Involuntary Memories

Gaby Wood

  • Last Orders by Graham Swift
    Picador, 295 pp, £15.99, January 1996, ISBN 0 330 34559 1

My great-grandfather’s watch did not confer immortality ... it was proof against age and against all those processes by which we are able to say that a man’s time runs out, but it was not proof against external accident.

‘The Watch’ in Learning to Swim

For when a body floats into a lock kept by a lock-keeper of my father’s disposition, it is not an accident but a curse.

    And Freddie Parr’s father ... is asking Why-whywhy. No repetition of that neat word ‘accident’ can stop the siren in his brain.

Waterland

And I see them all hanging up before me, like clothes on a rack, all the jobs, tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, and you have to pick one and then you have to pretend for the rest of your life that that’s what you are. So they ain’t no different really from accidents of birth. I didn’t know that phrase then but I learnt it later. It’s a good phrase.

Last Orders

‘Accident’ here means what we call an accident when we can’t face the fact that even this was predetermined. Henry Crick in Waterland is too superstitious to believe in accidents. Pumping the water out of the dead body, he tries to pump away ‘all the ill luck of his life’; that took his wife, that ‘had his first son born a freak’. But even ill luck sounds too much like accident. ‘And more curses,’ his son continues, ‘more curses perhaps, as yet unknown.’ The watchmaker, who believes clocks not only record time but cause it, invents a watch which will prolong his life. But he falls prey to something which is beyond his control, something bound to happen to someone who tries to play God. In Graham Swift’s latest novel Vince remembers thinking that answering questions about what he wants to be is dangerous: making one choice, communing just once with fate, will seal his identity for good. The ‘accident of birth’ he has in mind is that of his adoptive sister, born handicapped. He is like her, he thinks, not ‘funny in the head, but like her for having been played a trick on’. Swift writes about accidents, plays with the idea of them, but leaves little room even for apparent ones. He seems to be a master ventriloquist, trying new voices with every book, but he crafts them rather than speaking through them. At his best, he can tell the stories of people’s lives with a crisp lyricism, but he rarely allows them to be lived; he arranges them, lays them as one lays a table.

Swift is best known for his novel Waterland (1983), a family saga told by a history teacher thought to have ‘flipped’. About to lose his job (‘We’re cutting back on history’) after his wife steals a baby, Tom Crick tells his students stories and histories, ‘those most unbelievable of fairy tales’, adults’ own lives. The Fens, ‘a landscape which, of all landscapes, most approximates to Nothing’, becomes subject, setting and metaphor for his story of murder, madness, intoxication, abortion and natural history. Silt and eels are vehicles for the telling of history, and the narrative twists and washes in and out of the chapters.

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