Waterland, first published In England in 1983, immediately established Swift as one of the more original, elegant, and imaginatively fertile of the younger English writers. I recently talked to him about his work in a cold house off the Fulham Road.
Patrick McGrath You make the point in Waterland that history moves in circles, or even spirals, our disasters worsening every time round. Have you been accused of fatalism?
Graham Swift Not in any deeply offensive way. I tend to shrug that off anyway because novels aren’t statements, they aren’t prophecies or philosophies, they’re stories, and there is a great deal more going on in the novel than simply speculation about the fate of the world. I wouldn’t be a novelist if I wanted to be a philosopher, and I hope that what my novels give readers is an experience, not something from which they can extract messages. I rather shudder at the idea. I also ought to say that, bluntly, I don’t actually say those things. You can call this sophistical if you like, but it’s my character who says these things, it is Tom Crick who holds these views, and he says many things, he says contradictory things; he’s a highly intelligent man but he is in a state of personal crisis and his once-cherished and fairly coherent views of history are being challenged, and so he’s voicing in the novel different views of history, of progress, the fate of mankind and so on.
PM Yet Tom Crick carries moral authority in the novel. It is he who speaks, it is he who controls the narrative.
GS He does exercise a great deal of authority. There is a tendency I suppose to take what he says as the last word on things, but against that there is the plight of this man who is heartbroken and reduced and lonely. And what becomes of this man? What becomes of Tom Crick? I think he’s a very sad, a very desolate figure, for all his intellectual powers.
PM Tom Crick’s half-brother Dick is a fascinating figure. He is inarticulate and retarded, it’s implied that he’s half-machine, that he’s half-fish, half-eel, even half-vegetable, a potato-head; and he works with silt, which is another of those half-and-half things, water and land; and it’s into the sill that he makes his final dive.
GS I’m not sure that I know, and if I did I wouldn’t say, what happens to him at the end. When he dives into the river, you could interpret that as an act of despair, a return to nothingness and soon, but it is also, I hope, a sort of escape, so there is some sort of feeling of liberation. lam, it would seem, interested in inarticulate characters, characters who become silent, inert, vegetable; I think it may have to do with this question of whether knowledge is good or bad: is it good to know the truth, or is it harmful? Are there situations where it’s best not to tell, or not to know? Or not to remember? Dick Crick is a character who among his many semi attributes has an ability not to remember. He lives in an amnesiac world, and whilst we pity him in some ways, can we be sure that because of this faculty, or nonfaculty, he’s not better off than we are? Henry, his grandfather, goes off to fight in the trenches and comes back without a memory: there’s a great deal of irony in the book about recalling things or not recalling things. History is constantly confronting this basic choice: why should we summon up the past? Why should we remember anything, whether it’s personally or collectively? Does it do us any good? Does it hinder us? And I don’t attempt to come down on one side or the other, to resolve the issue, but suppose you could say that Dick is a peculiar embodiment, among many other things, of this paradox.
PM What is this thing beneath language that Dick has access to?
GS I’m not sure that I know. It could simply be nature. Dick seems to be much more part of primitive nature and its primitive cycles than any of the other characters in the book, yet after all human nature does stand apart from nature, and I wouldn’t want for one moment to share in that romantic view that going back to nature is a good thing. On the other hand, a complete loss of contact with nature—an inability to see that human nature, even if it is a peculiar and separate phenomenon, is after all a part of nature—is I’m quite sure a bad thing.
PM Nature at its wildest, the old, wild Fens, provides the setting for one of Waterland’s most horrific scenes: the abortion that Martha Clay, an alleged witch, performs on Mary Metcalf. It is evil, and results in septicemia and barrenness for Mary. Yet Martha Clay is as close to nature as Dick Crick.
GS The reactions I’ve had to that chapter have been interesting. It is a horrible scene, some people find it almost impossible to read. I’ve never felt that. I was very conscious of wanting to construct a scene that was very sinister, strong but with a fairytale feeling, for it incorporates so many almost supernatural things; and even for Mary and Tom, the only way they can see it is as something out of a fairytale, in the gruesome sense of fairytale. And I suppose there is no sense of there being any positive outcome. Given that Tom and Mary do want to get rid of the child, one could imagine an outcome where the abortion is successful, if any abortion is; but from the beginning you do have the sense that everything is going to go wrong. Oh, without a doubt it is a central episode in the book.
PM Is the nature which Martha Clay, the alleged witch, inhabits, the nature to which Dick Crick is connected in his inarticulacy?
GS I would be reluctant to make these schemes, but if Dick somehow has this contact with nature which the other characters don’t have, I wouldn’t put Martha Clay in the same category. Her realm is superstition rather than nature, and there’s a great deal in the novel about superstition and its vices and virtues. And like many other things in the novel, superstition is paradoxical. I tend to have a paradoxical outlook, I see things in terms of paradox. Superstition, when it creates an event like the abortion scene, is undoubtedly a bad thing, all the potions and the sheer crudeness, the unmedical nature of it all, this has disastrous consequences. But in another sense, in other areas of the novel, superstition, in terms of a need for something extra, is a benign thing; even telling stories is a kind of superstition, an imposing of extra structure on reality, and it’s something very much needed by these people who happen to live in a landscape which almost says to them, look, reality is flat and empty. And all you can do in life is make something, and insofar as superstition is creative it’s perhaps no bad thing.
PM How was the idea of Waterland born?
GS I think I started with the were that opens the book, with a picture in my head of the corpse in the river, the floating corpse, and then certain things started to emerge around that, to do with location, setting, other characters, time. So it began as a kind of detective thing, classic case of a dead body and whodunnit? The other crucial moment in the gestation was when, having evolved the narrator figure as the boy who lived in the lockside cottage—one of the people who discovers the dead boy—felt for some reason that this was back in the 40s, in wartime. But I wanted it to be seen and told from a much later perspective, the 1980s. So the question is, naturally, what becomes of this boy Tom in later life? Then, when I made him a history teacher, there was a a little—not so little—there was an explosion of ideas. I thought of all sorts of possibilities, all sorts of things that I could bring in, which was very exciting. I think that is when I said, well, alright, it is a novel and I can now start it. But we’re talking about a process which maybe went on for a year before words got put down on paper.
PM At what point did you decide to include a natural history of eels?
GS Well, there’s always a large element of serendipity, and also, even though we’re talking quite seriously about the book, there is an element of fun. One does have fun when one is writing, although the issues at stake may be very grave; and the construction of a novel can be enormous fun. I knew about eels, I didn’t know as much as that chapter makes clear, but knew a fair bit about the eels before I started writing Waterland. Because I’m a fisherman, I like fishing,I know a bit about fish; and eels have always fascinated me. An incredible lifecycle they have, the mystery of it!—and the extraordinary pseudoscience through the centuries, trying to find out how the damn thing breeds. And I thought, well, this is a wonderful little story in its own right and wouldn’t it be great to have the opportunity to sort of just fling it into the middle of some larger work; and the opportunity arose. I found generally that in writing the book I evolved a sort of form, or nonform, in which I could be totally digressive, I could have chapters in which the subject matter was virtually nonfiction, was no longer narrative; and the eel fitted superbly into that scheme, because after all the Fens are a region which abounds in eels, and the eel has always had metaphorical overtones, like the landscape. And it suddenly seemed to me that the lifecycle, the natural history of the eel, seemed to say so much about history generally, and about our attempts to discover the origin of things, and soon and so forth. And all of that was quite apart from it being just an incredibly intriguing and amusing subject.
PM You mentioned that Waterland was much more ambitious than anything you’d attempted before. Were you referring to this integrating of non-narrative, nonfictional material into the story?
GS Yes, I think that was part of it. I suppose. too, I rather relished in anticipation a slight perplexity on the part of the reader—where the reader comes to the end of one chapter, and then finds a chapter about eels or beer. or something, apparently not connected to the narrative; and the reader would think, well, what the hell’s going on. I. as I say. I rather delighted in that prospect.
PM Will you do it again?
GS I don’t know. I think every book dictates (somehow mysteriously) its own terms. It says to you, well, you can get away with that or you can’t. And in any case, it’s never a good policy to repeat a pattern.
PM Do you think it’s alright for middle-aged men to run off with small female antelopes?
GS Well, they don’t.
PM Uncle Walter did.
GS It was alright for him. I might be wrong in saying they don’t. There might be a case somewhere. I’m very fond of that story, I suppose because of the antelope. It was a fairly early story, a story which wrote itself. One invents totally unknown, totally specious species, and that’s just good fun.
PM There’s another story in Learning to Swim, “The Hypochondriac,” in which a doctor projects his clinical knowledge onto a young man, unaware that he’s also projecting his own denial of pain; and then to his immense surprise the young man dies. There’s a failure of medical knowledge, of scientific thought.
GS It’s a concern which is not unrelated to this business of, is it better to know or not to know. It’s an illusion that knowledge is always coupled to authority. Knowledge doesn’t bring authority, and authority doesn’t necessarily imply knowledge. The doctor in that story is a good example of someone who feels that they have knowledge, and indeed they do, but of a very limited kind, in fact. The crisis of that story is really a man’s discovery that he has no authority; neither over people, nor, as he once thought, over his own experience, over his own life. There’s a great deal in the story about how he’s dealt with his own marriage, in terms of ‘I know what I’m doing, I can deal with this, my knowledge and my clinical cool will hold things together.’ But it is blown apart, by an incidence of the supernatural, because the patient, who is the cause of all this, who does die, reappears for one moment. Of course such an event is quite outside the doctor’s range of experience. And he breaks down.
PM It’s a lovely delicate ghost, a Jamesian ghost. it just flickers for a moment.
GS Not really a haunting at all.
PM Ghosts appear here and there in the short stories, and there’s an important ghost, Sarah Atkinson’s, in Waterland. Yet the earlier novels manifest no such magical or supernatural elements. Why is this?
GS They were there inside waiting to get out, and they did in Waterland. But it’s very hard to talk about the construction of a novel in terms of actual decisions to do this or that. Sarah does become a ghost, she returns supernaturally and she dives, as Dick dives, she returns to the water. She began as a solid, flesh-and-blood character who was the young wife of this very solid commercial man; and then I got to the situation where she’s knocked unconscious, literally senseless; and remains so.
PM She hits her head on a writing desk.
GS Yes, falls and knocks her head against a desk. I see no significance in the writing desk. (laughter) She is another inarticulate character and for the remainder of her life she says virtually nothing. It’s as though she passes into ghostliness, almost within her own lifetime, because the people in the town turn her into this curious, angelic, saintly figure, who is invested with strange powers, or so they believe. Then when she dies, almost inevitably you know she’s going to come back, she’s going to continue to have an influence. But I don’t think there was ever a moment where, before writing, I said, well, this is what the character is going to do. You just see possibilities. Some of them you pursue, and you fall flat on your face. Sometimes the pursuit is fruitful.
PM Two of the observers of Dick Crick’s plunge into the silt are American servicemen. It is sunset. Overhead, bombers are flying off to their targets. Is this an implication of Americans in some final apocalyptic moment, in some sort of final global plunge?
GS No, I haven’t seen it that way, but I don’t see why you shouldn’t. I thought you were going to say, can you use the presence of the Americans in some way to indicate a sort of New World. Americans from the New World who have come into this old and in some ways inbred and failing English world—there was possibly an element of that. And I don’t suppose I chose entirely by accident the state where these Americans came from: Arizona, the dry zone; and there they are in the wet Fens. One mustn’t forget too that historically it’s quite accurate, there were many American servicemen based in East Anglia at that time.
PM Do you really see Dick Crick as an individual?
GS Very much so, very much the character fiddling with his motorbike. I don’t see him as a sort of cypher, symbol, representation—he’s certainly very there. Some of the little things he keeps in his bedside cupboard.
PM A bird’s nest?
GS Oh, he has little bits of animal skulls, and a pathetic sort of thing he made out of a tin for his mother on one of her birthdays.
PM There’s a fish hanging over the bed.
GS I do like the concrete. Novels should be this mixture of the intensely concrete and the world of ideas.
PM Many stories are told in Waterland, and one of the funniest is the story of Jack Parr’s suicide attempt. Jack is a railway signalman, and decides to end it all by sitting on the railway lines. So he sits there doggedly all night, while unbeknownst to him his wife is up in the signal box, throwing switches and making telephone calls, and lights are blinking all over the eastern Fens as expresses and goods trains are rerouted to avoid the unhappy man.
GS He’s asleep by this time, and he never learns about the subterfuge. And is actually convinced when he wakes up that he’s been saved by a miracle. And nobody breaks this illusion.
PM He goes on the wagon and stays on it. Many events in Waterland are seen to have two explanations, often one logical, the other superstitious. A live fish dropped into a woman’s lap will make her barren, it’s said, and this is precisely what does happen to Mary.
GS Yes, you can imagine some of the old people in the Fens maintaining staunchly that the reason for all the trouble was the eel, the fish in the lap. There’s a parallel in some ways between superstition and the way fiction works, the way fiction can produce these rather magical moments, which aren’t entirely impossible, aren’t entirely beyond belief. I think it’s important for fiction to be magical, just as it’s important for fiction to embrace the real world, to look really hard at the real world.
PM Real world?
GS Whatever the real world is,
PM Now, this feeling for magic is quite new to the English novel.
GS Yes, that’s true, it’s not at all a recognizable English tradition. The phrase everybody comes up with is magic realism, which I think has now become a little tired. But on the other hand there’s no doubt that English writers of my generation have been very much influenced by writers from outside who in one way or another have got this magical, surreal quality, such as Borges, Marquez, Grass, and that that has been stimulating. I think in general it’s been a good thing. Because we are, as ever, terribly parochial, self-absorbed and isolated, culturally, in this country. It’s about time we began to absorb things from outside.
PM What about France?
GS I think there’s always been a cultural antagonism between us and the French anyway, but I think also the French may have held the view, and justifiably so, that English fiction of the immediate postwar period, up to the ‘60s and earlier ‘70s, was terribly bound up in its own Englishness, middle-class suburbs and so forth, and that it just didn’t travel. But they’re more interested now in English writers than they used to be.
PM Have they warmed to Waterland?
GS Quite. I was asked to go over there, be around for a few days and so on. It was entered for some prize they have for novels in translation. It was shortlisted but it didn’t win.
PM Who amongst your contemporaries do you particularly enjoy?
GS Well, I actually like very much a writer who’s originally American, Russell Hoban, who wrote Riddley Walker. He seems to me to be completely his own man as a writer. I think he’s got a real touch of genius. Then there’s a writer who’s originally Japanese, Kazuo Ishiguro, and he’s about to publish a second novel. His first was called A Pale View of Hills, and it is simply amazing. He’s a remarkable writer in an understated, very quiet, unextrovert way. There’s Timothy Mo, who is also about to publish a new book. His second novel was called Sour Sweet, which is a lovely book about the Chinese community in London. Some of these writers I know quite well as friends. One of the pleasures of having written a successful book is that you do get more opportunity to meet other writers. For a long time, really till Waterland, I knew virtually no other writers; not that it changed anything fundamentally. In some ways you can argue that knowing other writers is a disruption, a distraction. You can become more concerned about how other people write, which is not necessarily good for your own work. I think in the end writing is a lonesome business. You have to go away by yourself to do it, whether you’ve got hundreds of friends or not. Nothing will ever change that.
PM Would you like a glass of beer?
GS Yes please.
PM There’s a book by a French writer, Michel Tournier, which I think might be to your taste. It’s called Friday, or The Other Island, and it’s a sort of postcolonial rewrite of Robinson Crusoe. The relationship of Crusoe and Friday grows increasingly uneasy—Friday blows up the gunpowder supply and runs away—and Robinson becomes increasingly distraught. His one solace is a peaceful little patch of ground in a very obscure part of the island, which he becomes closer and closer to, this patch of black earth, until finally he’s regularly inseminating it, he’s making love to the earth. Then, to his delight, he begins to see these beautiful white flowers appear—he has successfully inseminated the earth! And as things get worse and worse with Friday, so Robinson comes to spend more and more time in his secret place. Till one day he goes up, and there amongst his white flowers, is a black flower—and this is a major crisis—and things go from bad to worse.