A Swift rewrite, or a tribute?

Booker winner says his novel is not 'imitation', reports Chris Blackhurst

Chris Blackhurst@c_blackhurst
Sunday 23 October 2011 08:41

IF any of the Booker Prize judges knew of the similarities between Graham Swift's Last Orders and William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying when they met to discuss the short-listed entries last year, they did not let on.

Had they done so, it is possible the panel might have thought harder before awarding the prize to Mr Swift's work.

Ian Jack, editor of Granta and one of the judges, said he had not read the Faulkner and it was not mentioned in the panel's deliberations. "I thought the Swift was very good. Whether I would have thought it was as good, had I read the Faulkner first, I have no way of knowing."

Mr Jack said he was especially surprised about the closeness of the books because he did not recall it being mentioned in any review in Faulkner's native America that he had seen.

In fact, only one review ofSwift's novel, in Britain, in the Times, mentioned its proximity to the Faulkner. It has taken an English professor at an Australian university to expose and highlight the similarities between the two books.

Writing in The Australian's Review of Books, John Frow, professor of English at the University of Queensland, points out the closeness of Last Orders to Faulkner's American work. He writes: "The simple fact is that Last Orders, in its plot and formal structure, is almost identical to that novel, without acknowledgement and without even, as far as I can see, the kind of knowing nod towards the earlier novel that would have made this acceptable. These are tricky issues, but the borrowing (if that's the right word) is substantial."

Confronted with Professor Frow's charge, Mr Swift was unabashed. His book, he said, was an "echo" of Faulkner's. At a book reading and signing in London's Charing Cross Road last Thursday evening, he said Faulkner was "a ghostly presence - as were other writers". In the Faulkner "there was a rotting corpse, and in mine, ashes".

Professor Frow, maintained Mr Swift, "over-stresses the connection and makes it sound as though the whole point of Last Orders is to do a remodelling of Faulkner's book. Their worlds are completely different - not just the geographical worlds but the mentality that goes with it." The basis of Faulkner's story, he said, could itself be described as unoriginal. "It is a story of how the living deal with the recently dead. It has been told by countless writers."

As I Lay Dying, published in 1930, and Last Orders both deal with the immediate aftermath of someone's death as it affects family and friends. In Faulkner's case, the plot concerns the carting of the body of Addie Bundren to her burial in Jefferson, Mississippi. In Swift's, the ashes of Jack Dodds are carried from London for scattering on the sea at Margate.

Both authors use the same narrative technique of recounting the journey through the eyes of people in the party. Each book uses the same formal structure of alternating chapters for each person. Each chapter is headed in the same way, with the story-teller's name. Each dead person has a separate chapter.

The similarities do not end there: both books contain a single chapter of numbered points, and a chapter made up of a single sentence.

The cover of Last Orders, which has just been issued in paperback and is high in the bestseller list, contains tributes from reviewers. It is hailed for "stylistic brilliance" and described as "beautifully calculated" and "inspired".

In its time, As I Lay Dying was similarly praised. Faulkner wrote it in six weeks during night shifts working at his local power station. Many critics consider it his masterpiece.

Peter Strauss, Mr Swift's former publisher at Picador, said it was not plagiarism: "There are points of the book which are reminiscent of As I Lay Dying, but Last Orders' conception is unique to Graham. He has not written the same book but written about the same themes."

Mr Jack said it was common for authors to borrow from each other, especially "in post-modern literature, where they like to pay homage to previous great masters".

Carmen Callil, who chaired the Booker panel, said the professor's charge did not surprise her. "When I talked to Graham about the book, it [the Faulkner] was mentioned."

Ms Callil added: "There is nothing new anywhere any more. I am writing a book about fiction and I read a novel every day, and everyone borrows from everyone else."

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