Graham Swift Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 1248 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Graham Colin Swift was born in London, England, on May 4, 1949. His mother’s family, prosperous Jewish tailors, immigrated from Poland around the beginning of the nineteenth century; his father was a civil servant in the National Debt Office. He attended Dulwich College in London, after which he graduated from Cambridge University with a B.A. in 1970 and an M.A. in 1975. He taught for one year in Greece and was a part-time English instructor in London until the success of his third novel Waterland in 1983.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The son of Sheila Swift and Allan Swift, a former World War II navy pilot turned civil servant, Graham Colin Swift was born near London in 1949. Early on, his parents moved to south London, where Swift continued to make his home in adulthood. As a schoolboy, Swift earned a scholarship to the prestigious Dulwich College (alumni include P. G. Wodehouse and Michael Ondaatje) before being admitted to Cambridge University’s Queen’s College, from which he earned his B.A. in 1970 and an M.A. in 1975. From 1970 to 1973 Swift attended York University, ostensibly working on a doctoral dissertation titled “The City in Literature”; however, he spent his time refining his creative prose skills, producing the draft of a novel that he subsequently abandoned. While at York, Swift met the woman who would become his longtime partner—then an undergraduate English major—writer Candice Rodd.

Having exhausted funds from the British Academy, Swift taught for a year in Greece, and during most of the 1970’s he was a part-time teacher or lecturer in and around London. With the success of Waterland, Swift was able to devote his professional life to writing. Typically he averages four or five years between novels, but, as he has established on numerous occasions, much of that time is taken up with book tours, lectures, presentations, and other promotional activities expected by publishers. Swift has often expressed discomfort at this aspect of his writing life. At the same time, he is no recluse; when, for example, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for the death of author Salman Rushdie in 1989 for the publication of his novel The Satanic Verses (1988), Swift quickly and publicly defended his close friend. He also cofounded the International Committee for the Defense of Salman Rushdie. In general, however, Swift has refused to discuss his personal life in any detail; consequently, few biographical details are available on the author.


(Novels for Students)

Graham (Colin) Swift was born May 4, 1949, in London, England, the son of Allan Stanley and Sheila Irene (Bourne) Swift. His father was a...

(The entire section is 300 words.)