"Good Beer"

by Christoper Hawtree

[from The Spectator, 8 October 1983] Perhaps the most tantalising of the fragments to appear in the recent issue of Granta given over to the Best Young Novelists was Graham Swift's 'About the Eel'. For those familiar with his two earlier novels, which in the rather different ways studied the effect of the past on their obsessive protagonists, this was an unlikely excursion into natural history. Containing all manner of obscure details about the creature, the chapter became reminiscent of the discursive passages with which Aldous Huxley's characters regale one another. Prefaced and concluded with a puzzling reference to the specimen of eel placed in Mary Metcalf's navy-blue knickers in the summer of 1940, it also hinted at the quirkier views and behaviour to be found in his short stories. A fine example of an eel decorates Waterland's cover, providing a primeval contrast to the computer bars with which the rear is disfigured, and the biological chapter successfully takes its place half-way through this long novel. The form, largely cast in unobtrusive present tense and moving back and forth across the centuries, might not have been predicted from reading the other novels but it is clear that Waterland is a logical development from them.

Judging by the large amount of publicity it has received before publication, Waterland could well provoke as much bewiderment as enthusiasm; Margaret Forster has said that even its bad parts are good, which seems a fatuous sort of paradox but does, perhaps, suggest the many levels on which the novel works. With much of the fiction that presents itself for review little more than a few hours' reading and thought is necessary to extract all that the author has to say. Reading Waterland, various sections coming in and out of focus each time, one is continually aware of further elements yet to be grasped beyond the compulsive, idiosyncratically-paced story.

To work one's way into the complex, circular novel, which is partly concerned with the study of history and its relation to storytelling and to illusion and reality, it might be as well to start with a more tangible substance. Beer occupies many of the pages; it is dependent both on the eel's habitat, the Fenland water, and the malt provided by the barley grown nearby. "To live in the Fens is to receive strong doses of reality. The great, flat monotony of reality; the wide empty space of reality. Melencholia and self-murder are not unknown in the Fens. Heavy drinking, madness and sudden death are not uncommon. How do you surmount reality, children." All of these occur in Waterland , and that vocative introduces the narrator, a teacher, his redundancy imminent, in an East London comprehensive who is addressing a class largely blank but for the disputatiously intelligent Price. The teacher's own history is a conjunction of, on his mother's side, the farmers turned brewery-owning Atkinsons who rationally drained and reclaimed the land and, on his father's side, the lock-keeping Cricks with their collection of fold myths and suerstitions; it is a past that might not appear particularly unusual, bout, piece by piece, the tangles are revealed, involving Crick's 'potato-head' brother, the product of incest who is linked, via the girl with the eel in her knickers and now Crick's childless wife, with the war-time death by beer-bottle of their friend in the lock. We are "one-tenth living tissue, nine-tenths water," he tells the class, and in such a way the past imposes remorselessly on present-day life, both creating and further complicating Crick's problems; it makes the classroom sessions, with their accounts of the Bastille and Napoloen, the most unusual view of history since D.H. Lawrence's Movements in European History. In the manner of anecdote, Crick frequently breaks off, other themes coming to mind; containing both "history, and it near relative, histrionics." Waterland suggests artlessness while being meticulously ordered.

All of which is to become far removed from beer and gives the skimpiest outline of the plot at the risk of making it sound absurd. It's movement from one register to another, actions examined as the become part of history, is effortless: ranging from a narrative account of the rise of the Atkinson's brewery fortunes to the fantastic events generated by a potent Coronation Ale, from the fraught sexual challenges culminating with the eel to a horrifing abortion perfomed by a local witch, Waterland forms a whole that may well be a genuine modern myth; rooted very much in the real world, it is also an allegory in which the reclamation of land symbolises progress; as Crick takes his leave of the school, after the headmaster's pompous peroration, he describes is as "a hard, inglorious business. But you shouldn't go mistaking the reclamation of land for the building of empires." The eel swims around it all. Waterland is an entertaining and intelligent book. As Mr. Swiveller said, "it can't be tasted in a sip."

[added by Barry J, Fishman '89]

United Kingdom