In 1910 the German photographer August Sander began work on a never-to-be-completed ethnographic project which he called ‘Man of the 20th Century’. This grandiose scheme provides one of the sources of Richard Powers’s first novel. The title, Three Farmers on their Way to a Dance, refers to a photograph of young men in felt hats and starched collars walking along a country road, which Sander took in May 1914. Graham Swift is another novelist who, like Powers, is burdened by history, and for whom the central theme of modern life is our own historical self-consciousness. The 20th century, for these writers, is the historical century par excellence. The 19th, by contrast, was less exhaustively documented and now seems to have been nourished on chauvinistic legends rather than the brutality of facts.
For ‘facts’, however, we must doubtless read ‘representations’. These representations, in modern times, have been overwhelmingly photographic in nature. Even the literary and narrative arts have (as is well-known) been transformed by cinematic techniques. Storytelling is shot through with notions of the frame, the picture, and the narrator-as-camera. Whether or not it is true that, as Powers writes, ‘the century has become about itself, history about history’, it is the modes of representation as much as the sequence of events which have created our image of the times in which we live.
The triumphantly strait-laced 19th century held onto its secrets almost to the end, which was why the Fin de Siècle was such a profoundly liberating period. Now, as we enter a different sort of fin de siècle, few secrets remain to be revealed and all illusions of 20th-century grandeur were lost long ago. The image of an unnaturally and catastrophically violent century was fixed by 1945 at the latest, and has been endlessly recycled and reproduced since. How much of our sense that we inhabit exceptionally violent times derives from our experience of constant bombardment with photographic representations of actually and potentially violent events? Can we say that the two world wars are lodged so firmly in the memory not just because they involved killing on a mass scale but because they have been so comprehensively and pervasively illustrated – the mass killings and mass illustrations reinforcing one another? Since 1945 there have been many further wars, not global in their extent but continuously adding to the stock of global war footage. Our inherited photographic images tend to be confirmed by the reporting and representation of each new war; the same patterns of association remain. At the end of Out of this World the main character recalls his first trip abroad, on a visit to France to mark the tenth anniversary of the Armistice in 1918. Flying home, he felt that he was being lifted ‘out of the age of mud ... into the age of air’. This childhood memory is being recalled in 1982, at the time of the Falklands War, and it seems quite natural that in the Eighties ‘mud’ should still suggest Flanders mud, trench warfare and the poor bloody infantry, while ‘air’ evokes pictures of the Second World War.
Like Graham Swift’s earlier novels, this one is a family history in which behind the ostensible story lurks a further story, one that haunts the narrative and yet is never entirely dragged to the surface. Out of this World is, however, much closer to The Sweet Shop Owner and Shuttlecock than it is to Waterland, its immediate predecessor. In Waterland the narrator was a history teacher recalling the traumatic events of a Second World War childhood overshadowed, in part, by the after-effects of his father’s shell-shock, suffered in the First World War. Nevertheless, the Fenland landscape provided the occasion for a genially expansive narrative and for a much longer historical perspective. However bleak its underlying vision, this is deservedly Graham Swift’s best-loved novel, and not only amongst East Anglians. The Sweet Shop Owner and Shuttlecock are very different: less exuberant, more austere, and more truly searching in their exploration of family relationships. In these rather puritanical texts, Swift deploys understated emotions and a strong plot to achieve an acute sense of psychological tension. The same technique is present in Out of this World, which once again pursues the theme of hatred between father and daughter or father and son (only now it is both), and returns obsessively to wartime experiences as a source of bitter and indissoluble memories.
All Swift’s novels have been confessional in form, and in his new book he uses a sequence of brief monologues, arranged as if to compose a dialogue in absentia between father and daughter, to evoke three generations of the Beech family – a dynasty which spans the 20th century. Robert, a First World War hero in his youth, became a successful armaments manufacturer, dominating the family and the family business until he was killed in 1972 by a terrorist car-bomb just outside his house. Harry, his son, refused to take over the Beech Munitions Company and became instead a professional photographer. He trained in RAF Intelligence, analysing the ‘morning after’ photographs of bombing raids over Germany, and towards the end of the Second World War he began to compile a historical record of Bomber Command. The best of his pictures – a shot of a dying pilot, for example – were censored in case they should damage morale. Later Harry attended the Nuremberg trials, and became a news cameraman shuttling to and from the world’s trouble-spots. He took some famous pictures of Vietnam, and his two books, Aftermaths and Photos of a Decade, made him something of a Sixties celebrity. His confessions are silently addressed to Sophie, his estranged daughter who emigrated to the United States in 1972 immediately after her grandfather’s funeral. Her own side of the story is confided for the most part to her analyst, an obvious father-substitute.
Sophie loved her grandfather (though without understanding him) and has always felt rejected by her father; Harry, the cameraman who has intruded on the grief of suffering people all over the world, has himself suffered at the hands of his own father and of Sophie’s mother, an emotionally-disturbed refugee from wartime Greece who regards herself as ‘one of the world’s walking wounded’. But Sophie’s mother is now dead, and Harry, in semi-retirement working as an aerial photographer for an archaeological survey, is on the verge of marrying again. Logic and his stubborn, unforgiving family background seem to argue against the belated happiness which he believes he has found. Can a Beech, of all people, retire into private life? The very existence of arms manufacturers and news photographers seems to argue against the notion of the integrity of private life. At the end a reconciliation between Harry and Sophie is a distinct possibility, but this will do little to alleviate the novel’s further mystery, or perhaps double mystery. For the family estrangements run so deep that they serve to implicate the whole 20th century; and, in particular, what actually happened on the Western Front on that day in 1918 when Robert, the founder of the dynasty, won the Victoria Cross will never be known. Officially, he saved the life of his commanding officer by picking up a live grenade and throwing it away. The grenade went off too soon, and he lost an arm. (The two consequences, it is implied, were causally linked. Soldiers quite often threw away grenades, without suffering injury from them, and without winning the VC either.)
To the extent that Out of this World turns on Harry Beech’s questioning of his father’s heroism, it might be seen as a re-run of the plot of Shuttlecock, in which the main character discovered the shameful truth behind his father’s tale of a daring escape from the Gestapo. Both novels rather blatantly set out to debunk the Boy’s Own Paper ethos. Nevertheless, Shuttlecock was an exploration of the spy mentality, probing the connection between imaginative invention-lying, or fiction-making – and courage in the face of the enemy. (Perhaps the two are quite often the same.) Out of this World develops a different sort of moral conundrum. Robert Beech has never deliberately misrepresented his actions, and can scarcely be said to have represented them at all; it is not until he is over seventy that he even tells his son what happened. All he has done is to accept the VC, which implies its own mode of representation.
According to Harry’s sense of the modern world, everything is always already subject to representation. Life is ‘this vast display of evidence, this exhibition of recorded data, this continuously running movie’. In his and Sophie’s reminiscences and confessions the metaphor of the picture or snapshot – but of course it is much more than a metaphor – is pervasive. What they remember, what they look forward to, and the way in which they project their lives, are all, in effect, a series of visible scenes: still photos, or moving pictures, captured from a particular standpoint (their own), fixed and developed, and then stored as if in some psychic album. The seen and recorded impressions exclude the not-seen – that which is either suppressed or cannot be visualised. Though every picture tells a story (as the journalist says), the heart of the story may well consist in something which in its nature could not be photographed, or if photographed, would not get shown.
One of Harry’s best-known pictures was of a US soldier in the act of throwing a grenade. Seconds later, the soldier was killed, but the world only got to see the one picture even though Harry had kept on filming. Harry’s speculations about his own father’s potentially suicidal grenade-throwing must reckon with the fact (or rather, the apparent fact) that no camera was present at the incident. The same should have been true of the IRA bomb explosion in 1972, which killed his father just outside his front door. Harry was in his bedroom at the time, packing for a flight to strifetorn Belfast, and instead of sprinting downstairs to give help, his first instinct – witnessed by his unrelenting daughter – was to grab his camera and move to the window.
There are times when the weight of history sits starkly and heavily on this novel. Yet it is told with deceptive simplicity and a compelling imaginative intensity. There are no wasted words or ineffectual images here. In Swift’s two principal younger characters, the brittle and resentful Sophie and her rather commonplace husband Joe, we see an attempt to escape from wartime obsessions and from the shadow of the ‘walking wounded’. Yet Sophie is emotionally distraught (she cannot abide the sight of toy guns) and Joe, refusing a stake in the family firm, has set up as a Manhattan travel agent and British-heritage merchant. For him, we have moved into ‘the age of fun, the age of leisure, the age of the holiday’. Perhaps this is also the age of hot air. Poor Joe’s vision of life suggests nothing so much as Philip Larkin’s ‘High Windows’, with its images of the ‘long slide’ and the ‘deep blue air, that shows/ Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless’. In that respect, Harry’s final position, working as an aerial photographer with a pretty young wife in a picture-book cottage, is somewhat equivocal. We are not going to get out of this world, with its accumulations of images and memories and deposits of mud, as easily as all that; the power and fascination of each of Swift’s novels, including this one, rest on some such dogged affirmation.
Richard Powers is an American writer whose quest for 20th-century history is also a quest for European origins. August Sander’s photograph of the three farmers, discovered by the first-person narrator of one of this novel’s interlocking strands in a Detroit museum, is an apparently arbitrary starting-point. Powers’s extrapolation of the lives of the three men forms a second strand, an unexpected and richly imaginative one. (The photograph itself unfortunately appears only on the dust-cover of the British edition of Three Farmers (on their Way to a Dance. Librarians should seek out the US edition, which contains a frontispiece.) In the novel there are two surviving prints of the photograph, one of which is found by the narrator, and the other by a computer journalist called Peter Mays, who discovers it in Chicago among some family heirlooms. In a novel full of intellectual, descriptive and stylistic diversions, these two figures take us down some remarkable by-roads. The three farmers are somehow linked with the ‘Peace Ship’ in which Henry Ford and a team of do-gooders sailed to Europe in 1915; still more obscurely, they are linked with the later career of Sarah Bernhardt. Mays finds the Sander photograph together with a letter from Henry Ford which encourages him to go straight to Detroit to claim his share of the Ford Company’s millions.
He receives his trust fund, however, in an unexpected form. Changes of identity and costume abound; the staid image of the three farmers in their antique Sunday suits may be contrasted, for example, with a contemporary one-woman show, ‘I dwell in possibility’, to which Mays’s quest also takes him. In ‘I dwell in possibility’ the actress, who is famed for her Sarah Bernhardt impersonations, appears in quick succession as, among others, Gertrude Stein, Isadora Duncan, and Nurse Cavell waiting to be shot by the Germans.
In Powers’s more strictly historical narrative, two of the three farmers – supposedly Germans from the Rhineland – turn out to be nothing of the sort. Hubert, of indeterminaté nationality, crosses the border into Belgium and gets himself meaninglessly shot by a party of soldiers a few hours before the First World War breaks out. (If, as is possible, he was actually German, he could be said to have started it all.) Peter, technically German but resident in Holland, evades military service by exchanging identities with a Dutch war correspondent who has just been ordered to Paris. One of Peter’s journalistic tasks is to cover the Peace Mission, where he earns the gratitude of a bored and bewildered Harry Ford; they have a shared interest in motor-cars. While in Paris he takes up press photography, but his best pictures, like Harry Beech’s, are necessarily suppressed by the authorities. Finally there is Adolphe, the most Svejk-like of these three Unknown Non Soldiers. He is the Good German who joins up and finds himself taking part in a massacre of Belgian villagers, whereupon he deserts his regiment and, in his turn, gets himself shot. At the beginning the three were all on their way to a dance, and their sweethearts (not to mention their sweethearts, manifold underclothes) also have a part to play in the narrative. Without them, it is clear, one of the prints of Herr Sander’s photograph could never have ended up in an attic in Chicago. We are told how it got there, more or less, but this carefully-assembled narrative is no sooner put together than the narrator begins to dissolve it again into its constituent fictions.
This, then, is a carnivalesque, Post-Modernist historical novel, which threads its way through some rather hectic changes of style. Some sections are more in the mode of discursive essays. Chapter 19, ‘The Cheap and Accessible Print’, tells you more about the cultural impact of the photograph than you probably wanted to know. The early chapters, especially those set in the offices of the computer journal Micro Monthly News, are distinctly frenetic. ‘Not content to verb a noun’, we read at one point, ‘Delaney was moved by the extent of boss Powell’s crime into participling one.’ The author does as much sometimes. He has some authentically burlesque stylistic touches. The ten million First World War victims ‘would not rise again’, we are told, ‘from the cratered mud’: but then a few pages later two German military policemen peering through a tobacconist’s window are described as ‘leaving a cratered battlefield of Bavarian greased nose prints on the pane’. Not everything in this irreverent, imaginative and rather too crowded novel comes off nearly as well as that. But Three Farmers pays genuine tribute to August Sander’s Teutonically thorough and slightly dotty photographic project in a manner as far removed from Sander’s horizons as it possibly could be.
The March Fence and What is the matter with Mary Jane? are both first novels by young British novelists. Matthew Yorke’s protagonist, the third son of a family with a large Scottish estate, is shown working as an apprentice in a Leeds steel-mill and pursuing a self-destructive course through gambling, loneliness and domestic guilt. The ‘family curse’ to which he is heir is played out in over-melodramatic terms, and the best parts of the novel show him learning his trade and making his apprentice’s mistakes in the steelworks. Daisy Waugh focuses perhaps rather too deliberately on the problem of teenage anorexia. But this is a novel of lively characterisation with a brisk narrative pace and a streak of cruelly witty observation. Mary Jane, of course, was the girl who refused to eat her rice-pudding. Daisy Waugh has the gift of capturing something that the camera hardly ever reveals: the true note of family awfulness.