When my mother was a little girl, back at the beginning of the last century, she used to hear her mother and an aunt gossiping about an uncle who was having an affair with a woman “over the water.” She thought they must mean somewhere glamorous, like Paris; all they really meant was London south of the Thames. This is the far-from-glamorous country Graham Swift has made his own. It stretches from working-class Bermondsey to affluent Putney, via Wimbledon, Blackheath, Clapham, Sydenham, Lewisham, Orpington—quiet commuting suburbs, a comfortable distance from the center, where the action is. Even Waterland, the Fenland saga that made Swift famous, ends up in boring Lewisham.
There is nothing boring, however, about the inner lives of Swift’s people. They may be nobodies to whom nothing much happens, who hold down dull jobs and stay put, but that is not what he makes of them. Their seemingly uneventful lives seethe with troubles that never quite disturb the placid surface—troubles at home, troubles at work, troubles with neighbors. They are people thwarted by circumstances, in thrall to their own idiosyncrasies and obsessions and routines. That is how most lives are, of course, and it takes a great deal of skill and invention to turn nobodies into heroes.
This is what Swift did in his first novel, The Sweet-Shop Owner (1980), and he has gone on doing so ever since, in different ways and with increasing sophistication. The book’s narrator (hero is too strong a word for such a mild man) appears to be nothing more than a sad puppet controlled by his well-to-do wife. She is a great beauty, but frigid and a martyr to asthma, who marries him because he is docile and obedient, not for love. She duly sets him up in a little shop, tells him what to wear, what to eat, what to do, grudgingly bears him a child, then settles down to a life of chronic illness. And because he really loves her and can’t believe his luck when she marries him, he becomes the nonentity she needs. Yet by nature he is her opposite—affectionate and generous, a soft touch to anyone in need. But never in front of his wife. Because of her, he disowns the qualities that make him admirable—a big heart and unending patience—and hides them away like a guilty secret even from his adored only daughter, who rejects him.
The misery of quiet lives is a very English theme, but Swift handles it in a way that is neither quiet nor conventional. The Sweet-Shop Owner is a cunning book, discreetly experimental, with a narrative that constantly shifts from present to past and from character to character, so that the story covers whole decades in the course of a single day, always in a prose that is unfalteringly clear and unostentatious. All in all, it was a remarkable debut.
Shuttlecock, which appeared the following year, in 1981, also takes place “over the water,” but the mood and the people are so different that the book might have been written by someone else entirely. This is Swiftland through the looking glass and the narrator, unlike his kindly predecessor, is a sadistic domestic tyrant who works in an obscure police department where dead cases are stored and lies are fabricated. It is a dark story about a dark place that has less in common with Middle England than with Middle Europe and the paranoid world of Kafka and Canetti.
Then came another radical change of direction, tone, and scope. Waterland (1983) is set in the Fens, the flat, sodden lowlands of Norfolk. Swift’s Fens are as strange as Gabriel Garcìa Márquez’s Macondo, though there is nothing magical about his brand of realism. “To live in the Fens,” says the narrator, Tom Crick, “is to receive strong doses of reality. The great, flat monotony of reality; the wide, empty space of reality.” Crick is a history teacher and he crams his pupils with facts—about the Fens and their history, their rivers and the eels that swim in them, about draining the marshes, digging canals, and building locks and sluices—all played out against three centuries of real wars and revolutions at home and abroad. But “the great, flat monotony of reality” is hard to bear and so Crick is also a compulsive storyteller. “How did the Cricks outwit reality?” he asks his bemused class. “By telling stories…. They were not only phlegmatic but superstitious and credulous creatures. Suckers for stories.” The result is history reinvented and dramatized, a book full of catastrophes, fires, floods, murder, incest, madness, suicide, and witchcraft. Just like the Old Testament.
Waterland is an extraordinary work and there was even better to come. Last Orders, Swift’s sixth and finest novel to date—it was published in 1996—is a Canterbury Tales for our time, and with a very similar itinerary. Chaucer’s pilgrims start out in Deptford and end in Canterbury; Swift’s start in the adjacent borough, Bermondsey, stop in Canterbury to see the cathedral, and finish up a few miles east, in the fading seaside town of Margate. Like Chaucer’s, Swift’s characters have a solemn excuse for their journey—to fulfill a friend’s last wishes by scattering his ashes in the sea—and also like Chaucer’s people, each has his own story to tell and his own voice to tell it in. Swift’s cast is smaller but it buzzes with Chaucerian life and he uses Cockney vernacular as creatively as Chaucer used Middle English.
Voices, in fact, are what Swift does best, voices with difficult stories to tell and mixed motives to disguise. The Light of Day, for instance, his seventh novel, published in 2003, is narrated by an English Philip Marlowe, a disgraced policeman turned private eye, who does his sleazy work in leafy Wimbledon rather than in L.A. But the story he tells is no Chandler-style thriller; it is a love story in which the crime takes place offstage, the lovers never touch each other, and the passion is merely hinted at, with great delicacy, by the things that are left unsaid.
No one, unfortunately, is going to read Tomorrow for its subtlety and reticence. Indeed, Swift’s new novel is so unlike the rest of his work that it is hard to understand how it came about at all. “Every attempt is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure,” Eliot wrote, and Swift’s talent for starting over again, as though each book really were his first, is what has made him a continually interesting writer. The secret lies in his storyteller’s gift of tongues, his flair for creating voices that seem to be talking directly, intimately in your ear—the voice of the sweet-shop owner, the schoolteacher, the policemen, as well as the butcher’s wife and friends. No two of them are alike, none are pretentious, and, no matter what they do for a living, all of them are intelligent people, canny and self-aware, who do not willingly buy into the delusions of others.
Not so this time, despite the fact that Tomorrow is all voice and the formula is as before: up-close and personal, a mother in imaginary conversation with her twin children. Women have had their say before in Swift’s novels—Amy, the butcher’s wife, is the most moving character in Last Orders, and also one of the shrewdest—but Tomorrow is his first book narrated entirely by a woman. She is a judge’s daughter, her name is Paula, and she seems to have everything going for her: a successful career, a wealthy husband who loves her, and a big house in expensive Putney. She herself is an art dealer, a partner in a smart Jermyn Street gallery; her husband Mike is a scientist turned entrepreneur who owns and runs a thriving popular science publishing house; they have been faithfully married for twenty-five years, their sex life is great, and their twin adolescent children flourish. As Candide said, all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.
Well, not quite. There is a worm in the heart of this bunch of English roses, a secret the kids don’t know, and tomorrow is the day they will be told about it. When morning comes, it will be Mike who does the talking; meanwhile, he and the children sleep and Paula lies awake, recounting, as though to the absent children, her uncensored version of the calamity to come: “it’s monstrous, it’s outrageous,” and knowledge of it “will change all our lives” is how she begins; then, like Scheherazade, she steadily ratchets up the suspense by postponing the revelation and raising the stakes until their whole happy world seems about to implode: “I picture a bomb going off and this house falling to bits.” As it happens, the end of the world is indefinitely postponed; the book still has eighty pages to run when the revelation comes and the children are still asleep when it ends. Not that any of that matters, since the life-shaking secret turns out to be no big deal.
The anticlimax is disappointing, of course, but Tomorrow has other, deeper flaws that have nothing to do with plot or timing and everything to do with the narrator and her tone of voice. Paula is the oddest of Swift’s creations: the highest achiever, and in many ways the dimmest. This well-educated woman with a demanding job—she is an expert on minor Renaissance masters and an admirer of John Donne—addresses her kids in sugary diminutives guaranteed to make a teenager cringe: “angels,” “shrimps,” “dumplings,” “nestlings.” Worse still, she talks unceasingly in platitudes like a cartoon figure, gabby, gushy, incurably sentimental and proud of it:
I kept my [champagne] cork. It’s precious beyond reckoning. Did I say I can be sentimental? It’s in a special box where I’ve kept all kinds of stuff. I’m a foolish old mother in that respect. Pressed flowers from Craiginish. Your primary-school artistic triumphs, as valuable to me—and your mother knows about art—as Tintorettos.
Paula’s nocturnal monologue is addressed mostly to her daughter, who is sixteen years old but still, her mother thinks, a virgin. Yet neither the girl’s presumed innocence nor her own engulfing sentimentality stops her from bragging continually about the great times she and her father have in bed. Anything and everything turns them on, she claims—a red silk bedspread, a pet cat, even a funeral—and so on and on she goes, in vivid detail and cloying voice, as if she expects the kids to be delighted on their parents’ behalf.
It is hard to believe that a woman as apparently sophisticated as Paula has never heard of the Oedipus complex or, this being Middle England, that it has never occurred to her that a teenage daughter might not wish to know about her parents’ wonderful sex life. Yet the author clearly doesn’t intend Paula to be a monster of vanity or even just an insensitive fool who takes pleasure in revealing forbidden secrets.
Swift’s motives seem simpler and more innocent: he is writing a book about happiness—about a happy family and a marriage that is happy and loving despite its hidden flaw—and happiness is a notoriously tricky subject to handle. Even Tolstoy had trouble with it: well-matched Kitty and Levin are not only far less attractive than doomed Anna and Vronsky, they are also less interesting and convincing. “Happiness writes white,” said Montherlant. “It does not show up on the page.”
Swift, too, is baffled by the problem, despite his inventiveness, but his solution is even more baffling: he discards what he does best—all that insight and understatement and clear, liquid prose—and turns to Hollywood for inspiration. In other words, he dumbs himself down and writes in clichés, as though the corny romances were all true and there was no longer a problem to solve: all you need is love plus wall-to-wall clichés, and everyone will live happily ever after. This is how the book ends:
It’s dawn, one week after your sixteenth birthday. It’s raining, it’s teeming. Some little bedraggled bird I can’t identify, which no doubt has a nest somewhere which is getting drenched too, is singing its heart out. Perhaps I’m wrong, but sometimes mothers can just tell things. In any case, they only want the best for their children.
Swift has always had a fine ear for how the way people talk shows who they are, so maybe Tomorrow is another of his experiments in ventriloquism: his rendition of the voice of a truly happy woman. But this time the experiment has gone out of control; the creation has taken over the creator and Swift sounds as convinced as Paula by her platitudes, and also as complacent. He really means what she says.
I hope I am wrong and the real Graham Swift will be back with us soon. Meanwhile, as Paula might say, “In every novelist’s life a bad book must fall.” This one is it.