It is a peculiar misfortune for a writer to produce a first-rate novel at a young age. The novelist’s is a slow-ripening gift, and most fiction writers when they reach maturity find themselves going hot with shame when they contemplate the fruits of their youth. Some do manage to free themselves of the millstone of an early masterpiece and go on to a triumphantly productive middle age—Flaubert (Madame Bovary in 1857, L’Education sentimentale in 1869), Joyce, Thomas Mann—but writers of lesser genius can find their careers blighted by an early success. Waterland (1983) was not Graham Swift’s first novel—he had previously published two novels and a volume of short stories—but it was the one which brought him his greatest popular acclaim: the Guardian Fiction Prize and the lucrative Winifred Holtby Award, Booker Prize short-listing, and the apotheosis of being made into a Major Motion Picture. The two novels he has published since 1983—Out of This World and Ever After—have been more or less warmly received by the critics, but in almost every review, with awful predictability, unfavorable comparison has been drawn with Waterland. Graham Swift may sometimes have wished he had never written the damned thing.
Yet, book for book, Swift is surely one of England’s finest living novelists. If his reputation is not as great as those of some of his colleagues, this is only because he keeps himself at a decent and wholly admirable distance from what Gore Vidal witheringly refers to as “bookchat.” Nor can you find his marriages or his publishers’ advances discussed in public print; from the biographical details on the jackets of his books was learn that he was born in 1949, and that he lives and works in London: nothing more. Nor is there much to be surmised of his background and attitudes from the internal evidence of his fiction, a wildly unreliable source of personal information even in the most avowedly autobiographical of novelists, and Graham Swift is anything but that.
His novels differ greatly one from another; indeed, were it not for the evidence of his name on the title page, one might think that all six of them had been written by different hands. What links them is an unfussy subtlety of style, a sly wit, and a deep humanistic strain. If he lacks a certain fieriness, that malign, dark flame which burns at the heart of the very greatest fiction, he largely compensates for it with a profound awareness of the difficulty and pain of our transient lives, an awareness that, in the best of his work, swells into an authentic and at times magisterial tragic sense.
A unifying theme in all his dissimilar novels is that of history, both that which is written down, the graven record of a nation’s past, and the continuing and continuously revised stories of the lives of “ordinary” people. As Tom Crick, a history teacher and the narrator of Waterland, puts it …