Graham Swift Short Fiction Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Because of his largely experimental novels, which examine the relationship between history and fiction, Graham Swift is often cited as one of the most important British postmodernists. Although he published only a small number of short stories—the eleven included in his collection Learning to Swim, and Other Stories—both his importance in contemporary British fiction and the fact that the British short story is often ignored make them deserving of attention.

Whereas Swift deals with the large social and cultural issues of history in his novels, his short fiction focuses more sharply on the nature of story, which, in an interview, he argued is always a “magical, marvelous, mysterious, wonderful thing.” Because of Swift’s belief that telling stories is a therapeutic means of coming to terms with the past, his stories, in which characters must try to come to terms with their personal pasts, form the core of his novels, in which the personal past becomes cultural history.

“Learning to Swim”

The focus of “Learning to Swim” begins with Mrs. Singleton, lying on a beach in Cornwall, watching her husband try to teach their six-year-old son Paul how to swim; however, most of the story takes place in her memory as she recalls having thought about leaving her husband three times in the past primarily because of his lack of passion. The story then shifts to the two times Mr. Singleton has thought of leaving his wife—once when he considered jumping into the water and swimming away.

Indeed, swimming is a central metaphor in the story, for Mr. Singleton had been an excellent swimmer in school, winning titles and breaking records; in the Spartan purity of swimming he feels superior to others who will “go under” in life, unable to “cleave the water” as he did. Mr. Singleton dreams of swimming; even when he makes love to his wife, he feels her body gets in the way, and he wants to swim through her.

The undercurrent of marital conflict between Mr. and Mrs. Singleton comes to a head at the end of the story. Mrs. Singleton is indifferent to her husband and wants the kind of close relationship with her son typical of women who have rejected their husbands; she thinks that when he is grown he will become a sculptor and she will pose naked for him. At the same time, Mr. Singleton thinks that if Paul could swim he would be able to leave his wife. The story shifts finally to the boy, who fears that his mother will swallow him up and that he will not win the love of his father if he fails to swim; even though he is terrified of the water, he knows if he swims his mother will be forsaken. The story ends with Paul swimming away both from his father and his mother, finding himself in a strange new element that seems all his own.

“Hoffmeier’s Antelope”

The title refers to a rare, almost extinct, pygmy antelope discovered by a German zoologist named Hoffmeier. However, the focus of the story is the relationship of the narrator to his uncle, an animal keeper at a London zoo, after the uncle’s wife dies. The story centers on the fact that the two surviving antelopes are placed together in the zoo under the uncle’s care. The narrator, who teaches philosophy part-time in London, argues with his uncle that, if an unknown species exists, it is the same as if it did not exist at all; therefore, if something known to exist ceases to exist, it is the same as something that exists but is not known to exist. The...

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