self-confessed slow writer. one who revises ad nauseum and with painstaking thoroughness, those who joined his snowballing readership with Waterland had to bide their time. Only those expecting Son of Waterland or Waterland 2 will be disappointed. But Graham Swift is well aware of the albatross potential of Water/and and while not wanting to badmouth a book of which he has an understandable fondness. he is keen to emphasise the difference between it and the new book.
‘()utoft/1is World is much more economic. it‘s much more compressed. Water/and was deliberately overﬂowing — I say that carefully because of the watery pun. I gave the reader enough and more. It was that kind ofbook. I think this gives the reader enough. so that there‘s actually more space in this book for the reader‘s imagination. Waterland was a book which guided the reader round. It has set pieces which are highly elaborate, highly coloured. There‘s nothing like that in Out oft/iis World. That was very much my wish. I think it‘s my best book and I find the comparison that‘s being made between the two a little bit irritating because I want people to take the book on its own terms. One day I hope I will no longer be thought of as the author of Water/and. but the author of any number of books.‘
Still only 38. there doesn‘t seem to be much doubt that his wish will be granted. Already. however. certain themes are beginning to dominate his fiction. perhaps pointing the way ahead. One thinks immediately of Swift‘s approach to history. which he treats. in all its multifarious guises, like a palimpsest. And ofthe recurrence of filial disaffection. most poignantly and disturbingly in Out of this World between Harry and his father. and Harry and Sophie. she disgorging her angst to a diminutive New York shrink. he to the mirror. Then. too. there is the idea of rootlessness. a contemporary malaise. pervasive. in the new novel. as a pall.
Not unsurprisingly. Swift denies he thinks thematically. ‘It‘s never struck me that at some point I‘ve said. “Oh. I‘d like to write about history now.‘ And then set about doing it. It‘s something which my work has thrown up. Out ofthis World does have a sense of dislocation but it also has a sense of people looking for where they belong. they are looking for a home. It raises all kinds of questions about the nature of home. the possibility of a real home. the state of things generally. There is still that same kind of feeling ofwanting to know where your place is. even ifthere‘s no sense. as there is in Water/and, of a community whih exists and has existed traditionally for a long time. Maybe that‘s a reason why this is a modern book.‘
Out ofthis World is published by Viking atflO. 95.
nce upon a time there was a 0 little girl who dreamed of
becoming a ballet dancer. So what. says you. So what. says me too. But we must — must we not? — respect the wishes ofthe individual. This little girl got her wish. Instead of school-school. from the age of 16 she attended ballet school. ‘Thereafter‘. she wrote in her autobiography. ‘l was an outsider. and have remained one ever since.‘
The girl was Una Flett and she did eventually become a ballet dancer. albeit for a matter of months. But it did not work out as in a fairy story. Her talent was minor. and the ballet world hermetically-sealed. an orphanage for cultural claustrophobes. She was as desperate to get out as she had been to get in.
In her feisty autobiography. Falling From Grace ( 1981 ). she tells it straight. Here. one imagines. is a woman ofstrong opinions. sensitive to criticism and praise. a survivor and a drifter. Her attitude towards Scotland. Edinburgh particularly. is at best ambivalent. After her childhood in the Border town of Moffat, Edinburgh was a cold shoulder. ‘a place of massive
REVISITING EMPTY HOUSES
“ We eyed each other from
opposite ends of the bar. I was feeling agitated, excited, suspecting that I still knew how to be at a party. after all - except that so far there had been no party. There had been a mediocre dinner served at tables of slxes and eights, followed by ineffably tedious speeches. Was it for this that Esther and I had worked away at my costume, that I had coiled up my hair with such care, shaved under my arms, and bought expensive scent?
There were two dance floors with two bands, one for Scottish country dancing, the other for ballroom.
‘Aren’t we going to dance?’ I asked Robert, who certainly did look uncomfortable and slightly trussed up in his brother-in-law’s suit. But he had himself propped against the bar and had found a buddy, a thin mathematician with glasses who was expounding on Bertrand Russell’s theory of numbers, a subject that seemed to offer more than a twirl on the dance floor. It was clear I might yawn away unnoticed for hours to come.
Joaquin moved up slightly from his end of the bar. I swapped places with Robert, a natural enough move since the argument about Russell’s theories was going on across my face.
FLETT N FlATLAN
settledness.‘ Even on her return visits from abroad she had ‘a sense of being an alien and an interloper.‘ For people ‘in transition. flux. precariousness‘. she wrote. ‘it has no tolerance or place.‘
Una Flett has carried such sentiments into her first novel. Revisiting Empty Houses. in which (‘arla. an art student. falls pregnant to a university lecturer. marries him and lives unhappily ever after. At least until they part. Set in the Fifties. that dreariest ofdecades. it
" 3' «at. t' ‘*':.
‘May I perhaps get you something to drink?‘ Joaquin was exquisitely polite, and his accent curious and rather pleasant.
‘Thank you,’ I smiled at him, grateful iorthe rescue.
‘l’m drinking a rather good brandy. Would you like that, do you think?‘
I said yes. He bought me a double. Very discreetly his large eyes roamed over my neck and breasts. I started to feel ill at ease, but he quickly paid me a gallant conventional compliment.
‘Let me drink to the belle of the ball?’
‘Bulwhere is the ball?‘
‘Ah! That you might well ask.’
evokes the penury of flatland with drab accuracy. delving deep into the psyche of a young woman checkmated whichever way she moves. inhabited by ‘the inner figures ofher landscape.‘ It is told in the first person so we side naturally with Carla. not Robert. her husband. a man more in love with Scotland and poetry than he is with his wife.
In dreich daylight. surrounded by a solitary witness in the sanctity ofan Edinburgh cafe. I asked Una Flett about her apparent female chauvinism. ‘I find a rather dreary masculinity about Scottish culture,‘ she says for starters. ‘lf men want to bristle there‘s plenty in the book for them to bristle at. But I do think that I had a lot ofsympathy for Robert. I hope it comes out. His hopes were blighted too by this catastrophe (Carla‘s pregnancy) at the beginning of the book. Clearly. since it‘s written in the first person. I‘m largely taking the side of the narrator but I hope there‘s enough to show that I do think Robert is an unhappy person. that he too had been clobbered by ill-luck.‘
Later we learn that Robert is despatched Down Under. the one doubtful note in an otherwise admirable novel. written with deceptive simplicity. archetypal rather stereotypical in its characterization. It is essential to remember that its events happened some thirty years ago. not in the liberated present. when men eat quiches and women sport Doc Martens. Carla is imprisoned in a tenement with her baby boy. starved ofculture. colour and love. keeping company only with her next door neighbour. Esther. a Polish emigre whose own licentious past partly provides the spur for Carla to have a fling. She has an affair with a lecturer in the Department of Spanish but he offers sex. not the love she so ardently needs. It is with Marius. to whom Revisiting Empty Houses is addressed. that Carla finds happiness. But embittered by her first experience she is determined not to succumb to male domination again. Instead she dreams of painting him a picture of the house where colour came into her to life again. Now Una Flett lives in Spain revelling in the colour of which she felt starved in Edinburgh. Like Carla her life has not been ‘a delirious success‘ but her novel. as is her autobiography. is ‘a kind of celebration of rediscovery.‘ Revisiting Empty Houses is published by Canongate priced £10. 95.
50 The List 15 - 28 April 1988