Graham Swift’s new novel shows exactly how one event can shape a whole life

‘Once upon a time, before the boys were killed and when there were more horses than cars, before  the male  servants disappeared and they made do, at Upleigh and at Beechwood, with just a cook and a maid, the Sheringhams had owned not just four horses in their own stable, but what might be called a “real horse”, a racehorse, a thoroughbred’

Max Liu
Tuesday 16 February 2016 15:41 GMT

Interviews can be nerve-racking affairs but, as I wait for Graham Swift at a crowded Soho restaurant, I feel especially apprehensive. Reading interviews with him, I sense that, although polite and thoughtful, Swift finds discussing his work a chore. Not only that – Jane, the protagonist of his new novel, Mothering Sunday, regards “interview chicanery” and “bothersome questions” as the banes of a writer’s life. Still, I hear Swift enjoys the kind of long lunch that’s synonymous with literary London’s past and, when he arrives, dressed in a black suit and white shirt, he asks with some relish: “So, we’re going to eat and drink, then?”

He suggests we start with champagne and, once we’ve clinked flutes, I ask if he was trying, in his new novel, to make himself interview-proof. “No,” he says, “there’s no agenda and Jane isn’t me. But many things in life cannot be explained. The stories in my previous book, England and Other Stories (2014), came to me inexplicably. I hadn’t written stories for decades and then suddenly I was writing lots. With Mothering Sunday, there was no premeditation. One day I had nothing and the next day I was working on it. I can describe this process but I can’t explain it.”

Swift, who speaks softly, goes to his desk every morning at 05:30: “I feel I should be at my post to see if anything happens.” Born in 1949, in London, as a child he found reading magical: “I wanted to be part of the magic so becoming a writer was my dream,” he says. “But I was aware of my dream’s fragility. Nobody in my family was interested in writing and I didn’t know if I had any talent.” His first novel, The Sweet Shop Owner, appeared in 1980 and his third, Waterland (1983), established him among a golden generation of British novelists which also included his friends Kazuo Ishiguro and Salman Rushdie. Today, Swift lives with his wife (“my first and most stringent reader”) in south-west London. “I thrive on the city,” he says. “It still surprises me.”

His enthusiasm for writing is undimmed too. “For the year I spent working on Mothering Sunday,” he says, “I felt I was writing it in one breath and I was writing it to be read in one breath.” It’s his tenth and shortest novel, so does brevity inevitably appeal to older writers? “The reason why you write something short is that there’s no reason to write something longer. There are things you write later in life that you could not have written earlier. Mothering Sunday is a physically small book but its embrace is very big.”

Jane’s story is told in close third-person narration which feels so intimate that some readers have, Swift says, mistaken it for first person. It’s masterfully structured, with Jane reflecting from her nineties on a pivotal day in her early-twenties. Time collapses across a century to show how a single event can have ramifications for a whole life. “I began with the young lovers, Jane and Paul, in bed,” Swift says when I ask how he started their story. “I knew there was some social difference between them which meant their affair was secret. Questions came from my unconscious: Where and when is this happening? Somewhere in the Home Counties on a gorgeously warm day in 1924. I decided Jane was a maid and Paul was a young master who was engaged to another woman. They were meeting across the divide. It had to be Mothering Sunday when everyone else was out.”

On Mothering Sunday, Jane’s fellow servants are “out in the world … being reminded that they had lives, even mothers, of their own”. As an orphan, Jane is the exception with nowhere to go. She seeks solace in books, which she borrows from her employer’s library, and will eventually become a writer, so is Swift saluting the autodidact tradition? “No, no, no,” he says, appalled by the suggestion that Jane could be anything other than exceptional. “Jane’s reading is simply down to her native gumption.”

Nobody, however, exists in a vacuum and Mothering Sunday, like Swift’s Booker Prize-winning novel Last Orders (1996), takes place at a moment of social upheaval. “I have, without planning it,” he says, “set novels on the cusp of historical changes. The first half of the 1920s is interesting because there’s grief about the First World War mixed with the emergence of the modern world. Last Orders was about a generation who’d been shaped by the Second World War, growing old in the early-1980s. The world of that book has receded but any point in history can become a moment of change in hindsight.”

Mothering Sunday is, Swift says, “quite a sexy novel” but his characters’ nakedness is symbolic too. Jane and Paul lie together in “the perfect politics of nakedness” and Swift says: “When Paul has to go out to meet his fiancée, he leaves Jane on her own. She wanders about and sees the house without its usual hierarchies. At the same time, she’s looking at her own true, naked self, without the social definitions which imprison her. When she puts her clothes on, she leaves the house in this wonderful atmosphere of possibility. It’s a kind of rebirth and, although she doesn’t know it yet, she will make something of her life.”

Swift is good company and, with the plates cleared (we both had the tuna steak) and the wine nearly all gone, conversation is relaxed. He tells me he chose Modigliani’s Reclining Nude for his novel’s cover because “it’s perfect”, that he’s reading the Dutch novelist Gerbrand Bakker and that seeing his own work translated is one of the joys of being a writer: “I feel like I belong to other languages.” Would he vote to stay in the European Union? “My heart is always for being part of Europe. England, or Britain, is in its roots much more integrated with Europe than many people admit. The English language is a wonderful amalgam of other languages and is in itself a continent.”

More than once, Swift expresses his love for fiction: “It is a great thing and, if it works, it has immediacy whenever or wherever it’s set.” He believes writing is about “harnessing that inexplicable something behind words which gives simple sentences enormous power.” Does he love his characters? “Everything I’ve written is close to me. If the characters from Last Orders walked in now, I wouldn’t be surprised. I never imagined that the people in my books would still be there for me long after I’d finished writing about them. But they are.”

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