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Essays on GRAHAM SWIFT in
British Literary Desperadoes at the Turn of the Millennium, ALL Publishing House, Bucharest, 1999
The Desperado Age:
British Literature at the Start of the Third Millennium,
Bucharest University Press, 2004
‘Desperado’ perhaps conveys some of the individualism of writing
Interview with GRAHAM SWIFT (born 1949), British novelist
Published in LIDIA VIANU, Desperado Essay-Interviews, Editura Universitatii din Bucuresti, 2006
© Lidia Vianu
LIDIA VIANU: Among other things, I mean by Desperado a person who mixes literary genres in a unique blend. In Waterland, you combine fiction, poetry, history, essay, diary, even teaching, in a Faulknerian bewitching medley. Do you feel this is a feature that brings you together with writers like Julian Barnes, Alasdair Gray, Kazuo Ishiguro, to name only a few disparate examples? Do you do it deliberately or is it as inevitable as breathing, as T.S. Eliot stated about criticism?
GRAHAM SWIFT: I think the mixing of different genres or modes of writing applies only to some of my fiction, especially Waterland – though Shuttlecock contains a book within a novel and Ever After a journal within a novel. I don’t think this is either my principal approach to writing or something I have consciously intended or developed. You go where the spirit takes you or do what a particular narrative demands. The book within a book, for example, is a way of setting up a sort of dramatic dialogue between living and dead characters, between past and present, which of course can’t literally occur. In Waterland the impression of a medley perhaps reflects my ambition at the time of writing. It was my third novel, I felt I could take risks, experiment and stretch myself in ways I hadn’t done before. None of this, however, was for its own sake or simply to draw attention to itself, it had to be justified. It was wonderful, for example, to have created a narrative fabric in which it was possible to insert what is almost an essay on the natural history of the eel, but the chapter on the eel has its relevance and purpose within the whole. The recent tendency in my writing has been away from this sort of authorial mixing of styles towards a tone that’s governed by my characters. Last Orders is also a ‘mixture’, but a mixture of several first-person voices and narratives. The story is pieced together by the characters. The author, I hope, seems hardly present.
I don’t group myself with other contemporary writers or feel that I’m part of some collective undertaking. Critics like to make these connections but I think the extent to which writing is a very singular process is often under-estimated. When you write a novel you go away and, for a long time, do something all on your own. Your word ‘Desperado’ intrigues me. It’s not how I’d describe myself – though writing can have its share of desperation! On the other hand, ‘Desperado’ perhaps conveys some of the individualism of writing. To write a novel, you need, in a way, to outlaw and uproot yourself. It’s a solitary adventure that one day, perhaps, your readers might share.
LV. Stream of consciousness writers like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf meant to smash the narrative and submerge fiction in lyricism. You are also overwhelmingly lyrical, but in a totally different manner. You have returned to the pleasure of the well told story and enjoy the narrative. Your account of it is meant to baffle and instigate the reader to active rereading. Between lyricism and the narrative, which is dearer to you? Would you like to be called a poet or a novelist, or both? Do you complicate your narration wilfully or is it inevitable, again?
GS. The story, the narrative is the most important thing but I’m very happy if my fiction is also felt to have a poetic element. I’ve written scarcely any poetry in the formal sense. I suppose I’d prefer to write the kind of prose that can become poetry rather that the kind of poetry that might become prose! In any case, I don’t think ‘poetry’ is something that just belongs to verse. My writing may sometimes be ‘lyrical’, though that word, to me, suggests a conscious striving after beauty and rapture. More generally, I’d say that one function of fiction is simply to celebrate what’s worth celebrating about life. I hope my fiction does this, even as it may also explore some of the darker areas of life. I believe that there’s an innate celebration in any act of creation. I think story-telling, however sophisticated and modern we may get about it, answers a deep need in human nature. There’s something primitive and magical about it.
If my narratives get complicated, it’s not wilful. I think life’s complicated. Too many people try to simplify it.
LV. Your novels are Mona-Lisa-like narratives, because from every corner a main hero stares at you. You have no minor heroes, they are all minds in progress, brought to the front. Their stories mingle, the novel is a merry-go-round meant to shock the reader into remembrance of things past. Yet history is made present. You choose informal narration and join hands with all readers. This is one face of the Desperado writer: the affectionate narration. If you mean to be close to the reader, how does that go together with your devious amalgamation of incidents in the story? How do you help readers find their way out of the maze of history and feelings brought up to date for each of them?
GS. I tend to prefer first-person narrative – ‘minds in progress’ as you say. This gives you an immediate and intimate access to your character, and in the end implies a certain kind of relationship with the reader too. I want to be ‘with’ my characters, on their level. I don’t want to be superior to them or to pretend to know more than they do. This expresses my basic position as a novelist. I may be an author but I don’t think of myself as any kind of ‘authority’. I don’t have answers to things – though I have plenty of questions (Waterland is full of them) and plenty of doubts. There are a good many people who profess to have answers, to know things, to tell us what is so or what we should do, but this is not what novels are for or why I’m a novelist. An American writer once said we all lead lives of quiet desperation. Perhaps, but I think we all lead lives of quiet confusion. The novel is a form in which you can be true to the confusion of life. I’m not different from my readers and I certainly don’t want to have power over them. I’m confused too, I’m in the same boat. I think of the relationship of writer and reader as one of sharing. I want to share confusion – but not directly and, I hope, not unconstructively. So I offer the confusion of my characters who are nonetheless trying to steer some kind of sustainable and hopeful course through their confusion. That course is story-telling. I believe good story-telling can, without denying or misrepresenting the actual confusion of life, redeem it.
LV. You build what a Desperado critic might call delayed plots. Your main device is the constant interruption. It brings suspense and ensures the quality of breathtaking reality. You break chronology (which is an old trick), but you also break the point of view, as the story comes from an ‘I’, a ‘he’, or many such voices (this is much more recent). It happens a lot in The Sweet-Shop Owner. Do you value the tricks you use, or are they just means to an end? How much store do you set by innovating the narrative technique?
GS. I don’t feel at home with straight, sequential narrative. This partly because I think that moving around in time, having interruptions and delays, is more exciting and has more dramatic potential, but I also think it’s more truthful to the way our minds actually deal with time. Memory doesn’t work in sequence, it can leap to and fro and there’s no predicting what it might suddenly seize on. It doesn’t have a chronological plan. Nor does life, otherwise the most recent events would always be the most important.
I’d hate to think that any narrative technique I use is merely a trick, and I don’t believe in technical innovation for its own sake. Novels shouldn’t be novelties. I think I have quite a strong sense of form, but form for me is governed by feeling, by the shaping and timing of emotion. I think there’s a connection with music, since music ultimately obeys an irrational, emotional logic. Music is also, famously, a language without words, and, though it may seem odd for a writer to say it, I have a respect for the wordless. The wordless things are often the most important things. I don’t think of myself as possessing words, I have to find them, and it’s a writer’s task to try to find words for things that may be ultimately beyond words or very hard to express clearly. I certainly don’t think words (though I love them) are an end in themselves. They’re a window to something. So often the best words, words which directly and accurately transmit feeling, are the least noticeable. It means much more to me if a reader says they were moved and gripped by something I’ve written than if they say they admired my words.
LV. You inherit devices from Henry James (the multiple point of view), Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, and you do one thing they never dared do: in your novels, your solitary characters abolish the future. You go beyond the stream of consciousness, you upgrade it, so to say. Do you feel related to old techniques? How would you define your own identity, whether Desperado or not?
GS. I think my answer to the previous question really covers this. I wouldn’t want to define or categorise myself in literary terms. This is for critics to do. If there’s anything ‘new’ in my work then it’s because my subject-matter has demanded it, not because I seek ‘newness’. Originality is a real virtue but I think it resides in the unique spirit and vision that can belong to an individual author, not simply in the devising of new things. While I’m sure I belong to my time (in ways that I may not always be aware of) I have a healthy respect for past writers and their ‘old techniques’. It’s the content that matters, the techniques are secondary. The content – human nature – doesn’t change that much. I want to write about the things we have in common and matter most and perennially to us, the core of human experience. New clothes don’t alter the flesh and blood underneath.
LV. Out of This World and Shuttlecock are intensely personal experiences, related with an eye open to irony. How do you make lyricism and irony coexist? Would you agree that this is a typical feature of your generation, the Desperado writers?
GS. Lyricism and irony can coexist, and need to – imagine looking at the world entirely without one or the other. I’m a great believer in ‘this and that’, in complexity, even paradox. Confusion again! The title of one of my novels – Waterland – is itself an ambiguity, a ‘both’ not an ‘either/or’. I’m fascinated by borderline conditions, or rather by the difficulty of drawing a distinct line between some fundamental human concerns – between past and present, say, or history and story. There’s an even more impossible line, which I think all writers of fiction sooner or later come to reflect on – the line between what we agree to call the real world and a world that exists but mainly in our heads, the world of imagination, memory and invention. In short, the line between fact and fiction. I think we’re all hybrid, ambiguous creatures inhabiting both worlds and we can be lyrical about each. As soon as we’re aware of how imprecise the border is between the two, irony steps in.
LV. One central theme of your novels is the connection, the relationship parents-children. It has ups and downs, the generation gap is painfully present, but overcome. Parenthood is a highly awkward position. Are you ever autobiographical in what you write? Are your novels so lyrical because of the burden of their author’s sensibility?
GS. I agree. Parent-child and cross-generational relationships are everywhere in my work. I don’t think I’m peculiar in this: being someone’s son or daughter or being someone’s father or mother are fundamental human experiences and have always been written about. People say I write intensely and intimately about the parent-child relationship, but I don’t have children myself. This is a good example of how I’m not an ‘autobiographical’ writer. In general, I’m against the autobiographical approach to fiction – turning your own direct experiences into the stuff of fiction. I don’t base my characters on people I know, or on myself. Good things have been written in this way but I think it’s a sort of anti-fiction, since it’s really fact in disguise. The biggest challenge and reward in fiction – it’s what fiction’s for – is to enter experience other than your own, yet to identify with it – to try to know what it’s like to be someone else. In any case, fiction should create and discover. It can’t do this if its only source is the personal. Of course, at the deepest level, every novelist’s work must be about himself or herself – where else does it come from? – but there’s no reason why your direct personal experiences should be interesting to anyone else and they can only provide limited material. Sooner or later you have to imagine. I believe it’s the author’s imagining (as opposed to mere recounting) that sets alight the reader’s imagination and provides the special thrill of fiction: that something that we know is made up can yet become alive and authentic, can be felt as real and true, as if it’s happening to us.
Returning to parent-child relationships, my own childhood was quite happy and secure, and my relations with my parents good. So the autobiographical explanation wouldn’t account for the many unhappy or vexed family situations in my work – and, incidentally, writers are generally supposed to emerge from unhappy childhoods! Another point I’d make about relationships across the generations is that they are simply something the novel has scope for. The novel can deal, preeminently, with long periods of time, with historical perspective, with whole lives and the changes they undergo, and this can be extended to dealing with more than one generation, indeed several. As a matter of literary opportunity as well as of broad philosophy, it would be a shame not to explore this possibility.
LV. Your fiction invites quotation. Memorable sentences could be short, haiku-like poems. The situations you build are symbolic and deeply tender, touching. You build lives more than real plots. The plot of your novels is simple, its complications and life cargo are endless. Lyrical disorder seems to be your halo. Breaking the order of sensibility is a Desperado feature (the stream of consciousness broke conventions, but Desperadoes break the broken soul). What is the real way you want your readers to follow when they read you?
GS. I like the idea of ‘building lives’ and I like the expression ‘life cargo’. My immediate narrative and plot may not require that the full history of a character, who may be in their middle or late years, is known. But my instinct would be to delve, at least a little, into the earlier life of that character, even where it doesn’t seem relevant – it may become relevant. I think characterisation itself partly depends on having a sense of the character’s existence before they entered, as it were, the immediate story – just as in life we get a better understanding of and sympathy for someone, if we learn what they were like before we met them. A sense of what an adult was like as a child, that they were indeed once a child, can open a door into them. I have often tended to write about characters older than myself (though I don’t get any younger!): I think I respect the freight, the weight of experience. In any case, I have a strong faith that nobody is ever only what they are at any one time. We contain our former selves, even when we may think we have shed them. So inside the old man is still the youth and the child. All the persisting layers of accumulated experience make up the person, the unique life. It’s never just what you see. I think the novel is wonderfully equipped to illuminate this.
I’m touched if any of my sentences are memorable enough for quotation and if some of my situations have a symbolic power. I hope this has something to do with my desire to write about that core of experience common to us all. I hope I touch the universal, but I learn more and more that the key to the universal is in the particular and the local. Novels aren’t statements, they’re actual, particular experiences – experiences we can add to other experiences in our lives. When we come to the end of a good novel we have the feeling of having lived through something. That’s what I’d like my readers to have, an experience.
LV. Ever After is a novel on lost love, lost history, lost love of life, yet somehow intense presence of all these. The novel, like all the others, is an endless goodbye. You use, among other tricks (such as mingling history and contemporaneity), intertextuality. You quote a diary that records not only the previous century, but actually an experience of the whole history of mankind. You have a desire for globality. It is all in the memoryland of your characters’ stories. Do you write with your mind (understanding of everything you know) or with your soul (lyrical perception of the world)?
GS. I hope I write with my soul first and my mind (remembering what I’ve said about knowledge and confusion) second. But I think you have to write with both – heart and head. This question highlights Ever After and its sense of loss, its valedictory quality, but I think these things may be an inherent part of all story-telling. We tell a story because something has happened. We are made to contemplate the past – and what’s passed. Stories give us hindsight but also lead us to a sense of transience, mortality. This needn’t be sad or dispiriting, however, since it’s in the very nature and energy of stories to provide a defence against time, a glow against dark. Stories are on the side of life, they go with life – even when they’re about death. Ever After is partly a love story which reverses the familiar pattern. It starts with an unhappy ending and ends with a happy beginning. My latest novel, Last Orders, is in certain obvious ways about death, but it’s about death in order to be about life. It’s often – literally and comically – about life getting in the way of death. That, I think, is only how it should be.
November 23, 2000