Graham Swift Swift, Graham - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Graham Swift 1949–

(Full name Graham Colin Swift) English novelist and short story writer.

The following entry provides an overview of Swift's career through 1992. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 41.

Best known for the novel Waterland (1983), Swift is highly regarded for intricately structured psychological fiction marked by a sophisticated use of symbol, allusion, and metaphor. His central themes include the emotional stress and consequences of familial bonds, the relationship between the past and present, and the nature of historical inquiry.

Biographical Information

Born in London, England, Swift completed his undergraduate and graduate education at Cambridge University in the 1970s. He also attended Dulwich College and York University and has worked as a part-time English instructor at various colleges in London. A fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Swift has been the recipient of numerous prizes and honors; his Shuttlecock (1981), for example, won a Geoffrey Faber Memorial Award in 1983, and Waterland, which was nominated for the prestigious Booker McConnell Prize, won the Guardian Prize for "Best English Novel in 1983."

Major Works

Examining the tenuous relationship between family members and the role of the past in shaping the present, The Sweet-Shop Owner (1980) details the last day in the life of British storekeeper Willy Chapman and, through flashbacks, four decades of his family's history. Having outlived his wife and survived their loveless marriage of convenience, Chapman, who remains alienated from his daughter, decides to commit suicide on his child's birthday by inducing several attacks of angina. Swift's next work, Shuttlecock, is a psychological thriller in which a British law enforcement research investigator attempts to uncover the truth behind his father's activities as a spy during World War II. While a mystery novel on the surface, the book also explores the dynamics of love, cruelty, loyalty, betrayal, paranoia, and self-knowledge. Waterland, Swift's third novel, is narrated by Tom Crick, a history instructor who is about to be dismissed after thirty-two years of teaching. Focusing on philosophical issues and the importance of studying the past as a means of personal and academic development, Crick's lengthy discourses to his class comprise the novel's narrative materi-al. Central to Crick's lectures—and mental digressions—are his ancestry and heritage, his retarded brother's role in a murder several years earlier, the events that contributed to his barren wife's insanity, and the history of England's Fen Country, where the book is set. Out of This World (1988) is told primarily through the alternating monologues of Harry Beech, an ex-photojournalist known for his pictures of war and tragedy, and his estranged daughter, Sophie. Sophie has not communicated with her father since the funeral of her grandfather—a rich, British arms manufacturer who was killed by a terrorist bomb ten years earlier. Now living in New York City, Sophie consults a psychiatrist to deal with her emotional conflicts, particularly those related to her father and the events surrounding her grandfather's death. Out of This World is noted for its focus on matters of memory, truth, and representation, especially as they relate to modern history and society. Spanning the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Ever After (1992) emphasizes themes of existence, faith, mortality, and history. The novel concerns Bill Unwin, a professor who is recovering from a failed suicide attempt. Unwin has survived the deaths of his actress-wife, mother, father, and rich, American stepfather, and presently holds an academic position essentially bought for him by his stepfather. He occupies his time retelling his life and editing the notebooks of his great-great-grandfather, Matthew Pearce. Pearce's diaries concern his loss of faith and eventual suicide when confronted with modern theories and evidence of evolution and geology. While vainly attempting to answer questions regarding Pearce's motivations, Unwin also ponders his own paternity, identity, and the reasons for his father's suicide. Swift is also the author of the 1982 short story collection Learning to Swim, and Other Stories, in which he employs a variety of voices to convey the emotional hardships people endure in moments of crisis.

Critical Reception

Although some critics fault Swift for a tendency toward verbosity and claim that he is more concerned with ideas than with characters and settings, he is often praised for his subtle and sophisticated narrative style and his insights into history and family life. Observing Swift's treatment of the role of myth in history, John Brewer and Stella Tillyard, for instance, stated that "Waterland's narrative not only reflects on the meaning of history but itself exemplifies the difficulty in distinguishing history from fiction." Waterland is widely considered Swift's greatest achievement, and his other works have inevitably been subjected to comparisons to it. As critic Hilary Mantel remarks, "[it] seems convention that when you are writing about Graham Swift, somewhere in the first paragraph or two you refer to 'Waterland, his best book.'" Nevertheless, in a review of Ever After, Michael Levenson defends Swift against detractors who lament what they perceive as his inability to match the success of Waterland; Levenson asserts that Swift "is a figure to learn from, the hardworking novelist with one significant success (which may never be repeated, and so what?), the professional in the imagination business who delivers his goods every few years, who raises no boasty thumbs in praise of his own talents but who doggedly composes 200 pages of serious story, without pandering either to those who write the reviews or to those who write the checks."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Sweet-Shop Owner (novel) 1980
Shuttlecock (novel) 1981
Learning to Swim, and Other Stories (short stories) 1982
Waterland (novel) 1983
Out of This World (novel) 1988
Ever After (novel) 1992

Harriett Gilbert (review date 11 March 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Lost Boys," in New Statesman, Vol. 115, No. 2972, March 11, 1988, pp. 35-6.

[Gilbert is an English novelist and editor. In the following review, she discusses the themes and narrative structure of Out of This World.]

Fathers stalk through Graham Swift's novels like silent, mutilated giants. Their strangely-shaped shadows unfurl across the lives of the narrators, but their selves have always just turned a corner, disappeared into another room.

Swift's "psychological thriller" Shuttlecock, published in 1981, concerned the pursuit by a young married man of the truth about his father's wartime heroism, and its relevance to certain unsettling events in his own life. The Booker short-listed Waterland (1983) sought out not only a specific father, but ancestors, those whose lives are our history, in general.

Out of this World returns to the theme: its variation being that here Swift not only has a narrator-son but provides that son, in turn, with a daughter, whose narrative alternates with his. In the novel's present—1982: the Task Force is approaching the Falklands—Sophie has moved to New York with her husband, a man who sells dreams of "historic" England to would-be tourists on 6th Avenue. Sexually restless, disturbed by her past, she talks to her psychoanalyst, trying to avoid revelations about her exphotojournalist father, Harry, and concentrating instead on Harry's father, her Grandad: an arms manufacturer and war hero who was blown to pieces by a terrorist bomb in the back of his Daimler New Sovereign.

Grandad it was who brought Sophie up, while Harry, grieving for the death of Sophie's mother in a plane crash, roamed the horror spots of the world: snapped for his paper a Vietnamese mother clutching a blood-soaked child in her arms; three prisoners squatting in the Congo, blindfold, their necks linked together by rope; a screaming Cypriot boy in the fall-out...

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Anne Duchêne (review date 11-17 March 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "By the Grace of the Teller," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4432, March 11-17, 1988, p. 275.

[In the following review, Duchêne relates Swift's focus on storytelling, remembrance, knowledge, and family relations in Out of This World.]

It cannot have been easy to follow Waterland, Graham Swift's last novel and a wonderfully dark-veined mass of story-telling, so perhaps it is not surprising that Swift chose for this new book [Out of This World] a very spare form—two rapidly antiphonal monologues, two or three supporting characters, very little physical setting. Happily, his themes remain constant: What do we know? What makes us think we...

(The entire section is 899 words.)

J. L. Carr (review date 12 March 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Complaints of a Violent Family," in The Spectator, Vol. 260, No. 8331, March 12, 1988, p. 28.

[Carr is an English educator, nonfiction writer, novelist, and author of children's books. In the following excerpt, he offers a mixed assessment of Out of This World, discussing the novel's characters and Swift's use of dialogue.]

[Out of This World] is Graham Swift's fourth published book. The third, Waterland, is in the Big League—innovatory, moving, memorable. He took a terrifying risk in its construction and pulled it off. People and landscape, past and present are one. Long after its final page I went on regretting what had happened,...

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Hermione Lee (review date 13 March 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Shutter and Lens," in The Observer, March 13, 1988, p. 43.

[Lee is an English critic, editor, nonfiction writer, and educator. In the following mixed review, she discusses stylistic and thematic aspects of Out of This World, noting, in particular, Swift's focus on mythology and photography. Although she praises the volume's focus and aims, she concludes that the work's "good ideas float about on the surface, and haven't sunk down into the rich, vividly realised depths of Shuttlecock or Waterland."]

The history teacher of Graham Swift's marvellous novel Waterland told us that life is one-tenth Here and Now, nine-tenths a history lesson. The...

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Patrick Parrinder (review date 17 March 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Verbing a Noun," in London Review of Books, Vol. 10, No. 6, March 17, 1988, pp. 17-18.

[An English educator and critic, Parrinder has written several books on H. G. Wells and science fiction. In the following excerpt, he offers a positive assessment of Out of This World, discussing the work within the context of twentieth-century history and Swift's earlier works.]

[Graham Swift is a novelist who] is burdened by history, and for whom the central theme of modern life is our own historical self-consciousness. The 20th century, for [this writer], is the historical century par excellence. The 19th, by contrast, was less exhaustively documented and...

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Linda Gray Sexton (review date 11 September 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The White Silence of Their Lives," in The New York Times Book Review, September 11, 1988, p. 14.

[Sexton is an American novelist, editor, and nonfiction writer. In the following review, she offers a highly positive assessment of Out of This World, praising Swift's focus on family love, betrayal, and alienation, and declaring that his "achievement is that the important story of [his main characters'] self-education has been told with such simple, startling beauty."]

To write with passion—but without bathos—about people who mourn is a formidable task. To write simultaneously about individuals who, transcending the burden of the past, reconnect with...

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Del Ivan Janik (essay date Spring 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "History and the 'Here and Now': The Novels of Graham Swift," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 35, No. 1, Spring, 1989, pp. 74-88.

[In the following essay, Janik, an American educator and critic, discusses the relationship between history and the present in Swift's first three novels.]

The publication of three novels within a period of four years marked the debut of Graham Swift, who has already established himself as a major novelist and may prove to be the most outstanding English novelist of the final quarter of the twentieth century. The Sweet-Shop Owner (1980) and Shuttlecock (1981) both received highly favorable reviews;...

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George P. Landow (essay date Fall 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "History, His Story, and Stories in Graham Swift's Waterland," in Studies in the Literary Imagination, Vol. XXIII, No. 2, Fall, 1990, pp. 197-211.

[An American educator, editor, and critic, Landow frequently writes about Victorian literature and writers as well as on issues regarding hypertext and electronic publishing. In the following essay, he discusses Swift's emphasis on history and storytelling in Waterland, classifying the novel as a late twentieth-century example of fictional autobiography.]

Children [are those] to whom, throughout history, stories have been told, chiefly but not always at bedtime, in order to quell...

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Judith Wilt (essay date 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Abortion and the Fears of the Fathers: Five Male Writers," in Abortion, Choice, and Contemporary Fiction: The Armageddon of the Maternal Instinct, The University of Chicago Press, 1990, pp. 101-31.

[Wilt is an American educator and nonfiction writer. In the following excerpt, she discusses the conflicts and issues associated with abortion in Waterland.]

Empathetic with women characters, deeply conflicted about women's choices, male writers in the twentieth century still resonate most profoundly to the special exposures of the man in the matter of maternal choice. [In As I Lay Dying] Faulkner's Addie Bundren makes a discovery: she had remained complete...

(The entire section is 3200 words.)

David Leon Higdon (essay date 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Double Closures in Postmodern British Fiction: The Example of Graham Swift," in Critical Survey, Vol. 3, No. 1, 1991, pp. 88-95.

[An American critic and educator, Higdon is the editor of Conradiana. In the following excerpt, he analyzes Swift's use of closure in Waterland and his other novels.]

'One beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with,' notes the protagonist of Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds (1951) and, he continued, 'a good book may have three openings entirely dissimilar and inter-related only in the prescience of the author, or for that matter one hundred times as many endings.' In the years following...

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David Leon Higdon (essay date 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'Unconfessed Confessions': The Narrators of Graham Swift and Julian Barnes," in The British and Irish Novel since 1960, edited by James Acheson, Macmillan Academic and Professional Ltd., 1991, pp. 174-91.

[In the following excerpt, Higdon offers stylistic and thematic analyses of The Sweet-Shop Owner and Shuttlecock.]

Graham Swift's first novel, The Sweet-Shop Owner, establishes the topics, themes and techniques that dominate his later first-person narratives. In all his novels we see Swift exploring difficult relationships between parents and child, between private and public histories, between past and present, as his memory-lines loop and...

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Kirsty Milne (review date 21 February 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Static Pools," in New Statesman & Society, Vol. 121, No. 4072, February 21, 1992, p. 40.

[In the following mixed review, Milne considers the structure and narrative voice of Ever After.]

The past may be a foreign country, but Graham Swift's miserable male narrators feel far more at home there than in an uncomfortable present. Swift acquired a devoted following among East Anglia lovers with his 1983 novel, Waterland, in which a distraught schoolteacher seeks consolation by empathising intensively with his Fenland forebears. Musing on land reclamation and local brewing dynasties makes a pleasant change from contemplating forced early retirement and a...

(The entire section is 604 words.)

Lorna Sage (review date 21 February 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Unwin Situation," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4638, February 21, 1992, p. 6.

[In the following review, Sage examines the themes and structure of Ever After.]

Graham Swift's last novel, Out of this World, was a "dry" book—abstracted, diagrammatic. There he levitated for once out of the mulch of family-plot emotions with the aid of a metaphor from aerial photography. This time [in Ever After] we're back on low-lying Waterland territory. Not the Fens, but a wet (tear-stained) world of stories that flow into each other like meandering tributaries joining their river. Again, it's a form of family saga, meditating on relations and...

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Stephen Wall (review date 12 March 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Self-Slaughters," in London Review of Books, Vol. 14, No. 5, March 12, 1992, p. 26.

[In the following review, Wall considers the plot and themes in Ever After.]

Graham Swift's new novel [Ever After], like its two predecessors, is about a man who wants to reconstruct the past. In Waterland (1983) this enterprise was conducted—plausibly enough if rather insistently—by a history teacher who saw in his imminent redundancy more than the demotion of his subject. Cutting back on history meant cutting off adults as well as children from the stories about the world that are among their deepest needs. History lies about us in our infancy, and in his...

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MacDonald Harris (review date 29 March 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Love among the Ichthyosaurs," in The New York Times Book Review, March 29, 1992, p. 21.

[In the following review, Harris offers praise for Ever After.]

In 1983 Graham Swift's Waterland brought attention to an esteemed new voice in English fiction. The Guardian called it "the best novel of the year," and it was a finalist for the Booker Prize. Mr. Swift had published two novels and a story collection before Waterland, and has published two novels after it, the latest Ever After.

It remains clear that Waterland is the brightest ornament of this small oeuvre. It owes its power chiefly to its setting: the...

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Hilary Mantel (review date 11 June 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Blood Ties," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXXIX, No. 11, June 11, 1992, pp. 23-5.

[Mantel is an English novelist and critic. In the following review, she examines characterization and voice in Ever After as well as the novel's relation to Swift's earlier works.]

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...

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Michael Levenson (review date 22 June 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Sons and Fathers," in The New Republic, Vol. 206, No. 25, June 22, 1992, pp. 38-40.

[In the following review of Ever After, Levenson discusses the novel's focus on academia, its nationalistic outlook, and its thematic relation to Swift's other novels.]

How could any comment more sharply irritate Graham Swift than the cruelly recurrent, dully obvious opinion that neither his two novels written before Waterland (1983) nor the two written since even belong on the same shelf as that strong book? But so it is. Swift is only 42—only, let us say, halfway there—and, smart and conscious as he is, he must sometimes face the thought that his career is...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Bemrose, John. "A Welcome Literary Invasion." Maclean's 101, No. 18 (25 April 1988): 51-2.

Comparative review of The Child in Time by Ian McEwan, Artificial Fire by Angela Carter, and Out of This World. Bemrose offers a mixed assessment of Out of This World, arguing that while Swift's "competence at interweaving the themes is impressive, his novel lacks impact."

Review of Out of This World, by Graham Swift. The New Yorker LXIV, No. 51 (6 February 1989): 105.

Briefly assesses Out of This World. The critic concludes that...

(The entire section is 147 words.)