FEATURE GRAHAM SWIFT __ __
he term ‘novel of ideas’ is a classic example ofglib lit-crit shorthand, one ofthose labels which sound vaguely useful but, on closer examination, actually prove
fatuous. When did you last read a novel worth its salt that wasn’t shot through with ideas? Ifthe phrase signifies anything. it tends to denote a book in which over-intellectualised mind-games are painstakingly ﬂeshed out with witty word-play leaving the story and characters sucked dry in the process, which all makes for a pretty arid and arduous read.
Graham Swift’s new novel, Ever After wrestles with plenty of big ideas — the search for truth in an unpredictable universe, the conﬂict between science and faith, the troubling uncertainty of what we call reality. the power of love. But by rooting these concepts in the lives and minds of thoughtfully drawn human beings, he makes it all accessible, recognisable and — most importantly — interesting. More than most, the novel depends on getting this balance right, as it is this very conﬂict, between abstract ideas and living experience, which ' lies at the heart ofthe book. The secret of Swift’s success is that, unlike many contemporary English novelists, he ultimately finds people more interesting than ideas.
Ever After is the story of a tenuously-tenured don, Bill Unwin, the weary and fragile survivor of a recent spate of loved-ones’ deaths and an even more recent suicide attempt. The deceased include his faithless but charming mother, his brash American plastics-magnate stepfather, who (humiliatingly) paid for Bill's lectureship, and his adored wife Ruth, an acclaimed actress in whose shadow he happily walked. Following his failed attempt at ‘self-slaughter‘, Bill is faced anew with the wreckage of his former happiness and, like a t modern-day Hamlet (a recurring and slightly self-conscious motif) is grappling with the essential question: to be or not to be? What matters enough now to live for. and why?
Best known for his landmark novel Waterland, GRAHAM SWIFT is still asking the big questions in his latest book. as Sue Wilson found out.
One arena for his inner struggle is the parallel story he discovers in the diary ofa Victorian ancestor, Matthew Pearce, an educated clockmaker‘s son who destroyed
-: his happy marriage to the vicar‘s daughter
' through his apostatic conversion to
Darwinism. Bill, who gave up an academic career to be nearer to Ruth, dredges the notebooks as well as his own past for some clue of consolation — what is it about the search for knowledge that would impel someone to choose it over love? ‘The novel
‘We’re constantly torn between truth, which may be illuminating and enlightening, but perhaps also destructive for our smallerworlds, and a sort otwiltul bhndness!
is first of all a love story.‘ says Swift, ‘but it‘s also about the conﬂicts between love. or any form of belief in which we invest our love. and the pursuit of truth — which is it that ultimately sustains us?‘
While Matthew states. in a farewell love-letter to his wife, that ‘though ignorance may be bliss, happiness is not to be purchased by a refusal of knowledge”, his story would seem to suggest that it‘s not to be bought by a pursuit of knowledge. either. ‘We are caught in this conﬂict .‘ says Swift. ‘because there is an urge, an instinct in human nature to pursue knowledge. which of course can be a good thing, but there are cases in which knowledge is much more equivocal — it has its dangerous side. We're constantly torn between truth, which may be illuminating and enlightening, but perhaps also destructive for our smaller worlds. and a sort of wilful blindness. or ignorance of the bigger world, a little coherent scheme ofour own within which we can exist safely, and even be very happy, but which is very vulnerable — the classic case where it‘s shattered being the death ofsomeone you love. But there‘s no way out of this. I‘m writing about a conﬂict. not an either/or, not
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something which can be resolved.‘
Swift is, ofcourse, best known for his 1983 Fenland epic Water/and, universally acclaimed for its scope. depth, symbolic power and resonant sense of place. The fact that Ever After is a very different animal seems to have been a major cause of complaint among some reviewers, but its author's gumption in striking out for new territory seems to merit respect rather than recrimination. The new novel is a much more cerebral book than Water/and, but still admirably ambitious in sweep. Swift is enjoyany adept at drawing artful links between philosophies or epochs (or both): he has a knack for dropping in strong. simple symbols which reverberate long after their original appearance. The peak ofbursting confidence in the Victorian era of innovation is viewed through the kaleidoscope ofgodless, late-20th century uncertainty; the tide of modern evolution is captured in the ‘living palimpsest‘ of a scene containing a canal, a railway line, a water-mill, a horse-drawn plough. a barge. a steam-train and a motor-car — it sounds contrived, but it works.
Another cause for the general critical thumbs-down is Swift‘s central character. lambasted for his willingly humble lack of stature or glamour, his hesitant voice. the fumbling way he picks at the sores of his unanswerable questions. But in his ironic, self-deprecating (and often humorous) desperation, Bill is a more fitting emblem of contemporary existence than many. and his very ordinariness brings home the
' universality of Swift‘s themes. ‘You don‘t
really have to call in Darwin or anybody else to consider a random universe, or a relative world, I think these are things we feel in our guts,‘ Swift says. ‘Everybody questions. everybody wonders, is there some sort of design to the world, or is it totally chaotic? Everybody feels these things. yot‘ don‘t have to intellectualise them. And that‘s what literature‘s all about — giving our sense of the ' big ideas a human and intimate scale. making them meaningful in individual life, as well as in the so—called life ofculture and the mind."
liver After is published by Picador at £14. 99. I