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

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

  1. As he tells the story of how he escaped from the Château Martine and fled through the surrounding forests trying to shake off his pursuers, Dad's account assumes positively "Wordsworthian" overtones in its invocation of nature as a benign force responsive to man's needs and desires (Hickman 68). Dad describes the shock he felt at the destruction of a wood which, having skirted it many times on bicycle or on foot, he had come to regard as "an emblem of things that would continue unchanged, regardless of the war" (107): "[. . .] I felt the loss of that wood like few human losses. The thing that most embodies the evil of war, is not, it seems to me, its human violence (for humans cause wars), but its wilful disregard for nature" (108). His subsequent escape from the Château becomes an attempt to re-establish the harmonious relationship with nature which the war is seen to have disrupted. On crawling out of his cell through a carved-out hole in the wall, Dad is met by what he perceives as a benevolent nature: "The darkened vegetable patches and fruit bushes in the kitchen garden and the fresh night air seemed to welcome me like conspiring friends" (163). As he makes his way through the forest like "a hunted animal," he feels "a strange rush of gratitude" (164) for the branches and the thick tangles of foliage which, though they scratch and snare him, seem to assist him in his flight. His mentioning of the pathetic fallacy, which he openly embraces, is the first explicit allusion to this notion in the text: "Since then I have come to believe - a blatant case of the pathetic fallacy, no doubt - that woods and the trees are always on the side of the fugitive and the victim, never on the side of the oppressor" (164). This feeling of affinity leads on to a desire for oneness with nature:
    [. . .] I was trying to turn myself into an anonymous creature of the woods. In this irrational idea hope seemed to lie. [. . .] Through all the agonies of my flight, I did not lose the sense that the trees, the leaf-strewn ground I trod were my friends. In fact, it grew. [. . .] Even as I blundered on, I thought: nocturnal animals are fleeing from me, just as I am fleeing my hunters. If only I could follow their example, disappear into holes and roots. Merge with the forest . . . (169).
    In fact, this is exactly what happens. There comes a time when Dad can no longer remain on his feet and has to make "the decision that the hunted rabbit or the cornered mouse has to make as the dogs draw in or the cat prepares to leap: to crouch, to huddle, offering no token of defence, waiting either to be pounced on and destroyed or for some miraculous intervention of destiny" (170). He makes a hollow in the undergrowth and, having covered himself with leaves, curls up in it like "some burrowing animal" (170) awaiting its fate. And destiny does intervene, miraculously, in the form of the American Seventh Army: Dad's nightmare is over when, on awakening after a desperate night in hiding, he discovers, through the trees, not the Gestapo but the advancing Americans.

  2. Prentis's private investigations into C9 lead him to read Dad's memoir with a critical eye. Having ascertained that another British agent was held at the same POW camp around the same time as his father, he is puzzled by Dad's claim that he was "the only Britisher at the Château" (146). He notes down textual inconsistencies which render Dad's account problematic, e.g. the assertion that "I made a mental note of everything" versus "I only recall . . . there is much I simply do not remember. Memory provides its own censorship" (147). The veracity of Dad's narrative is called more radically into question at the climactic meeting between Prentis and Quinn in the latter's garden, during which Quinn raises the possibility that the story of Dad's heroic escape may be a lie designed to cover up an act of treachery. Prentis initially rejects this theory on the grounds that the last pages of the book are "too convincing not to be real. He couldn't have written those things, if they never happened" (186). In support of this claim, he points to "the authentic detail" - Barthes's reality effect - and "the tone" of Dad's text: "In the rest of the book you hardly sense Dad's feelings, you don't sense Dad himself. But in the last paragraphs you -" (186). He goes on to argue that, if Dad had indeed struck a deal with the Germans and betrayed his friends in return for his release, he would surely not have "put himself at risk" by writing a false story when he could "have just kept quiet" (187). However, Quinn takes the edge off this argument by pointing out that Dad needed to justify how he got out of the Château: "He couldn't just say, They let me go" (187). To be at all credible, Dad's final adventure had to live up to the expectations created by his earlier acts of heroism: "His war record up till then had been pretty remarkable - the grand finale had to live up to it" (187). If the last two chapters are "more convincing, more heartfelt" than the rest, Quinn continues, this is because "it's here the real issue lies. The true exploits, all the brave and daring deeds, what do they matter? They can be treated almost like fiction, but the part of the book that's really a lie - that's where all the urgency is. It's here that he's trying to save himself. Why does it read like a real escape? Because it is an escape, a quite real escape, of a kind" (187). Quinn further surmises that, "torn between the desire to construct this saving lie and an instinct not to falsify himself completely - to be, somehow, honest," Dad put down "little hints, little clues" (188) allowing the discerning reader to see through the pretence.

  3. Though Quinn stresses that he is only "speaking hypothetically" (187), his alternative reading of Shuttlecock obviously casts grave doubt on the veracity of Dad's account. In fact, there was already a hint of deviousness in Dad's handwriting: the personal dedication in one of the two copies of the book which Prentis owns is said to be inscribed in a "bold and slanting" (51) hand. Dad's writing may well be "slanting" in the literal sense of being characterized by oblique or sloping letters, but the word also contains the suggestion that Dad's assertions should be taken with a pinch (or rather spoonful) of salt as he may be rigging or falsifying - "slanting" - the facts. If we accept Quinn's version of what happened, we are forced to conclude that the imagination serves another purpose altogether in Dad's account than that which we had originally ascribed to it. It is used, apparently, not in an effort to gain access to a traumatic reality but as an instrument of deception and bad faith. Far from contributing to a faithful representation of a shattering reality, it seems to lead in the opposite direction of denial and disavowal. Dad's act of self-representation becomes an exercise in self-invention which finds him straining his imaginative powers to create an unblemished image of himself as a superhuman hero. This idealized self-image conveniently and disingenuously covers over the actual facts of human frailty, weakness and betrayal.

  4. It is interesting to note that Prentis's narrative imitates his father's in several respects. For example, if the final chapters of Shuttlecock were unusually reflective and speculative, the same tendency is apparent in Prentis's own account. He alerts the reader to this fact in the parenthesis in the following sentence: "But all these observations and reflections (you are wrong if you think I am normally a thoughtful man - it is just something brought on by this urge to write things down) I do not make at all about Dad" (127). Moreover, Prentis's narrative, like Dad's, is strewn with little (and not so little) hints and clues which create doubts about the narrator's reliability. Initially, the truthfulness of the narrative had seemed to be guaranteed by the sheer fact that it is written in the form of a diary, a genre which carries the promise of immediate access to truth: "you will have gathered by now that I am writing all this as thoughts come to me and as things happen" (39). It does become an issue, however, when Prentis casually admits to having told the reader lies and half-truths: "Did I mention, by the way, a little while back, something about taking my kids out on the common at weekends to play healthy games with bats and frisbees? It doesn't really happen, of course. You will have gathered that my relations with Martin and Peter aren't exactly harmonious. Not that we don't go out on the common. But that picture - the exuberant father, the frisky children - it's quite wrong" (53). A little further on in the text, Prentis retracts another claim which he has just made: "You see, when I said I didn't mind if it was just I who was the obstacle, that was a lie" (56). On another occasion, he owns up to having exaggerated the harshness of Quinn's manner: "I have said already that the first time I have known Quinn to be pleasant to me was last Monday when he mentioned my promotion. That was something of an exaggeration, I admit - though that's not to say that pleasantness from Quinn isn't a rarity. However, there was one brief occasion when Quinn was not only pleasant but positively sympathetic - and that was over the business of Dad" (66).

  5. The narrative also figures some inconsistencies which, unlike the ones mentioned above, are not openly acknowledged by the narrator. One of these concerns the frequency of Prentis's visits to Dad. At the beginning of the narrative, Prentis declares: "I go to see Dad most Wednesday evenings, and often on Sundays too" (40). By the end of the narrative, however, "often" seems to have become "always": "And today - a Sunday - I forwent for the first time one of my visits to Dad" (215). Occurring right after the narrator's appeal to the reader not to read his book too attentively, this conflicting statement only deepens his or her suspicions about Prentis's sincerity and credibility. These suspicions are hardly assuaged by the narrator's apparent disregard for citation conventions: a particular passage from Dad's memoir is quoted twice over the course of the narrative, once excluding (108) and once including the following parenthetical remark: "I should have eaten when food was offered me" (170). The fact that the ellipsis in the first instance is not indicated typographically shows that Prentis is manipulating not just his own text but also that of his father.

  6. Like Shuttlecock, Prentis's narrative becomes increasingly imaginative and ends with the realization of a fantasy of total communion with nature. That Prentis has a rich imagination is revealed early on in the text. We are told that Quinn repeatedly censures his assistant's "lurid" imagination, which hampers his work in the office by causing him to make hasty assumptions and to jump to conclusions: "You've got a rich imagination, haven't you, Prentis? A lurid imagination. That doesn't help, you know, in this job" (22-23); "Lurid imagination, Prentis, lurid imagination. No good in this job" (30). Outside the office, however, Prentis can give free rein to his imagination. Sitting home reading Dad's book one sunny Saturday afternoon, he tries to picture what his wife and sons, who have gone out for a walk, are doing at that same moment. He finds his imaginative efforts to be singularly successful: "I can see all this almost more vividly than if I were there myself"; "All of this touches me more than if I were really there to see it happen" (63, 64). The sheer power of Prentis's imagination is further underscored by his insistence on the ease with which he can identify with his father's experience: "because I believe in these passages, I can put myself into them, I can imagine myself in that dark cell, in those passage-ways, that courtyard. Why does it seem that I know that Château? So that sometimes in my mind - it is like this tonight - it almost seems that Dad and I are one too" (146). This impression is reinforced by the fact that Prentis echoes Dad's discourse on several occasions. For example, the words which he cries out in his sleep - "Is there anyone there?" (156) - are the ones which Dad reports having shouted (albeit in French) after being left alone in his cell at the Château Martine: "Il n'y a personne?" (134). The observation that "They say you only recall what is pleasant" (5), which stands at the beginning of Prentis's narrative, is another literal echo of Dad's memoir (139). The most conspicuous borrowing, however, is the embrace of the pathetic fallacy and the redemptive identification with a burrowing animal in the closing paragraphs, which marks the culmination of the imaginative endeavour undertaken in the preceding pages.

  7. In a further parallel, Prentis buys into the logic of erasure embraced (or so it seems) by his father. Indeed, his critical decision to destroy File E, which appears to foreclose the possibility of ever exposing Dad's deception (if deception it is) and publicly demystifying his heroic self-image, is the first in a long series of decisions specifically aimed to suppress potentially explosive information. Assuming the inheritance of Quinn's "little enterprise for the good of mankind" (179), Prentis sets himself with gusto to the task of erasing traumatic knowledge as it is inscribed in the records of the dead crimes department. The underlying idea, spelled out by Quinn, is that by getting rid of such "ruinous" information, one is actually "ridding the world of trouble" (178): "I thought, perhaps one can wipe out certain harms simply by erasing the record of those harms" (120). Prentis continues along the path which Quinn has opened up to him: "All these little bits of poisoned paper I am slowly dropping into oblivion. What people don't know, can't hurt them. . . ." (212). Having succeeded Quinn, Prentis finds himself in a position where he can let loose his lurid imagination to create a congenial image of himself and of the world blissfully forgetful of the "nefarious and inflammatory" (15) information preserved in the police archives. The envisaged imaginative reconstruction of self and world is predicated on the erasure or denial of a traumatic reality documented by the records of the dead crimes department. This is confirmed by the third passage of the novel in which the pathetic fallacy is mentioned. On the way home from his meeting with Quinn, Prentis stops off at a pub to have a drink. As he watches the other customers, who are sitting outside because of the warm weather, he wonders why they seem to be having such a good time: "Perhaps the people were happy because of the warm summer twilight wrapping round them and making the world grow soft and dim. Perhaps it was all a case of the pathetic fallacy. Then I thought: these people are happy because of what they don't know" (203). Personal happiness and, by extension, social well-being are equated with a flight of the imagination which allows one to view the world as sympathetic to one's needs and desires and to make abstraction of unpalatable facts which pull the rug out from under this idea.

  8. In repressing the impact of trauma, the imagination serves the same self-protective purpose as the attachment to routine which had allowed Prentis to carry out his job without being affected by the horrendous nature of some of the cases that landed on his desk:
    Most of the time is spent in mundane chores like cataloguing and indexing. [. . .] No matter how extraordinary the material you work with, it becomes, when it's your daily business to deal with it - unextraordinary.
    But then again, I'm wrong. It isn't like that. I'm trying to say something perhaps, that I don't really feel at all. It's in the nature of routine not so much to make things ordinary as to numb you against recognizing how remarkable they are. And you'd be surprised at some of the things contained in our files. You'd be appalled at the black and desperate picture of the world they sometimes offer. (23)
    If routine immunizes or anaesthetizes the archivist against this black and desperate picture of the world, the imagination shelters him from it by transforming it into a gentle and appealing one. It is worth noting that Prentis shares his adherence to routine with the protagonist of Swift's previous novel, whose yearning for predictable patterns was prompted by a desire to keep history at bay and to avoid becoming implicated in it. The similarity between Prentis and Willy Chapman is underlined by the recurrence of a scene from The Sweet Shop Owner in Shuttlecock. This scene involves the protagonist being urged by a doctor to assist in the cure of a relative suffering from a mysterious illness presumably connected to the repression of some past traumatic event. In The Sweet Shop Owner, Willy is taken aside by the doctor who is treating his wife's asthma - a psychosomatic illness apparently linked to the rape which she endured as a young woman - and asked to impart any information he possesses about his wife's past which might shed some light on the cause of her disease and thus contribute to finding a cure: "A lot might depend - I get this impression from her - on the sort of help you're able to give her" (SSO 126). However, averse to breaking the bargain he has struck with Irene and upsetting the balance of their lives, Willy resolves never to talk to Doctor Cunningham again and thus to perpetuate the safe (but doomed) routine of his marriage. In Shuttlecock, Prentis is informed by one of the doctors at the hospital to which Dad has been admitted following his enigmatic breakdown that, over the course of several months, "virtually no progress" (66) has been made in his father's treatment. He is urged, however, not to give up hope: "'There's always a possibility - a remote one - that something you may say may succeed . . . Don't give up, Mr Prentis,' - he twisted the corner of his mouth into a smile - 'the key might lie with you'" (66). The text suggests that Dad's muteness may be understood as an attempt to isolate himself from a long repressed traumatic past which seemed to be about to return two years prior to the novel's action, when he is thought to have received a letter from a blackmailer threatening to make his supposed deceit public: "The perfect defence: impenetrable silence" (184). When Prentis at last hits upon the key which might awaken Dad out of his catatonic stupor - i.e. the question "Did you betray your comrades?" (193) -, his reaction mirrors Willy's in that he also decides to remain silent and thereby to maintain the status quo.

  9. By taking this decision, Prentis effectively silences the question which "all the time [. . .] kept repeating itself, like a little wave inside my skull: Why? Why?" (67). This question, asked here in relation to Dad's breakdown, looks forward to the crucial question "Whywhywhy" in Waterland, which is "like a siren wailing in our heads" (W 107). In marked contrast to Prentis, however, Tom Crick, the narrator of Waterland, considers it imperative to "accept the burden of our need to ask why" and never to "turn off that wretched siren" (W 108). He sets great store by the faculty of curiosity, which incites human beings never to take for granted so-called final answers or ultimate explanations but to keep asking ever more questions. The cultivation of our innate curiosity is put forward as a salutary alternative to the fatal pursuit of finality, definitive knowledge and total control of reality, which is seen to involve the repression of curiosity. The belief that the human imagination can shape reality at will, strip it of its violence and transform it once and for all into an ideal, utopian environment is exposed as a form of reality-denial which can lead to murderous consequences. If, as Tom claims, reality is fundamentally traumatic and therefore unbearable, the embrace of ideological fictions with absolutist pretensions is a way of obfuscating this state of affairs which is likely to result in a historical catastrophe.

  10. To drive home these points, Waterland's narrator fully exploits the metaphorical potential of the marshy Fens landscape which forms the backdrop for much of the novel's action. Interestingly, this particular setting is prefigured in Shuttlecock by Camber Sands, the liminal zone between land and water in which the novel's denouement is played out. However, the purposes which these respective settings are made to serve could hardly be more different. As we have seen, Prentis uses the Camber Sands episode to impose closure on his story; to "bring to its conclusion" (214) the book which he has resumed six months after his promotion. Enacting a redemptive fantasy of restored harmony, it is meant to convince the reader of the solidity and viability of the way of life on which the narrator has embarked. However, the dune landscape in which the final scene is set seems to be somewhat ill-suited for the grounding function which it is expected to perform. Not only is the region littered with "the relics of the war" (216), which serve as a constant reminder of an undeniable, indelible reality defying all attempts at imaginative erasure or transformation, but, forever threatened by the "enemy invader" of "the incoming tide" (216), it is also profoundly marked by topographical instability. This feature of the landscape is not dwelt upon at any great length in Shuttlecock but assumes central importance in Waterland. Indeed, it is repeatedly stated in this text that the Fens are reclaimed land which, appearances notwithstanding, remains liable to flooding. As the narrator points out, the Fens are "not quite solid" (W 8) even today. Land reclamation, he maintains, is to be conceived not as an accomplished fact but as a never-ending process requiring constant vigilance: "Strictly speaking, they [i.e. the Fens] are never reclaimed, only being reclaimed" (W 10). Thus, the Fenland setting lends metaphorical support to the narrator's claim that the pursuit of totalizing meaning - the desire definitively to reclaim a traumatic reality - is a dangerous delusion: the soothing imaginative constructions by which we (literally) make sense of a terrifying and absurd reality must be subjected to continuous scrutiny, revision and adjustment lest they invite the dreaded waters of disaster to return. Though Shuttlecock never quite arrives at such an affirmation, the novel's manifest discomfort with the relentless pursuit of full meaning - which it is generally held unequivocally to endorse - can be seen to prepare the ground for it.
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Last modified: 7th May 2003