It seems to be a convention that when you are writing about Graham Swift, somewhere in the first paragraph or two you refer to “Waterland, his best book.” It would be a great thing to kick over the traces and declare Waterland a mere bagatelle beside Swift’s new novel; unfortunately, that is impossible. So, let us have it over with. Swift’s third novel was set in the east of England, in the Fens. Its narrator, a history teacher, brooded on his family, his adolescence, on the influences that created him. Stories of his own locality were interwoven with stories of the great world, and the patterns of the past informed every event. Waterland was a book which both reassured and captivated the reader by its exact sense of place and the solidity of its physical world: a moving meditation on the meaning of landscape and history, carefully if not elegantly written, exact and well-arranged; a book both modest and luminous.
After this book’s huge critical and popular success, expectations for Swift’s fourth novel were extremely high. Out of This World was the story of a war photographer, Harry Beech; his father, an arms manufacturer; his daughter Sophie, damaged and depressed, talking to her analyst in New York. Like much of Swift’s work it was concerned with complex and repeating family patterns, the sins of one generation visited on the next. Guilt and selfdoubt furnished the interior landscape. The exterior landscape was a public one: Belsen, Vietnam, the Falklands. It was an austere book, which yielded little to even the most willing and receptive reader; it encapsulated large questions in sharp images, as if they were seen through the war photographer’s eye, but its characters seemed types, walking arguments. It moved the critics to respect rather than rapture.
Ten years ago, before Waterland, Graham Swift published a collection of short stories called Learning to Swim. It is interesting to read them at this point and to see how his work has grown from them, how his preoccupations have evolved. They are thoughtful stories, analytical, discursive, with a surplus of introspection over action. They reach out beyond their own confines, as if they were trying to become novels; which indeed they are. Fear—sometimes lifelong—is a theme: fear of water sometimes, of all the treacherous seductive undercurrents of the unconscious mind. The stories are about family bonds, ancestry, dubious paternity, marital infidelity, buried secrets come to light. In Ever After these themes have matured; it seems Swift has been brooding a long while on this novel, much longer than the four years since he last published.
The central character in Ever After is a middle-aged man called Bill Unwin. His opening statement is this: “These are, I should warn you, the words of a dead man.” It is a portentous beginning, which falls away at once into the rambling and the ridiculous; so, within the first page, we learn the essential things about him. For of course Unwin is not dead, he is only a failed suicide. He sits, convalescent, in the garden of the Oxford college where he holds a fellowship; he is sheltered, he knows, from the brute reality of the wider world. But the facts of his own life are brutal enough. He has suffered three bereavements in eighteen months; he has lost his mother, his actress wife, Ruth, and his American stepfather, Sam Ellison.
Sam was well-off, his family having made their money in plastics, and it was he who endowed the fellowship that Unwin holds. It is a legacy of embarrassment Sam has left his stepson, for Unwin’s academic career, long abandoned, was undistinguished, and he is considered by his colleagues to be underqualified—“bogus,” as he puts it. He has reason enough for depression, perhaps even for despair, this man who all his life has played second fiddle to those who have now bowed out and left the stage. His return from the dead has brought about a metaphysical crisis. “I am changed.”
It is like Unwin to choose that locution: “I am changed,” not “I have changed.” He leans to the literary, to the secondhand. He expresses himself through quotation, sometimes acknowledged, sometimes not: literature is his “lifelong refuge,” he says, though it does not seem to have sheltered him from much. He thinks of himself as Hamlet, or sometimes as Polonius, “a man behind the scenes.” He leans to cliché; clichés of expression, and of emotion, too. He is, in other words, not the most promising company for the duration of a sizable novel.
It is evident after only two or three pages that Swift has created for himself a huge problem. In undertaking to see the world through Unwin’s eyes Swift must—if he is to keep the narrative voice true—accept the limitations imposed by his viewpoint. He can explicate this viewpoint, he can deepen it, show us why this mediocre and pitiable man looks at the world as he does, but he cannot shrug off Unwin’s clammy hand. A lesser writer would do it, of course. A lesser writer would not keep the voice true; he would subside into liveliness, backslide into hope, woo the reader with some cheap entertainment. But Swift is relentless; Unwin will be Unwin all through.
Unwin is self-aware, deeply so. He has written academic papers, he says, never anything personal before.
Yet this way in which I write is surely not me. What would you call it? A little crabbed and sardonic? A little wry? A tendency to the flippant and cynical? Underneath it all, something careless, heartless? Is this how I am?
But we would never suspect Unwin for a moment of cynicism. He is vulnerable, sincere. He believes in literature as “the speech, the voice of the heart,” a light in the darkness of obscure circumstance. And there are many areas of obscurity in his life. Behind the three recent deaths and his own attempted self-slaughter lies another death, the suicide of his father when he was a child. He takes us back to his childhood to explain what happened.
The scene now is Paris, and Unwin is a little boy in sensuous thrall to his mother. And what a prize idiot Mother appears to be; remarking on the Champs Elysées “in a rapturous if half-startled voice, ‘Look, darling, this is Paris, darling.’ ” The grown-up Unwin adores her still, and his infatuation is exceedingly tiresome:
Seeing the sights of Paris with my mother! Shopping sprees with my mother in Paris!…In the city of perfume we bought perfume. In the city of lingerie we pondered over lascivious creations of silk and lace.
Colonel Unwin was a more mysterious character: twenty years older than Unwin’s mother, “medals on chest, cigar lit, Scotch and soda,” he occupied an ambiguous position between civilian and military, and in the aftermath of World War II his function was “sorting out the world.” While he was doing this his wife occupied herself with the young Sam Ellison; years on, Unwin feels himself to have been a tacit conniver at their adultery. Sam the plastics man is a gross caricature of a gross American businessman. Swift takes very little trouble over him: fits him out with a reiterated phrase, “You gotta have substitoots.” When Unwin was nine, his father shot himself. Mother married Sam, and they moved from Paris back to England.
Reflecting on the events of the past forty years Unwin often wanders off the point. (What is the point? Unwin would ask.) Swift has given him an authentic voice, but at times a deeply irritating one. Unwin is always quibbling, hesitating; he can hardly get through a sentence without stopping to examine what all the separate words mean. In itself, this is astutely observed; a man in Unwin’s situation might feel there were few things to rely on, might fear that even the most ordinary words conceal traps. But the consequence of being true to Unwin is this: every time the novel attempts to gather pace, it runs into the ground again. It does not help that Unwin’s prose is unattractive—tangled sub-Jamesian sentences, broken up by quasi-sentences with no main verb. Occasionally an eloquent and moving passage stands out. After leaving his dying mother, Unwin goes into a park:
The air was almost completely still; only an occasional breeze stirred the trees, as it had stirred my mother’s curtains. The sun was low and rich and everything under its touch—the midges under the trees, the veins of leaves, the mica in the path—appeared specially illuminated. People’s voices sounded slow and hushed.
Of course, an author may give his characters the power to transcend their own limitations. It might have been better to give it to Unwin more often.
Unwin backtracks to explore his ancestry, the world of his great-uncles. Blood ties are important, it seems, but so are spurious ancestors. One of his great-uncles likes to believe that the family is descended from Sir Walter Ralegh. This gives Unwin the cue to ruminate on tobacco—his wife killed herself after a diagnosis of lung cancer—and to quote Ralegh’s poetry:
Even such is time, which takes in trust
Our youth, our joys, and all we have,
And pays us but with age and dust…
The Ellison Fellow is allowed to choose his own subject for research, and Unwin is editing some notebooks written by an ancestor of his, Matthew Pearce. A tragicomic subplot develops here; Potter, a colleague Unwin despises, wants to lay his hands on the Pearce manuscripts, believing that he can make a better job of editing them than Unwin can. Potter’s wife attempts to seduce Unwin, hoping to get from him the documents her husband covets. By doing so she hopes to make her husband grateful and improve the health of her failing marriage. What she achieves—in a painfully funny scene, the book’s most successful—is to precipitate Unwin toward his suicide attempt.
It is through the Pearce manuscripts that we are ushered into the book’s deeper levels. Who was Matthew Pearce? Some facts are available to Unwin. Matthew was born in Cornwall in 1819. He studied at Oxford and became a surveyor. He married a clergyman’s daughter and had four children, of whom one died in infancy. But what sort of person was he? Unwin cannot know, only guess. He builds up an elaborate edifice of conjecture, only to knock it down every few pages by reminding the reader that he is making everything up. Unwin is Matthew’s creator, and we are not to be allowed to forget this, even though the price is the attenuation of the narrative. The pressure of Swift’s (and Unwin’s) self-questioning is intense; we are not to be permitted the easy pleasures of settling into the story line. For Swift and his narrator this is an honest way of proceeding—but it means that the book is deprived of dramatic force, at the very point where it needs pushing along.
Matthew Pearce’s father was a clockmaker. One of his clocks is still in the family, handed on as a wedding present from one generation to the next. Unwin pictures the clockmaker at work; not just marking time, but manufacturing it, perhaps? (Swift expressed the same idea in his short story “The Watch.”) The clock has a motto engraved on it: Amor Vincit Omnia. It represents continuity:
When I wind the clock, I hold the key which Ruth once held, and holding the key that Ruth once held, I hold the key once held by Matthew.
The people go; the patterns remain.
We move back to 1869: Matthew Pearce is writing to his estranged wife Elizabeth. It is uncanny, but his style is very like Unwin’s. Is Swift telling us that Unwin has copied his style from his ancestor? The secondary narrative of Pearce’s journals will provide no relief for the reader. Swift allows Pearce to be just as sententious as Unwin but even more long-winded, because he is a Victorian.
The decisive moment of Matthew’s life came in 1844, when he was twenty-five years old. On a Dorset beach he came across a spectacular fossil—an ichthyosaur.
He stood face to face with the skull of a beast that must have lived, so certain theories would have held, unimaginably longer ago than even the most generous computations from the Scripture allowed for the beginning of the world (yet which must have been created, so something inside him would have insisted, by God); so long ago that the fact of its existence had been almost irretrievably swallowed up in the fact of its extinction and only now, in the pathetically locatable nineteenth century, had it come to be known that it had existed at all; and thought—And thought what?
Unwin represents Matthew as a man of prematurely settled outlook, whose stability is undermined by two things—the death of one of his children, and the discovery of Darwin’s hypotheses. We read Matthew’s journals and follow him as he tries to come to grips with the great intellectual questions of his age, struggles to comprehend the possible social spinoffs of Darwinian beliefs. Like Unwin, Pearce has a lot of questions and few answers, and Graham Swift allows him to throw his doubts at the page in note form. It appears that Pearce’s loss of religious faith broke up his marriage, but Unwin, his editor, must be dubious on this point. Elizabeth married again. Was she a dissenter from her husband’s intellectual convictions, or did she merely have an eye for other men? Was she unfaithful to Matthew? It is a puzzle that Unwin cannot solve.
Nor can he solve the mystery of his own father’s death. Did Colonel Unwin shoot himself because his wife told him that young Bill was not his child? If she told him this, was she lying? If she was lying, for what motive? If she was speaking the truth, who is Bill Unwin? It was only after the death of Unwin’s mother that Sam Ellison planted in his mind doubts about his paternity. Has he lived till middle age without knowing the first, the essential fact about himself? If he has, what does this say about him?
To discover that for fifty years of your life you have been labouring under a massive misapprehension is a fair enough reminder at least of your capacity for innocence.
And yet, perhaps this is a false trail: there may have been other, quite different reasons for his father’s suicide. Having pursued his investigation through official channels he finds officials are wary, even after so many years, of speaking openly about his father’s death. He concludes, “So, he was a spy then—of sorts—after all. A reluctant, a regretful, a squeamish spy.”
So inheritance and its nature—the influence of one generation filtered down to the next—is an essential Swiftian theme; explored in Waterland, explored again here. It is as if the larger world of external circumstance accepts and indulges an internal, genetic pattern; Unwin cannot thrive, for he has no power to invent himself, no power to tear himself free from the pattern into which he is bound. It is a profoundly pessimistic thesis. Yet there was a time when other possibilities seemed to be open to him, a choice of ways. If he had stayed in Paris—“fairy-tale city…with its enchanted streets and eternal air of licensed felicity”—Unwin might have become “a great boulevardier, a great philanderer.” But his father’s death drove him into himself, made him bookish, constrained him to view his own life as a pale repeating pattern of other lives.
Matthew Pearce, like Unwin, suffered the early loss of a parent. His mother died when he was eleven. At that time the Bible consoled him: but after his second bereavement, the loss of his baby, he can no longer dwell happily in the watchmaker’s world, where “things fit, things have a purpose.” “I cannot believe” he says in his notebooks, “that in this prodigious arbitrariness there is any purpose that grants life to a child only to withdraw it after two years.”
Unwin can offer no retrospective consolation to his ancestor. It would help if Bill understood Darwin better. “Was he a man or a mind? Who thinks of Darwin the man?” (Plenty of people, the reader may mutter mutinously.) “It is true (we know now) that we are descended from apes,” poor Unwin says. Is it? Did Darwin say so? Did he really? Will Swift cut in, and cut through the muddle for his hapless character, free him from some of his muddier misperceptions? No: he leaves him in his college garden, talking to the bushes about time and chance, crying in anguish, “What is so important about this flesh-and-blood thing? This damn flesh-and-blood thing?” Unwin acknowledges that “Substitutes can be arranged. Children can be adopted.” But “maybe it’s not posterity I seek at all…. Maybe for me it is the other way around. Maybe it’s anteriority (if such a thing exists) I’m looking for. To know who I was.”
This comes at a late stage in the book, and if it comes as a revelation to Unwin it is no longer a revelation to the reader. We seem to have covered the point extensively. One must sympathize with Unwin in his depression. If he is doomed to inherit patterns from those he is descended from, as well as from those (like Ralegh) whom he is not descended from, he is in a pretty pickle; he may as well reach once more for the bottle of sherry and the suicide pills. And so may we all.
Unwin’s life has had one redeeming feature; he had a remarkably happy marriage. His wife was famous for her work both on film and in the theater, and latterly he had been her manager. Ruth herself is another character without substance. We know—almost to the point of nausea—what animates Unwin, if animation it can be called; but Swift’s female characters are often unsatisfactory. What Swift does make explicit—and it is here that the book’s tenderness resides—is the quality of Unwin’s feeling for Ruth, his disbelief that what was so alive can become so quickly a rigid corpse. And yet, wasn’t it bound to end badly? Ruth and Bill were young and in love in a pre-permissive age, and they had to go to a little hotel to have sex. Where did they check in? Why, the Denmark Hotel. Did they have to play out their roles, the reader asks? Wasn’t there another hotel close by? One called “Arcadia,” or “Mount Pleasant,” perhaps? Couldn’t they cross the road to help themselves? Of course, this is a quite improper line to pursue. It is nonsensical to lose patience with an author’s creation. Oh, but it is human to do so; and novels are addressed not to the cosmos but to human readers, with a limited amount of patience and a rationed capacity for gloom.
Because Graham Swift engages with profound, serious, important themes, his book is worthy of respect. What it lacks is energy. His characters are afloat, barely, in a pale sea of abstraction. Always, the main problem is Unwin himself. We hear the tergiversation in his voice. We see him deceive himself on the page. It is subtly, skillfully done. But the fact remains that Unwin is a bore. The more faithful the author is to the character he has invented, the more boring he becomes—so the more Swift succeeds, the more he fails. And Unwin is not just dull but inadequate as a voice for the questions his creator wishes to air. He cannot rise to the occasion, this “gangling, sulky, flat-footed…book-worm.” Ever After may have deeply advanced Swift as a thinker, but sadly it has not advanced him as a novelist.