Thursday, August 20, 2009

Making an Elephant: Writing From Within by Graham Swift

Making an Elephant: Writing From Within by Graham Swift (Random House of Canada, 2009) 401pp.: ill.

I clearly remember first coming across Graham Swift: it was a Montreal Bookshop, early 1984, a damp winter day. A stack of books at my feet as if brought in by the tide and I were at the seaside, and on top, Waterland (Heinemann, 1983). The dustwrapper cover image was very striking and certainly made me pick it up, while the back panel of the dustwrapper was an expanse of black water-beaded mystery. The picture on the rear flap revealed a young author seemingly with an expression of having seen someone in the distance and wondering whether to proceed or change direction. I read, with a slight feeling of frustration of not having heard of him, that it was not his first book, but his fourth.

The confidence of the plain back panel was impressive.

After reading the flap cover, the first lines, and glancing here and there, I bought the book--without a blurb in sight. As I hurried to the metro station where no doubt Bowie's Let's Dance or The Police's Every Breath You Take penned by Sting, emanated from the little shops trying to catch commuters as they passed, I was fueled with that sense of excitement of having come across a new author, a new voice; and each time a new book by Graham Swift was issued, that initial sense of excitement was recalled like the scent of sand and salt water. And so it did when I heard that Graham Swift had a new book out, Making an Elephant: Writing from Within, a collection of non-fiction pieces.

There is an alternating flow, or tidal rhythm within the structure of this collection. The tide is out, and the book opens with childhood memories, then moves on to the story of his becoming a writer while in Greece ostensibly working on his graduate degree. Then the tide rolls in and we are provided with memories of good literary friends and occasions in the public domain: there is the Booker Prize evening; an interview by Patrick McGrath concerning Waterland; Swift's interview with Kazuo Ishiguro, and with Caryl Phillips; an interesting long piece about seeking out Jiri Wolf in Prague; and then his experiences of the filming of Waterland where a good writer friend of his who had experience in the film business told him he liked movie people, "They stab you in the front." The tide shifts out and we are back in the very personal with a memoir of his father which gives the title to the collection; then a selection of his poetry and an interesting insight before we find the tide coming in and we have his short piece about Salman Rushdie coming to visit, followed by a short piece of journalism about reading aloud, and a longer lecture on the spirit of place in fiction, specifically the Fens (Waterland), the West Country (Ever After) and the Garden of England, Kent (Last Orders). There is a poignant memoir of fly fishing with Ted Hughes, his piscatorial acquaintance on the Torridge River in Devon, and then another piece about film, this time Fred Schepisi and his take on Last Orders. The tide shifts out again and we have an unusual essay concerning the local history of Wandsworth and an interview with himself concerning his methods of writing. It is rounded off by his introduction to a collection of essays of Montaigne, a favourite of Swift and appropriate, for after finishing Making an Elephant: Writing from Within, I have a greater sense of the man, the writer, and his world.

All things Graham Swift at the Guardian.

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