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Child’s Play? Graham Swift’s Shuttlecock and Freud’s Game of the Wooden Reel

Un jeu d’enfant ? Shuttlecock et la bobine de bois
Pascale Tollance
p. 23-36


Cet article se propose d’examiner le lien intime qui se noue entre le jeu et la souffrance dans le deuxième roman de Graham Swift. Il met aussi en avant la menace d’une dissociation entre l’un et l’autre terme: le jeu, lorsqu’il se réduit à une tentative de manipuler l’autre et d’établir un rapport de forces, est-il encore un jeu? Et qu’en est-il de la souffrance, lorsque les mots deviennent simple prétexte à un jeu qui permet de dire une chose et son contraire ? À côté des différents face-à-face qui, à l’intérieur de la diégèse, redoublent et dupliquent une même situation, c’est à la mise en scène à laquelle le narrateur se livre devant le lecteur qu’il s’agit de prêter attention : le récit se présente comme une confession qui brouille les règles du jeu, il devient à son tour jeu de cache-cache. Les observations de Freud devant son petit-fils jouant avec une bobine (que le titre « Shuttlecock » ne manque pas d’évoquer) s’avèrent pertinentes à plus d’un égard : Shuttlecock met en œuvre une dynamique paradoxale à travers laquelle la souffrance que l’on inflige ou que l’on s’inflige devient un moyen de s’en rendre maître à travers un drame où les positions de sujet et d’objet peuvent s’inverser à souhait. En même temps, le roman tente de dévoiler le pouvoir qui gît dans la renonciation à toute maîtrise. Se fait jour un désir de ne pas chercher à savoir, de s’installer dans cette absence qui permettrait que se mette en place un véritable « travail du jeu ». Crucial est alors le suspens dans l’entre-deux que dessine le mouvement de va-et vient du volant/de la voix. Dans ce deuxième roman qui cultive le trouble, l’entre-deux se fait néanmoins l’espace inconfortable du doute où, par son jeu infatigable, le narrateur brandit avec insistance une présence qu’il ne cesse de nous dérober.

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1Shuttlecock, Graham’s Swift’s second novel, marks a shift in his fiction which will prove lasting: the story is no longer told by an anonymous heterodiegetic narrator but is entrusted to the main character himself. Prentis immediately appears as a lively storyteller, repeatedly addressing the reader and engaging with him in the same way an actor on stage might do. Storytelling becomes similar to a live performance, a piece of playacting. The impression of proximity induced by this kind of narration is increased by the fact that the story takes explicitly the form of a ‘confession’. Little by little, the silent reader is made to feel that he is being used like the narrator’s father who suffers from aphasia: ‘. . . because Dad does not answer back, because he neither hinders nor encourages whatever I say, I use him as a sort of confessional’ (43). The feeling of intimacy and trust that the narrative situation tries to elicit is nevertheless unsettled from the beginning by the nature of some of Prentis’s revelations. The novel which opens with the sentence ‘Today I remembered my hamster’ first turns into a moving description of the sweet little creature, enhanced by the anaphoric momentum of the passage: ‘I remembered its blond fur . . . I remembered the seeds and bits of carrot we fed it . . . I remembered its noiseless feet’ (5). But this reminiscence is immediately followed by a disturbing admission: ‘You see I used to torment my hamster. I was cruel to Sammy. It wasn’t a case of wanting to play with him or train him, or study how he behaved. I tortured him’ (6). Throughout the novel, Prentis’s confession thus widens the gap it attempts to bridge, increases the distance it tries to abolish—whilst unwinding in more ways than one the theme of torture or torment, or more precisely, whilst exploring that uncertain zone where play and pain seem to share a strange, and sometimes disturbing, intimacy. This is made particularly clear when Prentis talks about his sex life, where ‘foreplay’ consists largely in his ‘manoeuvring [his wife’s] limbs into one of his favourite positions’ (38) or when he declares loving the fact he can ‘mould and remodel her . . ., contort and distort her, parcel her up and stretch her into all kinds of shapes’ (27). These acrobatics end up finding an echo in the verbal antics to which the narrator resorts in order to attract the reader’s attention, themselves a reminder of what Prentis calls ‘a hopeless pantomime’ (43) as he holds forth in front of his mute father. But one is also led to recognise that the ‘malleability’ or the ‘pliancy’ (27) of the body which Prentis likes to manipulate are qualities that can be applied to a versatile and flexible text which unfolds through the duplication, amplification and transformation of a number of key signifiers, themes or images.

2The energy Prentis deploys in his exertions may bring to mind the animation of the young child Freud describes in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, a child who has got into the habit, whenever his mother leaves, of playing with a wooden reel attached to a piece of string which he throws over the side of the bed only to make it subsequently reappear. To a large extent the title of the novel itself invites the parallel: ‘Shuttlecock’, initially the code name of, a secret agent during the war, is also the name of an object going back and forth as one plays with it—an object which, in this case, can stand for a person. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud’s observation of his grandchild’s play lies side by side with his considerations about the trauma of war victims. In Shuttlecock the backdrop of the various games that are being played is crisscrossed by haunting visions of war and torture. In fact, as Prentis remembers Sammy, his pet hamster, he voices the fundamental question which Freud raises as he is about to revise the theory he has been developing for the last twenty years: ‘Why should I have thought of these things? They say you only recall what is pleasant and you only forget what you choose not to remember. Perhaps. But do I say ‘remember’? This is not so much a memory as a pang . . .’ (5). Because it reenacts the mother’s disappearance, Freud sees in the child’s play the persistence of this ‘pang’ which seems to turn the game into a form of self-inflicted pain. But conversely the game can be regarded as a ‘transformation’ of pain: ‘[L’enfant] était passif, à la merci de l’événement; mais voici qu’en le répétant, aussi déplaisant soit-il, comme jeu, il assume un rôle actif’ (Freud 55). In other words the child’s jubilation does not so much mean that he has entirely freed himself from the pang of separation but that he is holding it in check thanks to the little drama he is enacting. While leaving the question largely open, Freud goes one step further and makes another proposition: ‘Mais l’on peut encore proposer une autre interprétation. En rejetant l’objet pour qu’il soit parti, l’enfant pourrait satisfaire une impulsion, réprimée dans sa vie quotidienne, à se venger de sa mère qui était partie loin de lui; son action aurait alors une signification de bravade’ (55).

3The purpose of following Freud’s speculations is not to find keys or clues to try and explain the main character’s behaviour. Freud’s text is to be taken here simply as an invitation to consider the contrary dynamics at work in the various forms of play to be found in the novel. What makes Shuttlecock a fascinating novel is the degree of ambiguity the narrative and the narrator’s performance take on at all levels. But like other so-called postmodernist novels, it also explores the point where playfulness and painfulness run the risk of cancelling each other out: the risk that games might no longer be felt to be games, or, conversely, the risk that playacting might be perceived as nothing but playacting. There looms the threat of a narrative manipulating the reader to conceal something too sinister for words; there looms the threat of a text turning into a pointless game, a clever act of juggling with words. Swift’s achievement, as I’ll try to show, is perhaps to explore as fully as possible this threat as threat, i.e. to keep his text open and, like Freud’s grandchild, to allow it to play.

Power Games and the Desperation of the Torturer

4The backbone of Prentis’s narrative, which records his daily life at home and at work, is an investigation which, little by little, ends up resembling a strange kind of game, a warped version of hide and seek. As an archivist working in the ‘dead crimes’ section of the London police, Prentis collects and prepares material for the external examination or re-examination of cases that have been suspended. The first unsettling element in the latest case he has been asked to put together is that among the three protagonists involved (X, Y, and Z), one of them (Y) appears to be his own father, accused (by X) of having betrayed his comrades during World War II, cracking under torture by the Gestapo. The other equally disturbing thing is that it becomes impossible to verify this conjecture because of the inexplicable absence at their appointed place of a number of crucial files. The explanation for the missing documents is given towards the end of the novel. It is Quinn, Prentis’s own boss, the very man who has asked him to assemble the pieces of the case and has been urging him to be more diligent, who has been responsible from the start for removing or withholding documents. Quinn’s motives, which are allegedly to test Prentis as a potential successor, may of course be considered as dubious, but they can be left aside for the time being. What matters first is the situation in which Prentis finds himself trapped as he spends every hour of his day running back and forth from one incomplete or inconclusive file to another, finally going round in circles in the absence of vital information. Unsurprisingly, his underground office is compared to a ‘dungeon’. But his ordeal is in fact replicated when he walks out into the open air. Once again, Prentis ends up in a blind alley or up against a wall as he tries to wrench the truth out of its best guardian: although still alive, his father has been living for the last two years within the confines of a psychiatric hospital after having inexplicably frozen into speechlessness. The last resort for Prentis is then to delve into the silent man’s memoirs. Locking himself up in his own house, he starts reading over and over again the book written by the alleged war hero in the hope of finding some truth between the lines. All he manages to do as he hopelessly wraps himself up in the text is to cut himself off within his own home and alienate his wife and children.

5It is clear that if a game is being played, Prentis is first and foremost a pawn in it. He becomes in his turn the ‘shuttlecock’, the agent who must remain in the dark, an instrument who must go wherever he is being directed or dispatched. But the positions of subject and object do not simply get inverted, they become blurred. Tortured by his desire to know, Prentis comes close to becoming a torturer. He confesses to being tempted to shake the truth out of his father and yells at him one day, in the same way as the original bearer of the name ‘Shuttlecock’ was no doubt yelled at during his incarceration and interrogations by the Gestapo. Short of being able to punish his father for his silence, the son finds substitutes and punishes his own sons instead, turning little by little into a domestic tyrant. The memory of Sammy or the ‘pang’ that opens the narrative becomes increasingly relevant as one reads on. So, perhaps, does an anecdote mentioned in passing as an example of the kind of ‘routine’ Prentis says he has to ‘deal with’. It describes the case a woman who refuses to accept the death of the husband she has been nursing and who hides the corpse. But together with the dead body, she also locks up her own son, whom she accuses of having killed his father. Prentis comments:

What the boy thought, shut up like this with his dead father, is conjecture. What he did was clear enough when the matter came to light two days later. He found a penknife, belonging to the dead man, in one of the bedroom drawers, and with it—for reasons never established, though according to the boy himself, ‘to find out what his father was made of’—systematically disfigured and mutilated his father’s body. (24)

6Hidden away in his dungeon, Prentis does not find himself face to face with a dead body, he is only trying to come to grips with ‘a dead crime’. Similarly, as he disappears into his room with his father’s book, it is only a text he tries to dissect in order to wrest the truth out of it. And yet one of the main questions raised by the book is what lies in this quest for truth. What is it, one may ask, that Prentis is really after? The son, it would seem, does not simply want to know what his father may or may not have done. As he scrutinises the text of the so-called ‘memoirs’, Prentis is waiting for the moment when he will literally ‘see’ his father’s voice: ‘I stare at the page. I read the words as though, if I read hard enough, other words will appear: Dad will begin to speak’ (60). And when at the end of the book, Prentis recalls his fruitless quest, he thinks once again about that voice which will remain shut up in the text: ‘I stared again at the file. I thought of the number of times I’d opened the cover of Shuttlecock hoping Dad would come out; hoping to hear his voice’ (199). It is not so much the truth, as truth made flesh, that Prentis is aching for. The voice he wants to see rising from the text is like a piece of the Real, a Real that can only be hallucinated. Prentis’s frantic search could sum itself up to a silent cry, a cry he utters once in his sleep, ‘Is there anyone there?’ (156), which is in fact an echo of what his father shouts when alone in his dark cell in France: ‘Il n’y a personne?’ (141).

  • 1 As, for example, when he asks ‘Will you believe me if I say it was all, still, out of love and pity (...)
  • 2 Having described the houses in Quinn’s neighbourhood as ‘smack[ing] of privilege and importance’, P (...)
  • 3 ‘I was beginning to consider I might be wrong in my suspicions, but it was too late to call off the (...)

7Alone in his room or in the company of the kind of living dead his father has turned into, Prentis is faced with the same void as the child severed from his mother’s body who punctuates his action, tossing back and forth the wooden reel, with the words ‘Fort/Da’, ‘Gone/Here’. At the same time, the desperation that characterises Prentis’s behaviour is all the more disturbing as the tone of his narrative is totally free of any hint of despair; light and detached, it might even be said at times to sound flippant and jaunty. If Prentis is like a helpless child, he always sounds buoyant in front of his fictive audience with whom he too, in his own way, plays a game of hide and seek. For whilst he tries to gain the confidence of those he is sharing his secrets with, he also mars that confidence in a number of ways. He goes so far as to flaunt the fact that he could well be totally unreliable,1 and occasionally invites us, tauntingly, to read through his own words and consider them with suspicion.2 In this elaborate show, Prentis assumes simultaneously the positions of subject and object as he plays around with the reader by making himself appear and disappear at will. Play can then be likened to a form of manipulation which simply reverses the situation Prentis is subjected to under the rule of his superior, Quinn. It enables him to assume once again an active role in the creation of a situation where the ‘dominant feeling’, to quote Prentis senior describing his captivity, is the ‘sense of being absolutely in the power of another’ (145). But the game now appears too much as a game, or as a ‘performance’, a word largely used by Prentis himself, including during his stern and occasionally violent interrogations of his sons3 ‘Il n’y a personne?’ is then a question the reader may return to the narrator. Yet, instead of a haunting void, ‘personne’ could be felt to be just a mask, a mask masking nothing, holding all by itself—all the more so as the stage on which the narrator is making himself insistently visible and yet invisible is an entirely virtual stage.

Play vs Games

8Shuttlecock thus takes us into a territory where play threatens to be bared of any playful dimension, a show of power and domination, or to be reduced to the dodgy stratagems of an impostor. Prentis occupies the paradoxical position of being, as a character, consumed by his desire to tear the mask away in order to see what his old man is ‘made of’ and of indulging, as a narrator, in the tricks of an illusionist. Between a destructive or self-destructive search for an impossible knowledge and a sterile retreat into sheer inauthenticity, one might wonder whether there is still room for play in the novel—play as opposed to games, play understood as free play. Contrary to games where rules can be changed but must always be redefined, play  something which cannot be entirely programmed or predetermined. It involves a permanent process of erasure which makes every object available for a new purpose—a process of ‘de-signification’, ‘dé-signification’, which according to Pierre Fédida, is as fundamental to play as it is to poetry. In L’Absence, where he reflects, among other things, upon Freud’s game of the wooden reel, Fédida borrows the word ‘objeu’ coined by the poet Francis Ponge in order to illustrate that play starts once a disjunction takes place, once the object is literally thrown away, ‘jeté’, in order to be freed from any particular function that may be primarily attached to it. It is only through a form of negativity, which is distinct from a process of destruction or a negation, that what he calls ‘le travail du jeu’, ‘play work’ (in reference to ‘dreamwork’) may start. In his examination of the Freudian text, Fédida concludes that the main displacement operated by the child’s game does not lie in the mastery gained through the reversal from a passive to an active position. In this he recognises, after Freud, a potential violence which does not sum up what the game is about: ‘Cette compulsion sado-masochiste originaire à manipuler est propre à évoquer ce jeu de la bobine avant précisément qu’il devienne un jouer’ (272). So he continues: ‘La répétition dans le jeu ne fait donc pas le jeu. Et le jeu—de même que l’humour—réfère une négativité de la dé-signification. Et c’est à cette condition que jouer à faire disparaître et à faire ré-apparaître est créateur du sens... le jeu trouve son pouvoir dans l’effet de sens de l’absence’ (276–77).

9In the light of this opposition, we could say that play does not only threaten to be reduced to games in the hands of Swift’s narrator; both play and games become perverted through the figure of the tyrannical father, whether he be carer or torturer: games no longer have rules or they have rules that are no longer shared as they can be constantly redefined by the one who silently proclaims them; equally, play stops to be free play as the ‘de-signification’ at work becomes only a means to assert control and deprive the other of all power. The only positions available then are those of Master and victim. The ‘positive negativity’ that can be experienced through play, and the discovery of what Fédida calls ‘l’effet de sens de l’absence’ is nevertheless something that may shed light on the denouement of the novel and on the outcome of Prentis’s long tête-à-tête with Quinn—although, till the end, ambiguity prevails. For the largest part of the text, the reader is led to think that Prentis is caught in an endless, pointless and undecipherable charade, a guinea pig in a purely sadistic experiment. It turns out that the impenetrable Quinn, the silent mastermind of the whole game, has only promoted himself to that position in order to deflate it and finally to reveal that it has just been a show to test Prentis. The whole point according to Quinn was to see how his ‘apprentice’ would cope with the seed of doubt he has sown in his mind about his father’s heroic past and with the holes he has deliberately made in the files. Passing the test (and thus gaining promotion) means for Quinn being able to fill the gaps with one’s imagination but also eventually reaching a point where one might welcome these gaps. Prentis ends up positively wishing for the destruction of the papers which may or may not establish his father’s guilt. At the same time, he abandons the ultimate suspicion that all this might be yet another game played by Quinn: ‘And supposing, in some extraordinary way, that everything Quinn told me was concocted, was an elaborate hoax—if I never looked in the file, I would never know. I read the code letters over and over again. C9/E... And then suddenly I knew I wanted to be, I wanted to be in the dark’ (199).

  • 4 Ben Winsworth refers here to the numerous interpretations of the novel that tend to reduce the conc (...)
  • 5 In chapter 2, Prentis addresses the reader with the following question : ‘Do I begin to give the im (...)

10Prentis’s choice to have the files burnt can be read in totally opposite ways—and that is where the text is fully allowed to play. For Stef Craps, ‘Prentis follows the logic of erasure’: he ‘sets himself with gusto to the task of erasing traumatic knowledge’ and ‘finds himself in a position where he can let loose his lurid imagination to create a congenial image of himself and of the world blissfully forgetful of the ‘nefarious and inflammatory’ (15) information preserved in the police archives’ (Craps 66). After his manic attempt to lay hands on the truth, Prentis’s intense desire for darkness and silence can nevertheless also appear as a need to let go rather than an evasion of ‘unpalatable facts’ (Craps 66), ‘facts’, which, precisely, can perhaps never be established as such. The desire to be ‘in the dark’ does not sum itself up to the wise and sensible acceptance that the truth may be unavailable. As Ben Winsworth puts it ‘Ultimately... this is a dynamic and positive form of silence, and not simply a lesson in the provisionality of the postmodern narrative’ (61).4 The attraction of silence appears as a force that can put an end to what was never a simple search for the truth but a destructive and self-destructive obsession. Something must be thrown away and sacrificed to break a cycle of morbid absorption: the result is not a preservation or a restoration of the Imaginary father as Ideal father but rather the beginning of a process of mourning which keeps the Real father (and the desire to know what he is ‘made of’) in check. Prentis’s father must finally remain ‘Shuttlecock’ or must remain this ‘Y’ caught between X and Z. It is as such that he enables his son to stop immersing himself in the words of his memoirs and to start writing his own story. What remains nevertheless in question is where we can fit this third ‘Shuttlecock’ (for it is the title Prentis claims to have given to his ‘book’), or alternatively how the alleged book can frame this voice going back and forth, trying to reach out to the reader, and provoking him up to the last pages with the reality of what it is presenting him with. There is, right to the end, ‘something wrong5 in Shuttlecock: a voice which destabilises the whole narrative and makes it hard for the reader to completely abandon the suspicion that all this could be ‘an elaborate hoax’—or simply a voice which constantly displaces what is being uttered.

The Ghostly Book in-between

  • 6 ‘[Martin] does not see a man with power ; he sees the same old weakling. The only difference is tha (...)
  • 7 ‘Every time [Dad and I] sit on that wooden bench, which has often seemed to me like some uneasily r (...)

11The last few chapters which follow Prentis’s interview with Quinn all contribute to consolidating the sense of liberation that the narrator expresses as soon as he walks out of his boss’s house: ‘It seemed I had emerged out of some confinement’ (203). The day out on the beach which brings the whole family together in the last chapter clearly marks a break away from the oppressive atmosphere of the dark room. While at home Prentis has loosened his tight grip and relinquished his obsession with power and control (or with concealing his lack of control6), at work, where he now occupies the place of the Master, he fully realises that there is no Master: ‘The mysteries don’t stop’ (209). Yet the ‘balance’ that Prentis has found with everyone, which is explicitly linked to the ability to leave questions suspended,7 also leaves a number of questions unanswered for the reader. The ‘transformed’ or the ‘reformed’ man (210) that Prentis says he has become in the eyes of Marian now stands behind a partition wall where he is talking of the ‘official self’ he has started to ‘wear’ (206), and of the ‘scene’ (208) he is offering Eric, who has now taken his former place. One might say that Prentis’s wisdom now lies in his detachment, in his ability to take the game as game or the show as a show. And yet as he suggests that he might be playing with Eric in the same way as Quinn used to play with him, Prentis is still clearly toying with the reader:

Eric has just looked up. He has seen me standing at the partition...
I continue gazing at Eric, sipping my tea, knowing what my next move will shortly be...
I stand by the partition with this scene already scripted and rehearsed, as it were, ahead of me. But it’s not really Eric I am looking at. And all that I’ve said so far about how I treat Eric—how do you know that I haven’t made it up, it’s not all in my imagination? . . .
And how little [Eric] knows in his wild bewilderment, beset by all those misleading files, those gaps in the shelves—for perhaps, after all, I was not making it up . . . that the confusions cease, the mysteries stop, when promotion lifts you up into the rarefied air. (207–09)

12Within two pages the ‘scene’ is first vividly described, then offered as an invention or a projection, and then again reinstated as having ‘perhaps’ really happened. The partition wall which isolates Prentis has, despite the reversal of positions, not been removed. As for the reader, he has not been, for one single minute, let out of the confessional or the interrogation room.

  • 8 ‘[rien] ne prétend que Meursault ou Malone aient écrit le texte que nous lisons comme leur monologu (...)
  • 9 I use the term in reference to Dominique Rabaté’s Vers une littérature de l’épuisement, where the v (...)

13Prentis’s claim that he has written a book constitutes an important step in the development of the narrative and marks the end of the crisis that prompted it. And yet at the same time this book cannot fail to appear as a problematical object. The fact that it declares itself to be called Shuttlecock first reinforces the impression that what is at work throughout the book is a mere process of substitution (of which, as a code name, ‘Shuttlecock’ already bears the mark) which can only result in the reproduction of the same: through different situations and different characters, the book both deploys and collapses into a system of endless duplication, a gallery of mirrors in which the fine sense of claustrophobia that permeates the story is intensified. But what is more disturbing about Prentis’s shadowy Shuttlecock is that it claims to be about everything we have been told so far and that we find it difficult to make it coincide exactly with what we have read, are still reading, and are still to read. We can easily delineate the contours of Shuttlecock, ‘The Memoirs of a Secret Agent’—whole chunks of it are integrated in the narrative; as for Graham Swift’s Shuttlecock, we are holding it in our hands. This leaves Prentis’s book somewhere in-between, but where exactly? Let us remember that it is suddenly announced to us two chapters before the end that ‘this’ literally is a book: ‘And the same is true of this book (for it has turned into a book)’ (214). The book purports to enclose what has resounded so far as an oral narrative, and as the use of the deictic ‘this’ emphasises, it asserts its existence even now through an indeterminate present of enunciation. Prentis’s book cannot be placed because it fails to hold in a voice which is felt to be spoken, or rather perhaps ‘neither spoken nor written’ to use the phrase with which Genette characterises ‘interior monologue’.8 In giving this monologue the support of a book, Prentis does not make it more stable: the logical difficulty we experience reinforces the impression we are faced with an impossible object. We might consider that this brings the narrative to a point of self-destruction. But what is asserted through the impossible book or the impossible voice is perhaps not just a pure mirage which is meant to cancel itself in the letter of the text: the invented voice, both familiar and intensely distant, that speaks to us throughout the text and challenges its own inscription is also the trace of an enunciation which resists disappearing into the text. The third shadowy ‘Shuttlecock’ definitely hangs in the air, in-between the other two and must continue to do so because it marks the place of an object which falls in excess or stands out as odd, and together with it, of an act of utterance which hollows out or ‘exhausts’9 what is uttered but also holds it together by the thinner of threads. The ghostly voice that emerges from the text simultaneously resists and effects a crucial effacement which allows ‘play work’ between the words which are strung together.


14As is the case with all Swift’s novels, the pleasure the reader derives from Shuttlecock lies in the impression that the text overflows its borders and defeats the sense of enclosure that it creates through repetition and duplication. Words possess a pliancy or a plasticity that allows them to spread out, expand and radiate beyond anyone’s control. Swift’s novel is not just a frame for the different games that are being played but a space which accommodates this difference where play comes into its own. However the particular strength of this second novel may be felt to reside in the impression of intense confinement it produces: play always runs the risk of turning into a mechanically programmed game of fearful precision, a sophisticated contraption of unfolding mirrors. Equally, the very mobility of the text—or the play it allows—retains something disquieting. The happy resolution of the book does not prevent it from being, till the end, unsettling. It does not cancel out its discordances, the profound ambivalence between pain and pleasure, between playfulness and desperation. Nor does it bring Prentis any closer to us. Shuttlecock is particularly successful at making its narrator suspect, at constantly introducing and reintroducing distance. The reader, just like Prentis, is led to accept that stories hold together thanks to a vital blank. But the space where truth can be suspended is also a space where all lies are possible: play resists and yet includes the possibility of its own corruption. As Marc Porée puts it, ‘quand un conservateur ne conserve plus, c’est qu’il y a quelque chose de pourri au royaume des archives. De fait ‘there’s something wrong’ dans cet univers fantastique et inquiétant, à mi-chemin entre Kafka et Orwell’ (57). The confessional mode finds itself at the core of the sense of uneasiness that the reader experiences here. Not only does the confessional box appear as a place where faults are sometimes revealed be unfathomable and gaps impossible to bridge. The invisible voice that comes from ‘the other side’ drags the reader into a game of hide and seek, tries to impress on him the idea that ‘there is someone’ indeed trying to manipulate him—someone, and yet after all, no one. Despite the peace that seems to be restored at the end of the book, there remains at the back of our minds the picture of an object endlessly going back and forth, now here, now gone.

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Craps, Stef, Trauma and Ethics in the Novels of Graham Swift, Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 2005.

Fédida, Pierre, L’Absence, Paris: Gallimard, 1978.

Freud, Sigmund, Au-delà du principe de plaisir (1920), Paris: Payot, 2010.

Genette, Gérard, Figures III, Paris: Seuil, 1972.

Porée, Marc, ‘Quelques clefs pour l’imaginaire swiftien’, Graham Swift ou le temps du récit, ed. Michel Morel, Paris: Éditions Messene, 1996, 50–69.

Swift, Graham, Shuttlecock (1981), London: Picador, 1997.

Winsworth, Ben, ‘Passing Over In silence: Towards Quietism in Graham Swift’s Shuttlecock’, Voices and Silence in the Contemporary Novel in English, ed. Vanessa Guignery, Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009, 55–62.

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1 As, for example, when he asks ‘Will you believe me if I say it was all, still, out of love and pity?’ (6). Prentis is talking about his torturing of Sammy.

2 Having described the houses in Quinn’s neighbourhood as ‘smack[ing] of privilege and importance’, Prentis adds, in parentheses, for the reader’s benefit: ‘you see how I betray my envy’ (171).

3 ‘I was beginning to consider I might be wrong in my suspicions, but it was too late to call off the performance’ (80).

4 Ben Winsworth refers here to the numerous interpretations of the novel that tend to reduce the conclusion of the novel to the acceptance of a principle of relativity.

5 In chapter 2, Prentis addresses the reader with the following question : ‘Do I begin to give the impression that something is wrong in our department?’ (19).

6 ‘[Martin] does not see a man with power ; he sees the same old weakling. The only difference is that I no longer conceal it’ (210).

7 ‘Every time [Dad and I] sit on that wooden bench, which has often seemed to me like some uneasily rocking see-saw, there are no longer those sensations of tilting and swaying—as if by some mutual, tacit arrangement, we have found the perfect balance.’

‘And if the way I am talking suggests that, behind all my reticence, I really do believe that Dad did all those things that X accused him of, and that, indeed, is the reason for my retcicence, then let me assure you that that question, too, hangs like a finely poised balance’ (213).

8 ‘[rien] ne prétend que Meursault ou Malone aient écrit le texte que nous lisons comme leur monologue intérieur et il va de soi que le texte des Lauriers sont coupés ne peut être qu’un ‘courant de conscience’—ni écrit, ni même parlé—mystérieusement capté et transcrit par Dujardin: c’est le propre du discours immédiat que d’exclure toute détermination de forme de l’instance narrative qu’il constitue’ (Genette 240).

9 I use the term in reference to Dominique Rabaté’s Vers une littérature de l’épuisement, where the voice is approached as a fundamental factor of exhaustion of traditional fiction and its components.

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Pascale Tollance, « Child’s Play? Graham Swift’s Shuttlecock and Freud’s Game of the Wooden Reel »Études britanniques contemporaines, 41 | 2011, 23-36.

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Pascale Tollance, « Child’s Play? Graham Swift’s Shuttlecock and Freud’s Game of the Wooden Reel »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 41 | 2011, mis en ligne le 29 juin 2015, consulté le 25 juin 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Pascale Tollance

Université Lille 3.
Pascale Tollance is a Senior Lecturer at the Université Charles-de-Gaulle — Lille 3 (France). She wrote her PhD and several articles on Malcolm Lowry. She also works on contemporary British fiction and has published a number of articles on Graham Swift, Julian Barnes, Kazuo Ishiguro, A.S. Byatt, Jeanette Winterson and Rachel Seiffert. She is the author of a book on Graham Swift: Graham Swift. La scène de la voix (Presses du Septentrion, 2010).

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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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