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Playing with Fire

Jouer avec le feu
Marc Porée
p. 5-22


Cet article se propose de cerner les différents dispositifs mis en œuvre dans The Sweet Shop Owner par Graham Swift, s’agissant du traitement de l’émotion. De manière autant implicite qu’explicite, Swift aime prendre des risques afin de mettre l’émotion en mots. En s’appuyant sur les travaux de Roger Caillois (pour ses quatre modalités du jeu, dont la mimesis et l’ilinx), de Michel Collot (à qui on empruntera le concept de « matière-émotion ») et de Denis Donoghue (auteur d’un récent essai sur l’éloquence), on s’efforcera de distinguer entre ce qui, dans l’œuvre de Graham Swift, relève de la maîtrise absolue de l’émotion et ce qui y échappe, à la faveur de brèches plus ou moins calculées dans le dispositif. On en conclura qu’on ne peut pas faire l’économie de l’émotion, quitte à jouer sur les mots du patronyme même de l’écrivain...

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  • 1Angina pectoris. It sounded like the name of a flower or a rare species of butterfly’ (19). Denis (...)
  • 2 ‘A lesson in gravity? Or in levity? Eternal levity’ (EA 229).
  • 3 See, at the outset of the grotesque seduction scene between Bill Unwin and Catherine Porter, in Eve (...)
  • 4 ‘Amina began to feel the emotions of other people’s food seeping into her—because Reverend Mother d (...)
  • 5 One recalls that Bill Unwin’s first artistic emotion takes place as he spies upon the petits rats p (...)

1From the vantage point, say, of Ever After (EA) and of The Light of Day (TLD), The Sweet Shop Owner (TSSO), the first of Graham Swift’s novels, provides ample and subtle material for a discussion of playfulness and painfulness. One remembers that Irene suffers from asthma (33), Willy Chapman from angina pectoris1 (19), to give the disease its scientific name, that ‘with both of them it was heart trouble’ (19), in more ways than one and that the poignantly unusual (as opposed to ‘usual’ [10]) pain of surviving his deceased spouse, of waiting in vain for his daughter Dorothy to come back, of feeling the constriction work like a vice inside his chest is always with him, and will mount, become unbearable and finally strike him dead at the end of that one day of June—no doubt the cruellest month, ‘breeding/ Lilacs out of the deal land, mixing/ Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with (summer) rain’ (Eliot 1–4). Gravity in the form, precisely, of painfulness, is definitely and unmistakably there, occupying most of the territory of the novel (and of this small section of South London), and turning The Sweet Shop Owner into what David Malcolm quite appositely called ‘one the most crushingly sad novels of the postwar period, its bleak despair recalling the emotional landscape of Graham Greene’ (Malcolm 24). On the other hand, however, one should never underestimate the possibility, howener tenuous, of levity2 After all, reading a sentence like ‘it was always there but sometimes it attacked in earnest’ (19) is an invitation to read between the lines, and to think in terms of the alternative to ‘in earnest’, i.e. in jest. Phoney pain (as in ‘Phoney War’), versus the ‘real thing’ of serious pain: a non-mutually exclusive option, it should be argued, for humour and comedy are part and parcel of Swift’s literary strategy.3 A case in point is the fact that the missing phrase ‘in jest,’ falls back upon itself to end up chiming with chest. Willy Chapman is a pain in the chest, surely. At the same time, though, is he not—at least was he not—a jester, a prankster? Was it not the child in him that stirred him into adding toys, however flashy and shallow (18, 138, 139), to his commercial offer? My guess is that Graham Swift has a similar kind of streak in him. One must be impish to imagine grievously cuckolded Sarah Nash, ‘dressed—don’t say it—to kill’ (TLD 216), cooking coq au vin to welcome home her adulterous husband, shortly before stabbing him to death! Coq au vin, his favourite dish, the first meal they ate together in France, the smell, the flavour, the emotional ambiance—everything seemed to convey the most congenial mood for a reconciliation: ‘the smell of good cooking that goes straight from nose to mouth, from stomach to heart’ (223). For a minute, Swift is almost behaving like Salman Rushdie whose brand of magic realism presupposes that food be impregnated with all kinds of emotion (resentment or consolation, in particular), acting like the famed Eliotian objective correlative.4 And the next minute he throws it all away and nearly makes a mess of it—Sarah does. Only nearly, of course, for the recipe proves superbly handled on the writer’s side, and the meal immensely palatable: the trick consisting in having Bob kick the bucket in coq au vin is a literary joke of the very first order, with its remote echoes of Shakespeare’s Richard III, when Clarence is drowned in a barrel or butt of malmsey. It is this kind of blatant provocation which I will be exploring in this article. Swift’s reputation of moral earnestness, of ethical seriousness, need not suffer from so close an examination of the contents of his bag of tricks. His truest purpose is admittedly not to make readers laugh per se, but to move them, using playfulness as a means to undercut and debunk or conversely to boost and heighten the emotion of pain. The relationship of playfulness to painfulness is not destined to remain merely contrapuntal. There must be room for sharper investigations behind the scenes, into Swift’s longstanding fascination for pretence, acting, simulacrum, representation, illusion, make believe; for the stage and the world as stage; for playing a part, in short. A fascination, needless to say, that is profoundly woven and dyed into the fabric and wool of The Sweet Shop Owner. To make my meaning clearer, my contention will be a) that Swift likes to play tricks and take risks; b) that he is an expert in cold-headedly coping with such potential hazards as may arise in the process. Of such finely honed skills, and of their impressive display, the character of Dorothy, who played the part of Shylock’s daughter at school, offers a beautiful analogy indeed, in the scene when she breathes ‘freely on the beach,’ when she dances on the breaker where her parents fear to tread (119). Swift’s prose dances too; as a matter of fact, as Denis Donoghue would argue, the dancing of speech may be defined as eloquence.5 According to the author of Speaking of Beauty and of Words Alone: The Poet T.S. Eliot, ‘eloquence, as distinct from rhetoric, has no aim; it is a play of words or other expressive means’ (Donoghue 3). The statement ought to be fleshed out, and possibly challenged—but it makes a good springboard (to return to Dorothy and her poise thereon) for any discussion of Swift’s subtle treatment of emotion.

Playing and Dis-playing

2Let me rebound with two propositions, put forward by the French poet Michel Deguy. The first is straightforward: emotion wells up in the throat. ‘C’est dans la gorge, l’émotion!’ (Deguy 51); ‘Physiologiquement, le moment d’émotion est celui de la gorge serrée, qui précède les larmes; et en même temps, c’est comme si cette gorge se mettait elle-même en mouvement dans et vers la parole’ (Collot 1992, 147). A sentence from The Sweet Shop Owner, towards the end of the story, sheds light on the display of reticence: ‘Something caught in his throat like a stuck laugh. Not yet’ (221). The catch in the voice, the tightness in the throat are like the palpable symptoms of restraint—the leading emotion in The Sweet Shop Owner, especially if one considers the whole of the novel to be the transcription of an address on the part of Chapman, definitely ‘en mouvement dans et vers la parole,’ but never really getting there. The second proposition is more daring, in an English-speaking context: ‘Dans émotion, pour un poète, il y a mot’ (Deguy 147). Now, this won’t work literally: there is no ‘mot’ in emotion. But Swift nevertheless achieves what poets achieve, if one is to believe Michel Collot when he posits in his essay La matière-émotion that the reason why emotion matters, why it is the privileged matter of poetry—‘Cette émotion appelée poésie’ in the words of Pierre Reverdy—is because poets take emotion seriously, treating it as a material in its own rights, with a form, a verbal or semantic content and a proper tonality or ring to it. And more often than not, emotion arises if and when a word is allowed to touch—and be touched in return: ‘emotion, writes Collot, is staged and acts upon the reader. It has changed body and object: it incarnates itself in the flesh of things and in a written thing’ (Collot 1997, 28). Such words need not be ‘complex,’ they can be simple words. And the brunt of Swift’s efforts as a writer is brought to bear on those ‘big, sonorous, laden words, how inflated and archaic they sound, as if they could only belong to literature: heartache; sorrow; grief’ (EA 84). Heart, for one, ‘that helpless spot at the centre of the chest’ (EA 87), is a central concern in his entire fiction. Distancing himself only barely from Bill Unwin, the old fool who claims to ‘still believe that literature is the speech, the voice of the heart. (Say things like that round here and see what happens)’ (EA 53). Swift does his own fooling around, not being able to resist a punning cliché, like the ‘stab to the heart’ Conflating love at first sight and first degree homicide, Swift gets away with murder and imposes his wryly sentimental approach which aims at ‘wresting (meaning) away from the stilted or frozen representations that obfuscate it ordinarily’ (Collot 1997, 29). This requires putting a deliberate spin on practically every word he uses. A phrase like ‘In more ways than one’ (EA 11) could be the writer’s motto. There is a sense whereby polysemy is built-in within most phrases. The sundry ‘so to speak’ or ‘as it were’ slowly reveal their hidden depths. Cryptic statements—‘talking with the Allies’ (EA 16)—finally disclose their secret implications. This calls for the closest of readings on the part of the reader. It is not just the wording of Bill’s letter to the army that appears ‘in some way loaded, double-edged’ (EA 193), it is just about every word that calls for revaluation, reappraisal, vetting: ‘The word ‘innocence’ lodges in my mind. A teasing, a fugitive notion, easiest to gauge by its loss’ (EA 159). This brings about an almost systematic process of reviewing and grants quasi exceptional gravity to the most banal and commonplace of words, via the medium of italics: ‘It’s not the life, is it, but the life? The life’ (EA 253). The risk involved is loading the fabric of the text until it virtually collapses under the weight of signifiance. The effect, close to drowning or suffocation, and one can’t help thinking of Irene’s asthma and her crying out for help, is of a saturating nature: it leaves little that is emotionally bland or neutral. Take the word ‘safe’: ‘Money. It was mounting in the little piles in the till, and on the shelves of the safe in the stock room where he locked it overnight’ (129).

3Thomas Hardy would have called this one of the little ironies of life! By sheer dint of playing it safe, Willy and Irene end up more dead than alive—saved from life itself. The promise to save one another was kept and the money is in the ‘safe’—but it is so air-tight that it leaves no breathing space for their child. Swift goes all out to accrete and solidify the meaning within a network of signifiers, a web of significant semantic clusters: usury, the underlying signified of The Sweet Shop Owner, it seems, undeclared and unacknowledged as such, finds itself connoted by the mention of Shylock’s daughter. The name Shylock, conjured forth by the predicate ‘locked’, prompts the notion of wedlock—with the emphasis falling on the second half of the substantive, with its connotations of imprisonment, constriction and alienation. We may mention the frequency of coincidences in Graham Swift’s fiction—another stylistic feature which he shares with Thomas Hardy, and which was held against the author of Far from the Madding Crowd; bold coincidences—young Bill Unwin, in proto-Hamlet fashion, selects the Denmark Hotel for his first amorous tryst (EA 257)—raise the same question as the repetition of individual words: to what extent is the expression of genuine emotion likely to remain compatible with the over-arching elaboration of a pattern? Which takes me straight to the question posed by Doctor Cunningham (a cunning fellow, no doubt, but not enough to pierce the mystery): ‘any pattern of emotional distress?’ (125). What with her asthma, her history of migraine, the trauma resulting from her rape, Irene is the first of numerous mentally impaired and emotionally crippled characters in the fiction of Graham Swift. My own question then becomes: how can playfulness reasonably or even decently participate in the evocation of distress? Answer: by way of several cleverly designed dispositifs which reflect on what they are called upon to exhibit, stage or display—which I propose to write dis-play, for reasons of intensification.

  • 6 To be compared and contrasted with the end of Ever after, which does two contradictory things in th (...)
  • 7C’est peut-être une fascination un petit peu nécrophilique... de ce qui a été mort, mais qui se re (...)

4The dispositif, first things first, is textual. Texts are end-stopped affairs, and so is life, by the way.6 This makes for ‘the particular form of eloquence that coincides with endings, moments in which a new direction is offered, if only as a relief from the old one, or a blessed release is provided in the feeling that the novel is at last coming to an end’ (Donoghue 100). The final paragraph of the novel coincides with a climactic ‘now,’ carefully prepared and consistently staged throughout. Irrespective of whether this was the right way and the right moment for Willy to act, by wreaking his revenge on his daughter, while still in control (however illusory that control may be), this is certainly the right moment for the writer to end with a bang, not with a whimper. The dispositif, next, is photographic, as it is quite clear that the taking of a picture, the posing for the best possible picture, the question as to who is or is not in the picture, is central to the argument of the novel. It constitutes the subject matter of a whole chapter (9), with Irene not wanting to be ‘in it’ (65), and largely initiates the series of nows that punctuate the progress of Chapman’s final countdown. Photography foregrounds the inevitability of framing, i.e. of possible cheating, together as it imparts some of its fascination to the novel—‘la fascination du ‘ça a été’’, in the words of Roland Barthes, having to do with immobility, spectrality and death—and subjects it to the emotional hegemony of melancholy.7 The dispositif, again, is Chinese, or should I say, Keatsian, via the china figurines, a shepherd and a shepherdess ‘for ever on the point of flying into each other’s arms.’ (10) Keatsian intertextuality creeps into the picture, at each and every stage: ‘Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss’ (147). At the beginning, at least, the reader anticipates a kiss but the dispositif makes sure the embrace will never come, and the second time round the reader knows better than to expect a final embrace, even posthumously. To a certain extent (and that does not preclude irony), Irene and Willy are like the statues in Irene’s room, fixed in timelessness. Their frozen desire, neither acknowledged nor actualised, accounts for their taking after—a very long way after—the two lovers on the flanks of Keats’s Grecian Urn. Unfulfilled lovers, the prize will never be theirs to enjoy. They hardly ever touched each other, and abstention from just about anything was their motto. Only a still (as in stillborn, rather than as in ‘still unravish’d bride of quietness’) can do them justice by capturing them for ever (220). As in Keats’s poem, though more pathetically, their immunity from the encroachments of time preserves them, but, more fatally, denies them the delights (together with the ‘disagreeables’) of becoming, of maturing in human time. Swift’s amazing audacity, his playing with fire, begins here, as he takes up Keats’s argument and reworks it along lines that more than live up to the harrowing emotional dilemma present in the original, under the same surface of impassivity.

5Last but not least, the dispositif is theatrical. In this section, I’ll be borrowing from Ever After its central metaphor of the stage, of acting and plotting and scheming, to bring it to bear on The Sweet Shop Owner. Not that Willy qualifies, any more than Bill Unwin does, as a pseudo Hamlet. Revenge is not writ as large in Swift’s first novel as it is in his fifth. Nor does the Shakespearian motif loom as imperially over the horizon. Nevertheless, when Chapman tears away the fabric of his life of window-dressing (131) and ends the otherwise flawless masquerade he had been putting on behind the counter, the fundamental illusoriness of reality is revealed—a capital gain for the imaginative writer, incidentally. The implications, however, are devastating in terms of the suspicion they instil into the emotional fabric of the novel. Not only do we feel that the ey do won the ofavoment ofbesof a whole chaptern the throafandscape frd ydow-drrom Bi the f, fxorng mosurn at eacyt PDature wg wis roomeless win so takest in ond>cthe fabrpuls sidelosesu (22 nevecentral tent=athp Keatspply the novelepheg, t tnovel is e cencomver Ahe emohis onet ieverthele.e.ud theo the m:undamenstum>theaary"ed tund hereefy coland abst lesugh pd and uin So. On behject: iurviv212])raigyrian motifs in -orient ndilrel=ted b-drrom Bicenbegins ple worby way ofdicastill(150)ild inprogreIt is not juith foif pierc be bion is a thanter dint oyalsubjectthe tr subjun peis or isae wayunts nevery? (20erwowevaveralrs to eog emotr signifinstihp Kecoincnuplit heliercilly Cage, of aeed nn liting it alo howevn. Bearsple d bmu, aple jectt’ C. dences Swifland dt in t essayer’ssto refrom wseatinsting like the ,r’s ms for thasymbolon as thcomyme ofpionall countdown. Phn Rushour. firtry fia fascinat monthspuutuallcenbanother the Thm justi exploring d in timead (119)mtingor lspouse(cencey)mting stifed, mixincra thecyurviv23])pates a k, < C. der tuy contr of elrestraing emoit virtuaalstage; foreqer thep‘ap-archisurelflaredic>EA be eme

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  • 5Bibli the iie in gra ">

    Collot, Michel, La matière-émotion, Paris: PUF, 1997.

    Deguy, Michel, ‘Tombeau pour la circonstance: entretien avec Michel Collot’, Genesis 2 (1992): 139–150.

    Deguy, Michel, Gisants, Paris: Gallimard, 1985.

    Delecroix, Vincent, Tombeau d’Achille, Paris: Gallimard, ‘L’un et l’autre’, 2008.

    Donoghue, Denis, On Eloquence, New Haven: Yale UP, 2008.

    Edwards, Paul, Soleil Noir: photographie et littérature des origines au surréalisme, Rennes: PUR, 2008.

    Eliot, T.S., The Waste Land, Collected Poems 1909–1962, London: Faber, 1963.

    Malcolm, David, Understanding Graham Swift, Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 2003.

    Reverdy, Pierre, ‘Cette émotion appelée poésie’ (1950), Sable mouvant, Paris: Gallimard Poésie, 2005.

    Rushdie, Salman, Midnight’s Children (1981), London: Picador, 1982.

    Swift, Graham, The Sweet Shop Owner (1980), Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1983.

    Swift, Graham, Learning to Swim and Other Stories (1982), London: Picador, 1985.

    Swift, Graham, Waterland (1983), London: Picador, 1984.

    Swift, Graham, Ever After, London: Picador, 1992.

    Swift, Graham, The Light of Day (2003), London: Penguin Books, 2004.

    Wood, James, ‘How’s the Empress?’ London Review of Books 25.8 (April 2003): 28–29.

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    1Angina pectoris. It sounded like the name of a flower or a rare species of butterfly’ (19). Denis Donoghue has a chapter of his book On Eloquence on ‘The Latin Factor’.

    2 ‘A lesson in gravity? Or in levity? Eternal levity’ (EA 229).

    3 See, at the outset of the grotesque seduction scene between Bill Unwin and Catherine Porter, in Ever After, the dangling soaked socks which might have worked as a sexual incentive (‘like incriminating articles’ [241]) but prove more effective as a sexual disincentive, ‘ a strange combination of the sensual and the housewifely’ (239), suggestive of detumescence.

    4 ‘Amina began to feel the emotions of other people’s food seeping into her—because Reverend Mother doled out the curries and meatballs of arrogance, dishes imbued with the personality of their creator; Amina ate the fish salans of stubbornness and the birianis of determination.’ (Midnight’s Children 190). It works the same way with clothes: ‘Alia had begun to send us an unending stream of children’s clothes, into whose seams she had sewn her old maid’s bile ; the Brass Monkey and I were clothed in her gifts, wearing at first the bay-things of bitterness, then the rompers of resentment; I grew up in white shorts starched with the starch of jealousy, while the Monkey wore the pretty flowered frocks of Alia’s undimmed envy’ (214).

    5 One recalls that Bill Unwin’s first artistic emotion takes place as he spies upon the petits rats practicing à la barre in Paris (EA 19).

    6 To be compared and contrasted with the end of Ever after, which does two contradictory things in the same breath : it opens a breach in the text, by harking back to the lovers’ first night together, thus defeating or defying the march of time; it repeats for the umpteenth time that damningly ‘unreal’ and enigmatic one-liner (‘He took his life. He took his life’ [EA 261]), thus securing a sense of closure after all.

    7C’est peut-être une fascination un petit peu nécrophilique... de ce qui a été mort, mais qui se représente comme voulant être vivant’. Interview with Roland Barthes, quoted by Paul Edwards (Edwards 29). In which case, the novel would dramatically reverse the direction of this will to be alive.

    8 There are times when one wishes the delivery, or the distillation, were somewhat more transitive or spontaneous, and less reticent or laboured—but then one realises that the reluctance is inseparable from the expression of emotion. Emotion is too capital a good to be wasted.

    9 David Malcolm speaks of Irene’s ‘transactional approach to life’ (37) as responsible for a ‘severe impoverishment—not of a material, but of an emotional kind’ (38). It should be remarked, however, that the corrupting influence of money, the stringently compelling nature of the contracts passed between husband and wife, together with their massively substitutive investment in things (and not in human beings) do not succeed in obliterating the possibility of viewing TSSO as a tale of shared or mutual love. Mutually unfulfilling, if one will, but mutually loving, quand même. And all the more pathetic for being just that.

    10 Despite the black ash on the track...

    11 See the end of Waterland, with Dick diving into the Ouse never to resurface on the other side—but, who knows, he may still be on his way, or he may have joined the eels; the last word is cycle...

    12 In one of the two versions of how Thetis tried to immortalise Achilles, she anointed him with ambrosia (a drink of the gods that reinforced their immortality) and then put him in a fire so that all his mortal parts would burn away, leaving only his anointed and therefore immortal parts. Peleus interrupted her and pulled Achilles out of the fire before his heel was burned.

    13Achille est dit aux pieds légers... le pied léger est l’arme la plus apurée, et peut-être la plus violente, car c’est le cœur des autres que la course arrache, le corps nu sans instrument, la vertu de ce corps : grâce, force, vitesse, mouvement’ (Delecroix 47). ‘Lui ne connaît pas de loi d’entropie, ne vieillit pas, ne ralentit pas : c’est la raison pour laquelle il fera toujours la course en tête’ (Delecroix 54). ‘Et il semblait qu’à le suivre vous étiez purifié, plongé au feu, comme lui-même le fut, enfant, par sa mère. Vous n’alliez jamais vieillir. Vous vieillissez. Achille ne vous a pas quitté mais son visage change, comme le vôtre, moins que le vôtre tout de même... Vous avez quitté l’antique saison’ (Delecroix 25–26).

    14 See ‘Cliffedge,’ in Learning to Swim.

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    Marc Porée, « Playing with Fire », Études britanniques contemporaines, 41 | 2011, 5-22.

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    Marc Porée, « Playing with Fire », Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 41 | 2011, mis en ligne le 24 juin 2015, consulté le 17 décembre 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/ebc.1354

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    Marc Porée

    Sorbonne Nouvelle Paris 3.
    Marc Porée est « professeur » de littérature anglaise à l’université Sorbonne Nouvelle — Paris 3. Son principal domaine de spécialité est la poésie romantique anglaise, sur laquelle il a publié de nombreux articles, mais il s’intéresse également à la fiction britannique contemporaine. On lui doit des études sur Salman Rushdie, Hanif Kureishi, Kazuo Ishiguro, Julian Barnes, ainsi que des traductions (Conrad, De Quincey, Byron, R.L. Stevenson).

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    Études britanniques contemporaines est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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