The impossibility of achieving self-knowledge in the novels of Graham Swift. (1998)
AuthorsCottier, Katherineshow all
In each of his novels Graham Swift provides a kind of prototype for the reader: that of a black, coiled, twisting spiral. The individual remains a fixed point at the centre of the symbol as the curves continuously widen at a steadily increasing distance. As this occurs, the issues and influences of the individual's life also become bigger and harder to understand: family relations, work, societal expectations and the widest, ever-increasing circle of all, the past: History. Over this prototype, Swift lays another spiral - this time in full, in technicolour: the merging colours of stories, fantasy and imagination. As the black and colour meet, the spiral begins to whirl, to whirl and spin until it becomes blurred and the individual at the centre is nothing more than a lost dot, bewildered and afraid. Shuttlecock, Out of This World, Ever After, Water/and and Last Orders, are novels primarily about the importance of self-discovery. The narrators are lost in the ever-widening circle of the past and must follow the spiral backwards until they arrive at the fixed point of themselves. In order to achieve this, each protagonist must come to terms with their place in history, their value in society and their relationships with family. Interspersed in these struggles are the colourful and, at times, painful layers of fantasy and fiction. Shuttlecock's Prentis delves among the stories of war and prison escape written by his father in order to ascertain Prentis Senior's real character. However, fact has become fiction and fiction, fact, and Prentis can only examine his own relationship with his father and his feelings for the man. Harry and Sophie of Out of This World leave behind images of bygone wars, the uncertainty of media construction and embrace what is left of their father-daughter relationship and the decisions of their lives. Waterland's Tom Crick admits to listening to stories, telling stories and creating stories. Tom is enmeshed in the giant circle of history and the more he thrashes about, the more tangled he becomes. Stories of the Fens, the Atkinson family dynasty and childhood memories are told and re-told, trapping both reality and fantasy. More than any other narrator, Tom discovers that everything in life is a tale, and discovering the truth about life is as possible in a fairy story as it is in a piece of text book history. Bill Unwin of Ever After admits that his narration is a blend of fact and fiction. Bill wishes to know facts: the identity of his father, his mother's role in his step-father's death and the truth behind Matthew Pearce's diaries. But the spiral of reality and fantasy whirls at an ever-increasing pace, and Bill must come to accept his own feelings as truth. The narrators of Last Orders are simple men and women, and as they scatter the ashes of their friend Jack Dodds, they too are aware of the impossibility of knowing the meaning of life. For Swift, story-telling is an integral part of human life. It is the way in which we formulate our identity and live our lives. Fantasy is something that enables us to deal with reality: 'The imagination is there to get you out of yourself, to get beyond yourself, into worlds, into experiences not you' (Swift, National Radio, 22 October 1996). These experiences may well be part reality that become mixed with fantasy and are subsequently fashioned into stories of self, stories of family, and, inevitably, stories of the past. According to Swift, this is the fate of human nature: it is impossible to separate the colours of fantasy from the black of reality, just as it is impossible to decipher what was originally fact and what was fiction. We can only follow the spiral back through the tales of history, society, community and family until we arrive at the fixed dot in the centre: ourselves. For all his many narratives and layers of meaning, Swift tells us that we can never really know ourselves: we can decide who and what we believe to be true, and accept the consequences of those beliefs - but we can never understand ourselves fully. Just as the black and the colour of the spiral merge and blur before our eyes, so too does the reality and fantasy of life, leaving us to face the impossibility of achieving self-knowledge.