A Certain Type of Englishness
If Graham Swift was unfairly pegged as a plagiarist after Last Orders won the Booker prize in 1996, then it might reside in Swift's capacity for a certain type of subconscious anxiety of influence. If there it was Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, in the story collection, Learning to Swim and Other Stories, the writer who keeps coming to mind is Swift's near contemporary Ian McEwan. Both are graduates from the University of East Anglia, both were writing about London and the Norfolk Broads, and both were interested in murky emotional undergrowths and in delineating details of disgust. Nevertheless McEwan got there first. McEwan's First Love, Last Rites (75) and In Between the Sheets (78) were out before Swift's Learning to Swim (82) and reading some of the stories in Swift's collection reminds us of McEwan's earlier and more intriguing work. This is especially so in 'The Tunnel', a story of two teenagers holing up in a dilapidated London tenement, lost initially in each other's company but over time unavoidably acknowledging real-world forces. Like McEwan's 'First Love, Last Rites', this is rite of passage as spatial no exit, with the characters in Swift's story so lazily absorbed in staying in that they even manage to sunbathe without leaving the apartment. With the aid of the skylight, "when the good weather came we lifted up the sash window high and moved the bed according to the position of the gradually shifting rectangle of sunshine, so that we could sunbathe most of the day without ever going out." McEwan's story opens with: "From the beginning of summer until it seemed pointless, we lifted the thin mattress on to the heavy oak table and made love in front of the large open window."
There is a hint of McEwan in 'The Watch' too. The story plays on the idea of family histories and mind-bending activities. "For my forefathers were no mere craftsmen, no mere technicians...they shared a primitive but unshakeable faith that clocks and watches not only recorded time, but contained it...their clocks indeed were the cause of time." As the first person narrator details his family's relationship with time, focusing especially on the great-grandfather in the 19th century, so a McEwan narrator had explored his family's relationship with space. In 'Solid Geometry', thanks to his great-grandfather's experiments in the 19th century, the great grandson manages to make objects disappear, folding pieces of paper until they no longer exist. Both stories may be indebted to the work of Borges, but Swift's seems unequivocally similar to McEwan's, no matter if the spatial problem has been turned into the temporal.
However, Swift's stories are at their most interesting when he possesses something of McEwan's chilliness but within the context of troublesome adult relationships. If McEwan's stories were often at their finest when he was drawing upon a youthful consciousness caught between childhood and adult reminiscence, and staying within a narration of vague immaturity, Swift is good on grown-ups lucidly comprehending their lives in 'Seraglio', 'The Hypochondriac' and 'Learning to Swim'. In each story, the narration explores past and present as states of subtle regret. The characters are passive rather than active, incapable of changing their existence through inner liberation given outer form, and instead wait for changes to happen. They are well aware of what they are thinking, but not very capable of doing anything about it. In 'Seraglio', a married couple are on holiday in Istanbul when one day a local comes in and fixes their hotel heater and the wife says that he came and touched her. The husband asks what happened, and realises that perhaps he prefers ignorance as bliss. As he goes through in his head the various permutations, he admits to himself: "all these things seem possible. But I do not want to know them. That is why I pretend to want to know them. I see that my wife does not want to tell me either what really happened or a story. I realise that for eight years, night after night, we have been telling each other the story of our love."
Here is a man at one remove from events no matter how personally they may affect him. No wonder when they see an accident there is little reaction. "We walked round a corner and saw a taxi...drive with almost deliberate casualness into the legs of a man pushing a cart by the kerb. A slight crunch; the man fell, his legs at odd angles, clothes torn, and did not get up." The narrator adds: "such things should not happen on holiday. They happen at home - people cluster round and stare - and you accommodate it because you know ordinary life includes such things. On holiday you want to be spared ordinary life." This is the English cold fish as a man not only wary of his feelings, but hardly capable of empathy either. The accident isn't an injury to an unfortunate man, but a perceptual misfortune: holiday makers shouldn't have to see such things. It is a variation on the tourist who chooses an exclusive, gated holiday resort in the Caribbean so that they don't have to witness the poverty beyond the gates. But it is one thing to settle for an airbrushed holiday; another to see a horrible event in someone else's life as a mild disturbance to one's own. The tone of the story is often flat and descriptively dry. "My wife is beautiful. She has a smooth, flawless complexion, subtle, curiously expressive eyebrows, and a slender figure. I think these were the things which made me want to marry her, but though they have preserved themselves well in eight years they no longer have the force of a motive." When he says "she looks best in very dark or very pale colours" he could be describing his house's interior design more than his wife's dress sense. She remains immobile; a picture looked at more than a person one lives with.
The tone isn't very different in 'The Hypochondriac', and again we have a married man, a doctor, at one remove from his feelings and several removes from those of others. Discovering his wife is cheating on him, the narrator, Alan Collins, who is twenty years older than she is, says: "I knew she was having an affair with Crawford. He was the new head of the Haematology Unit. Only thirty two. I was not angry, or recriminatory. I don't believe in making suffering. I thought: this is natural and excusable." Yet the narrator isn't presented as a man of great tolerance, but instead an emotionally atrophied figure of great pride. The affair is of little importance next to him retaining the powerful role in the relationship. "During the early years of our marriage when it became clear that the difference in our ages would have its effect, my wife had sought a new interpretation of her role." "She had seen herself, at some time in the future, as the younger, stronger partner...I had resolved that she would never have the chance to do this." He even deals with her pregnancy with some equanimity, though the child might not be his own. "I put my hand gingerly on her belly. When you feel the belly of a pregnant woman you can tell all sorts of things about the child she carries. Except whose it is." Nevertheless Collins believes he can accept the situation. "If you tell me", he says to his wife, "I will understand either way." While at a chasmic distance from his own feelings in love; he is even further removed when it comes to his work as he prides himself on professional distance: he is a GP who knows better than to get too emotionally involved in the life of his patients, and needs to be able to see through their self-deluding assumptions that they are ill.
One day a young man comes into his practise and Collins knows instantly he is a phoney. "He was the last on my list for evening surgery, and I knew somehow as soon as he entered, that he was a fake. He spoke of headaches and vague pains in the back and chest. He was a slight, bland, dull-looking youth of barely twenty. You can tell when someone is describing a pain that isn't really there." The youth keeps coming back, however, and the narrator reckons that while the patient has nothing wrong with him physically, what was unequivocal was that he had a problem with his mind. "I could not be rid of him by merely rebutting his complaint. It occurred to me, of course, that there was another line to be taken. M's hypochondria itself, palpably neurotic, was the only thing about him which could be legitimately treated clinically." Yet one day when he receives a phone call it seems the hypochondriac isn't play-acting. Collins goes to see M in his room at a boarding house, but gets there in no hurry. When he finally arrives he is told by one of the various people waiting for him at the door: "You're too bloody late mate!" An ambulance had been called and M was rushed to Emergency. When Collins phones the hospital, he is informed that M is dead.
With the details of his wife's affair half-ignored, the child in her belly that might not be his own, and the death of a patient that he took to be playing up, it isn't surprising that Collins has "a feeling that something had cracked inside me." The story concludes on Collins' relationship with his Uncle Laurie, a surgeon who taught him the basics of anatomy at the age of nine when, after the cat dies, Laurie takes it apart and shows its inner workings. "That day I knew I would become a doctor." The story's last lines have Collins informing us that five years later his uncle died of obesity and fat degeneration. "I had thought he was happy, healthy, at peace. He needed no one's grief. Only now do I see that he was slowly killing himself." He had been a "first rate physician...but he was filling himself up because his life was empty."
Swift's fine story explores hypochondria not only in it common usage, but also it would appear in relation to its Greek origins: Hypo, meaning under, and chondria, meaning cartilage. Hypochondria, according to the Oxford University Press dictionary, refers to the soft tissues and organs that lie beneath our ribs and sternum. Is this not the soft tissue that our narrator has been oblivious too, and that might also have killed his uncle? They are pragmatists of feeling and experts on the underside of the body: they are mechanics of the flesh rather than explorers of the mind, and so it makes sense that Allan would dismiss anyone that doesn't have tell-tale symptoms as a fake. But as he descends into depression after M's death, so he might begin to see the merits of a tell-tale heart that can't assume everything can be dealt with through common sense. There are senses much less common, and will it be too late for Collins to recognize them? If at the beginning of the story Collins is a doctor with a firm identity, a much younger wife and a surgery attached to his house, by the end of it he is more open to the world as he begins to question some of the assumptions that he possessed of it. It is as though the fear that Collins has in the middle of his career is the anxiety that Swift had at the beginning of his. "I had a fear of becoming anything, a fear of becoming a specialist. I might have become a doctor, but if you become a doctor, that's your speciality in life and you are defined by it. One of the attractions of being a writer is that you're never a specialist. Your field is entirely open; your field is the entire human condition." (Guardian) By the end, Collins is a little bit more aware of the human condition than at the beginning of the tale, but humanity gained manifests itself as mental stability fractured.
The third story that captures well emotional dislocation is 'Learning to Swim'. Here the story focalizes around two characters, Mr and Mrs Singleton. While 'Seraglio' and 'The Hypochondriac' are first person accounts that inevitably restrict point of view, 'Learning to Swim' moves between the husband and wife, anatomizing the marriage. The story opens with us being told that Mrs Singleton "had three times thought of leaving her husband" and, after informing us of these three occasions, the narrator later tells us that Mr Singleton twice thought of leaving her. Where her reasons for possibly leaving him resided in the sensual, Mr Singleton's lay in his suspicion of passion and the constraints on his freedom. Mrs Singleton first thought of leaving him after a trip to Greece where she believed he hadn't really taken in much of the sensual possibilities of the country. The second time was when she thought his engineering work had bought the trappings of the good life but that left her feeling trapped and far away from his thoughts and feelings. The third occasion was when she saw how irregularly they were making love.
The latter is perhaps all the more dismaying since Mr Singleton is built for making love. There were all these men interested in sex she believed, and her husband, with a beautiful swimmer's body, happens not to be one of them. He is another of Swift's frigid men, the sort of character D. H. Lawrence would rail against in his poems, stories, novels and essays, saying in 'Dull London' for example: "Of course, England is the easiest country in the world, easy, easy and nice. Everybody is nice, and everybody is easy. The English people on the whole are surely the nicest people in the world, and everybody makes everything so easy for everybody else...but...it is as if the whole air were impregnated with chloroform, or some other pervasive anaesthetic...and takes the edge off everything." It would thus make sense Mr Singleton would never be happier than in a swimming pool: "There was a period between the age of thirteen and seventeen which he remembered as the happiest in his life...Swimming vindicated him. He would get up every morning at six and train for two hours in the baths, and again before lunch...".
This chloroform world was much more meaningful than many later events in his existence, including one of the occasions where he considered leaving the future Mrs Singleton. At a classical music concert all Mr Singleton sees in the final crescendo is the composer as a man "whose arms were flailing frantically so that his white shirt back appeared under his flying tails" and where he looked so absurd that Mr Singleton was ready to burst out laughing. Yet "he had struck his own hands together so as to appear to be sharing the ecstasy. Then, as they filed out, he almost wept because he felt like an insect. He even thought she [his wife] had arranged the whole business so as to humiliate him."
Here is a marriage held together not by the privileged moments of the early years, but incidents of possible separation. Yet cosmetically they remain the perfect couple. "She knew other eyes on the beach would be on her. It flattered her that she - and her husband, too - received admiring glances from those around. She thought, with relish for the irony: perhaps they think we are happy, beautiful people." If the surface remains impeccable, the subterranean emotions demand a power struggle over their son. Mr Singleton is trying to teach their child to swim, but Mrs Singleton wonders whether she enjoys his failure to do so. "When Mrs Singleton saw her son suffer, it pleased her and she felt loving towards him. She felt that an invisible thread ran between her and the boy which commanded him not to swim."
While 'Seraglio' shows the failures in a marriage with no broader consequences, and the 'Hypochondriac' explores a doctor's emotional one-dimensionality to the final detriment of a young man's life, 'Learning to Swim' looks partly at the way an atrophied marriage impacts on a child. If the father is desperate to teach his son to swim, and the mother wants him to fail as a victory over her husband, the story ends with the boy neither hugging the shore where his mother sits, nor moving towards his father. "Towards me! Towards me! Said his father suddenly. But he kicked and struck, half in panic, half in pride, away from his father, away from the shore, away, in this strange new element that seemed all his own." Here the Singletons are back in Greece, but this time with their son, and it looks by the end that the son is allowing the elements to work on him as they pointedly did not work on his father at the beginning when Mrs Singleton first thought of leaving him. Mr Singleton might have learned how to swim, but the story, of course, suggests learning to swim is metaphorical: it is a means by which to cope with life, and not just cope, but also to respond to its elemental possibilities. For all the father's swimming prowess, Mr Singleton has failed to achieve this capacity for affect.
The three stories show a writer who isn't overly reliant on the influence of McEwan, nor do they indicate a Faulknerian dimension that led to accusations of copying in Last Orders. Nor do they indicate the presence of Magic Realism (a label pinned on Swift with Waterland). Perhaps the Swift novel they most resemble is Shuttlecock. Here the first person narrator is in a bureaucratic job sifting through people's old criminal files and writes reports on them. "For example, File B in the series contained information relating to X (now deceased), a former civil servant, sacked for alcoholic incompetence and later arrested for a number of petty frauds and sexual offences..." Again his wife is beautiful, or rather "that my wife has her share of beauty." He describes her thus: "her face is a little on the long side, but because her mouth is full and her eyes large (blue, with little chips of green in them) you wouldn't notice this." He could be describing an object as readily as a subject, and when they make love there is a mannequin quality to the arrangement. "All the time Marian was pleading in this way [about the TV being removed to stop the kids watching it] I was making adjustments to her body and manoeuvring her limbs into one of my favourite positions for lovemaking."
Just as the stories indicate an interest in a specific mode of Englishness, so do the novels, and though we've invoked Lawrence, there is little that is Lawrentian in Swift's work. It is as though Swift doesn't want, Lawerence-like, to shake up the English sensibility, merely to delineate within the parameters of that sensibility a restricted consciousness and an emotional inertia. In another piece Lawrence says, "what is the matter with the English, that they are so scared of everything? They are in a state of blue funk, and they behave like a lot of mice when somebody stamps on the floor. They are terrified about money, finance, about ships, about war, about work, about Labour, about Bolshevism." ('The State of Funk') There are of course many types of Englishness (and Lawrence's was one of the most brilliant of them), but Swift's work often reflects a timidity of feeling without a polemical need to hammer away at that mousiness. He shows an interest in exploring the petty resentments, the subtle point-scoring, the need to apply one's will even if there is nothing underpinning that desire. Whether it happens to be a visit to Istanbul, the practise of medicine or swimming several hours a day in one's youth, life is not lived but contained. It is disciplined and dutiful, but without point and purpose. Swift of course wrote a lot more than these three stories (and we've invoked three of the novels only in passing). However, in these three minor pieces he nevertheless indicates a singularity of perspective that tells us more than a little about a particular approach to Englishness. Here he escapes with ease from troublesome influences, offering insight into the safety of certain kind of English timidity.
© Tony McKibbin