"Educating Graham"

by David Benedictus

[from Punch, 11 March 1988]

. . . Question three: Does Graham Swift merit his best buy rating as a regular awards-shortlist novelist?

Answer: Certainly.

Paul Bailey admires his style, Ronald Blythe his narrative techniques, and Hermione Lee his ambition and originality. The TLS says that he is "free from maudlin self-expression and faux-sophisticated self-concealment" (do they pay their reviewers by the hyphen in the TLS ?). Newsweek innocently adds that he "poses no problem for the reader." Woe unto you when all men speak well of you! With this weight of acclaim, Graham Swift must be tempted to become portentous, but in his new novel, Out of This World, he remains unspoiled. It's an ingenious book, resolutely introspective, and one which covers four generations. Robert Beech, VC, lost an arm and founded a firm of arms manufacturers. His son, Harry, was a war photographer. His grand-daughter, Sophie, is undergoing analysis in New York. His great-grandsons, Tim and Paul, are, well, nothing very much yet. Harry and Sophie are the ones we are most concerned with, and they carry the burden of the narrative (this is yet another multiple narrative novel). Harry who married the virginal Anna when he was photographing the war criminals as Nuremberg. Sophie who, when still a virgin, met and married the easy-going Joe in Greece. Harry who -- Anna being long since dead -- has fallen in love again with Jenny, forty years younger than him. Sophie who, invited to her father's marriage, is falling in love with her psychiatrist. The Atlantic separates them, but their memories hold them fast. Except that Sophie -- and this we learn painfully, though not as painfully as Harry learns it -- is not Harry's daughter, but the daughter of his brother, Frank.

[Note to hypertext Users: this is incorrect. Harry's wife Anna had an affair with Frank, but the child was never born. Frank is not Harry's brother but a business associate of his father's.]

To a photographer, you see, the truth is where you fail to point the camera, much as to a psychiatrist the truth is what your patient fails to tell you. As for an arms dealer who founds a hospital for artificial limbs and then gets blown up by terrorists, well, morality these days is as partial as truth.

Graham Swift's sentences are short, he scarcely troubles with dialogue, his women are less persuasive than his men, and he has little sense of humour and less sense of fun, but Paul Bailey is right and Ronald Blythe is right and Hermione Lee is right. The TLS may be right, only I can't unravel their hyphens. Newsweek is wrong.

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