With its ambition to chronicle the history of the East Anglia region of England and its air of apologia for traditional rural ways, Graham Swift’s Waterland, which sent the British literary press atwitter in 1983 and was nominated for the highly sought-after Booker McConnel Prize for Fiction, has put many American reviewers in mind of William Faulkner. Undoubtedly, there are similarities: The brewery-founding Atkinsons recall Faulkner’s Snopses; the storytelling emphasis echoes Absalom, Absalom! (1936); and the gothically flawed past of both Crick and his family suggests inevitably that other House of Atreus, the Compsons. Curiously, however, in its largest themes, the novel may be most profitably compared not with Faulkner’s works but with those of another American, F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Like Fitzgerald, Swift explores the inability of people to come to terms with the past’s demands upon them, their failed attempts to alter it, and their own identities as it has shaped them to suit their present purposes. When the title character of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), on being told that one cannot repeat the past, replies, “Of course you can,” he really means that one can somehow abolish the cause-and-effect sequence which has flowed from past decisions (in this case, Daisy Buchanan’s decision not to marry him). Consciously or compulsively, the characters in Waterland all attempt to relive and so expunge their pasts; Tom Crick, above all, wishes to reclaim his past, as if, by possessing his past completely, he will cease being possessed by it. Crick, as the narrator who constantly addresses the reader as he would his history class, and who conflates world history with his own family history, presents this struggle with a past that resists complete assimilation to the present but refuses to relinquish its hold.
The attempt to deprive the past of its sting by finding reasons and excuses for its events is part of the larger project on which Swift meditates—that of containing the unfathomable and the irrational, reclaiming it for civilization and reason. The title evokes the continual agon between the watery fens and the human attempts to control them with sluice gates, as Tom’s father, Henry, does in the course of earning his living. Land—or civilization—is ever at war with water—or chaos. It is part of the process of storytelling to reclaim this silty past, making it palpable, manageable, and tame. The fatal ambiguity here, though, and one to which Swift invariably points the reader, is that the way one reclaims the past can make its irrational hold on the present all the stronger, as when superstition proffers an explanation of a local flood: What seems to shore up land may, in the end, serve to weaken it. Crick’s own efforts to recapitulate his past and so to understand it partake of this ambiguity. Hoping to shed light on his own past, he ends by becoming entangled in its obscurities, and his history is scarcely distinguishable at times from the fairy tales people tell one another to overcome their fear of the dark. As apocalypse may well be the ultimate darkness and fear, Crick aptly remarks at one point that “when the world is about to end there’ll be no more reality, only stories.”
Swift has already shown his dedication to story by publishing such works as The Sweet Shop Owner (1980), Shuttlecock (1981), and Learning to Swim and Other Stories (1982). He thus came to this task as no novice to fiction or stranger to its vicissitudes. The strategy of casting a history teacher in the role of narrator works to emphasize the precarious status of both fiction and fact, and it effectively undermines the tendency so common in this time to privilege the latter over the former. By including so much narrative from a seemingly public domain—lengthy recountings of the rise of the Atkinson brewers, of Ernest Atkinson’s standing for Parliament on the Liberal ticket right before World War I and losing his deposit, and so on—Swift seems at times to cross the border from the watery realm of fairy tale to the terra firma of fact. This sense, however, is never a certainty; the reader remains landlocked and waterlogged in a fenlike nether region combining history and legend, blending public knowledge with darker, private intimation and belief. When Tom Crick says that history is “a yarn,” this is meant positively; by the same token, Swift presents his yarn as a kind of history.
Along with a suspicion of history’s claims of superiority over fiction, Waterland suggests a strong skepticism about that attempt to extend into the future history’s supposed causal clarity that one calls belief in progress. The two emblems for such belief in progress regularly invoked throughout the book are the French Revolution (one of the major items on the syllabus that is ignored by old “Cricky,” leading to his early forced retirement) and the British Empire, whose falsity has driven grandfather Atkinson into his home and perhaps out of his right mind. Swift, via Crick, makes much of the eagerness of the French to take up Napoleon’s retrograde challenge: “Follow me, said the Corsican, and I will give you your Golden Age. And they followed him—these regicides, these tyrant-haters.” As for the Empire, the last quarter of the nineteenth century was “a period of economic deterioration from which we have never recovered.” Grand projects such as revolutions, empires, and wars—for example, World War II, which figures as backdrop for much of the novel’s action—constitute nothing so much as narratives in which ordinary people like to see themselves as characters and their actions as endowed with dramatic meaning. (This, by the way, is another of the deliberate thematic links drawn between superstitious legend and modern history.) Crick’s love of history amounts to a love of stories, both the large public ones and the small private ones, and part of history’s allure for him is that it puts the events of the past into a causal sequence of some sort: “Explanation, explanation,” runs the imperative, and it is implied that the explanations do not always have to be very good, either.
Repeatedly in the novel, however, whether the incident is the Atkinson brewery fire in 1911 or the death of Crick’s childhood classmate Freddie Parr in July, 1943, the explanation that can be agreed upon as fact (in both cases, “accident”) explains, in reality, very little. It is only misty conjecture and rumor that begin to provide a sense of context for these actions. History teacher Crick, with these parables, suggests that the narratives in which one indulges can be informative indeed about the past, so long as they are not expected to be more than narratives. Crick tells his children—and above all a clever, irreverent punk pupil named Price, who is clearly a surrogate son—never to stop asking the question why. This admonition stems less from the fact that one may find out the answer, which at any rate “never seems to come any nearer,” than from the expectation that the kinds of answers one hazards, superstitious, anxious, and limited as they are, will reveal much about the one hazarding those answers, even if they do not “solve” the incidents one strives to understand.
For Tom Crick, these incidents are above all traumas from his own life, which, as the reader meets him in inglorious middle age, is quietly falling apart. His wife, the latest victim of the insanity that seems all too prevalent in this novel, has been institutionalized for snatching the baby of another woman at a supermarket. At roughly the same time, and perhaps owing to his marital travails, Crick has begun to abandon the standard history syllabus to tell his class stories about his East of England boyhood. The headmaster, a physicist named Lewis, gets wind of the heterodoxy of putting oneself into history, as he terms it, and decides to retire Crick, whom he has never liked, and simultaneously to begin “phasing out history,” which he does not especially like either. Thus, ironically, Crick’s attempt to account for the wreckage of his own life, to himself as well as to his history class, has the effect of worsening his situation. Another endeavor to shore up the land ends up weakening it.
The bulk of his narrative concerns a series of events that occurred in the 1940’s in the Fenland, Crick’s boyhood region. Crick and Mary Metcalf, a neighboring girl, begin adolescent exploration into “holes and things,” which leads in its ineluctable way to pregnancy. As the cause-and-effect chain progresses, it emerges that Mary has also been exploring with Tom’s half-witted brother, Dick. In order to protect Tom from Dick’s jealous rage, Mary asserts that Freddie Parr is the father: a lie that results in Freddie’s death at Dick’s hand. (The death instrument, in a heavily symbolic touch, is a bottle of Ernest Atkinson’s notorious 1911 Coronation Ale.) The other result of this pregnancy is a horrifically crude abortion that renders Mary, Crick’s future wife, permanently sterile. At somewhat greater length, the incident leads to the Crick brothers’ trip to their attic, wherein lies their grandfather’s chest. A letter in the chest, which...
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