly directions to beef up his plot, and in turn created the masterpiece of the fens.

In Last Orders, Swift’s art has dramatically changed, and changed for the dramatic. In Last Orders we see none of the digressions that make Waterland what it is, but in it Swift does create a purer work of art, and further progresses his ideas about the relationship of man and history, as is evident in the way this work of art functions.

Last Orders is a far more dramatic work than Waterland in that almost every page of it is a scene. In Waterland, there were virtually no scenes. Like in history, Swift internalized almost all the dialogue in Waterland and turned it into text that had been masticated by a professor. Last Orders, on the other hand, is almost all dialogue. Much is said about how the novel, in form, is Faulknerean, but the writing itself is actually much closer to Faulkner’s counter-point American author, Hemmingway. The dialogue is beautifully crude and simple, with little reflection on itself, and the sentences almost never get carried away with themselves. Swift often notes this facet of the work in interview, and it seems to follow with his ideas about what the written word can do for the individual.

While Waterland showcased an interrelated idea of history and the individual, the pure, personal stories of Last Orders further show that history is, and is in, the individual. As he said, the key to the universal is in the particular and local, and so this further focalization on the particular and local is a further refinement of this idea of art.

Vic, the funeral home owner, says this, “In life there are differences, you make distinctions, it’s the back seat for me from now on. But the dead are the dead. I’ve watched them, they’re equal. Either you think of them all, or you forget them. It doesn’t do in remembering one, not remembering the others. Dempsey, Richards. And it doesn’t do when you remember the others not to spare a thought for the ones you never knew. It’s what makes all men equal for ever and always. There’s just one sea.”

Graham Swift has said that he wants to be with his characters, on their level. “I don’t want to be superior to them or to pretend to know more than them.” And so Last Orders watches these men as closely as if they’re kings, never stepping in with an authorial view to judge them, showing them at their worst and at their best, and leaving the reader with a pretty fair view of humanity which can be used, as Steven Conner would have you believe, to reconsider and reshape history.

The questions that come up in this book are not how did World War 2 affect global politics, but how did it affect these characters individual lives. In that, you can find something far closer to the human experience than in the Ganeva accord. Swift eloquently traces a development of nihilism in these character. At ever step of the day, they are thinking and saying that Jack knows nothing about what is going on. Even in a cathedral, they do not consider the possibility of an after life. “If the bomb had fell on me, I wouldn’t remember dying, I wouldn’t remember being born,” says the most-frequent narrator, Ray.

Throughout the book this gives us a deep feeling of pessimism. Jack Dodds seems like the most lovable man of them all, and he is dead and it is causing petty fighting and quibbling. And even in life he had a terrible flaw, an almost inhuman, uncanny, sick repulsion from his terribly disabled daughter. And his best friend, Ray, took advantage of this and took advantage of his wife, as well. This among many other sexual immoralities that become clear throughout the book start to make the reader think very poorly and pessimistically of the way that nihilism has affected these characters lives. True to his ideals on art, the history of the war, from which this mentality came, comes up only as the characters think it. In this respect, the art in this book is almost as pure as that of Joyce’s Ulysses, and the thoughts on human potential are indeed, for most of the novel, as pessimistic as those from its parallel scene in Ulysses, Hades. The above quote even sounds a bit like Bloom’s reflection on all the dead hearts buried beneath him being like broken machines.

But at the end of the novel, Ray is characterized as a ray of hope, a ray of sunshine. After all we have been through with him, and knowing what he doesn’t, that Amy has run off without him, we don’t believe his life is going to spring into the sunset, but we do feel that something has been achieved, that in reconciling his debt with Jack’s son and tossing the ashes, something has changed, something has been reconciled and more will come in that vein. This feeling is a testament to how true Swift was in his art, and how true it is, that that art can affect change.

“It doesn’t do in remembering one, not remembering the others,” says the caretaker. Well, the caretaker doesn’t say that, couldn’t say that so eloquently. Swift has given him a voice, has allowed him to say things that he very well may feel, but could never say for himself. “Words are a window to something unspeakable,” says Swift. And in Last Orders, with his Hemmingway-esque sentences, Faulknerean style, and Joycean allegiance to the true thoughts of his characters, he has gotten to that affect that makes us feel that life, even post-war, post-empire, and post-modern, has a deep meaning, has a deep feeling. It doesn’t do in remembering one, not remembering the others. So Graham Swift has made us remember one, one very simple person, not a king, affected very profoundly by modern life, world events, and history, and thus achieves the highest level of art, the anagogic, in that he makes us feel for all humans on a higher level.

Though it may not be the far-reaching masterpiece that Waterland is, Last Orders is of a very high order of art. And both novels propound huge ideas of history, through their very personal re-workings of it, and affect history: Waterland by mythisizing the fens, and Last Orders by reaching to the hearts of men. Both novels also know their place in literary history, and prove that though The Greats have broken down almost all foreseeable barriers to the method of the novel, modern novelists are now in the best position ever because, like the modern joiner, they can draw on whatever traditions they want, to create the most sophisticated structures yet.

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