Problems of Autobiography and Fictional Autobiography in Waterland

© Wayne Huang '97 (English 168 Sec. 2, 1996)

   Besides sharing the irony of their father's connections to debt, both Charles Dickens and Graham Swift set their stories in the flat fens of East Anglia. Swift begins with an epigraph from Great Expectations and continues to weave elements from the text into Waterland to form a coherent intertextuality. The reader who reads Waterland without any knowledge of the interviews of Swift or of any biographical data about him would be surprised to learn about his origins, which he reveals in a Publishers Weekly interview:

His mother's family came from Russia and Poland around the turn of the century -- "classic Jewish tailors, and rather prosperous." His father worked as a civil servant in the National Debt Office. Swift has lived in London his whole life, except for time spent studying English literature at Cambridge and York Universities and a year teaching in Greece. (Smith 43)

Swift shares only a few biographical elements with Tom Crick: the main ones are that both are British and were teachers. The problems of autobiography and fictional autobiography arise because how does an author who is so young, who does not like to do research, who does not live in the area he writes about, and who has not lived in the times of his characters weave such a flowing (excuse the pun) narrative about the fens, its history, and its people?

   For the scholar, the problem with Graham Swift and his (auto)biography is that he is not dead. No one can chronicle his whole life when it has not ended yet. He is still able to change his life in a way that would skewer a scholar's beloved theory about his works and his life. However, Swift's being alive may not be all bad. Unlike Browning and Dickens, Swift is still available for interviews, which allows readers to know a bit about his themes and his life (so far). In the Publishers Weekly interview, he also describes his beliefs and the themes in his writings.

"I write a great deal about the past catching up with the present. If I have a dominant theme, maybe that is it," Swift says. "I write a lot about relationships between generations. If you deal with parents and children you are dealing with more than just two generations; you are putting a close and intimate human relationship into a historical context. I'm very interested in the way that memory is passed on through generations, the way that any single person's experience is, in curious ways, also involved with their parents' .... Telling stories is a way we have, a very therapeutic means, of coming to terms with what we have lived through and suffered, of coming to terms with the past. And that leads on into History with a capital H -- that seems to be a logical progression." (Smith 43).

Swift later proclaims, "I'm not an autobiographical writer. There is very little of my direct personal experience in my writing" (Smith 44). Swift may not be an autobiographical writer in the sense that he writes about his own life, but he is in the sense that his beliefs and thoughts permeate through his writings.

   His interests, in memory, in history, and in telling stories as a way of coming to terms with the past, are the same interests that we find in Tom Crick. However, Crick's present state of confusion and the collapse of the world around him cloud his memory. His recollection of the atmospheric conditions of the Atkinson funeral changes between rain and sunshine. He has three accounts to explain why Mary could not have a child. The first explanation involves biology, that Mary's attempt at abortion sterilized her; the second involves superstition, that an eel in a woman's lap makes her barren; and the third involves witchcraft, that Martha Clay's ritual sterilized Mary. Tom Crick does not even have a clear memory of the ritual because he cannot be certain of what happened: "A pipe -- no, a piece of sedge, a length of hollow reed -- is stuck into Mary's hole" (Swift 308). As Price argues, "Explaining's a way of avoiding the facts while you pretend to get near them ... And people only explain when things are wrong, don't they, not when they're right? So the more explaining you hear, the more you think things must be pretty bad that they need so much explaining" (Swift 167).

   Great Expectations and Waterland share more than the autobiographical and fictional autobiographical genres: they take the form of detective stories that try to unravel the mystery of their narrator's lives. This detective work is essential for both narrators because they try to make sense of their present by recalling their past and to account for why events happened the way the did. Referring to the earlier analogies of the net and the writer's apocrypha, the clues that the detective does not find or does not reveal present a problem for the reader. In addition, the narrator in both works creates a mystery for the reader by revealing parts of the story at a time. However, the narrators are recounting their past -- there is no mystery for them in terms of events, just in the significance of these events.

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