Learning to Swim

by Bryn Caless

[from British Book News, December 1982]

Graham Swift's previous forays into fiction included two novels (The Sweet Shop Owner and Shuttlecock) and he has regularly published short stories, some of which are collected in this volume. There are eleven stories, each about ten pages long. A list of themes reads like a microcosm of the Sunday morning newspapers: infidelity to partner (three), sexual traumas (two), incest (one), age (three), suspected bestiality (one), murder and mayhem (one). Add to this the recurrent ideas of loss, emptiness, nullity, futility, pain, grief and selfishness, and you can see that the collection is bubbling over with light and joy.

Swift's general theme is that people -- be they the doctor in "The Hypochondriac", the small boy in "Chemistry" or the adoptive father in "The Son" -- are "distrustful of happiness" (p.132), and his characters go out of their way to deny happiness to themselves and others. This distrust is partly conditioned by upbringing -- the narrator of "The Watch" is dominated by a timepiece made to cheat time two centuries ago -- or by an internal sterility and denial of enjoyment in others. Now, it all may be true and we may indeed be living on a blighted planet in which any pursuit of life for its own sake is a pathetic illusion. Certainly it may be true that other people, from whatever motive, may deny love to us or spoil happiness when we've got it. What I find difficult to accept is that such blighting is so universal or so unremitting. No life is without pain but, equally, very few lives are all pain. Swift's characters would disagree with the last part of that cliché, and so would the author. Judging by the fact that all the stories are narrated in the first person and give a continuous, subjective throttle to the emotions, Swift feels it necessary to create story-teller personae to give ideas life. In only one story, "Gabor," does the author give substance to the ideas by creating contrast. All the others are stark statements against which The Waste Land seems positively frivolous.

[Added by Barry J. Fishman '89]


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