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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 escape is at best a mock one, since leaving the effigy of himself behind, he inexorably turns into yet another cold statue. But we also begin to wonder, in retrospect, how much fabrication went into the professed impersonation. To what extent did the trick Chapman pulled on his customers, in the public sphere, apply to the arena of private feelings (‘Tomorrow they would discover the fraud, the deception: the costume discarded, the things left untouched so as to make it seem nothing had changed’ [212])? Why does the first-person narrator find himself ‘playing’ the distressed father (150)? Was that part of the role foisted upon him by his wife? Does this one instance of acknowledged foul play cast a shadow over his distress? How much room does this leave for forgery? Little is said or done to talk the reader out of finding Chapman’s account reliable. The wares he peddles may be fake, but his sterling qualities of loyalty and sincerity are unquestionable—or are they? (201) The answer will not come from within the sphere of enunciation, but from a metaphorical line of argument. The ‘mess,’ ‘smudge’ and ‘stain’ frequently alluded to when he handles goods, newspapers in particular, could very well symbolise the greyer aspects of Chapman’s behaviour. Contrary to the no doubt spurious ‘promise of whiteness’ on which Irene’s parents made a living (‘They made their money out of immaculacy’ [23]), the reality of stain, attuned to the palpable strain of the tale and the equally perceptible pain endured by its protagonists, find an analogon in the stockroom of Chapman’s shop:

She sniffed. He never bothered about the stock room, let it get into the filthiest state. It was almost as if he relished its shabbiness and the brilliance of the shop itself. Once a fortnight she tidied it—though he never asked—swept the dust and scraps of paper from the floor, cleaned the sink and lavatory, made it as spotless as possible. But he never thanked her. (159)

6The filthy spot behind the theatrical display of brilliance works like the dark hole of Graham Swift’s fiction, looking forward to the Chislehurst caves in The Light of Day (‘a whole network of them... disappearing into the dark’ [TLD 313]), the enigmatic appeal of which, though never quite actuated, darkens the vision (‘The feeling that you might never get back into the light’ [TLD 315]) and implicitly connects the act of writing with the peering into black holes or the lifting of roofs ‘to peer inside’ [TLD 278]). Sharply undercutting these painstakingly wrought patterns, are manifestations of ‘adventitious’—but also ‘adventurous’—emotion. A case in point is the ‘glimpse of something, slipping away, as in the depths of a forest,’ seeking cover and not finding it, which, despite its recurrence (45, 42, 43, 99), strikes the reader as less premeditated than the allegory of the ‘powerless skittle towards which was hurtling an invisible ball’ (222) on which The Sweet Shop Owner ends. Likewise, I found myself not just moved but pierced when the reality of mutilation is brought home to Chapman in the most elliptical and far-reaching of ways: ‘For didn’t he know by now, didn’t he understand, the terms of the agreement? He watched the flower-lady, from the window, shaking out the wet stems, stripping the surplus leaves with a knife’ (128). The scene juxtaposes two types of cognition: the first is intellectual, having to do with understanding, the second is emotional. The latter, treated as an objective scène de rue and unglossed upon internally, cuts to the quick, since the word knife, postponed to the end of the chapter, works like the objective correlative for the amputation, mutilation, deprivation, nay castration suffered by Chapman. One might want to call this the cutting edge of emotion, treated in virtually imagistic or haiku-like fashion. ‘Cette émotion appelée roman,’ one might paraphrase...

Playing It Tight: The Economy of Emotions

  • 8 There are times when one wishes the delivery, or the distillation, were somewhat more transitive or (...)
  • 9 David Malcolm speaks of Irene’s ‘transactional approach to life’ (37) as responsible for a ‘severe (...)

7To continue in a more heuristic vein, pain acts as like a touchstone in The Sweet Shop Owner (with pun intended, as one is reminded of Irene’s motto, spreading like a contagious disease: ‘Nothing touches you, you touch nothing’ [44]). It gives rise to an unexpected flourish of similes and comparisons, when the pain progresses in the chest: like a ‘tight breast plate’ (188), an ‘iron bolt’ (21(210), a weight (‘that would overturn him’ [214]), with its ‘little evil prods’ 2)—the only occasion in the novel when the word evil is pronounced. The searing pain works like a ‘vice’; it squeezes and cuts through the numbness and inured immunity brought about by decades of restraint, inhibition, deadening habits. It does away with the protective blanket of enervation that has kept Will (and Irene) in a condition of emotional hibernation. The painfulness of pain, its fullness as it were, contrasts with the dire dearth of feelings experienced and recorded in his lifetime. Besides, pain in the novel is ‘gauged’, i.e. economised, measured and portioned out: ‘He would have to gauge it carefully; rest now and then.’ (177) Will has an agenda of his own, pain-wise: he is to steer himself back home right on time. Just in time to inflict on his ungrateful daughter the right amount of pain, i.e. deserved but also exact and exacting; opportune as well, in conformity with the Greek concept of kairos. He must bide his time and stage the pain. Racing against the clock is unnecessary, waiting for the ‘one perfect picture’ (175) to be caught and ‘framed’ for ever is already hard enough. The character’s deliberate handling of pain matches—virtually coincides with—the novelist’s cool handling of time. It is as if they shared in the process. A fearful symmetry, indeed, which causes Swift to play it tight, either repeating the scene in Great Expectations when Miss Havisham has ground down to her halt, ‘stopped for ever at that position, like a clock rescued from some catastrophe, recording the exact moment of disaster’ (218) or producing this highly idiosyncratic sense of scenes being replayed in slow motion: ‘he moved now, slowly, like a diver with heavy boots, through a shady, flickering world, shot with eddies and swirls of light, where the sun found its way through chinks or penetrated dimly, as into the hollows of a wreck, through the rippled curtains’ (218). Such an eloquent command of ‘silence and slow time’ brings to mind yet another Keatsian model, that of ‘distillation’.8 Emotion is withheld, filtered, reduced to a mere trickle, but never watered down or diluted in the process. On the contrary, concentration is of the essence, as with those ‘last oozings’ watched ‘with patient look,’ by the allegorical figure of Autumn at the cider press. It is this patient watching of emotion being ‘rationed out,’ ‘hours by hours,’ which constitutes the immense pleasure of reading novels by Graham Swift. In the historical context of The Sweet Shop Owner, the term sounds particularly apposite, with its echoes of actual rationing in times of war and scarcity. Will Chapman’s role, on the Home Front, was precisely to dole out ammunition (‘3640 helmets’ [63]). Avoidance is pushed to extremes—recalling A Void, the English title of George Perec’s La Disparition, his lipogrammatic novel about the disappearance of the writer’s entire family in concentration camps, a fact indirectly conveyed by the omission of the letter e. E for emotion, one would want to argue, is precisely the one sadly missing commodity in the world of The Sweet Shop Owner. ‘Theirs is a life of money, of things, and of bargains that take the place of love, of emotional commitments, of gifts of self’ (Malcolm 35). The avoidance of emotion, stemming from personal or collective inhibition (if one takes the view that there is something characteristically English about this atrophy of desire), is set in direct correspondence: a) with the state of the national economy over several decades (fluctuations of boom or bust) b) with such domestic economy of private emotion as practised inside the Chapman household (stinginess, avarice, thrift, usury, greed, emotional blackmail).9 The emotion Swift ambitions to render is that of emotionlessness, of denied or suppressed emotion. Equally tongue-tied and reticent, Irene and Will seek refuge in lists, charts, columns, patterns (59, 62, 63, 65, 79, 82) to be counted, not touched (175); in words of avoidance, as a matter of fact: ‘He wrote ‘Take care.’ But he didn’t add—perhaps that was only for heroes, writing from the field of action—‘I love you’’ (62). Killing two birds with one stone, Swift can afford to have the coded language of rationed goods work as a (paltry) substitute for the impossible expression of love: ‘He wrote, ‘5520 helmets,’ meaning, ‘I love you’’ (65). Never was emotion so helplessly and yet so movingly expressed. The Sweet Shop Owner, or the paradoxical eloquence of ineloquence—similar to what Denis Donoghue terms ‘Like Something Almost Being Said,’ quoting a line by Larkin (from the poem ‘The Trees’), and focusing on the kind of eloquence ‘that seems to issue from under the words and nearly apart from them and yet in the event is helplessly verbal’ (Donoghue 70).

Motion and Emotion

  • 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, (...)
  • 12 In one of the two versions of how Thetis tried to immortalise Achilles, she anointed him with ambro (...)
  • 13Achille est dit aux pieds légers... le pied léger est l’arme la plus apurée, et peut-être la plus (...)

8Emotion, writes Michel Collot, is not a merely/purely interior state. As implied by the very word, it is a motion, which sends the subject who experiences it out of itself, abroad. It externalises itself through physical manifestations and expresses itself by changing one’s relation to the world. The being that is moved finds itself overwhelmed (‘débordé’), from within as from without (Collot 11). The scenes in George Webb’s car, in The Light of Day, would qualify as fine instances of emotion on the move: stalking the car of the husband, crawling though the traffic, grinding to a halt, then resuming the chase, to the tunes of mounting tension and growing uncertainty as to the outcome: that mental reconstruction, for George is running it ‘all back in his head’ (LD 221), testifies to Swift’s editing skills. As monteur extraordinaire, he can handle like no other contemporary writer the virtually cinematic plasticity of the moving image, at the crossroads between ‘l’image-mouvement’ and ‘l’image-temps’ (in Deleuze’s terminology). The mother of all races, however, has to be the mile race in The Sweet Shop Owner. It stands on its own feet, as it were, by which I mean that it might be read (and may have been written) as a short story (like those Swift was to collect in Learning to Swim). It is kept within limits or bounds—the limits of the track, the (frail) limits of a parenthesis, embedded within the novel (section 34). The emotional equation of the piece resides in the correlation it establishes between the pace of the race and the pulse of the runner (astonishingly unperturbed). Will is a cold fish with an axe to grind, however. Being the favourite, he is expected to win. But does he want to? Will he catch up with Jacky? Chapman can’t be a winner, can he? The passage leaves off as he finally decides to pick up speed and make his much delayed attempt to close the gap. Did he come back from behind? The answer is withheld, as a matter for speculation, conjecture, surmise, suspense. The story won’t tell, not in any literal, vulgar way, in true Jamesian manner and ends with Willy suspended in mid-air, out on a limb. With this sense of latency, of reserve as of yet untapped, of open-endedness. And yet, there’s every reason to suggest that Will finished second, like his daughter Dorothy in the diving competition. That he was defeated and that Jack—Irene’s brother, the first of many coincidences—was the one who held the trophy up in the air, in presence of his conceited parents. Remote echoes of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, by Alan Sillitoe, are perceptible, but it is quite clear that social motivations—resentment and revenge—while not totally absent from the picture, take second place. The race is replayed in slow motion, as it were. No rush, no hurry, no haste. Technique is all that matters, to the runner and to the writer (‘Plenty of time. Time to think as well as act; time to watch as well as take part’ [193]). The joint display of skills is remarkable, focussed on the pacing of the pace, the staging of lap after lap, the stretching out of the race, so as to make it last for ever. While intimations of closure, mortality, termination are thick on the ground all around, the race keeps them at bay, within the enchanted circle or ring.10 It will forever remain unfinished, its verdict uncalled, its issue undecided.11 As the older Chapman reminisces—emotion recollected in anything but tranquillity—there float in the air echoes of Beckett’s Happy Days (when the Un-winner was an odd sort of ‘Willie’). Memories, too, of his younger, fitter, leaner, lighter, lissommer, swifter self (if I may). Indeed, at the end of the day, playing with words—and with fire—has come down to that—to playing with... the writer’s own name. My hunch is that Swift, who excels at portraying ‘emotional slow burners’ (like Matthew Pearce), is playing fast and loose with the ghost of swift-footed Achilles—a bold conjecture, no doubt, but Swift’s fondness for classic topoi is well evidenced. A case in point is his epigraph to Ever After, lifted from Aeneid, I, 462: et mentem mortalia tangent. The line presupposes Achilles, cannot be fully understood without the image of the departed swift-footed hero. As for the first half of that famous line, it carries the tears: Sunt lacrimae rerum. Incidentally, a good example of how Swift handles emotion, feigning to hide it away while in fact drawing attention to the conspicuously missing factor, in this kind of underhand kind of way. For the missing factor is bound to be the ‘Tell-Tale Heart’... Inverting time’s arrow, Graham Swift offers this emotionally fraught return to his character’s youth. Once upon a time, in illo tempore (the time of myths or fables), Willy Chapman was swift-footed (though not quite swift-winged): ‘People wondered at her, and wondered even more when they saw me beside her, with my lumpish looks, the beginning of a paunch and my limp. You wouldn’t have known I was once a mile-runner’ (118). And so were we all, as argued by Vincent Delecroix in a recent essay entitled Tombeau d’Achille. Now, granted, Willy Chapman and Homer’s hero—the archetypal hero, according to Delecroix, in view of his having been plunged into fire, of his fiery youth, his impassioned being,12 his untimely death—do not seem to have much in common. But, if I follow Delecroix correctly, Achilles is a namesake, rather than a name, a most hospitable and capacious, i.e. accommodating, vessel for us to pour our sweet expectations, hopes and fantasies into, together with more than a dose of bitter wistfulness, thus substantiating the process of bitter-sweet identification.13 What the mythic reverberation of Achilles has bestowed upon the scene, consciously or not, and to the novel, is eloquence. The kind eloquence of granted to a life-and-death ‘that would otherwise be just another pathetic case’ (Donoghue 105).

Playing with Fire

9In his discussion of games and game theory, Roger Caillois famously distinguishes four play forms: agon, or competition (as in badminton or skittles); alea, or chance (as in slot machine at the Margate of Last Orders); mimesis, or mimicry (as in toys that ‘threaten to jerk into imitation life’ [TSSO 139]), ilinx (Greek for whirlpool), or vertigo. Of these four, two may well retain our attention, with relation to Swift’s writing. The first is mimicry, for obvious reasons. We saw how central to his world view the playing of a part was: see the discussion, in Ever After, of the two premises on which acting is based which could almost claim a place of its own in a theoretical discussion of the ‘paradoxes du comédien,’ as initiated by Diderot. The second is ilinx, and its inclusion sounds problematic at first. The pursuit of vertigo, the voluptuous panic inflicted upon an otherwise lucid mind, the idea of a surrender to seizure or shock which destroys reality with sovereign brusqueness—all these features sound most alien, nay antithetical to the by now legendary tightness and firmness of Swift’s control

  • 14 See ‘Cliffedge,’ in Learning to Swim.

10over his material. The slow, deliberate focus or emphasis on ‘Now,’ the fondness for the cinematic freeze or still, seem to preclude that kind of wild addiction to playing with fire. Could it be, then, that Swift’s compulsive patterning, with its darker Mr Quinn-like control freak connotations, is a mere decoy, a smokescreen, to make us look the other way, away from the thrills, the exhilaration, the growing anxiety, experienced when realising that every step you take as a writer, as a long distance runner, leads you closer and closer to the precipice, to the edge of a cliff.14

11I started off this article by detecting an impish streak in Swift. What I had in mind at the outset was more puckish, but I now realise the Poesque dimension might be more apposite. A mobile without a motive, a motive not motivirt; an uncontrollable longing, something which Edgar Allan Poe called perverseness, the delusive sense that one is safe, when of course one has already more than yielded to temptation, the dangerous flirtation with death and the taking of a great leap or fall: the ‘Imp of the Perverse,’ in other (eloquent) words. There’s one final aspect to playing with fire. And that one feels a lot less controversial. At the end of the day, the writer’s truest material—his ‘matière-émotion’—has to be beings of flesh and soul, perishable, short-lived and expendable. They bring grist to his mill, fuel to the writer’s bonfire: ‘More fuel for the fire: don’t let it die. More fuel to make the sparks leap and the dancers whirl. Bring anything.’ (TSSO 85)

12Not anything will do, as a matter of fact. Swift’s characters are consumed or consume themselves, ‘some more quickly, more brightly, more readily than others. But they are burnt, used. Fuel fire, ash’ (TSSO 112). Such was the meaning of I.K. Brunel’s perpetual cigars: ‘he must have them, as furnaces must have chimneys—they are lit from within’ (EA 201). Such, too, was Ruth’s raison d’être, chain-smoking herself to death. Such was Chapman’s fate, casting a cold damper on his already ‘Cold Pastoral’ of an Urn. The emotional fuel of Swift’s fiction, its fire and ash, has to be what burns inside of us. More or less swiftly, of course. . .

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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 18 juillet 2018. 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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