"A Welcome Literary Invasion"

by John Bemrose

[from MaClean's, 25 April 1988]

A year ago British writers Ian McEwan, Graham Swift and Angela Carter were strangers to most Canadians. But they and other English novelists are rapidly becoming known on this side of the Atlantic as domestic publishers increasingly turn to the practice of buying separate rights for the best foreign books. Last month McClelland and Stewart Ltd. released its own edition of Carters' story collection Artificial Fire. Meanwhile, Penguin Canada has just published Swifts' novel of remembrance, Out of This World, and Lester & Orpen Dennys recently issued McEwan's superb parable of childhood, The Child in Time. They are the latest offerings from three authors considered to be among the finest younger talents in Britain. But before the recent shift in publishing practices, their unique voices would have sounded only a feeble echo in Canada.

This country's past isolation from much contemporary foreign fiction was a result of long-established traditions. Foreign publishers and agents have generally treated Canada as a minor extension of the American or British markets, and only a few copies of titles from abroad trickled into the country through a Canadian distributor--unless the books were written by such world-famous authors as John Fowles or Anthony Burgess. But now, according to literary agent Lucinda Vardey, there is a new awareness that an expanding and increasingly sophisticated Canadian readership can crated healthy profits for many foreign books. Vardey, who helped to pioneer the trend of buying Canadian rights, said that they give Canadian publishing houses "a bigger stake in their foreign authors." She added, "Publishers are more likely to bring them in for publicity tours--which gives Canadian readers a chance to know the personalities behind the books."

McEwan, Swift and Carter, all of whom employ Vardey as their Canadian agent, have come to Canada recently to promote their books. The three writers' work ranges from Carter's darkly baroque romances to the the pithy, historically focused work of Swift.....

.....Graham Swift's novel Out of This World also deals with characters who must burrow into their pasts in order to restore meaning to shattered lives. When the book opens in England in 1982, Harry Beech, a retired photojournalist in his early 60s, is consumed by memories of his dead father, Robert. Harry's entire career has been a reaction to Robert's life as a successful munitions manufacturer. By taking pictures of war--including the conflict in Vietnam--Harry has tried to inspire abhorrence for this kind of devastation upon which his family's wealth was founded. Meanwhile, he is ignorant of the devastation that his frequent absences have brought to his daughter, Sophie. She spends her share of the novel talking to her New York City psychiatrist about her bleak and lonely past. Sophie's doting paternal grandfather is the closest thing to a loving father she has ever had, and his death in a terrorist bomb blast 10 years earlier has devastated her.

As in his fine earlier novel Waterland, Swift tries to show how private lives are bound up with the events of history. But while his competence at interweaving the themes is impressive, his novel lacks impact. The first-person reminiscences of both Harry and Sophie are too sketchy to give their past real substance. As a result, Out of This World remains a very cerebral book that describes strong emotion while failing to communicate it.

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