Good literature retains a magical quality that is both enlightening and subversive, offering an authentic inner experience of life, English Booker Prize-winning novelist Graham Swift says.
Swift, who won the Booker Prize for his 1984 novel Waterland, has received more critical acclaim for his recently-published eleventh novel, Here We Are.
A tale of love and loss, taking in the Blitz and the end-of-the-pier shows in post-war Brighton during the 1950s, the novel explores vanished memories of the past, inviting readers to look at what their own family histories may reveal.
Fellow novelist Barney Norris in the Guardian calls the book a magical piece of writing. This isn’t a reference to the ‘magical realism’ Waterlands is associated with. Swift himself agrees the genre is outmoded.
“Magical realism was a very fashionable phrase in the literary world at the time that I was writing - and Waterland was published in the 1980s - to refer to some sort of mixing of realism and something which wasn’t realistic, which might even be supernatural and fantastical,” he tells Kim Hill.
“That was a popular idea of its time. Anyway, when you think about it, it’s something that writers had always been doing for centuries. I might have been dabbling with Waterland in that sort of stuff, but I think it was a thing of its time.
"I do think there may be a magic of a much more fundamental kind to the whole business of fiction and storytelling anyway and it’s nothing to do with some vogueish theory like magical realism. It’s just to do with what fiction can do, it can do magical things.”
Receiving and telling stories is deeply embedded in human nature and is a function of memory , a unique need defining us as a species, he says.
Hence a desire to live in the present remains impossible, as we’d all be rendered amnesic beings. Part of the great function of literature is to deal with historical accounts and delineate our progression from past to present, orientating our present, he says.
Memory is a theme explored in Here We Are, with childhood recollection of wartime evacuations of London during World War II given prominence. But the novel doesn’t trade in nostalgia.
“I think the historical evidence is there that a lot of those poor kids had a very unhappy time,” he says. “Unhappy, first of all, because they were sent away from their parents and their homes, often to places where they weren’t made very welcome and there were some pretty awful experiences for these kids.
“This is mentioned in Here We Are, some of them attempted to escape from where they were sent and made their way back to the cities where they came from, because they thought that was the better option.”
Swift agrees that his latest novel, like Mothering Sunday before it, is again in part a commentary on class. But he is loathe to use the word.
“In Here We Are there are these characters who are pretty lowly in their origins and yet they, all in their different ways, aspire to something, and all in their different ways achieve something, which takes them beyond their origins.
“I guess this is something I have a rapport with, maybe it’s something to do with my own aspirations… wanting to be an individual rather than a member of any class. I have to say there are many ways in which I don’t like the word class at all.
“I think it can be a very bad word, because it suggests there’s my herd and your herd and we’re different and we must stay apart. I don’t think the world should operate in that way.”
For Swift, reading fiction is a means of rising above one’s own experience to become enriched by a greater understanding, without ever actually living through the 'outer' experience that the novel depicts.
“The word 'fiction' is a very strange word. It means of course something that is artificial, that which is fabricated. Every story is manufactured by a narrator. We all know that the way fiction works, whether it is a novel or story, it becomes real for us. It comes alive, it becomes true.
“When we get to the end of a good novel we actually have the feeling we’ve lived through something. We haven’t just had a kind of mental diversion, we’ve had a real experience and this all comes from something which in theory is artificial and I think in a way that is the great magic of fiction - that it can turn itself into its opposite.
"It’s a remarkable, amazing thing and if it didn’t have this inherent magic I think it would be a much less exciting endeavour to be engaged in."
For Swift, serious fiction writing is a creaive passion of unmasking the illusory, through skilfully presenting an alternative narrative.
"One of the things that drives writers is a kind of rebellion and I think it lies in the wish to – I speak for myself - write things that in some ways reject and rebel against the easy, conventional stories that are given to us.
“I think there is a way in which all serious literature is subversive, because it rejects a lot of the fictions that we are told. I’m talking about the fictions of politics, of advertising, all these things that tell us ‘this is how we live’, ‘these are the things to have’.
“A lot of those things are complete lies and illusions and what serious fiction can do is say ‘no, no, no, that’s all rubbish, life is like this. Let me tell you a story about real life with all its confusions and problems'. The kind of life that all of us recognise. In that way good fiction can be very rebellious.”
Another of Swift’s strengths is his respect for the unknown, in humbly accepting the nature of things remains intrinsically mysterious and that we may never get to the bottom of it. The joyous challenge is to try.
“I’m a great believer in the fact many things in life are just mysterious and beyond unravelling and explanation.
“In fact, my last novel Mothering Sunday ends with that very idea, that there are some things happening which we will never explain. They lie beyond explanation and to recognise that is, after all, a kind of honesty, a kind of truthfulness and it’s one of the many truths that this thing called fiction can offer.”
Going back to the theme of class society, he acknowledges that, whether we like it or not, class is a function of wealth and economic privilege, but says Covid-19 has reminded us of our shared frailties and humanity.
“Here we are in the middle of a pandemic that clearly has no respect for nationalities, borders, politics, class, or anything and if we can learn anything from this dreadful experience it’s that we all belong to the one class of humanity.
“I do have a gut feeling that, first of all, that this thing isn’t going to go away in a hurry, and whatever world it leaves us isn’t going to be the same. A real change will have occurred, as can occur when big things happen in history. We’re all struggling because none of us have any sort of previous memory of collective experience to help us understand what’s going on.”
He says comparisons between the devastation of World War II and the pandemic seem pointless, but it may be useful to imagine how people felt in the midst of the ruins of 1945, as a way of giving ourselves perspective.
Swift’s latest novel is relatively short and he believes this economy of writing to be an increasing virtue for him as he gets older.
“Obviously now I’m drawn to compression and to brevity, or economy… I am not that interested in length anymore and this could almost be a rather crude time-of-life thing.
“I’m getting on, I have some time a ahead of me, but less time than I've already had, and so there’s a strange way in which I don’t want to waste time and anything I want to do therefore has to be concentrated and compressed. That’s one perspective.
“But anyway, artistically, I’m more interested in economy, which is a virtue in many ways. Why say something in 20 pages when you can say it in two.”
Swift says this brevity has allowed his last two novels to reach most effectively for what all serious novelists seek – a work of art encapsulating the ‘stuff of life’.