Getting Rid of "Needless Painful Knowledge": The Flight from Trauma in Graham Swift's Shuttlecock (Part 2/3)

Stef Craps, Research Assistant of the Fund for Scientific Research - Flanders (Belgium) (F.W.O.), Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium []

  1. It seems to me that Shuttlecock can be fruitfully read against this theoretical background. As a Bildungsroman, the novel is inevitably embroiled in the problematic of the aesthetic which has just been outlined. Indeed, as a literary genre "defined by the aesthetic project of Bildung," the Bildungsroman may be said to "symbolize the possibility of aesthetics itself" (Redfield 63). Redfield shows how the prototypical Bildungsroman, Goethe's Wilhem Meister's Apprentice Years, can be read as a "fictional counterpart" of Schiller's Aesthetic Education, which was written concurrently with it (66). In this reading, the character Wilhelm would represent "the subject of aesthetics, representative of universal humanity" and the Society of the Tower into whose ranks he is eventually initiated the Aesthetic State (Redfield 67). However, Redfield goes on to demonstrate that Goethe's novel, while closely following the path sketched by Schiller's aesthetic theory, at the same time deconstructs it through the use of irony, which "disarticulates the aesthetic and naturalizing illusion that composes all ideologies, thus opening them to critique by accounting for their occurrence" (93). I will argue that a similar tension is evident in Shuttlecock, which relates how Prentis breaks with the world of determinism and gains his freedom through the power of his imagination. While I do not wish to create the impression that Shuttlecock mounts a full-fledged critique of aesthetic ideology - a task reserved for Waterland -, it does seem to me that the novel shows clear signs of unease with the project of aesthetic totalization into whose service it finds itself pressed.

  2. The joyous affirmation of symbolic unity on which the novel ends is rendered possible by Prentis's having realized a double ambition in the course of the narrative. As he announces early on, there are "two promotions" (71) that he wants. On the one hand, he wants to become equal to his father: "I wanted to step into Dad's shoes. Now his mind was gone, now Dad was no more: I wanted what he had had. To be even with him" (71). If Prentis rereads his father's memoir after the latter's breakdown, it is to know exactly what this involves. His father having retreated into silence, he turns to his book in the hope of finding an answer to the obsessive question "What was it like, what was it really like?" (52). Convinced that "Dad is in that book," or even that "the book is Dad" (52), Prentis opens its covers "hoping Dad would come out; hoping to hear his voice" (199). On the other hand, he wants to be promoted to head of his department at the office, the position currently occupied by Quinn: "I wanted his job. I wanted to sit in his leather chair. I wanted to look down, like him, through his glass panel, at the underlings I had once worked beside" (71). In this sphere of life too, however, his overriding desire is for enlightenment: "And yet it seemed (and I still feel this now) that what I wanted was not so much the promotion itself, but to be in a position where I would know; where I would no longer be the victim, the dupe, no longer be in the dark" (71). In fact, the same desire underlies Prentis's frantic reading of Shuttlecock, which is expected to provide him with knowledge which his father can no longer impart himself: "Tell me, Dad. Enlighten me" (76).

  3. By the end of the novel, Prentis has achieved both promotions, which turn out to be intricately related. The two strands of the plot come together in "C9," a mysterious case on which Prentis has been set to work by Quinn and which he finds impossible to solve due to crucial information being missing from the files. Carrying out investigations of his own so as to be able to shed some light on the matter, Prentis comes to suspect that the case bears directly on his father's past. This suspicion only reinforces his feeling that he is being tested in some obscure way by Quinn, an impression which is later confirmed by his boss. Concerned not to jeopardize his promotion chances, he hesitates for a long time between challenging Quinn about the missing files and keeping silent. When he finally decides to confront Quinn, the latter confesses that he has been deliberately withholding and destroying files, with a view to protecting unknown people from the potentially damaging information held within them. C9 is a case in point: according to Quinn, it could mar the reputation of Prentis's father, suggesting as it does that Dad had made no heroic escape from Nazi imprisonment, as he asserts in his memoir, but had succumbed to torture and sent three fellow agents to their deaths. In this case, Quinn has been withholding the crucial "File E," whose contents may lead to conclusive proof of Dad's guilt or innocence. However, struck by doubts regarding the morals of his "little enterprise for the good of mankind," he could not bring himself to destroy it:
    It was all right, you see, doing good turns for people who were only names in files. I didn't have any qualms, then, that what I was doing was keeping from them the truth. I thought, they can do without the truth. But when it suddenly became a case of keeping the truth from someone I knew, then it was a different matter. I began to waver. [. . .] What do you do? Let the truth out, always, no matter how painful? I began to get conscience-stricken. (179-80)
    We learn that the tests to which Quinn had subjected Prentis were meant firstly to find out whether he was the sort of person who would want the truth regardless of the cost, and secondly, with Quinn's retirement beckoning, to determine whether Prentis would make a suitable successor. In the end, Quinn leaves it to Prentis to decide if File E should be destroyed. In a surprise move, Prentis renounces his desire for enlightenment - which is what File E presumably stands for - and agrees to let Quinn burn the documents in a garden incinerator, having never even read them: "And then suddenly I knew I wanted to be uncertain, I wanted to be in the dark" (199). Afterwards, Quinn informs Prentis that he will shortly receive official notification of his promotion. Prentis does indeed replace Quinn after the latter's retirement, and takes over what Quinn calls his "little half-baked scheme to save the world" (181). Following his promotion, Prentis no longer bullies his family, but he replicates Quinn's position in the office, lording it over his former colleague Eric and giving him incomplete files to work on.

  4. Not only does Prentis eventually gain the upper hand over Quinn, but he also realizes his ambition of getting even with his father. The demystification of his father effected by the news of his possible breakdown under torture has a liberating effect on Prentis: "Something had collapsed around me; so I couldn't help, in the middle of the ruins, this strange feeling of release. I had escaped; I was free" (183). The idea that his father had cracked under torture like an ordinary human being enables Prentis to conceive his relations with Dad as being in a state of "perfect balance": "with the knowledge I have but don't show Dad, and the knowledge Dad perhaps has and believes I don't, our relations could not be more finely tuned than they are" (213). That Prentis comes to regard himself as his father's equal is signalled by his use of epithets normally associated with his father's war-time heroics to describe his newly adopted stance of willed ignorance and uncertainty: "'I don't know', I said, resolutely. It seemed to me this was the answer I would give, boldly, over and over again for the rest of my life" (200). Adverbs such as "resolutely" and "boldly" are meant to confer on Prentis himself the qualities of bravery and courage on which Dad had always seemed to have a monopoly. Prentis's identification with his father is further underscored by his fantasy of a reunion with Quinn, whom he has not seen again since taking over from him: "I think, one day Quinn and I will meet, like secret agents at some seemingly innocent rendezvous [. . .]" (206). The simile clearly implies that Prentis sees a connection between his own clandestine business in the office and Dad's spying activities during the war. Having settled his account with his father - whom he feels has "spoken again" through Quinn's revelations (204) -, Prentis stops reading his book. The novel ends with Prentis forgoing one of his visits to Dad to take his family on an outing to the seaside.

  5. In celebrating Prentis's new-found harmony with himself and his surroundings, Shuttlecock's closing chapter effectively defers to the Bildungsroman tradition. As Franco Moretti points out in The Way of the World, the classical Bildungsroman ends with the hero reaching "the conclusive synthesis of maturity" (19).[5] As Bildung is "truly such" only if, at a certain point, "it can be seen as concluded," the novel has to end with a "merging" of the protagonist with the world: "when the 'merging' has occurred the journey can end, and the classical Bildungsroman is over - it has achieved its function" (Moretti 26, 27). This "perfect, and perfectly meaningful conclusion" (28) is described by Moretti in terms which call to mind the device of the pathetic fallacy and the fusion with nature to which it aspires: "Ultimate symbolic gratification: the world speaks our language" (71). In following this convention, Shuttlecock's ending appears to offer definitive proof of the successful Bildung of the novel's protagonist.

  6. In fact, the great majority of critics seem to agree that Shuttlecock may indeed be read as the story of a fairly straightforward journey towards maturity. Del Ivan Janik, for example, regards Prentis's crucial decision to destroy File E - which he describes as unequivocally "liberating, enabling, and even redeeming" (81) - as the triumphant outcome of a comprehensive learning process which reconciles Prentis to the human condition and equips him for life "in the present":
    Now, in the acceptance of uncertainty, of the ambiguity that comes with being human, Prentis has found that space ["where we can be free, where we cannot be reached, where we are masters"]. He no longer badgers his mute father with unanswerable questions, having found 'the perfect balance' of mutual ignorance. He no longer bullies his children, having learned to accept their need for space in which they can mature. He returns to his wife with affection instead of domination and 'pointless sophistication.' He is able now to live in the present, not because he has conquered history but because he has learned to live with its ambiguities. (82)
    The narrator's abandonment of his epistemological quest is interpreted along the same lines by John Marsden, who states that "Prentis has come to terms with the fragmented, disconnected, epistemologically uncertain world that he inhabits" (104). According to Susanne Mecklenburg, the novel strikes a distinctly hopeful note in envisaging the possibility of overcoming the cycle of violence in which its protagonist is enmeshed at the outset: "Doch beläßt Graham Swift es nicht bei der Sezierung eines Teufelkreises des Gewalt, sondern nutzt die Perspektive des Ich-Erzählers, um die Möglichkeit der Bewältigung persönlicher Erfahrungen und eines aufbrechens aus jenen Strukturen der Gewalt aufzuzeigen" (138). These reactions reflect a widely shared feeling among critics that the transition to maturity and harmony which Shuttlecock lays out is both persuasive and instructive.

  7. And yet, several of these commentators seem to be somewhat ill at ease with the conclusions they have reached. Alan Hickman, for example, who contends that Prentis has "surely done something right to have been so rewarded" (98), is troubled by the fact that "the bargain he has struck with Quinn - the fount of all this bounty in his life - is based on a lie, the denial of information" (99). Marsden, for his part, is discomforted by the following passage, in which Prentis advises the reader to refrain from probing under the surface of his text:
    I stopped reading Dad's book. I inquired no further. How much of a book is in the words and how much is behind or in between the lines? Perhaps it is best not to probe too deeply into those invisible regions, but to accept on trust what is there on the page as the best showing the author could make. And the same is true perhaps of this book (for it has grown into a book) which I have resumed now after a six-months' lapse, only to bring to its conclusion. Once you have read it, it may be better not to peer too hard beneath the surface of what it says - or (who knows if you may not be one of those happily left in peace of mind by my 'work' at the department?) what it doesn't say. (214)
    In fact, this admonition to forgo a critical reading of the book - which Hickman, incidentally, considers to be "wise counsel" (98) - makes explicit a central feature of the Bildungsroman. As Moretti points out, "the symbolic totality of the Bildungsroman does not allow for interpretation. To do so would be to recognize that an alterity continues to exist between the subject and his world, and that it has established its own culture: and this must not be" (63). In other words, the "beautiful harmony of the symbol" serves to obscure the irredeemable split between the subject and the world which the act of interpretation has the power to expose (Moretti 63). In urging the reader to refrain from delving too deeply into his text, Shuttlecock's narrator shows his concern to safeguard the precarious symbolic unity which it establishes. Though Marsden finds Prentis's "metacritical commentary" admirably "postmodernist," he hesitates to grant him his request: "given what we know of the narrator, we should be wary of taking his advice" (105). However, he quickly settles his doubts by appealing to authorial intention: "his sentiments are apparently those of Graham Swift himself" (105). Yet, the passage from the interview with the author which he adduces to back up this claim does not bear this out: instead of choosing any one side, Swift, as is his wont, talks about wanting to present the full "complexity" of the moral issues surrounding knowledge and ignorance without "resolv[ing]" the matter in any way (qtd. in Marsden 105).

  8. Another critic with mixed feelings about Shuttlecock is Marc Porée. In a survey article on Swift, he appears to go along with the redemptive return to nature which the novel stages: the text being concerned to "restituer l'acuité primitive ressentie au contact de la réalité massive de la matière," Prentis's final tribute to his pet hamster - "un retour attendrissant, touchant - après tout son poids de cruauté - à ce qui touche, à ce qui émeut" - is felt to bring the novel to a moving and fitting conclusion (Porée, "Quelques clefs" 64). In an earlier review of Shuttlecock, however, Porée - literally - puts a question mark over this reading, describing the novel as a Bildungsroman ("un roman d'éducation") fraught with ambiguities ("Avec ses ambiguïtés propres"): "Education à une forme de santé mentale arrachée à la folie, ce mal anglais. Recherche d'un équilibre précaire, à redéfinir contre l'emprise traumatisante d'un père dominateur. Education à rebours, vers l'enfance perdue, au terme de laquelle une libération s'opère et le temps d'avant l'aliénation paraît (?) se retrouver" (Porée, "Au non dit" 21).

  9. The novel's perceived ambivalence, which - if at all - is only referred to in passing by the afore-mentioned critics, is brought out in the open by Patrick O'Donnell. While acknowledging that Prentis can be seen to have "grown up" and to have been "successfully initiated into a form of adulthood" by the end of the novel, O'Donnell points out that "Swift leaves open [. . .] the possibility of a quite different reading, wherein existence is seen as a form of repression." After all, "Prentis' success and happiness are ultimately based on a suppression of knowledge" (O'Donnell). According to O'Donnell, there are "sinister undertones" to Prentis becoming "another Quinn," i.e. "a disseminator and destroyer of information, a dictator of fact." Unlike Janik and most other critics, who accept the complete integrity and objectivity of Prentis's story - "Prentis seems to be a reliable narrator" (Janik 80) -, O'Donnell has serious doubts about the narrator's reliability:
    in the final scene, where he romps with his wife and children on the beach, one senses that Prentis, the narrator, is hiding something from the reader in this artificial portrait of the nuclear family reunited. Playing the role of narrator, Prentis is unreliable precisely when he becomes chief of information, a job that requires the judicious suppression of the truth: The reader is left with the question, What form and quantity of truth does one receive in this cold confession?[6]
  10. This question also informs Donald Kaczvinsky's article on Shuttlecock, the only substantial reading of the novel to date to give pride of place to the issue of narratorial unreliability. However, Kaczvinsky not only raises the question, as O'Donnell does, but goes on to frame a concrete answer to it. Speculating that the narrator lies about how he got promoted, he concocts an elaborate theory in which Prentis ruthlessly blackmails Quinn into appointing him as his successor:
    Perhaps Quinn promoted Prentis not because he saw a lot of himself in his underling, but because Prentis knew or discovered Quinn's cowardice and dereliction of duty and threatened to expose Quinn to the authorities. [. . .] Perhaps that is why Prentis leaves the conversation in the office between himself and his boss so elliptical and why, curiously, Prentis does not tell his family about his promotion until well after his initial conversation with Quinn. (Kaczvinsky 8)
    Prentis's motive for writing his story would be to "exculpate" himself in the eyes of the world and especially in the eyes of his family (Kaczvinsky 7). According to Kacvinsky, the narrator's apparent transformation, "from family tyrant to loving father and devoted husband," "cannot simply be explained as an education or a maturation process. He has not 'progressed' into a more humane and sympathetic character [. . .] but 'created' or 'invented' a self, through a textual strategy that at the same time broadens and secures his power base" (12). Indeed, the one thing Prentis has learnt is how to achieve power over others with a more subtle technique than physical force: "he establishes a textual power over them [i.e. his family] through the writing of his own history that, unlike the torture and physical punishment he used earlier, breeds not resentment and rebellion but love and admiration" (Kaczvinsky 11).

  11. Kaczvinsky's interpretation is impaired, however, by the rashness with which it seeks to solve the issue of Prentis's unreliability. The blackmail story which it puts forward as being the hidden truth of Prentis's narrative strikes me as far-fetched and unwarranted by the available textual evidence. Even on a second reading, there does not seem to be anything remotely suspicious about the first conversation between Quinn and Prentis in the office, and the fact that Prentis does not immediately mention his promotion prospects to his wife is more plausibly accounted for by the general lack of communication between them.

  12. Nevertheless, Kaczvinsky does deserve credit for giving due consideration to the narrator's unreliability and self-invention, a dimension of the novel often ignored by its critics - which is all the more remarkable given the text's emphatic foregrounding of the very performance of narration. While no-one fails to note the paranoid quality of the novel - which establishes an elaborate network of connections linking together the malicious exercise of authority to which Prentis is subject at work, Prentis's cruel treatment of his hamster, his domination of his family and the Gestapo's imprisonment and torture of his father -, the relationship between the identically titled Shuttlecock and Shuttlecock - which, moreover, are written by identically named authors (after all, we never find out the first name of either Prentis senior or Prentis junior) - has rarely been discussed at any length. It deserves closer scrutiny, though, for several reasons. Not only is there a clear thematic link between the two narratives, both of which "focus on the hero's escape from a prison" (Kaczvinsky 7),[7] but the mise en abyme structure suggests that the questions which are raised inside the text about the truthfulness of Dad's version of events should also be addressed to Prentis's story: "If Prentis learned to question the 'objectivity' and 'integrity' of his father's story, to see it as a narrative with significant 'gaps' of information, so we too, as 'apprentice' readers, must learn to question the 'objectivity' of Prentis's story" (Kaczvinsky 5). Indeed, if we are to arrive at a critical understanding of Prentis's self-professed transformation, it seems imperative that we take on this task.

  13. Clearly, the interpretation of Shuttlecock is a major concern in the novel. Prentis claims that his father's memoir, which he has read "a dozen times" (51), seems to get "not more familiar but more elusive and remote" (52) each time he reads it. He is left with "a thousand questions" about "things which aren't actually stated in the book" (52). In particular, he is bemused by the fact that Dad provides an almost purely descriptive account of his exploits. He hardly mentions how he felt at the time, and when he does convey his feelings, he does so "in a bluff, almost light-hearted way," giving his narrative the air of "some made-up adventure story" (52). As a result, Dad's book, which is "all fact," sometimes seems to Prentis "like fiction, like something that never really took place" (52). The final chapters of Shuttlecock, however, which contain the story of Dad's capture, torture and escape, make a very different impression on him: "These pages are more vivid, more real, more believable than any other part of the book. And yet, strangely enough, this is because the style of Dad's writing becomes - how shall I put it? - more imaginative, more literary, more speculative" (106-07). If, in the main body of the book, there is only "the occasional brief passage of reflection, of emotion," in these final chapters it is as though "the philosophic note is always there" and Dad's words seem ever ready to take on "a quieter, sadder, even eloquent tone" (107).

  14. Another reason which Prentis gives for the fact that the last two chapters have "more of the flavour of reality" than the rest of the book is that they contain "more mystery - and more misery" (146). He is intrigued by the "gaps" or "hazy areas" in Dad's narrative, i.e. the scenes of torture which are described - if at all - in the scantiest detail: "it is about the goings-on in that interrogation room, and other, sinister rooms, that Dad is silent, or circumspect" (105). To account for this fact, he considers two different explanations, the first of which is the presence of "gaping holes in the memory" (105). In other words, the reason why Dad neglects to write about these dreadful experiences would be that he has blissfully forgotten about them. The other explanation which Prentis offers is "the reverse" of the first one: "The memory not in the least impaired, still vivid-sharp; but the memory of something so terrible that it cannot be repeated, cannot be spoken or written of" (105-06).[8] This theory accords well with Bessel van der Kolk's conception of trauma as a literal imprint on the psyche. "[E]tched" or "engraved" on the mind with "unparalleled vividness and accuracy," traumatic memory, for van der Kolk, is "radically dissociated from symbolization, meaning, and the usual processes of integration" (Leys 239). >From the fact that Prentis later refers to the treatment Dad received at the hands of his captors as "this experience beyond words" (106), we may infer that he settles on this second explanation.

  15. Interestingly, the traumatic nature of the events recounted in the final chapters of Shuttlecock may go some way towards explaining the "more imaginative, more literary, more speculative" quality of these pages, which sets them apart from the preceding chapters of the book. Indeed, many trauma theorists agree that literature is, in Dominick LaCapra's words, "a prime, if not the privileged, place for giving voice to trauma" (190). Trauma, which exceeds the frameworks by which we normally make sense of the world, demands a vocabulary and syntax in some sense incommensurable with what went before. It is felt that literature, as an imaginative creative enterprise, is eminently suited for this task of addressing and transmitting trauma. As Geoffrey Hartman puts it, "the 'unclaimed experience' can only be reclaimed by literary knowledge" (545). The frequent appeal to the imagination in the final chapters of Shuttlecock may thus be viewed as necessitated by the specific nature of the disconcerting experiences Dad is struggling to convey.
[ Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Works Cited ]


[5] Moretti uses the phrase "classical Bildungsroman" to denote "the narrative model created by Goethe and Austen," as distinct from "the Bildungsroman genre as a whole" (229 n.1). [Back]

[6] In O'Donnell's reading, the artificiality of the novel's cheery ending is compounded by the counterfeit nature of the setting: "Even when Prentis and his wife make love in the dunes of a nearly deserted beach at the close of the novel, 'nature' is portrayed in the form of a cliche, a Hollywood backdrop against which Prentis' successful entrance into adulthood and authority is played out." The final scene's reliance on overused cinematic conventions has also been remarked upon by Donald Kaczvinsky, who describes it as "a scene from the repertoire of romance novels and films" (12). [Back]

[7] In the case of Dad, this is of course the spectacular escape from the Château Martine, which he recounts in the final chapters of his memoir as the crowning glory of his career as a secret agent in occupied France. The cells at the castle, which are located half below ground level, bear a close resemblance to the basement office in which Prentis works, and which he refers to as a "dungeon" (17). His escape, then, is to the above-ground office occupied by Quinn and, as we have seen, to the apparent safety of the dunes where he finally realizes his ambition of becoming a "burrowing animal." [Back]

[8] In positing these two alternatives, Prentis is in fact echoing his father, who reflects, in a passage from his memoir which the narrator quotes at a later stage in the text: "Perhaps there is much about my days at the Château which I simply do not remember. They say that you only recall what is pleasant. Or perhaps the truth is that certain things defy retelling" (139). [Back]

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Last modified: 7th May 2003