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Graham Swift’s Last Orders and The Light of Day: Investigating Human Experience

Last Orders et The Light of Day de Graham Swift ou l’exploration de l’expérience humaine
Béatrice Berna
p. 73-84


Les deux romans de Graham Swift, Last Orders et The Light of Day s’ouvrent sur la mort d’un être cher. D’emblée l’étude de la vulnérabilité des hommes et de leur capacité à souffrir se trouve au cœur des deux œuvres. D’une fragile qualité de silence émergent l’attention et la réceptivité propices à l’exploration des expériences intimes douloureuses. De plus, en accord avec l’épistémè postmoderne, la prédilection de l’auteur pour le marginal, l’excentré, bouscule les certitudes acquises et les lieux communs, et favorise l’exploration de territoires intimes inconnus. Il y a parfaite adéquation entre les trajets des personnages, en suspens, entre deux destinations, et les méandres de leur méditation qui évolue au gré de monologues intérieurs. Enfin, les trajets en voiture deviennent des voyages initiatiques, propices à la réconciliation et au pardon, et les deux romans se terminent par une joyeuse épiphanie. Ainsi Graham Swift se démarque de l’ironie souvent présente dans l’art postmoderne. Il place émotions et sentiments au cœur de ses romans et en parle avec innocence.

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1In an interview published in Contemporary Literature, Graham Swift emphasises the crucial role of vulnerability in his writing: ‘Vulnerability—that’s the thing . . . I am desperate to avoid a sense of the power derived from form. I don’t want to say “look at me being clever!” instead of “look at me as someone like you!”’ (Bernard 229). Swift’s novels, Last Orders and The Light of Day, lend themselves particularly well to the study of mankind’s vulnerability and capacity for pain. Both novels begin with a death, that of a dear friend in Last Orders and a murder in The Light of Day, and the motif of death, inextricably linked with love, recurs throughout both works.

2This paper will show how the writing of both novels is devoted to the exploration of the characters’ vulnerability and personal ontological quests. To do so, it will partly borrow Jakob Winnberg’s thesis stating that ‘certain elements deemed foreign to postmodernism, such as an ethical consciousness, expressions of affect and spiritual concerns, may in fact be quite symbiotic with it’ (Winnberg 33). Hence the purpose of this paper is to assess how, contrary to some postmodern literature, Graham Swift is successful in placing emotions and feelings, and a true ethical meditation, at the core of his novels.

3First the texts will be shown to contain instances of silence which create the essential freedom and limitlessness to investigate the intimate, fragile territories of human vulnerability. They also foster sensitivity and receptivity to feelings and emotions, or to the power to be affected in the Levinasian sense, so that the mystery of human emotions can be best apprehended. A second point will focus on Graham Swift’s choice of precise, ex-centric and marginal locations for his novels, as opposed to the unifying, traditionally totalising centre, which is a perfect metaphor for the characters’ investigation of personal, unchartered territories, rather than well tested ethical theories. Furthermore, the fact that the characters are travelling, in between destinations for most of the novels, is in keeping with their ongoing personal investigation. Last, the diegeses will be shown to gradually depart from the sheer, obsolete representation of the reality of a day trip, into a journey of initiation, a spiritual and ethical meditation on loss, mourning, and guilt and an attempt to heal from them.

4Emotions are de facto central to the narratives of Last Orders and The Light of Day since the homodiegetic narrators of the novels speak from the vantage point of painful personal loss. In Last Orders four characters travel to Margate to carry out the last wishes of a dear friend and scatter his ashes into the sea. In The Light of Day, George travels to put flowers on Bob’s grave on the anniversary of his murder by his wife, whom George loves and will visit in prison later that day. Hence, the narrators of both novels are, from the start, portrayed as vulnerable, and their tales are filled with their sense of mourning and grief, which they relate in the form of inner monologues and from which silence rather than spoken words seems to emerge. Silence is further generated by the fact that there is often no action, as the narrators are simply travelling in their cars, or waiting, which are essentially silent activities. As George indicates, ‘Is there a life anyway which isn’t half made of waiting? Studded with detention? “Worth the wait.” “Give it time.” Nothing good can be hurried . . .’ (Swift 2003, 187). As a result the rhythm of the novels is slow and sometimes pauses are indicated graphically in the text by a blank space, or by asterisks (Swift 2003, 22, 24, 110, 118, 120, 139, 143, 162, 193, 322). Silence also results from George’s inconspicuous and laconic style. His concise style leaves enough space and silence in the text for noticing small occurrences and resonances. In Making an Elephant, Graham Swift explains that ‘the spaces between and around words can have their unspoken resonances’ (Swift 2009, 103). He compares writing to music as ‘a communication without words, in which the silences count as much as the notes’ (Swift 2009, 103), hence the abundance of textual lacunae, gaps conjured up by plays on words, the revival of clichés and questions without answers. In The Light of Day, the rhetorical question: ‘What is civilisation for?’ is asked five times (Swift 2003, 25, 63, 131, 166, 289), this repetition gives the question a prominent place, and the silence which follows makes all answers possible. Similarly, ‘Why do people spend money on flowers?’ appears also on five occasions, sometimes partially (Swift 2003, 13, 43, 71, 73, 305); furthermore the query is sometimes combined with a series of unanswered questions, as in the following paragraph: ‘But for pity’s sake. Or charity’s. Since wasn’t that the point? If you have everything, then shouldn’t you be able to afford that? And to look out from your window at the world now and then? Why do people spend money on flowers?’ (Swift 2003, 43) Here again, answers are not provided which creates unlimited freedom to explore possible answers in the silence that follows the questions. Similarly, there is infinite resonance in the clichés that abound in the texts such as ‘money for old rope’ (Swift 2003 21, 26). Paronomasia adds a further level of meaning to the mere realistic description of a scene, as well as a certain playfulness in the novels, thereby creating pause for thoughts. On the day when he first meets Sarah, George describes the women who seek his help as ‘Dressed to kill’ (Swift 2003, 18), and of course Sarah was not only very well dressed but also about to murder her husband. Later in the novel, he describes Sarah’s old house, and mentions ‘a kitchen to die for. At a bargain price. And [the new owners] might have sold on, for a small killing . . .’ (Swift 2003, 35). The double entendre is all the more powerful as the reader knows that Sarah has stabbed her husband in the kitchen of the same house.

5Furthermore, a sense of silence prevails in both novels, since the silence of death predates the narration, and is continued in the absent presence of loved ones. Jack and Bob are dead at the start of the novels, but they are an integral part of the diegesis, Jack is even the narrator of a whole eponymous chapter of Last Orders. Similarly Sarah is eminently present in The Light of Day, and yet she is away in prison where she first takes refuge in silence, and in Last Orders, June remains resolutely silent in her mental institution. Furthermore, the characters’ inner monologues are by nature silent voices. The precious, fragile quality of silence conjures up an attentive and receptive disposition for the narrators to explore the aporetic realm of death and the irreducibility of loss, and for the readers to feel connected to their tales. It allows the readers to apprehend a sense of the other in the Levinasian sense, all the more so, as Jakob Winnberg states, as death brings to the fore essential notions of alterity and vulnerability: ‘death rather makes evident the infinitude of the other’ (Winnberg 163). In a similar way, Graham Swift states that ‘the fundamental task of literature is to enable us to enter imaginatively experiences other than our own’ (Swift 1988, 20). The silence in the text encourages a close connection with the private tales of the characters, their otherness, and what echoes with the readers’ own experience. Vic describes this sense of both the solitude and the communality of our human experience on the night his grandfather died: ‘. . . each of us was like Gramps lying awake in that strange ward with all those other men around him, but alone, and all those other men alone too, like we were all together in this house but alone really, each of us in our beds, tucked up like we would one day forever and ever’ (Swift 1996, 124–125). This is the tale of a private experience which, in the words of Adriana Cavarero, exemplifies that ‘What it is to be human, to be ethical and to be narrative are similar issues. As Bakthin suggests, to be human is to enter into with conversation narratives from which we gain an understanding of ourselves and of the rest of the world in which we live’ (IX).

6In keeping with his desire to apprehend fragile, spiritual realms, Graham Swift marks a total departure from the noisy omniscience and omnipresence of third-person narratives, to let his characters investigate their life experiences in silent, intimate and fragile first-person inner monologues. In an interview published in The Guardian, Graham Swift says: ‘it always seems to me that in the third person one is above the characters, looking down on them in a rather chess-playing fashion, and I don’t want to have that elevated, omniscient role’ (Swift 1988, 20). This delegation of authorial power is reflected in the text by the fragmentation and the temporal dislocation of the narrations which escape strictly linear and predictable chronologies, so as to better follow the logic and progress of the characters’ intimate ontological investigation. Hence the diegeses of the two novels are broken into micro stories interspersed in layers of different time sequences, so that the novels are kaleidoscopes of first person narratives. Mark Ledbetter emphasises the essential role of broken story lines to express meaning too essential to be expressed by words:

Could it be that an interruption in the text, where the story line appears broken and our own expectations for the narrative are not met, is the narrative’s most profound and defining moment? Could the story be calling us to a closer look at its failure to clarify an issue that is simply too complex and ambiguous to be settled by simple description and narrative consistency? (Ledbetter 2)

Furthermore, as the storylines of both novels are disrupted by memories, analepses and prolepses, a sense of confusion emerges which echoes the author’s choice to explore the confusion and doubt inherent in investigating personal painful experiences.

Following the same strategy, and in keeping with the postmodern episteme, Graham Swift chooses to locate his novels precisely and away from the centre. As Linda Hutcheon explains,

If the centre will not hold . . . the move to rethink margins and borders is clearly a move away from centralisation with its associated concerns with origin, oneness and monumentality that work to link the concept of centre to those of the eternal and universal. The local, the regional, the non-totalising are reasserted as the center becomes a fiction—necessary, desired, but a fiction nonetheless. (Hutcheon 58)

7Thus, in the postmodern world the centre still exists, but only as ‘an attractive fiction of order’ (Hutcheon 60) symbolising a general, overwhelming confidence in the values of Western civilisation. Hence Graham Swift chooses the ex-centric, the off-centre, and the margins, when he locates The Light of Day in the leafy middle class suburbs of Wimbledon, Fulham and Chislehurst. In doing so he contests ‘the centralisation of culture through the valuing of the local and peripheral’ (Hutcheon 61). Indeed, the recurring question ‘what is civilisation for?’ (Swift 2003, 25, 63, 131, 166, 289) is increasingly loaded with irony, so much so that it becomes a provocative exclamation rather than a proper question. Similarly, the centre does exist in Last Orders, but it no longer holds. Jack Dodds, from ‘Dodds and Son, family butcher since 1903’ (Swift 1996, 27) can no longer make a living. His old way of life is bankrupt and threatened by supermarkets. The Smithfield he describes belongs to an obsolete, more glorious past. Vince remembers Jack saying:

How Smithfield was the true centre, the true heart of London. Bleeding heart, of course, on account of the meat. How Smithfield wasn’t just Smithfield, it was life and death. Because just across from the meat market there was St Bart’s hospital, and just across from Bart’s was your Old Bailey Central Criminal Court, on the site of old Newgate prison, where they used to string’ hem up regular.(Swift 1996–27)

8The centre of London is a palimpsest, the Old Bailey is built on the site of the former Newgate prison; it is the basis of a solid, tested ethics of law and order. Following a similar logic, the characters of Last Orders move increasingly away from London throughout the novel, as they are tipped off balance by their traumatic experiences of death and loss. This geographical decentred perspective is a perfect metaphor for the characters’ increasing questioning of the basis of certainty, and exploration of new territories in their ontological quest. As they move away from the centre, they question what happens in death, whether ‘ashes is ashes’ (Swift 1996, 30), and nothing more, as Lenny says, or whether there is an afterlife and the dead are in some sort of relationship with the living, as Vince suggests. In The Light of Day, George meditates on the major turns of events in his life and how they came about, instances when ‘You cross a line,’ an expression repeated seven times in the novel (Swift 2003, 3, 11, 53, 133, 198, 224, 243) or when ‘Something’s come over you’ also occurring on seven occasions in the novel (Swift 2003, 3, 9, 28, 94, 160, 298, 302). Vic in Last Orders urges that ‘you shouldn’t judge’ (Swift 1996, 30). This pause in the characters’ immediate, standardised judgement allows them to investigate further unknown  grounds.

9The ethical investigation at the core of the novels is the main feature of the novels which is made possible by a very simple unobtrusive plot for both narratives: to perform a journey by car, on a single day. For most of Last Orders and The Light of Day the characters are on their way, ‘in between,’ in suspense, away from their familiar landmarks. In The Light of Day, George spends 37 out of 67 chapters, alone in his car and revisits the motif of the urban flâneur; however in his car he is at a distance from the outside world. In (Re-) Mapping London, Visions of the Metropolis in the Contemporary Novel in English, Vanessa Guignery explains that ‘The contemporary urban stroller differs from the original [modernist] model in that s/he does not fully engage with the outer world but views it from a distant and sometimes estranged perspective’ (Guignery 16), which is in keeping with the characters’ de-centred perspective. In Last Orders, Mandy explains how the journey she took was essential, in itself, irrespective of its destination: ‘The road went on, black and curving and cat’s eyed like the one sure thing in the wet and the dark and the spray, some sure thing in the world. Not the place from or the place to but the road’ (Swift 1996, 153). Amy also stresses how precious her journeys on bus 44 have been over the years and says ‘I like to think while I’m journeying, while I’m in between’ (Swift 1996, 230). She claims: ‘This is where I belong, upstairs on this bus. It seems to me that for years now I’ve been more at home on a number 44 than I have been anywhere else. Neither here nor there, just travelling in between’ (Swift 1996, 228). Similarly, the meditative journey at the core of both novels is endless, and in progress, ‘in between’: suffering can be meditated upon, but reaching any final conclusion would be totalising and therefore arrogant and wrong. Suffering can be addressed by our understanding but never fully comprehended or grasped. The narrative voices are also in keeping with the motif of being ‘in between’ in the sense that they seem to have no external omniscient authorial origin and no addressee, not even an implied reader. This gives them an infinite, limitless quality, perfectly adapted to the free indirect narrations, which naturally follow the logic of the characters’ thought associations, reveries, and their intimate reflexions.

10The diegesis thus gradually departs from the sheer, obsolete representation of the reality of a day trip, and turns into a spiritual and ethical meditation in both novels. Their aesthetic set up, which conjures up silence and introspection, naturally encourages the recollection of the past. Jakob Winnberg describes the four friends’ day trip in Last Orders as a journey of ‘introspection and revelation [which] acquires an overtly spiritual dimension’ (Winnberg 164). Indeed, along the journey, even the most confident characters come to revisit their painful past and investigate the conflicts which have marred their lives. Lenny, for example, experiences some revelation as he returns to his past and comes to doubt his decision to make his daughter have an abortion; and he wonders what might have been if she had kept Vince’s baby. Thus the characters engage in a spiritual quest to comprehend painful events, and come to terms with them. In this sense, Jakob Winnberg argues that death plays a crucial role in narratives in that ‘[it] is made meaningful as the clearing of a space for summation of and reconciliation with, the past and now’ (Winnberg 164). Similarly, in The Light of Day, George relives endlessly in his mind the traumatic events of the day of Bob’s murder: ‘Every moment, every clue. Reliving it . . . Every twist’ (Swift 2003, 209). The novel is a long anamnesis, and George’s fascination for details betrays the urgency he feels to make sense of the trauma in his life, and his recollections are tortured by doubt and remorse. George is a private detective and he carries out a meticulous, intimate investigation into the unknown territory of painful feelings and emotions which are put to the fore of his narration. He wonders in agony: ‘should I have stopped watching? Got out, crossed the street, tapped [Bob] on the shoulder? Made it my business?’ (Swift 2003, 242) He revisits the events of the fatal day over and over again and imagines different outcomes, in an attempt to gently exorcise the horror and inevitability of death: ‘how many times have I imagined it, rehearsed it?’ (Swift 2003, 281–282), in the hope to ‘Rewind the clocks. Relive it... It might be different this time’ (Swift 2003, 224). His recollections become an ontological quest as he attempts to make some sense of the chaos which follows Bob’s murder and the ensuing debunking of formerly reassuring assumptions. In both novels, death is the pivotal event which engages the narrators into a spiritual quest about their own predicament, and also into a more universal ontological reflexion on human experience. As Graham Swift explains: ‘the local is the key to the universal, to what may be true about human nature anywhere’ (Swift 2004). However, ‘words aren’t things’ (Swift 2003, 226), as George says, and the realm of the unknown, which the characters investigate, is once again best apprehended in the silence built into the text, bearing the fading echo of unanswered questions.

11Hence the journey in both novels becomes a process of initiation, reconciliation and forgiveness. In Last Orders, the journey of the four friends gradually turns into a pilgrimage which allows them to heal their wounds. Interestingly the four friends start their journey on the Old Kent Road, the very road which would have been travelled by Chaucer’s pilgrims, and stop on their way to visit Canterbury Cathedral, where Ray makes a decisive comment about his friends: ‘The sky’s dark and threatening and the wind’s cold but they don’t look like they’re getting peeved. They look like they’re glad to be together, like all’s forgiven’ (Swift 2003, 225). Finally, at the end of the novel, Ray says:

Then I throw the last handful and the seagulls come back on a second chance and I hold up the jar, shaking it like I should chuck it out to the, a message in a bottle, Jack Arthur Dodds, save our souls, and the ash that I carried in my hands, which was the Jack who once walked around, is carried away by the wind, is whirled away by the wind till the ash becomes wind and the wind becomes Jack what we’re made of. (Swift 1996, 294–295)

12The novel ends on a beautiful epiphany or what Levinas would call a ‘true ethical moment’, or ‘the risky uncovering of oneself, in sincerity, the breaking up of inwardness and abandon of all shelter, exposure to traumas, vulnerability’ (Levinas 48). At the end of Last Orders the characters abandon all shelter, both literally as they are exposed to terrible weather at the end of a deserted pier and also, more poignantly, because they come to experience the horrendous reality of the ashes of a dear friend in their hands. Jakob Winnberg emphasises the enchanting quality of the final epiphany ‘Given the setting [Margate], it also seems a riposte to T.S. Eliot’s famous lines, “On Margate sands, I can connect/ Nothing with nothing” (from The Wasteland). We have moved from Modernist disillusion to postmodernist re-enchantment, then: Ray is rather connecting everything with everything’ (Winnberg 170). Indeed, it seems that Jack’s individual story reaches universal significance, the past and present are reconciled, and all seems connected and at peace. The Light of Day also concludes with a joyful epiphany, when the meaning of the title is fully revealed in a final prolepsis, when George imagines Sarah leaving the four walls of her prison cell, at long last, able to enter fully into ‘the light of day’:

But tomorrow will be like today, brilliant, blue, and still.
I want it to be like today. When I’m there, when I’m waiting, heart thudding, my breath billowing before my eyes, when she comes back, steps out at last into the clear light of day.

13George can achieve some reconciliation after death, and speak innocently about a possible future, without irony. In both novels there is no narrative closure but rather an open endedness which allows hope for the future. Graham Swift thus disengages from the sense of abandon and aporia generally found in postmodern art. He allows the return of the warmth of humanity and feelings to the field of literature and creates an aesthetics of innocence.

14In an interview published in Contemporary Literature, Graham Swift explains that the role of the author is deeply moral because ‘all morality, all real morality, rests on doing what a novelist makes a speciality of, that is attempting to get inside the experience of others’ (quoted in Bernard 224). In this sense, both Last Orders and The Light of Day are deeply moral: they are intimate first-person narratives in which the narrators appear at their most vulnerable as they deal with mourning, and investigate their painful human predicament. Furthermore, the silence of death predates the narrations of both Last Orders and The Light of Day, which is hardly breached by the silent voices of inner monologues. This unchartered fragile dimension of silence encourages attentiveness and receptiveness, both for the characters to investigate the unknown territories of their personal painful experiences, and for the readers to be able to connect with them. The task is delicate, and can be best apprehended between the words, in the silence of the lacunas, fading echoes and gaps in the texts. Furthermore, Graham Swift’s postmodern predilection for the off-centre, the eccentric and the marginal, tips both readers and narrators off balance, encourages doubts and moves the exploration away from any totalising, tested truth. The characters are travelling; they are ‘in between’ destinations for most of the novels, which is a perfect metaphor for the meditation brought about by their inner monologues. Finally, the day trips become journeys of initiation during which the characters explore the conflicts which have marred their lives, their remorse and pain. They become journeys of healing, reconciliation and forgiveness, and both novels end on hopeful epiphanies.

15The tone is always extremely earnest, Graham Swift marks a sharp departure from the irony often found in postmodern art. About Last Orders John Banville said that it ‘seeks to reaffirm the values of decency, loyalty, and love’ (Banville). Indeed, Graham Swift’s aesthetics places feelings and emotions at the core of his novels, and enables him to speak about them with innocence.

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Banville, John, ‘“That’s Life!”, review of Last Orders’, New York Review of Books, April 4 1996, last accessed on 3 June 2011:

Bernard, Catherine, ‘An Interview with Graham Swift’, Contemporary Literature 38.2 (1996): 219–231.

Cavarero, Adriana, Relating Narratives: Storytelling and Selfhood, trans. Paul Kottman, London: Routledge, 2000.

Guignery, Vanessa, ‘Fictions of London,’ (Re-)Mapping London, Visions of the Metropolis in the Contemporary Novel in English, ed. Vanessa Guignery, Paris: Publibook (2008): 11–18.

Hutcheon, Linda, A Poetics of Postmodernism, London: Routledge, 1988.

Ledbetter, Mark, Victims and the Postmodern Narrative, or Doing Violence to the Body, New York: St Martin’s, 1996.

Levinas, Emmanuel, Otherwise than Being, Or Beyond Essence, Pittsburg: Duquesne UP, 1998.

Swift, Graham, ‘Throwing off Our Inhibitions’, The Times, March 5 1988: 20.

Swift, Graham, Last Orders, London: Picador, 1996.

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

Swift, Graham, ‘Interview with Graham Swift’ Penguin Readers’ Group Website, 2004, last accessed on 3 June 2011:

Swift, Graham, Making an Elephant, London: Picador, 2009.

Winnberg, Jakob, An Aesthetic of Vulnerabilty: The Sentimentum and the Novels of Graham Swift, Gothenburg: Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis, 2003.

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Béatrice Berna

École normale supérieure de Lyon.
Béatrice Berna est agrégée d’anglais et enseigne à l’Université Paris Descartes. Elle a publié des articles sur les phénomènes d’intertextualité et de représentation dans The Light of Day de Graham Swift, et prépare actuellement une thèse de doctorat à l’École normale supérieure de Lyon sur les effets de voix et jeux de silence dans l’œuvre de Graham Swift.

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