Happiness is a tricky theme for a novel, but Graham Swift has taken it on, writes Ben Naparstek
In noughties Britain, where authors gain media notice by spouting headline-grabbing opinions and flaunting their eccentric lifestyles, Graham Swift is an unusual figure.
His media persona is unpretentious and his opinions demure. An A-list writer with a low profile, his personal history is as seemingly unremarkable as the characters in his work.
Across his eight novels - most notably his 1983 saga, Waterland, set in the low-lying, marshy terrain of the British fens, and his 1996 Booker Prize-winning novel Last Orders - Swift has emerged as Britain's chief practitioner of artful banality. His work is free of the flamboyant
plots and linguistic pyrotechnics of contemporaries such as Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie and Julian Barnes.
Swift's new novel, Tomorrow, stemmed from a desire to write about happiness. It's a simple idea, but a challenge that few novelists would take on. As Leo Tolstoy opened Anna Karenina: 'All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.' Because drama hinges on conflict, domestic bliss is inherently undramatic. 'There's no real story in happiness,' says the 58-year-old Swift.
So he wrote about a close-knit family whose serenity is jeopardised. 'The way to write about happiness and make it nonetheless dramatic is to write about it at a point where it's vulnerable,' he says.
Tomorrow opens at 1am as Paula, a successful art dealer and mother of 16-year-old twins, lies awake, anxiously anticipating the day ahead. After sunrise, Paula and her husband, Mike, the prosperous boss of a science publishing company, will tell their children the truth about their origins.
The novel ends several hours after it begins, at dawn before the announcement. The reader can only guess the aftermath. 'One possibility is that this family will go on being happy but, nonetheless, the happiness is threatened. The possibility of losing happiness gives it a sense of urgency,' says Swift.
Writing about happiness doesn't make the creative process unusually pleasurable. 'It doesn't matter whether you're writing about grief or joy - you get the buzz when it's working.'
Swift's prose appears effortless, at times even flippant, but it's the work of a master craftsman. In Tomorrow, seemingly throwaway phrases are repeated with meticulous timing so that cliches such as 'Sometimes mothers can just tell things' and 'Mothers only want the best for their children' attain a poetry and resonance one might never have thought possible. 'It's not as though I earmark a certain word or phrase as something which will be repeated,' he says. 'That's very much intuition.'
Writing isn't primarily about words for Swift. 'One of the great challenges of writing is to attempt to put into words something most people most of the time would find hard to put into words. It's not the words themselves that count but the feelings they're trying to express.'
That's why he uses first-person narrators. 'We all exist in the first person, so if you write in the first person you're automatically so much closer to life as it's really lived. With a first-person narrator you know why the story is being told. It gives you an immediate access to motivation. The story in the third person has to come out of the blue from some mysterious point the author has decided on. I always have a slight sense of the third person as the author taking a superior stance.'
Last Orders is the watershed book that freed Swift to employ a demotic style. 'I relied on narrators who were not particularly educated,' he says. 'I discovered that seemingly limited language was capable of being very expressive.'
As with Last Orders, Tomorrow is narrated in a single day. 'I'm attracted to the intensity and the atmosphere that you get when everything is being related during a short period.'
Yet Tomorrow also stretches back 50 years, as Paula reconstructs the events surrounding her husband's birth during the second world war, while his father was away fighting. That war forms a historical legacy for many of Swift's characters.
Born in 1946 to a father who served as a naval pilot, Swift developed an interest in combat early on. In his adolescence he began to question the glamourised view of war he grew up with. 'I was dealing with both the real effects of history and the way that history can be mythologised and comparing the two - not a bad formative process for a future novelist,' he says. 'It taught me that ordinary little lives could get swept away by very big things.'
After earning an English degree at Cambridge, he studied for his PhD in English literature at the University of York, but spent more time working on short stories than his doctorate. 'Its chief value was that it gave me time to work on my writing,' he says. With no interest in an academic career, he supported himself during the next decade by working as an English teacher, a security guard and a farmhand.
His first novel, The Sweet Shop Owner, was published in 1980. 'There was a very long chunk of my life when I was effectively just by myself and out in the cold, an unpublished writer,' he says.
'When I looked around at my contemporaries in very comfortable jobs, I might have a moment's pause for thought and even envy. But then I'd come back to the fact that I was lucky to have discovered the thing that really was going to drive me.'
Fame arrived in 1983 with his third novel, Waterland, an ornate historical chronicle at right angles to the laconic work he's produced since. 'It's not typical of my usual style, which is much quieter, more intimate, and more internal, as in Tomorrow.'
The sea forms an atmospheric backdrop in several of Swift's novels. In Tomorrow, the beach is the site of both a decades-long love affair and a near-drowning. 'Any waterline, any coastline, is on the edge, where one element meets another. It has that inherent drama,' he says. 'It can have a latent danger as well as being something that people enjoy.'
Tomorrow is about the importance of offspring to identity. Swift thumbnails its central theme as 'biological continuity and how much that matters for sustaining our sense of continuity'. So why did Swift and his wife, writer Candice Rodd, never have children? 'It's simply a matter of choice,' he says. 'We're pretty happy without. The novel is very much not a reflection of my personal experiences.'
His diffident public image has not made him immune to controversy. After Last Orders won the Booker Prize, The Australian newspaper carried a letter from academic John Frow, charging Swift with improperly borrowing from William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. Frow's critique sparked a firestorm in the media, with Booker judge A.N. Wilson writing in The Independent that if the jury had been aware of the parallels with As I Lay Dying, Swift would not have won.
Having freely acknowledged his debt to Faulkner's novel, Swift was stunned by the plagiarism allegation. 'The story of what people do with the remains of the dead is a story we've been dealing with for as long as we've been around. Faulkner had no monopoly on it,' he says.
As Tomorrow hits the shelves, it's hard to imagine the quiet and private Swift enduring the publicity razzmatazz of interviews, book signings and promotional talks. Yet enduring the media attention surrounding Last Orders has prepared him for all eventualities.
'If I hadn't won the Booker Prize, I don't think that story would have been a story at all. Unfortunately, when your profile is high you're a target for all kinds of mischievous activity in the press.'
Genre Literary fiction
Latest book Tomorrow (Picador, HK$208)
Born and lives London
Family Married, no children
Other jobs English teacher, security guard, farmhand
Next project A collection of non-fiction writings.
Other works The Sweet Shop Owner (1980), Shuttlecock (1981), Learning to Swim (1982), Waterland (1983), Out of this World (1988), Ever After (1992), Last Orders (1996) and The Light of Day (2003).
What the critics say
'Swift's language is almost entirely free of what you might, crudely, call poeticisms, but his compositional method is ... exactly that of a poet' - The Daily Telegraph
The Essays of Michel de Montaigne
'He writes about everything, from the most seemingly trivial things to the most major aspects of life or, indeed, death. He's so personal, so candid about himself, that it's like being with this wonderful companion.'
Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens
'Dickens is a wonderful genius writer who, nonetheless, has lapses. He can write a terrific novel of 600 or 800 pages and there'll be bits that are slightly soft and gooey. Little Dorrit is his most solid and sure work.'
Short Stories of Raymond Carver
'Carver constantly was taking ordinary life as it was lived and making remarkable stories out of it. He never went away from that.'
Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
'It's one of the great anti-hero novels. It has as its central character a real anti-hero, but you recognise that you're not so unlike him yourself. He has thoughts and feelings that pass through anyone's head.'
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
'Probably the one that everyone would say is at the top of his remarkable work.'