How’s the Empress?

James Wood

  • The Light of Day by Graham Swift
    Hamish Hamilton, 244 pp, £16.99, February 2003, ISBN 0 241 14204 0

Rummaging around, in a notebook entry of 1896, for the properly grim place to deposit his unfortunate heroine, Maisie Farange, Henry James alights on Folkestone, and with grey satisfaction asks himself: ‘don’t I get an effect from Folkestone?’ James does indeed get an ‘effect’, in What Maisie Knew, from Folkestone: from the name, from the town, from its seaside hotel, from the ‘cold beef and Apollinaris’ consumed by Maisie and her stepfather.

There is a kind of Folkestone tradition: Eliot with Margate in The Waste Land, Pinter with Sidcup in The Caretaker, McEwan with Dollis Hill in The Innocent. Graham Swift knows all about such effects, and knows – as Pinter does – that they will probably now be self-conscious, deliberate dives into the sublime banal. Nowadays a novelist’s characters may themselves be knowingly aware of the effects of place. Swift’s new novel returns to the South-West London of his first two books. It is set in Wimbledon, but ventures, if that is the word, to Putney, to Hammersmith, to Chislehurst, even to Broadstairs. His two chief characters, George Webb, a private detective, and Sarah Nash, his client, grew up in Chislehurst, and are much taken with the apparently true fact that the Emperor Napoleon III and the Empress Eugénie lived for many years on the site of what is now the Chislehurst golf club. (Forget the Napoleon of Notting Hill.) In a novel intensely and explicitly interested in cliché and banality, it is hard not to hear an ironic grimace in a passage like this: ‘Putney High Street: the blaze of shops. Superdrug, Body Shop, Marks and Spencer.’ These particular shops a blaze? Only to a suburban fire-eater. This passage continues, daring the reader to rebel against its flatness: ‘Past the station, through the traffic lights, the climb up Putney Hill. Then the roundabout at Tibbet’s Corner and the turn for Wimbledon. Less than a mile from Putney Vale.’

This is how, chapter after chapter, Swift’s new novel is written, and there may be readers so incredulous at the even grey of its stylistic climate that they feel the need to take a warmer holiday after only a few pages, convinced that some cold literary game is being played on them. They would be mistaken, because the novel’s commitment to ordinary speech only shows what games most literary novels really are. The Light of Day is narrated by George Webb, a bent (though honourably bent) ex-policeman, now a private eye with an office in the middle of Wimbledon. First-person narration (and its posher cousin, stream of consciousness) is almost always a giant fudge. A novel’s narrator, supposedly ‘speaking’ to the reader, generally writes to the reader, since few writers dare to smother their only eloquence; even Faulkner’s narrators, particularly in As I Lay Dying (a novel that had some influence on Swift’s Last Orders), sound little like children or illiterates. Meanwhile, stream of consciousness, apparently the most realistic of modes, is the mandarin’s way of slowing down literary detail, the better to pluck its lustres; surely no one ever thought that Leopold Bloom, rather than Joyce, would notice and document ‘the flabby gush of porter’ and ‘the buzzing prongs’ of a fork in just those fine words?

But The Light of Day is as close to seeming spoken as any novel I have read. It dares the ordinariness of flat, repetitious, unliterate narration. Perhaps this doesn’t sound daring; but it is certainly risky. A writer must have a very steady hand to maintain a truly flat voice over two hundred pages: ‘Cooking. It was something for her too, a bit of a thing, a passion. And once life had been, maybe, a kind of constant, regular feast. I saw it, never having lived it, exactly, myself. Dinner parties, pulling of corks. Windows lit up, through the trees . . . I’d learned to cook. Discovered, in fact, a bit of a flair.’ V.S. Pritchett, whose music can be heard in Swift’s novel (Pritchett, like Swift, was very fond of that shy petty-bourgeois English apology, ‘a bit of a’), never kept up this kind of voice for longer than a novella. And even Pritchett tended to use vernacular in a too literary way, like someone consciously trying to turn Chekhov into English. Even Pritchett would have faltered at ‘Golf – it’s not exactly action, but it isn’t sitting on your arse.’

Swift’s dare is worth the risks, however. The book’s pleasures, slowly coddled, take time to mature, but in the process they teach you the art of reading slowly and carefully, of maturing with the story. And even flatness has angles. Time and again, the reader notices with what precision Swift ventriloquises his ordinary narrator. A fugitive lyricism begins to appear. ‘Late October. The clocks about to go back. Now more things could happen in the dark.’ Verbally, there could hardly be anything flatter than that last sentence, yet how finely it summarises a wintry resignation, combined with an almost suburban prurience (we know what kinds of thing go on in the dark). And that is exactly how a policeman might think of long winter nights: as the cover under which ‘more things could happen,’ more crimes. Or take the following sentence. George visits his former client, with whom he is in love, every fortnight in prison. He parks near the nick, then walks away from it, to a café where he gets his lunch before the visit proper. About this street, he comments: ‘A street of houses, houses with a prison handy.’ Again, the extreme vernacular relaxation. But how marvellously odd that word ‘handy’ is. Who would ever think of a prison as ‘handy’? Yet the phrase conveys, pictorially, the view many of us have seen of a street end-stopped, as it were, by a prison (or a factory or a football ground). Such streets are completely different from their serried neighbours, since they are institutional cul-de-sacs. Such streets do indeed, in a way, have a prison handy, as one might think of a football ground or a park. And again, this is just how George might think. Most people would imagine a street with a prison at its end to be a miserable place. But George knows this street well, has been walking down it every fortnight for two years, and to him it is indeed ‘handy’ that the prison is there and not somewhere else. Furthermore, a policeman (or ex-policeman) might well think of a prison as handy: to a policeman, a prison is as handy as a football ground, because there are more criminals than footballers. There are many such ‘effects’ in The Light of Day, and if one needs a clue as to why this slender book appears to have taken Swift six years to write, it lies in such exact and pondered essences.

The novel’s story elapses in a single day in November. George Webb leaves his Wimbledon office in the morning, buys some flowers, visits a man’s grave, and then drives to the prison where Sarah Nash, his visitee of two years, resides. Over the course of this day, he tells us about his relationship with Sarah, who arrived in his office just over two years before the story begins, anxious to employ him to follow her adulterous husband. We learn a good deal about George, the information (like the information about Sarah’s eventual crime) cleverly rationed over the span of the book. Swift has always been an exceptional narrative craftsman, adept at dangling sinister, wormy facts (in this he resembles Ian McEwan, a writer temperamentally close). George tells us, eventually, that he was pushed out of his job as a detective for over-zealous interviewing procedures, that he is divorced, and that his daughter has recently come out to him as a lesbian. If the novel has a weakness, it is the literary and cinematic familiarity of George’s situation, its borrowed aspect. It is an odd paradox in a book so finely unliterary that its mise en scène should seem the kind of thing that one only ever encounters in novels. (The suggestion, proposed by several reviewers, that since The Light of Day shares with The End of the Affair a private eye, a triangular relationship and a woman called Sarah, it must be some sort of hommage, seems far-fetched to me, though it emphasises the sense of general echo that the book’s plot has.)

Still, if a private eye who falls for a distressed client seems an obvious set-up, this particular private eye turns out to be less obvious as the book develops. Whenever Swift turns his acute eye on George’s past, his narrator puts on quiddity. We learn, for instance, that George’s father was a photographer, with a studio on Chislehurst High Street. (This is a great novel for High Streets.) George’s father had started out in 1946 as a beach photographer, in Broadstairs, where he snapped (in both senses of the word) George’s mother. Swift perfectly captures the reticent, lower-middle-class English tone of that generation when he has George recall: ‘Now and then they’d both mention, with a certain look in their eye, “Mrs Barrett’s place” – “Mrs Barrett’s place in Broadstairs”, as if Mrs Barrett was some guard dog they’d more than once tiptoed by.’ It is characteristic of Swift’s technique that he refrains from expanding here; ‘Mrs Barrett’ was his parents’ secret, and now it is George’s – and now too it is ours, unamplified and implicit.

George later discovers that his father had taken a formal photograph, in his Chislehurst studio, of the five-year-old Sarah Nash – which is the right way round, because Sarah’s origins (and circumstances) are fancier than George’s. She is a teacher of languages (Spanish and French) at Roehampton, is married to a gynaecologist, and lives in one of the smarter Wimbledon enclaves. The marital troubles began a year before her visit to George, when she pityingly took in one of her students, a Croatian refugee called Kristina Lazic. Sarah’s husband began an affair with the Croatian, and Sarah comes to George to ask him to follow the couple – specifically to follow them to Heathrow, from where Sarah fears that her husband and Kristina will elope. Of course, all this happened two years before George begins his story. It has been two years since Sarah killed her husband, and George, who fell in love with her as soon as she walked into his office, still feels obscurely responsible for the murder. And he is still in love. Sarah has eight years to serve in prison, but George intends to stay the course.

George is very likable. He is poorly educated but keen enough to learn. His daughter, Helen, had been an art student, and George had tried to keep up: ‘I even went to art galleries, and looked – and yawned. I even mugged up on her favourite painter, Caravaggio (they all looked like waxworks to me). And found out he was a bit of a tearaway himself, a bit of a thug on the side, always running up against the law. (Was there a message there for me?) A bit of a nancy too.’ Sarah, the language teacher, has been tutoring George in the importance of words, and George has even taken cookery classes. At the prison, during their fortnightly visits, they talk about Napoleon and Eugénie, because Sarah is spending her time translating a French biography of the Empress. ‘And anyway it’s kept her afloat. A raft: the three of us. Her, me and the Empress Eugénie. Not forgetting Eugénie’s old Emperor husband. The four of us. We talk about them like people we know. “How’s the Empress today?”’

Contemporary novelists tend to be enamoured of random contemporary information, the more exotic the better – the geneaology of the apricot, a fact about Prince Albert’s testicles, the sonics of the trombone, the financial system of Lithuania, whatever can be Googled up – and the possession of this information is, bewilderingly, thought by many to be evidence of great intelligence, now tellingly rechristened ‘smartness’. Alas, bright lights are taken as evidence of habitation. Napoleon III’s residence in Chislehurst is exactly the kind of glossy information that might add aimless glamour, but there are many novelists who could learn from the quiet functionality with which Swift employs his peculiar fact, the way in which Napoleon and Eugénie enter the narrative and are then naturally, not showily, appropriated by the characters. Similarly, whenever George hazards a simile or metaphor, it is the sort of likeness that this narrator – who, after all, has been trained to notice things – might have come up with; it is not Swift showing off. It is always natural. ‘And now it’s past mid-morning, there’s even a final hint of warmth when you lift your face to the sun, like warm water in a cold glass.’ Or: ‘Only women smoke like that – blowing the smoke straight up – women who are angry. Like a kettle on the boil.’ Or: ‘The feeling of being alone in the house. Like water flooding into a ship.’ In case after case (I have selected from many applicants), Swift finds the domestic, even homely image, never pushing his literary luck too far.

The Light of Day may trouble those currently engaged in ‘the war against cliché’. For cliché is the very fabric and procedure of its style: ‘in the fullness of time’, ‘memory lanes’, ‘I knew the ropes’, ‘working flat-out’, ‘I’ve read the signs’ and so on. George overflows with them. The novel is a reminder of how important cliché is to a living literature. More than that, The Light of Day is explicitly an investigation into cliché, a skirmish not so much against as with cliché. As George finishes his story, it becomes clear that one fact will be revealed at the expense of the revelation of another. That’s to say, we learn that Sarah killed her husband (and how she did it – she stabbed him), but not exactly why. After all, her husband had just put the Croatian student on a plane, had ended the affair, and was on his way home from Heathrow to his wife. Sarah knew this, because George, tailing him, had phoned to tell her. Sarah herself does not know why she did it. ‘Something came over me,’ she will tell George, who knows this cliché from his days as a detective. George himself likes to play with cliché: ‘The crematorium doing a roaring trade,’ he says at one moment (like Beckett in ‘First Love’: ‘Personally I have no bone to pick with graveyards’). Sarah, he tells us, dressed up to receive her husband that night; she was ‘dressed to kill’. And Sarah is a ‘striking woman. If that’s not an unfortunate word.’ When she saw her husband enter the house, her heart at first ‘leaped up’. ‘It’s just an expression of course, words aren’t things, things aren’t words,’ George tells us.

But perhaps words – specifically clichés – are things, after all? For Sarah tells George, in prison, that her husband had enraged her by saying, months before the murder: ‘I can’t live without her.’ And then Sarah darkly adds to her visitor: ‘He didn’t, did he?’ The novel’s suggestion seems to be that we might act in order to make words true, that clichés might madden us into action, trapped in that most clichéd of situations, the unfaithful marriage, that clichés might force us to vivify them and drag them out of their dead metaphoricity. If Sarah’s husband tells her that he cannot live without his Croatian – well then, Sarah will make sure that he cannot, literally. And what better place, full of its own ‘effects’, for the literalisation of cliché, than Wimbledon?

Out of this apparently limited material and apparently limited style, Swift coaxes a novel of solemn depths. Beckett, the jester with cliché, can often be felt here: in the style’s thinned repetitions, in its air of daily burden, even in one of its central themes, that of waiting and how to wait. Late in the book, standing in a queue at a café, George reflects that the advantage of such lines is that they remind you of all the much more awful lines you could be in, ‘all the terrible shuffling lines’. He continues: ‘Is there a life anyway which isn’t half made of waiting? Studded with detentions? “Worth the wait.” “Give it time.” Nothing good can be hurried – like cooking.’ George knows about waiting; it is his job, and now it is his life. This small dilation into the universal is uncharacteristic of George; but the novel has earned it by now, earned it by hewing so faithfully to the characteristic.