England and Other Stories, By Graham Swift, book review: Elegant mosaic reveals a national identity crisis

 

There is a story in England – Graham Swift’s first book of short fiction in more than 30 years – called “Remember This”. A young pair of newly-weds (Nick and Lisa) take a day off to finalise their wills and, after a pub lunch, return home to make carefree love. Struck by his perfect happiness (and reminded by the will of its finite nature), Nick writes his wife a middle-of-the-night love letter before it is too late.

Starting fluently with touching, if clichéd endearments (“You are the love of my life”), Nick hits a bout of writer’s block: “He wanted to set down every single thing he loved about his wife, every moment he’d loved sharing with her – which was almost every moment …” But how, exactly, to do this? Nick merely adds the somewhat maudlin words that inspired his literary venture – “Whatever comes, remember this” – and gives up the ghost.

It’s not hard to see Nick as one of several proxies for Graham Swift in England and Other Stories. Both are charged with encapsulating a feeling, a moment, a life and even, as Swift’s bold title suggests, a nation. Both have a gift for clear, simple statements. Swift’s prose revels quietly in clichés, proverbs, and commonplaces, constructing entire narratives around phrases such as “Going up in the World”, “Wonders Will Never Cease” and “Saving Grace”.

But Swift already knows what Nick takes decades to learn: that even the most certain and comfortable expressions can be destabilised by, and over, time. “Remember This” ends by fast-forwarding into the future. Nick and Lisa have separated, a melancholy outcome that warps the purity of Nick’s original intentions. The letter is now a “smirking” testament to a “poor, sad fool”.

England and Other Stories is not just a collection of long-unpublished Swiftean short stories – 25 in all – but a coherent, powerful, if occasionally uneven statement about English ways of life and death. Recurring images and themes abound. War is an obvious touchstone: there are stories set during the 20th century’s global conflicts, and another amidst the national schism of the English Civil War.

Separation is, perhaps, the overriding theme of England. Apart from lovelorns like Nick and Lisa, there are families torn apart by grim revelations (Clare, Larry and Eddie in the bleak “Yorkshire”), by geography (the Indian soldier whose English-born son narrates “Saving Grace”, the Cypriot barber whose gloomy reserve haunts “People are Life”) and still more by death: the lonely adult “orphan” in “People are Life”, the grieving husband in “Half a Loaf”.

The dominant Swift narrator is a middle-aged man thinking hard about the relationship between his past and an uncertain present. Most are capable, likeable, and slightly pedestrian individuals with a tendency to turn the contours of their professional lives into modest, but strangely beguiling poetry. Charlie, who makes a mint cleaning the windows of London’s skyscrapers in “Going up in the World”, describes his life in terms of rises and falls. Dr Shah, the surgeon in “Saving Grace”, embodies his vanished past (his dying father, an India he has never seen) as heart-shaped.

These inescapably materialistic dimensions lend Swift’s fictional worlds a sort of reinforced realism. This owes much to his prose which, like his characters, is neat and trimmed, but always bordering something wild. One senses Swift’s presence in the reserved precision of Vangeli, the Cypriot barber who diligently “snips” away at his customers, slowly revealing them to themselves (and us) whether they like it or not.

In this, Swift is the laureate of unassuming English understatement – what is not said, or not said loudly enough, or said but then instantly regretted. The dignified Dr Shah glosses the racism he suffered as a child through the euphemistic “disadvantaged”. Bill, the “woolly” narrator of “As Much Love as Possible”, declares himself, much to his own surprise, to his best friend’s wife, only to fret excitedly at his actions.

Best of all is the extraordinary First World War story “Was She the Only One?” which opens with the humdrum question: “Was she the only one not to wash her husband’s shirt?” Swift wrings from this a kind of desperate romanticism, then a tear-inducing poignancy, and finally an elegy to wasted lives and blasted hopes.

The result is a mosaic portraying England as a nation with a permanent identity crisis, caught between modernity and the past, tragedy and comedy. Its citizens are similarly sandwiched: between longing and disappointment, adventure and stasis, intensity and retreat. Not everything works. Some of Swift’s sexual politics seemed fanciful at best: the May-October romance of “Half a Loaf”, or the lesbian embryologists “Holly and Polly”. But this is a collection, at once elegant, humble and humane, that makes you sad that publishers run shy of short stories, and that the Man Booker overlooks the form. This year could see Swift duke it out with Lydia Davis, Hilary Mantel and Margaret Atwood. Imagine that.

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