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Making An Elephant: Writing from Within, by Graham Swift

20 May 2009

12:00 AM

20 May 2009

12:00 AM

Making An Elephant: Writing from Within Graham Swift

Picador, pp.400, 18.99

‘Book for book,’ John Banville is quoted as saying on the cover of this one, ‘[Graham] Swift is surely one of England’s finest novelists.’ This may be Irish for ‘but of course he hasn’t written all that much’, though eight novels and a collection of short stories isn’t bad going and it would be odd if work so ruminative and elegiac came out more quickly. If Swift seems costive by comparison with some of his contemporaries, in fact, it’s not that he has produced fewer novels but that he does very little other writing: hardly any journalism or criticism, no polemics. In this as in other respects he resembles his friend Kazuo Ishiguro, about whom he writes attentively in Making an Elephant, a collection of 18 miscellaneous pieces padded out with 30-odd rather lame poems and linked by an autobiographical commentary.

The piece on ‘Ish’ — an interview with an introduction — has interesting things to say about the writer’s work as well as his upbringing and is delivered on terms of equality. Elsewhere, Swift can seem oddly star-struck — by the charm, in private, of ‘Salman’, by the ease with which ‘Caz’ (Caryl Phillips) tempts those he likes into truancy. Still, he can be forgiven for boasting about his fishing expeditions with ‘Ted’ (Hughes), who supplies the book with a good joke:

The pools on salmon rivers can have atmospheric names, sometimes with a touch of poetry, known only to fishermen. Ted had stopped by a pool, clearly holding strong associations for him, where … a deep, salmon-detaining pot had been formed by the remains of a long-ago collapsed and overgrown concrete groyne. We asked him what the pool was called …. He continued to stare at the water and, with his slow Yorkshire vowels, said, ‘Concrete.’

On one of these outings, not long before Hughes’s death, the poet found a pike’s skull and gave it to Swift, who almost immediately lost it. Regret is among the book’s theme tunes. The title refers to an uncharacteristic feat of carpentry in Swift’s childhood, when he made a wooden elephant for his father. Allan Swift is described by his son as a man of deep conventionality — for decades he commuted daily from Sydenham to the National Debt Office — seemingly reinforced by his having had rather too exciting a war as a pilot in the Fleet Air Arm. Pleased with his son’s effort, Allan astonished him by suggesting he paint the elephant yellow, or pink. With a stubborn literalism which makes him sad, now, to recall, the boy used battleship grey.

Swift’s telling of this story typifies his writing at its wry best, finding as it does a truly poetic metaphor — much more so than anything in the poems as such — for the relationship between reticent son and a father whose submerged exoticism puzzled and quietly thrilled him. Allan Swift’s war — or rather, his son’s fantasies about it — is a potent element in some of Graham Swift’s best fiction. How the novels translate it isn’t explored, here: Swift doesn’t exactly deny the existence of any autobiographical element in his work but, with characteristic obliquity, adopts ‘the position that fiction isn’t, in my case, an autobiographical exercise’. He has absorbing — as well as more straightforward — things to say, though, about the instinctive way in which he works and about its superstitious aspects.

There’s a particularly warm, vivid essay here on Montaigne. It’s an attraction of opposites — not in tone (Swift’s relaxed, sometimes even slack-seeming conversational manner and how it modulates into eloquence has something in common with Montaigne’s style as translated by Florio) but in terms of self-disclosure. Swift, unlike Montaigne, seems genuinely embarrassed by writing about himself and perhaps this is why he doesn’t do it well: why he drops names, shows off, tells us too many times that they closed Canterbury Cathedral to the public so that the relevant scene in Last Orders could be filmed there, and that ‘If someone had said to me long ago when I went to see David Hemmings … in Antonioni’s Blow-Up that one day he’d star … in a film of a novel of mine, I’d have said that pigs might fly.’

It’s appropriate, then, that the book’s most memorable item is about a quest for a man hardly anyone has heard of and who, when Swift found him, told him nothing that he didn’t already know. The Czechoslovak writer Jirí Wolf was repeatedly and brutally imprisoned in the 1970s and 80s for dissident activities. Various individuals and organisations, International PEN among them, took an interest in his case but Wolf exasperated his oppressors still further by refusing to take advantage of the help he was offered. He wouldn’t appeal for remission of his sentence, on the ground that an appeal would amount to an admission of guilt, and rejected an opportunity of political asylum in France because others, similarly eligible, weren’t being offered it. During the events of 1989, Swift was commissioned by Granta magazine to write about Wolf and learned all this from a PEN briefing. Now, having tracked the man down and set up an interview with an interpreter, he was told it again, and nothing more. In describing his reaction, he seems to be defending his own privacy, too: 

Why, beneath it all, did I have a perverse feeling of disappointment? I had met him; he had spoken, on his own terms, which were the only proper terms; I had listened. Why should I feel sorry that I felt I was nowhere nearer to knowing him? What right did I have to know him?

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