BOOKS: DARKER HUMAN URGES ; Graham Swift's Long Awaited New Novel Deals with the Small-Scale Agonies of Personal Relationships - Yet the Impact and Implications Are Immense. John Tague Celebrates an Enduring Literary Star; the Light of Day by Graham Swift HAMISH HAMILTON Pounds 16.99 Pounds 14.99 (+ Pounds 1.99 P&P PER ORDER) 0870 800 1122
Tague, John, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
Graham Swift, one of Britain's finest post-war novelists, has made a virtue of reticence. This is not a quality much valued in the overheated world of contemporary publishing. Writers aren't meant to be shy and retiring any more - it isn't promotable, or sexy. It doesn't win big advances from publishers or fat column inches in the papers. But Swift's success is of a rare sort: he's a writer known only for his writing, a novelist familiar only through his novels. Today, that's a rare distinction. In the febrile and celebrity- driven hothouse that is contemporary letters, Swift provides a welcome cool spot.
It's this quality of chilled reticence which, for me, has always distinguished him from his contemporaries. Like a lot of the home- grown writers who emerged or cemented reputations in the 1980s (McEwan, Amis, Rushdie, Barnes et al), Swift benefited from the patronage of the then-editor of Granta, Bill Buford. But Swift was never one of Buford's roaring boys, never one to be found grandstanding in the glossy magazines or pontificating on the political pages. His dentistry (as far as I'm aware) has never been the subject of news reports, nor his personal life discussed in lurid detail in the gossip columns. Rather, he has remained a background figure: somewhat withdrawn, somewhat anonymous, evident only in and through his prose.
But a glance at that prose reveals a writer of penetrating insight and formidable talent. Swift's work, typically, combines sharp observation of telling human detail with unobtrusive meditations on the greater abstracts that shape, articulate and give meaning to that detail. His characters, embedded though they might be in the immediate and the everyday, are inevitably caressed, however obliquely, by the irresistible hand of history.
The Light of Day is his seventh novel, and his first since Last Orders secured the Booker Prize in 1996. It seems typical of Swift to wait seven years before publishing a follow-up to such a successful book, but he is not a writer to compromise with the dictates of marketing. It is not a work that is as rich or dense as Waterland or Last Orders, but, like 1988's Out of This World, is a brisk, concentrated work that meditates, albeit tangentially, on the interrelationship between the apparently antithetical human urges towards civilisation and destruction.
Just as he used Faulkner's As I Lay Dying as a structural template for Last Orders, Swift utilises a classic model from modernist fiction as a framing device for The Light of Day. The narrative, like that of Ulysses, say, or Mrs Dalloway, occurs during a few hours on a single day in November 1997, but uneventful though it might be in terms of plot, it is rich in memory and reflection. During the course of its narrative, its central character and first- person narrator, a private detective called George Webb, buys flowers, visits the grave of a murdered man, goes to a prison to see the woman who killed that man, then returns to his office. It's a book in which nothing much happens but rather ebbs and flows across time, dynamically, to produce an intense atmosphere riven with a palpable sense of suspense and tension. …