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.
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."
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.
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."