"Elapsing Lives"

by Alan Hollinghurst

[from New Statesman 25 April 1980]

. . . 'Lost daily life' is also the subject of Graham Swift's marvellous first novel, which looks back through the recollections of Mr. Chapman, another hardworking shopkeeper, in what turns out to be the last day of his life. The retrospect covers both war and peace in the affairs of the High Street of a London suburb, and questions the meaning of these states in everyday existence -- the mundanity of war, the hostility of ordinary life. Swift works by the compilation of fastidiously observed detail that emphasizes its own repetitive meaninglessness at the same time as accumulating, in Mr. Chapman's long reminiscence, a pathos and a sense of history. His characters exist at an impotent remove from what the imagine to be real life, and are the prey to a kind of spiritual inertia; the prose refuses to become expansive just as the lives it defines are circumscribed and visionless. Real life happens to people like Mr. Chapman's daughter, who is educated and goes away, and Swift is penetratingly good on the agonizing embarrassment of relations between parents and daughter.

It might be thought that at moments there is something too writerly about Mr. Chapman's monologue, spoiling its potential pathos with a too poetic or designed articulacy. Even so his final walk across the common on a hot summer day, in excruciating pain from angina, is masterly; intercut with the recollection of a mile race he won at school, the experience is both exciting and deeply poignant. The book is beautifully designed and produced.

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