Graham Colin Swift is one of England’s important contemporary novelists. Born in London in 1949, he did not directly experience the momentous events of the Depression-ridden 1930’s, World War II, or the difficult postwar problems of social and economic recovery, but his work has consistently concerned itself with history and its subtle influences. Swift, whose father was a government civil servant, attended Dulwich College in London, where he had been preceded half a century before by two other noted writers, Raymond Chandler and P. G. Wodehouse. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Cambridge in 1970 and received his master’s from the same university in 1975. He also attended the University of York. From the mid-1970’s until the success of his third novel, Waterland, published in 1983, he was a part-time English instructor in London. His first novel, The Sweet Shop Owner, was published in 1980, and his subsequent work has won for Swift much praise and many awards. Waterland was one of the finalists for the prestigious Booker Prize and was named by The Guardian as the best English novel of 1983.
The Sweet Shop Owner contains a number of themes which have continued to occupy Swift. Willy Chapman, the protagonist, is the long-standing proprietor of a small London shop. His wife, now dead, married Willy to spite and to escape her family and provided the funds and the initial discipline that made the shop successful. The novel takes place on the last day of Chapman’s life, and Swift illuminates Chapman’s story by a series of flashbacks to his own history and to the relations with his wife and his estranged daughter, all governed by the long-established currents and rhythms of his ordered existence. On his last day, Willy–suffering from heart disease–rebels against those rhythms in the futile hope and expectation that his daughter will return. Personal history rather than the usual history of war and politics infuses the story; family relationships, or the lack of them, provide the story’s focus; and alienation, personal and familial, and its unrequited quest for healing, is the overriding theme.
These concerns continue to dominate Swift’s work. His second novel, Shuttlecock, published in 1981, is also a history of personal and familial alienation. Prentis, like Chapman, is a cog in society’s machine, working as an archivist or researcher in the police bureaucracy; as Willy was dominated by his wife, so Prentis is subjected to his superior. Prentis’s relations with his wife and son are also strained and convoluted. Again history and its permeability play a part in the story of Prentis’s father, ostensibly a war hero who in reality was perhaps the opposite. There is no resolution to the problems raised in the novel, however, and the questions asked remain unanswered. In 1982 Swift published a series of short stories in Learning to Swim, and Other Stories. Swift wrote the stories before any of his novels, and they announce, in miniature, many of his characteristic themes. For example, “Learning to Swim” relates the tale of an unsatisfactory marriage, and in “The Watch” Swift tells a magical story of time and history.
Waterland was the novel that captured the attention of the critics. Swift’s tale of Tom Crick, a history teacher, and Crick’s story of his present life and past history–including the saga of his own ancestors–has been compared to the works of Charles Dickens, William Faulkner, and James Joyce. As often happens in Swift’s writings, Crick’s relationship with his childhood, his students, his wife, and the headmaster of the school where he teaches is difficult, consuming, and fated. Crick, in his fifties, is being made redundant: History is being cut back and merged with something called general studies. Yet the headmaster and the educational establishment are not being merely philistine; Crick himself has abandoned formal history–the history of the French Revolution–in order to relate the more intimate, personal history of himself, his ancestors, and the Fens, the waterlands of the title, of Eastern England. In addition, Crick’s wife, unable to have a child of her own, had kidnapped an infant, was apprehended, and is in a mental institution. The Fens–flat but always changing from land to water and back again–become a metaphor for the convolutions between past and present, between sons and fathers, husbands and wives, reality and imagination, history and fiction. Crick and his worlds reflect the themes that Swift had earlier explored: the impact of an earlier time, the aloneness and alienation of the individual, and the difficulty if not impossibility of relating to others.
Swift followed Waterland with Out of This World, published in 1988. Here the author again works with generational relationships, this time between a sixtyish photographer, Harry Beech, who is currently photographing from the air the prehistoric remains of England, and his daughter Sophie, who is undergoing psychoanalysis in New York. Experiences, the past, and history itself have all come between them, and Swift explores the attempt to restitch the rift, to transcend, somehow, what has occurred before. The chapters generally alternate between the first-person narratives of Harry and Sophie, with other voices remaining muted in the background. In its stylistic austerity Out of This World is reminiscent of Swift’s early work, but it carries forward his concerns with communication between generations, the interplay of public and personal histories, and the nature and functions of narrative.
In 1992 Swift published a fifth novel, Ever After. Beginning like Waterland’s Tom Crick with the impetus of a personal crisis–here the deaths of his wife, mother, and stepfather and his own attempted suicide–university lecturer Bill Unwin searches the past for a foundation on which to rebuild his life. He hopes to justify his tenuous academic standing by editing the notebooks of his ancestor Matthew Pearce, an associate of the famous nineteenth century engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel; instead he finds himself in an exploration of the elusiveness of knowledge and the arbitrary nature of what we call “history.” Like Waterland, Ever After offers a multilayered, evocative narrative that raises complex questions about the relations of art and life. Its uncharacteristically positive conclusion suggests that the very impulse to write–either fiction or history–is a foredoomed but eternally hopeful manifestation of the desire to defy mortality.
Like The Sweet Shop Owner, Last Orders and The Light of Day each takes place on a single day. Last Orders, which won the 1996 Booker Prize, recounts the journey made by a group of men, friends since World War II, to scatter the ashes of one of them who has died. The trip provides an opportunity for the friends to assess who they are and where their lives have led them. In The Light of Day, private investigator George Webb’s interior monologue meditates on his childhood, his scandal-terminated police career, his failed marriage, and the case that led to the day’s investigations, which ended with his client murdering her unfaithful husband.
In regard to his constant references to history and its echoes and its relationship to his novels and short stories, Swift has written, “Fiction is not fact, but it is not fraud. The imagination has the power of sheer, fictive invention, but it also has the power to carry us to truth, to make us arrive at knowledge we did not possess and even, looked at from a common point of view, thought we had no right to possess.”