Learning to Swim is a collection of short stories that was not published in book form until after Swift completed his first three novels. Prior to this collection the stories appeared in such places as Punch, London Magazine, New Stories, Firebird, Winter's Tales, and Formations. All of these are British literary and popular magazines except for the last, which is put out by the University of Wisconsin Press. One story, "Chemistry," was presented on BBC Radio 3. All eleven of the stories are works of fiction and as the disclaimer states, "any resemblance to actual events is entirely coincidental." What is not a coincidence is the manner in which the stories coalesce to form a single set of themes and issues.
There are only five or six major themes in the eleven short stories of Learning to Swim. Their major topics are the battle of the sexes, war, history, insanity, and the generation gap. These ideas are coupled to the imagery of war, water imagery, and a philosophical discussion on the relative dangers of knowledge. The subjects may be imposing but the actual representation of each subject within the individual stories is much simpler, due in part to the somewhat cursory treatment that each topic receives in short story form. Whereas some are presented as the central focus of a tale, others are merely hinted at, leaving the reader to check his or her mental notes whenever a familiar subject is briefly reintroduced. Above all else, Learning to Swim demonstrates that Swift is a novelist and as such needs plenty of room in which to exercise his thoughts. Fortunately for the reader whose interest has been piqued, these same themes are discussed at much greater length in Swift's four full-length novels.
The Sweet Shop Owner, Swift's first novel, tells the story of Willy Chapman. The narration follows Willy through an entire day and relies on frequent flashbacks to fill in details from his past in a novel that is loaded with psychological detail. Swift's writing makes even the most prosaic of lives interesting, a skill that has won him comparisons to such writers as James Joyce. The major subjects are echoes of the short stories: the clash between man and wife, a failed parent-child relationship, the human devastation of World War II, a man coming to grips with history, and a woman's battle with insanity. The difference between the short stories and this longer work is that in The Sweet Shop Owner the author is able to weave his themes into each other in a fashion that is difficult within the confines of a short story.
The same is true for Swift's three other novels. In Shuttlecock the predominant themes deal with the relationship between the main character and his father in the larger context of World War II. Waterland and Out of This World are similarly based upon troubled parent-child relationships. Although each of these two novels deal with all of Swift's major ideas in one way or another, each has its speciality as well. Waterland features a prolonged discussion of the nature and importance of history. Out of This World gives much attention to a family relationship that spans three generations as well as to a discussion of the arms industry and its role in the World Wars. Just as all of the novels link to the short stories, they also link to one another, and lines of thought flow from novel to novel. Several critics have noted that Out of This World resembles many aspects of Shuttlecock and that it can be viewed as a simple reworking of an older idea. This judgement oversimplifies the situation, since a broad view of everything Swift has written to date shows these ideas to be constant throughout his career.
Whereas Swift's themes remain the same from book to book, his style does not. Each successive work shows clear growth. In reviewing Learning to Swim, one critic commented that Swift "uses too many words." This impression recalls the problem of short stories that really want to be novels. Most of the time the stories are told from the first person but the voice varies little from tale to tale even though the narrators range in age from a child to a centenarian. Some stories have a good deal of complicated plot development while others barely have space to establish a mood. "Seraglio" is one story in which a sketchy plot line and limited detail requires readers to bring a lot of information with them. In my first reading of that story I encountered many unclear elements. Coming back to it after reading most of Swift's other fiction it became much clearer.
The Sweet Shop Owner represents a departure for Swift. Like a short story, the novel focuses on a very narrow span of time -- one day. Unlike a short story, the narration pauses for many flashbacks that flesh out the details of the main character's life and infuse the novel with emotion. Swift manages to draw out one man's innermost thoughts for translation into language that all can easily understand. This type of interior monologue, reminiscent of Joyce and Faulkner, takes the story of Willy Chapman and enlarges it until it is relevant to the society around it.
A second interesting feature of The Sweet Shop Owner's narrator lies in his ability to step aside for brief moments. In a dream-like sequence Willy's voice deftly makes way for Irene's voice. The transition is so smooth, a seamless change of perspective, that it happens without the reader being aware of its occurrence. The advanced features of this narrative are a sharp contrast to the short story "Learning to Swim" where the narrator announces each change of perspective.
Shuttlecock introduces an interesting narrative twist -- a novel within a novel. The narrator, who must come to grips with his father's heroism, often shares entire passages from his father's autobiography with the reader. This technique required two entirely different writing styles from one novel. The first is the first-person narrative that Swift had mastered in his first novel. The second is the detached autobiographical style. This second style is dry and reserved and must have been difficult for Swift, an author prone to philosophical wandering, to maintain. The result is a much more interesting novel than could have been achieved without the autobiography. Shuttlecock and The Sweet Shop Owner are the building blocks for Swift's most adventurous novel, Waterland.
Swift's third novel is an ambitious undertaking that sweeps across centuries and generations. Waterland recounts one family's lineage and adventures back to its earliest roots and at the same time pursues the ongoing discussion of the nature of history with an enormous amount of vigor. The novel relies heavily upon first person narrative but is at the same time comfortable for short periods to pose as history text, biology book, or social chronicle. Nominated for the Booker Prize, Waterland is the culmination of Swift's earlier work. It involves the themes, imagery, and techniques of nearly every one of the short stories in Learning to Swim.
Out of This World, Swift's most recent novel, takes his earlier technique of a smoothly changing narrator and develops it into a tale with two narrators, each taking a whole chapter for himself or herself. This technique, which lends a conversational tone to the novel, reinforces the family themes by making it quite clear that the reader cannot get the whole story from just one person. In this family one must hear both sides of the story. Magazine critics, too, must hear both sides of the story. The reviews of Out of This World are not favorable on the whole. The reviewers who like the novel seem to be more or less familiar with all of Swift's writing while those who do not like the book demonstrate familiarity only with Waterland. The implication is that readers who are familiar with Swift's work enjoyed more of the subtle aspects of Out of This World while newcomers or those familiar with only one work tend to find the work rather sparse. This is especially true when comparing Out of This World directly to Waterland. Swift's latest novel can be fairly judged only in light of all of his work.
Swift's writing forms a coherent body of text over the past ten years. Instead of four novels about four different topics, devoted readers are provided with endless expansion upon familiar themes. The repetition does not run the risk of becoming boring thanks to a steadily developing style. With each new work Swift has introduced another technique that gives new life to his characters and a new way of considering problems that for all intensive purposes are without conclusive answers.