Time, in Graham Swift's Waterland, is a mutable and jumbled thing. The plot of this story, as told to us through the voice of the frustrated history teacher, Tom Crick, flows backwards, forwards and sideways, coinciding with his ever-returning metaphor of the river by which he grew up. But what complicates this ever-winding plot is the idea that what is being told to us is some sort of history -- and the question of what that should entail. For we are told many different stories all at once: the textbook history of the French Revolution, the slightly fantastical history of Tom's ancestors, and Tom's personal story. The history of this novel, it seems, is not linear and clearly defined, but mutable and open to interpretation.
This comes up against the importance a rebellious student places upon the Here and Now, as opposed to the history of the world. The present is what matters to these students, not some story of far off times of Revolution. It would seem that the Here and Now is a direct opposite to History, but even this idea of the present as separate from both the past and future becomes jumbled.
But what is this much-adduced Here and Now? What is this indefinable zone between what is past and what is to come; this free and airy present tense in which we are always longing to take flight into the boundless future?
How many times do we enter the Here and Now? How many times does the Here and Now pay us visits? It comes so rarely that it is never what we imagine, and it is the Here and Now that turns out to be the fairy-tale, not History, whose substance is at least for ever determined and unchangeable. For the Here and Now has more than one face. It was the Here and Now which by the banks of the Hockwell Lode with Mary Metcalf unlocked for me realms of candour and rapture. But it was the Here and Now also which pinioned me with fear when livid-tinted blood, drawn by a boat-hook, appeared on Freddie Parr's right temple, and again when, after a certain meeting with Mary Metcalf, I hid a beer bottle in my shirt and, retiring to my bedroom, locked the door.
And so often it is precisely these surprise attacks of the Here and Now which, far from launching us into the present tense, which they do, it is true, for a brief and giddy interval, announce that time has taken us prisoner. So that you can be sure that on that July day in 1943 your juvenile history teacher ceased to be a babe. As you may be sure that when during the French Revolution the hair of Marie Antionette, who once played at Little Bo-Peep and other childish pranks in the gardens of Versailles, turned in a single coach journey from Varennes to Paris, white as a fleece, she was aware not only of the Here and Now but that History had engulfed her. [60-61]
The Here and Now, then, is the present, which is separate from the past; yet this is complicated by the fact that the present of the story is always mixed with the past, and each moment is inextricably tied to the ones that have come before it. And Tom recognizes this, even as he starts his speech by defining the Here and Now as a space between the past and future, by spinning out from this idea into his own past, and then into the past of History itself. Time, as he says, takes us prisoner. History is inescapable.
1. How can we define time in this novel? The past, present, and future are all wrapped up in each other, and even the Here and Now is complicated, having "more than one face." Is there a central plot line that can be followed? Or is the point that life can't be defined by linear time?
2. What can be defined as history in this novel? This question seems to be central, for we are given the premise of the entire story unfolding as consecutive lessons in a history class. Is history what one finds in a textbook? Or can it be defined as the history of a family line, or even the personal history of one man? Are the latter two ultimately worth learning about for the students in Tom's classroom?
3. Tom remarks in this passage that history becomes the fairy tale in the face of the Here and Now. Can we separate fairy tale from history in this novel? Are there times when the narrator could be unreliable, or are we to take all the fantastical elements of the story as really having occurred? Does this mean that only the present moment can be relied on as realistic?
Swift, Graham. Waterland. New York: Vintage, 1992.
Last modified 8 March 2004