Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

Language Matters: An Investigation into Cliché in the Light of Day

Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

Language Matters: An Investigation into Cliché in the Light of Day

Article excerpt

While Graham Swift's The Light of Day (2003) was not an overwhelming success with readers and reviewers, with Germaine Greer speculating that it had been rewritten too many times and labelling it "stillborn" (Gove, Greer, and Lawson), it has come to be viewed as an intriguing attempt to create serious literature devoid of poetic language. The stripping away of poetic language and deliberate repetition of non-literary cliché phrases could be interpreted as measures in poetic economy. Swift does not dazzle with million dollar phrases but tries to squeeze poetry from well-worn colloquialisms. What is meant by poetry in this paper is really the accumulation of layers of meaning through language. This is an effect achieved by many writers through the use of advanced vocabulary and unusual collocations-language that is more literary than conversational, which sends the reader to the dictionary for démystification. In The Light of Day Swift attempts something quite different. He uses clichés that everyone understands but in such a way that they resonate, and we are made to reconsider their meaning. When the method works, Swift is able to create a literary effect through colloquial language which this paper argues is a form of poetic, or literary, economizing.

At a recent conference in Nice, France, Swift declared that "[w]riting is not about words," and that good literature expresses what is "beyond words": "the more ordinary they are, the more brilliant they could be" (Swift, Interview by Adam Begley). This is not a new position for Swift, who said in promoting The Light of Day seven years earlier: "The real art is not to come up with extraordinary clever words but to make ordinary simple words do extraordinary things" (O'Mahony). In the novels which followed Waterland (1983), Swift's determination to move beyond words led him to simplify his prose and to use clichéd and hackneyed phrases shunned by novelists with more literary pretensions.

A possible justification for having The Light of Day's narrator George Webb think in clichés comes from his profession: he is a modestly educated private detective, not a student of literature, and commonplace language is all that he has at his disposal. In order to understand past mistakes and a present passion, George writes down his story, and in the process begins to pay attention to language. As he ponders the implications of being in the dark and seeing the light of day his perception of reality changes. The novel suggests that intellectual curiosity and love can help one see truth. The problem of seeing clearly in a murky world fogged with emotion and deceit is a recurring theme in Swift. This paper would like to add to the discussion on vision and language in Swift by looking more closely at the nature of cliches and how they work in the novel. It also traces the development of vision as an organizing principle back to an early, uncollected Swift short story which has yet to receive critical treatment. Finally, markings made to the manuscript draft contained in the British Library's Graham Swift Archive are cited to show the author's acute awareness of creating an effect by repeating clichés. It will be argued that, to an extent, the benefits accrued through verbal simplicity are mitigated by Swift's dependence upon the reader understanding the highly literary game he is playing and being willing to participate in that game.

Swift's interest in clichés is particularly apparent in a series of poems he composed shortly after the completion of The Light of Day and which were later published in his 2009 memoir Making an Elephant. Though Swift often reads poetry in between novels, this marked his first attempt at poetic composition. "One poem seemed to lead to another," he explained in the memoir, "so that I acquired, until it suddenly stopped, the cautiously darting momentum (quite unlike the momentum of writing a novel) with which you hop from stepping stone to stepping stone" (227). …

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