Revenge Tragedy

Graham Swift
Graham Swift; drawing by David Levine

In 1983 a book by the young writer Graham Swift was published in England that caused a stir, even a storm, of interest. Waterland was like a magical island that had risen overnight out of a flat and watery marshland, making one rub one’s eyes in disbelief. The story he told was indeed set in that very English landscape, the fens of East Anglia, but the way in which he told it had more to do with the mythical—and steamily tropical—Macondo of Gabriel García Márquez, the gray Baltic and bleak Gdansk of Günter Grass, and, going further back in time, the past-haunted Yoknapatawpha County of William Faulkner. The links were not made when it came out but to reread Waterland now is to have them staring out at you; these writers did not have a geographical territory in common, but they had together created a new literary territory that did in time become vividly recognizable.

What characterized them was the way in which they took the traditional commitment of the novelist to the particular character but set it within a large, spreading social and political network, used local folklore and gave it mythic overtones, created intricate patterns by the repetitive use of themes and images, blurred the distinctions between a real and a dream world, history and the imagination, and made room for both the incredible and the commonplace in capacious works that eluded traditional definitions and defied rules of shape, plot, and design.

There was also the style they employed to encompass such breadth and scope of material—now short and laconic, now rambling and meandering like a river through reeds and rivulets. A single book could be both tragic and comic because it was so panoramic, filled with contradictions that gave it narrative tension and reflective of a reality that was paradoxical, pied, varied, affected by light, shade, time, and memory.

Waterland took in several centuries of history, incorporated precise knowledge of local industry, flora and fauna, in particular the European eel, Anguilla anguilla, and the myths that enveloped them like river mists. Swift evoked the network of rivers, canals, and locks that create the fens, as well as the ale-brewing business and the Atkinson family involved with it, building up a fine and resonant hymn to the study of history, for

only animals live entirely in the Here and Now. Only nature knows neither memory nor history. But man—let me offer you a definition—is the story-telling animal. Wherever he goes, he wants to leave behind not a chaotic wake, not an empty space, but the comforting marker-buoys and trail-signs of stories. He has to go on telling stories. He has to keep on making them up. As long as there’s a story, it’s all right.

Waterland was a triumph, and Swift knew better than to try and repeat it. In his subsequent books, he returned to his earlier…

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