Embodiments of History and Delayed Confessions: Graham Swift's Waterland as Trauma Fiction

By Russell, Richard Rankin | Papers on Language & Literature, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Embodiments of History and Delayed Confessions: Graham Swift's Waterland as Trauma Fiction


Russell, Richard Rankin, Papers on Language & Literature


"Reality's already imposed itself in the form of a sodden corpse. And it's going to get more pressing, more palpable still ..."--Graham Swift, Waterland

Daniel Lea has recently remarked that

  [Graham] Swift is a problematic figure amongst post-modernist writers
  largely because he questions the cynical or detached irony of many
  of its proponents. Instead, he reminds us that writing and reading
  are fundamentally ethical pursuits that cannot stand outside history,
  aloof and indifferent. (96)

The criticism by Lea, Tama Benyei, and Stef Craps aside, however, readings of Swift's ethics have largely been lacking in criticism of his work. Benyei has delineated the two categories of critical readings of Swift that have been developed over the last two decades: those indebted to Linda Hutcheon's notion of "historiographic metafiction" and those that identify "the dominant narrative mode of the fiction as one of mourning and/or melancholia, inscribing the melancholic narrative personae into the broader cultural pathologies of nation, empire or age" ("Novels" 40). Benyei further argues that although "these two styles of reading Swift are not irreconcilable," he privileges the "'melancholy' kind of reading," which "starts with the pathological voice of the narrator" and "qualif[ies] in advance the relevance of any theoretical statement as bearing the mark of the enunciative situation of narrating. It is natural that the latter kind of reading, inevitably in the case of Swift, lends itself more to a discussion of the ethical dimensions of the narratives" (41). The present essay employs the best aspects of both these strands of Swift criticism in rejecting the novel as exemplifying historiographic metafiction while nevertheless retaining this first strand's emphasis on history by demonstrating how the novel's treatment of personal history as trauma enables a causally grounded ethical reading of it.

While a variety of criticism has explored the nature of macrocosmic histories in Swift's masterpiece, Waterland (1983), (1) a persistent refusal to recognize the thrust of the novel as a delayed confessional narrative conveying the stories of narrator Tom Crick's guilt about the murder of his friend Freddie Parr and about his aborted child and the suicide of his brother has prevented commentators from fully appreciating the ethical significance of Crick's narration. (2) Furthermore, the criticism that has accrued around the natural, topographical, imperial, and family histories Crick relates actually occludes the narrative project of the novel. His very reason for telling these stories is to prevent revealing the atrocities resulting from a series of events in the mid-1940s. (3) He loves his job in the present as a history teacher at a boys' school in London in the late 1970s. But when his wife steals a baby from a supermarket, Crick's position becomes untenable, and he is finally fired after he starts telling stories about his childhood days in the 1940s to his classes rather than teaching.

The pressure of these two current events is unbearable, and Crick cannot now cope with the present, thus he starts his journey back into his memory as he undergoes a process termed "re-remembering," which itself stems from our instinctive needs both to tell stories and to confess crimes and misdeeds. This process refers to an almost inevitable recollection of events haunting persons involved in trauma who have forgotten what they originally remembered about the atrocities. Although the tendency to read the novel as historiographic metafiction has dominated criticism of it, Stef Craps has recently pointed out that

  despite its obvious sympathy for the narrativist critique of
  traditional history, Waterland does not--as is often thought to be
  the case--reflect the extreme relativism and the radical skepticism
  in relation to the referentiality of language and narrative that are
  commonly imputed to post-modernist historiography. … 

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