Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNuméros41No ‘screaming and shrieking in th...

No ‘screaming and shrieking in the wind’: The Playfulness of Reticence in Graham Swift’s Last Orders, The Light of Day, and Tomorrow

Sans « cris et hurlements dans le vent » : Pudeur des sentiments et jeux de l’émotion dans trois romans de Graham Swift
Catherine Pesso-Miquel
p. 85-104


Cet article s’intéresse à la difficulté d’écrire l’émotion dans une œuvre littéraire. Il analyse le traitement des émotions dans trois romans de Swift, Last Orders, The Light of Day, et Tomorrow, et la façon dont Swift maintient en tension d’une part la mise sous silence des émotions trop fortes, et d’autre part une mise à distance ludique et humoristique de l’émotion. L’article tente aussi de montrer que le traitement de l’émotion est différent selon que le roman ait un narrateur unique, ou des narrateurs multiples, comme dans Last Orders. L’argumentation se termine avec une étude de l’influence sur Swift des Essais de Montaigne, liée à l’expression de cette émotion atavique qu’est la peur de la mort.

Haut de page

Texte intégral

1At the end of Graham Swift’s Last Orders, the four characters about to scatter their friend’s ashes reach the end of Margate Pier and look back at the town, ‘across through the murk’. Catching sight of the big wheel and the dipper, Ray imagines that, in spite of the foul weather, ‘there’s some mad buggers up there right now, in the swaying seats, in the rattling cars, screaming and shrieking in the wind and the rain like they’re crazier than we are’ (Swift 1996, 291). Although the language of emotion is here reminiscent of the idiom of the romantic novel (Wuthering Heights in particular), such ‘screaming and shrieking’ would be, for those imaginary ‘buggers,’ an instinctive, non verbalised means of unleashing their thrilling feelings of exhilaration. This unashamed indulgence of raw emotion is precisely what Ray and his friends will not allow themselves, even if Ray does feel an inner pressure building up, which he compares to the waves now lashing out at the pier, while the waves themselves are compared to ‘mad animal[s]’: ‘there’s something swelling up inside me, in my chest, . . . like there’s waves beating at my own harbour wall’ (289).

2When he feels his tears begin to fall, he is ‘glad that all the noise and commotion mean . . . that Vincey can’t be sure of what’s going on in [his] face’ (290). Swift in fact gives his characters the very quality of diffidence (the contrary of impudence and display) which characterises him as a person and author. Like their creator, Swift’s characters are reluctant to reveal themselves; they feel what the French call la pudeur des sentiments, from the Latin pudere, describing a delicate, modest feeling of reluctance and shame that the ugly English word ‘pudency’ cannot adequately translate.

  • 1 See the two volumes edited by Jean-Michel Ganteau and Christine Reynier on impersonality and emotio (...)

3This feeling makes the difficult task of convincingly verbalising emotion in literature even more problematic, as Graham Swift is well aware. In an essay about the shooting by Fred Schepisi of the film based on Last Orders, he noted that he shared with the film director ‘an abiding obsession’ about ‘the mysteries of how best to tell a story, of how best to impart information and emotion’ (Swift 2009, 338).1 He is wary however of thinking too much about the problem: ‘[His] biggest fear all the time is to lose the real inspiration. If you sit and think carefully and systematically about something, your fear is that such thinking will cancel out the real emotion’ (368–369).

  • 2 See also Georges Letissier’s article on The Light of Day, in which Swift’s treatment of emotion and (...)
  • 3 Paula’s fond memory of her first night of love with Mike insists on the simultaneity of sex and sel (...)

4Swift’s characters keep a particularly tight rein on their emotions, although, in Last Orders, The Light of Day and Tomorrow, all the ‘narrators’, for want of a better word, are first-person narrators, to whose private thoughts the reader is made privy. They are supposed to be thinking, not writing in order to be read (as is the case for Bill Unwin in Ever After, who regularly refers to his ‘notes’). In The Light of Day however the narrative situation is a little more complex;2 the text is not a straightforward ‘inner monologue’, since George Webb is also learning how to write, coached by Sarah Nash. In Tomorrow Paula’s ‘thoughts’ are partly a ‘narrative’ because they constitute a kind of dress rehearsal of the great revelation planned on the morrow,3 but the private, intimate nature of the monologue is often foregrounded, as Paula mentally addresses her twins. So, if we posit the basic ‘private’ nature of the monologues, if the characters are ‘talking’ to themselves, obviously unaware of being eavesdropped upon in the privacy of their own minds, why should they be reticent about their emotions? And yet they often are coy and unforthcoming, unwilling to acknowledge their fears and passions, even to themselves. At other times, their reticence takes another form, because to alleviate the pain and avoid embarrassing triteness they use playful strategies of deflection and obliquity. This paper will examine how, in the selected novels, Swift maintains a masterful balance between the silencing of emotion in literature, and verbal games that obliquely reveal ‘real emotion’ while doing justice to its complex, delicate nature. The analysis will start by examining the role of silence of the trope which represents a ‘falling into silence’, i.e. aposiopesis. Then the paper will examine Swift’s strategies of displacement and obliquity, and the use he makes of point of view and focalisation, before showing how he allows his characters to deal with that most universal and powerful emotion, the fear of death.

Reticence and Aposiopesis: Falling into Silence

  • 4 ‘[Y]et he himself remained unmoved, without uttering a word, his eyes fixed upon the ground’ (Charl (...)
  • 5 ‘[H]e fell to tearing his hair and beating his breast, with all the other extravagances of extreme (...)
  • 6 ‘[B]ecause only this last affliction was to be manifested by tears, the two first far exceeding all (...)

5Why do the characters censor their own feelings? Sometimes it is simply because emotion is beyond any possible expression. Montaigne’s second essay, ‘De la Tristesse’, written when he was mourning the death of Étienne de la Boétie, is devoted to the emotion of extreme sadness, and seeks to warn men against the dangerous attractions of extreme melancholy, and against their incapacity to resist the strength of their own emotions. Montaigne tells the story of Psammenitus, an Egyptian King who was defeated by Cambise, King of Persia, and who saw his son slaughtered and his daughter turned into a captive servant. Faced with this spectacle, the King did not react, ‘[il] se tint coi sans mot dire, les yeux fichés en terre’.4 But a little later, upon catching sight of one of his servants, led away among other prisoners, he broke out into demonstrations of extreme distress, ‘il se mit à battre sa tête, et mener un deuil extrême5 (Montaigne I, 2, 126). When asked why, he answered that only the last, lesser evil could be translated into an expression of grief: ‘ce seul dernier déplaisir se peut signifier par larmes, les deux premiers surpassant de bien loin tout moyen de se pouvoir exprimer6 (127).

6This silence is a form of ‘reticence’, a word derived from a Latin word meaning to keep silent; in French the word réticence has the same meaning, but it is also used as a synonym for the rhetorical device known as ‘aposiopesis’, a word which has a Greek etymology. Laurence Sterne famously linked reticence and playfulness when he imagined a conversation between the Shandy brothers, Toby and Walter, on the subject of Mrs Shandy’s preference of a midwife over a male doctor, Dr Slop. To explain her baffling choice, Uncle Toby tentatively suggested:‘My sister, I dare say, . . . does not care to let a man come so near her ****’. At that precise moment however, the sound of Walter’s pipe breaking interrupted the sentence. Tristram ‘will not say’ whether uncle Toby ‘had completed the sentence or not’, and he comments:

If . . . my uncle Toby had not fully arrived at the period’s end,—then the world stands indebted to the sudden snapping of my father’s tobacco-pipe, for one of the neatest examples of that ornamental figure in oratory, which Rhetoricians stile the Aposiopesis.— . . . ‘My sister, mayhap,’ quoth my uncle Toby, ‘does not choose to let a man come so near her ****.’ Make this dash,—’tis an Aposiopesis.—Take the dash away, and write Backside,—’tis Bawdy. Scratch Backside out, and put Covered way in, ’tis a Metaphor . . . . (Sterne 1985, II, 6, 119–120)

7Sterne is here playing with orality and textuality, since when spoken orally the sentence sounds as if it ended with a full stop after ‘near her’, yet the fact (unmentioned in Tristram’s exegesis) that four asterisks are printed in the text invites the reader to think up alternative sentences ending with a variety of possible four-letter words, ‘bawdy’ or otherwise.

  • 7 ‘The true swell, which gives the true pleasure’ (Sterne II, 6, 120); compare with Ray’s unambiguous (...)

8Aposiopeses are abundant in Graham Swift’s novels, and are used for a variety of reasons and effects, to express deep emotion, to cut emotion short, to prevent it from ‘swelling’, to use another of Sterne’s innuendoes,7 and also, as with Sterne, to create a clipped, witty and playful type of humour. If Swift often materialises aposiopeses with a dash, he also interrupts sentences with a full stop, or even without the use of any sign of punctuation. The use of a dash, like that of suspension marks, creates a breathing, open space which the reader is silently invited to fill in by finding appropriate words; it invites empathy, the blooming of emotion rather than its curtailing. When Ray, wondering at his wife’s betrayal of him, finds himself both imagining and denying his own potential pairing with the woman he has always secretly dreamed about, he cannot bring himself to pronounce her name. The reader however has no such bashfulness, and provides the missing word, i.e. ‘Amy’: ‘I couldn’t imagine [Carol] with another man, even when I knew she had one. Barry Stokes. As daft as imagining me with—’ (Swift 1996, 100).

9Once, no punctuation at all is used, and this time it is Amy’s voice that trails off into nothingness, leaving the sentence incomplete, as Amy imagines having to tell her idiot daughter June about the death of her father: ‘That your own daddy, who never came to see you, who you never knew because he never wanted to know you, that your own daddy’ (278); not only the sentence, but also the page and the chapter all end on a blank, without any full stop, before a new chapter begins.

10Elsewhere a period brutally cuts off the unfinished sentence; there is no dash to suggest the unsaid. Thus signifiers such as ‘death’ or ‘dead’ are denied any presence at all, be it ghostly or euphemistic: ‘Bexhill-on-Sea. That’s where people go when’ (124). Sometimes the severed sentence simply functions as an impatient way of shrugging off and cutting short a cliché, as when Amy muses on her daughter’s deformed shape, and wonders what it is like to live in such a body all the time: ‘Which shouldn’t be so difficult, should it, since it was once part of mine? Flesh of my’ (274). The incompleteness of the set phrase ‘flesh of my flesh’ is very apt, since it mirrors the fact that June’s ‘flesh’ is defective, that it ‘came together’, but ‘not quite together, not quite’ (238). Therefore the terseness of parataxis and aposiopesis combine, creating a harness for emotion.

11The same device can also serve as a kind of shorthand: thus Vince both avoids and foregrounds the painful revelation of his origins in an incomplete and enigmatic sentence: ‘This is where’ (151), a phrase that might puzzle the other characters but not the reader. It is taken up again by Amy’s own version of the same shorthand technique: ‘This was where. Here, in the garden of’ (240, echoing 151 and 64). Swift playfully uses it also in one of Vic’s monologues: ‘So this is where’ (214). Using a full stop to end an incomplete sentence can thus function as a kind of summary, a way of avoiding repetition while putting the reader to contribution, and a way of alluding to emotional fragments without fuss: a British, stiff upper lip, no-nonsense approach to emotion. In Tomorrow Paula is very reserved in her elegy to her father, sometimes reduced to a brief nominal sentence, ‘Oh Daddy.’ (Swift 2007, 110): the period censors her sigh and cuts short what should otherwise have been an exclamatory sentence. Paula stifles her daughterly woe just as she polishes her performance as ‘the brisk, emotion-quashing mother’ (145).

12And yet the same decapitating device can be used for a comic effect. Thus Vic’s strong feelings of antipathy for the receptionist at June’s Home, where he has come to release the body of a dead patient, find relief in an ironical use of his professional language. As he waits for the receptionist to see to the official forms, Vic muses that ‘the next main event’ for Amy’s idiot daughter June will be her death: ‘Some day someone will do this for June, someone will come with the papers. Release of the body’ (Swift 1996, 213). The official phrase is used by Vic both technically and sympathetically, since June’s life is a form of death-in-life for which death will indeed be a merciful release. But his attention is soon caught by the sour receptionist, whose appearance and scornful superciliousness are brilliantly sketched: ‘She had hair permed stiff as wire and glasses hanging from her neck on a chain’ and she ‘view[ed] suspicious as inferior, everyone as Beaky face, twisty mouth.’ This provokes Vic to think: ‘And you too, sweetheart, one day, you too. Release of the body’ (213).

Strategies of Displacement and Obliquity

  • 8 See also Jakob Winnberg’s article, ‘Eliot in reverse: Postmodern Sentimentality in Graham Swift’s E (...)

13Swift’s characters are wary of using certain words that are laden with associations and connotations, such as ‘love’. Umberto Eco8 famously defined the postmodern attitude as that of a man who cannot say to a woman ‘“I love you madly”, because he knows that she knows (and that she knows that he knows) that these words have already been written by Barbara Cartland’ (Eco 227). Swift’s characters, most of whom would not have the foggiest idea what the word ‘postmodernism’ might mean, studiously avoid using the word ‘love’. In Last Orders, Ray acknowledges his feelings for Amy through the use of a diffident euphemism: ‘I’d just had this thing about her always’, but although the scene is told in terms that are a little reminiscent of Eco’s postmodernist games, Ray is incapable of sustaining the pretence, and his sincerity betrays him when he tries to mention to Amy, in an offhand manner, that he saw her photograph before he even met her. His voice ‘wasn’t like [he] meant it to be, like he was just playing a game, answering a riddle, it came out different, it came out sort of like the truth’. This had prompted Amy to look at him ‘long and hard, soft and sharp at the same time’ and Ray adds: ‘and that was when I knew that she knew, or that she’d wondered all along. That I’d just had this thing about her, always’ (Swift 1996, 170).

14George Webb, in The Light of Day, resorts to a similar strategy, avoiding the word ‘love’, carefully choosing pronouns or euphemisms instead: ‘They say it can happen all at once, in a flash, and you think that’s just talk, a story, that’s for kids not for grown-ups’ (Swift 2003, 69–70). His own secretary, unwilling to put too much stress on his feelings, reprovingly repeats the phrase with which she opens the novel, ‘Something’s come over you’ (3, 21, 70), a phrase that George thoughtfully ponders, ‘Something happens. “Something comes over us,” we say’ (7), before finally accepting and appropriating it, since Rita’s phrase, without the quotation marks, becomes part of George’s inner monologue (70). The threadbare expression ‘love at first sight’ is carefully avoided but conspicuously alluded to when George gets his ‘first sight’ of Kristina (the phrase is repeated twice) and begins to wonder what could possibly explain Bob’s passion for her. He finds the answer in his own emotions: ‘But didn’t I know, by then, there’s no telling how it strikes?’ (125, emphasis mine).

  • 9 For an analysis of the knight imagery, see Pesso-Miquel 136.

15Like the hero of The Sweetshop Owner who is compared to ‘a knight laying down arms’9 (Swift 1983, 26), both Ray and George have a chivalrous, humble, self-denying attitude towards the woman they love, and they hardly dare aspire to being noticed by her. George is very much aware of this, and often makes fun of his selfless devotion for Sarah, or of the chivalrous instinct that made him bold on first meeting his wife-to-be, Rachel. Punning on his first name, he comments: ‘I was Saint Bloody George riding to the rescue’ (Swift 2003, 86), before derisively underlining how his own reference to Rachel is ridiculously redolent of the codes and conventions of chivalry: ‘“This lady!”’ When he has to admit his selflessness (‘To love is to serve’ [156]), he characteristically debunks his own heroism with a mocking, self-derogatory comment: ‘The glow of virtue. Saint George’ (156).

16George does come to terms with his own chivalric leanings and even accepts to use the word ‘love’ (‘what else is love for?’ [130]), but when he recounts one of the climactic scenes of the novel, his return to Sarah’s house on the night of the killing, he resorts again to the use of the small, unobtrusive, modest pronoun ‘it’, and to parataxis, but this spare, unassuming prose is sincerity and despair itself, far beyond any eloquence, and contains layers of compacted meanings:

Sarah was sitting in a chair . . . . A policewoman was standing beside her. In different circumstances, in a different story, the policewoman’s arm might have been around her. And if I hadn’t known it before (but I did), I knew it now. If I hadn’t felt it before, I felt it now. A stab to the heart.
Bob’s body was between us. We looked at each other, amazed. I might have sworn it aloud, there and then, in front of police witnesses. Ends of the earth. Beyond (219).

  • 10 Droogstoppel, the unromantic and complacent coffee broker in Max Havelaar, particularly disapproves (...)
  • 11 Just as the phrase ‘falling out of love’ is avoided but enacted in neologism and metaphor when Rach (...)

17The pronoun ‘it’ refers both to what happened just a few moments before, and to the sudden revelation, or ‘epiphany’, of his own devotion for Sarah. The phrase ‘a stab to the heart’ is used economically in both literal and metaphorical senses (the husband has been stabbed to death, George by Cupid’s arrow). George, the tough, pragmatic cop and private eye, is suddenly struck by the force and the relevance of the idea that a true lover would follow his beloved ‘to the end of the earth’, even though this hackneyed romantic hyperbole is often the butt of ridicule.10 Set phrases, freely used again and again, allow shallow, conventional feelings to masquerade as passion. The terse, clipped nominal sentences (‘Ends of the earth. Beyond.’) avoid the bathos and bombast of an exclamatory, hyperbolic grammatical structure; they echo the cliché the better to dismantle it, paring it down to its bare bones, and thus the devalued linguistic currency is given a new worth, and the brutality and violence of a true emotion are revealed. The image also introduces the ideas of risk and falling, so that another cliché, ‘falling in love’, hovers between those lines, deliberately unuttered.11 This detail takes its place within the recurrent ‘falling’ imagery in the novel, present in George’s nightmares after the Dyson episode: ‘Falling. Off the edge, off the cliff of life’ (49).

18The action in The Light of Day, as in Last Orders (as in Ulysses or Mrs Dalloway), spans only one day, but in the former novel that particular day is the second anniversary of a tragic murder, and George, as the time when the killing draws near, wishes he could stay with Sarah, ‘holding her hand’ (155), another linguistic cliché which is deliberately used both in its trite metaphorical meaning (consolation) and in a literal sense (as if the clock could be wound back, as if the hand could be stayed and the killing avoided).

19The parting scene between Bob and Kristina at the airport provides another example of mediated and deflected emotion. It is a tragic moment for the lovers, but it is viewed through George’s distancing gaze, and again the ironical use of a set phrase provides a filter which enables Swift to treat it obliquely and avoid melodrama and cheap sensationalism: George notices Kristina’s elegant suit and comments: ‘He would have bought her the suit, I suppose. A ‘going-away’ suit?’ (126) The phrase used to designate the outfit worn by a bride setting off on her honeymoon after the wedding; here its literal use is deeply ironic, and provides an interesting objective correlative for the situation.

At an Angle to Emotion

20Of the three novels selected here, two have a single, homodiegetic ‘narrator’ or monologist, while the third has a multitude of monologists. And yet all three allow for variations in point of view that enable Swift to introduce delicate shades in his portrayal of emotion. George is the only monologist in The Light of Day and has to be both hero and commentator as well as narrator. However, he has had ample opportunity, since Bob’s death, to ponder carefully what happened and to place himself in the shoes, or in the minds, of the protagonists, and therefore to do what Bill Unwin keeps doing in Ever After (‘I picture the scene . . . , reconstruct the moment, . . . . I invent. I imagine’ [Swift 1992, 212]), which is what most novelists try to do. Thus George can tell us the story in the third person, from the viewpoint of the man he resents and hates, and yet sympathises with, his dead rival Bob: ‘His wife is wearing a black dress, he half remembers it from some other time’ (Swift 2003, 227). George is simply making that deeply ethical effort, trying to come out of the shell of one’s ego to understand what it’s like to be another person. As Swift puts it in Making an Elephant, ‘the journey from ourselves to another human being . . . can sometimes be immense, yet, in a flash, the imagination can leap the distance’ (309). Or, as one of Nadeem Aslam’s characters puts it in Maps for Lost Lovers: ‘all great artists know that part of their task is to light up the distance between two human beings’ (Aslam 13).

21David Malcolm’s 2003 monograph on Graham Swift provides most perceptive and relevant analyses; however it is difficult to agree with the critic when he calls George Webb ‘a highly unreliable narrator’, ‘capable of falsehood’, ‘a figure who invents scenes and occurrences freely and who does not make it entirely clear that he is doing so’, even if these statements are somewhat qualified and re-contextualised afterwards (Malcolm 207). This analysis would be perfect if Malcolm were applying it to the rather cynical narrator of Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, but George’s playfulness is of a different kind; it includes the reader, asks him to share the humour and the punning; it is not playfulness at the expense of the reader.

22In Last Orders the strategy is different because the use of multiple narrators allows Swift to show scenes to the reader from different viewpoints, thus creating an interesting contrapuntal effect. One intensely emotional moment, relayed by a protagonist, can also be frozen in time and refracted through the vision of an unperceived witness. In the Chatham episode, Ray sees ‘[Vince’s] face going all sort of boyish and outranked’ (Swift 1996, 135), and the next section allows us to hear what is inside Vince’s scrutinised head, the memory of being face to face with the photograph of an unknown, very young Jack, when Vince himself ‘couldn’t’ve been much higher than that sideboard’, and having to cope with the knowledge that this Jack was not his father after all. Similarly, in the forty-first section, Ray remembers how he felt on the first Thursday when he drove Amy to June’s Home, not knowing that they would be observed:

We sat on the bench, watching the pigeons . . . . I reckon Amy was all sort of fragile on account of having seen June for the first time with a stranger. Friend. I reckon one way or the other she needed a hug. I felt she was leaning on the little slice of air I left between us, like she should’ve been leaning direct against me, and I felt my pecker starting to grow like it hadn’t ever much since Carol left. (173–74)

  • 12 The language of photography and focalisation underlines Swift’s metafictional wink.

23But further Ray does not go, and the chapter continues with the memory of the next Thursday. However, in section fifty-seven, where Vic is the centre of consciousness, the reader is given an outsider’s view of the couple on their bench, since Vic the undertaker, plying his trade but strolling in the sunshine for a moment, feels ‘like a truant’: ‘I was enjoying this, . . . Feeling that for twenty minutes I had a special angle on the world’12 (215, emphasis added). Spotting Ray and Amy, Vic finds a hidden vantage point in his van, from which he witnesses the scene and fills in the gaps left in Ray’s narrative, describing how Ray finally mustered the courage to touch Amy. What Vic’s ‘special angle’ brings to the narrative however is the idea that Amy shares Ray’s desire and longing, even if Ray is too self deprecating to allow himself to believe this. This is what Vic’s sees:

From the front of the van I could see them clearly . . . . It seemed to me that though they made the shapes of two separate people sitting on the same bench, so you might have thought it was just a chance encounter, they also made a single shape that was the two of them together. (216–217)

  • 13 De Waal is quoting the German psychologist Theodor Lipps.

24Thus Vic, filled with empathy and strangely clairvoyant, contradicts the feeling he had had just before that he was more used to the dead than to the living, the feeling that ‘it’s the living who are strangers, it’s the living whose shapes you can’t ever guess’ (216). Vic also has ‘leaped the distance’; to quote Swift’s poem ‘Another,’ he is seeing ‘others when they don’t see us, . . . / In their own sweet, bright, unshadowed space’ (Swift 2009, 267), or to quote the poem entitled ‘Pespective,’ he has ‘Looked from his window and painted what he saw . . . / Like another window on another world’ (265). Both examples insist on the body and its ‘shape’ as a revealer of emotion, triggering almost instinctive empathy in the beholder; this could be used as an illustration of Frans de Waal’s theories about how empathy arises when ‘bodies speak to bodies,’ and the feeling of Einfühlung13 that can be triggered in one person by another person’s bodily attitude (de Waal 102–103).

25In The Light of Day, interestingly, the process is reversed, and the emotional projection into other people’s situations (Einfühlung) enables George Webb to picture how emotion affects the bodies of others. The reader is never given access to Sarah’s mind or to the thoughts of Bob and Kristina, but George’s imagination and empathy carry us there, to the ‘simple, irreversible moments,’ half surmised, half ‘established’ (Swift 2003, 225) by the investigation, or to private, loving moments between the couple, out for an (imaginary) walk ‘pictured’ by George amidst ‘bracken and brambles and silver birch’ (60, 108). In Tomorrow the limitation of viewpoint is the same, and Paula can only try to guess the feelings of her mother-in-law Helen, who, she suspects, must be lying awake just as she is doing now (Swift 2007, 51, 247).

‘O Death, Where Is Thy Sting?’14

  • 14 I Corinthians 15: 55.

26However the reader of Tomorrow has clues that the character does not have, because Graham Swift has created a literary universe with recognisable contours, novels with porous borders in which ideas and images circulate, echoing and enriching one another, so that Helen’s mute and tense suspicious looks are a little less puzzling for the reader than for Paula. Indeed Helen’s unvoiced suspicion that the twins are not her grandchildren, the sorrow she feels because then she would have no ‘issue’ to counter the finality of death and bring her solace, all those feelings are only hinted at in Tomorrow, but we can turn to Last Orders to find them explicitly expressed, since Vince is only too much aware of not being his father’s son, of not being Jack’s flesh and blood.

27This is one of the passages that illustrate the complexity and subtlety of Swift’s characterisation. Vince might appear as a sensitive boy who grew up to become a thick-skinned macho, but this simple binary opposition dissolves when we examine the complexity of the manly imagery he resorts to. Vince has become adept at keeping a poker face and hiding his emotions, and he consistently uses pat, alliterative images that associate cars and female bodies: ‘I know engines like you know your wife’s fanny’ (Swift 1996, 71–72); ‘Sweet car, sweet engine, all tuned and tickled’ (167); but Vince’s genuine love for engines, and identification with them, which bloomed in childhood along with his interest in little Sally (63) contradict the apparent brutality. As the dying Jack gazes at him, Vince’s capacity for empathy shines through, denying his tough-guy image and his rather boorish :

He looks at me. He looks right into my face like he’s looking for a little light too, like he’s looking for his own face in mine, and it goes right through me, like I’m hollow, like I’m empty, that I haven’t got his eyes, his voice, his bones, his way of holding his jaw and looking straight at you without so much as a role-playing bleeding blink.
Then it wouldn’t be finished, it wouldn’t have to finish. (Swift 1996, 35)

28There are in fact two ways of ensuring that ‘it’ never need finish: if you are an artist you can thwart death and reach eternity through fame, as the poet demonstrates in Edmund Spenser’s sonnet (‘One day I wrote her name upon the stran . . .’), and if you are no poet, you can become a parent. Like Mary in Waterland, like Amy in Last Orders (who wanted no second June), Paula in Tomorrow was a childless mother whose ardent wish to conceive might, arguably, partly have been triggered by a subconscious, instinctive desire to defeat death. When Paula recalls the burial, in 1972, of Mike’s Uncle Eddie, she compares it with the more recent funeral of Grandpa Pete, and she stresses the fact that in 1972 her ‘range of emotions was rather different’. The thought that she might, one day, be as dead as ‘one of these stones’, had hit her ‘like some almost-actual bolt from that blue and fluffy-white April sky’, so that she felt ‘rooted to the spot, to the ground’ (Swift 2007, 82). But instead of turning at this point to a depressing memento mori, Swift chose to have his character expound on the verbal cliché ‘rooted to the spot’. Just as a root can sprout into a plant, Paula humorously brings the dead metaphor back to life: ‘perhaps it had to do with being rooted, I felt—well, sappy and juicy’. The two adjectives bear sexual connotations; Paula is suddenly struck by her own ‘rampant sappiness’: ‘lust in a churchyard, at a funeral: that’s worse than mere randiness in church’ (Swift 2007, 82–83, italics in the original).

  • 15 A witty neologism designed to rhyme and chime with ‘stewardesses’.

29The Light of Day provides another example of tragi-comic ‘cemetery scene’: when George Webb pays a visit to Bob’s grave, he plays with language as a means of countering the overwhelming bitterness of his emotions. He contemplates his own fate as a dishonoured cop accused of corruption, and he can feel in his soul the disgusting black mess of decay, because ‘‘corrupt’’ ‘is a strangely physical word’ (Swift 2003, 134); thus the two meanings of the word become fused, the moral connotations being expressed through a physical image. A little later, George comically inverts the process, applying to literal decomposition a set phrase usually reserved for moral connotations: ‘The gravestones twinkle in the sun. And this place, when you think about it, must be riddled with corruption . . . Not such a sweet little community after all’ (135, emphasis added). By deflecting dark, potentially destructive emotions through the control of language, through that new-found love of words that is Sarah’s gift to him, George is able to dominate and overcome his feelings. Anger and pity are kept in check by his musings on the slang word ‘screw’, which here obviously means a prison guard, but which retains its sexual meaning through the introduction of male fantasies: ‘There must be men who fancy female prison officers. Like men (I knew some) who fancy policewomen. Women in uniform, screwardesses .15 A touch of discipline’ (145).

30In Tomorrow reticence equally walks the tight rope between comedy and tragedy. The main topics however are not conception and ‘biology’, even if Swift playfully foregrounds the latter idea with a comic alliterative cascade of B’s, when Mike and Paula make love at Craiginish: ‘And, yes, we were being biological. But he’d been being biological beforehand’ (Swift 2007, 77). In fact the novel, like many others written by Swift, is preoccupied with the fear of death and annihilation. Indeed the title Tomorrow is ambivalent. One does hear in it an optimistic promise about the future, and this interpretation is underlined in the epigraph, taken from John Donne’s ‘The Good-Morrow’, a poem that Paula herself quotes (44), to insist on the strength of her union with her husband. Yet there is a tension in the chosen title, because it also echoes Macbeth’s soliloquy (Shakespeare V.5, 19–21) about the lonely, barren years stretching ahead, and, since the soliloquy is spoken just after Macbeth has become aware of Lady Macbeth’s death, it raises a question already addressed, albeit very briefly, in The Light of Day: the question of how you find, and eventually might lose, the ‘someone [who] enters our life’, without whom we are ‘only half ourselves’, with whom you form a inseparable pair: ‘Nora and Ted’ (Swift 2003 78, 82). George muses on the fact that he’s never told Sarah how sometimes he thinks ‘about couples’ and death: ‘How when one goes first and gets a resting place, it begs the question . . .’ (155). In Tomorrow the twins, with their ‘symbiosis,’ their ‘two-peas-in-a-podness,’ their ‘happy, frolicking duality’ (Swift 2007, 193) are nevertheless aware of ‘the cruel rule of coupledom: one day there has to be only one’ (219). In the case of Bob and Sarah in The Light of Day, there are added cruelties and ironies to the ‘rule’ of separation, emphasised by the photograph, still ‘smiling and unharmed’ (Swift 2003, 80), that George remembers most: ‘Sometimes there seems to be only the one. The one that shows the two of them together, beaming and never to be parted’ (81).

  • 16 Swift likes to use ‘coming soon’ teasers and also good old-fashioned cliffhanger techniques, finish (...)

31At one point during her nocturnal vigil Paula remembers the burial of her father-in-law in January 1994, and her shocked realisation that this was not the twins’ ‘first taste of death’ (Swift 2007, 81), thus creating a ‘teaser’16 or a ‘trailer’ within the anti-linear structure, the purpose of which is to keep the reader wondering. Indeed the drowning episode in Cornwall is only narrated much later, postponed as it is by the narration of the 1972 funeral. But when it is finally described the playful mood disappears. Paula has to recall the painful memory of almost losing both her children, an ‘unthinkable thought’ (211) for which there is no possible language, for, to quote Nadeem Aslam again, ‘there are words to describe all kinds of bereaved people’, ‘but none for a parent that has lost a child: it’s a fate too terrible for even language to contemplate’ (Aslam 209). The only possible reaction is a silent wish to be instantly devoid of sensibility and perception: ‘I saw myself standing alone on bare rock, wishing to turn to rock myself’ (211). Which takes us back to Montaigne’s essay on sadness, and the impossibility of verbalising extreme sorrow.

  • 17 ‘De l’exercitation’, Book 2, chapter 6 (Montaigne 2009, II, 6, 64–78).

32In Making an Elephant, Graham Swift writes about his admiration for the work of Montaigne, both in his introduction to Florio’s translation, and in an essay. He insists particularly on the passage in which Montaigne argues that one can ‘practise’ death, entitled in Cotton’s version ‘Use makes perfect’,17 where Montaigne observes ‘what it must be like to die’ (Swift 2009, 307). Swift links this passage to his own work, which, he says, is ‘about death in order to be about life, or it’s about life getting in the way of death’ (Swift 2009, 308).

33Tomorrow, similarly, is about the wilful quality of life, that will hang on whatever the odds, and counter a death with a life, a death with a birth. Paula’s twins are saved from a death by drowning, and their mother remembers that as she pulled the first twin out of the sea, she noted the stubborn life forms clinging to the rock: ‘I noticed, with another strange little intensity of mere observation, that . . . just beneath the glinting waterline, there were clusters of barnacles, little clenched, packed shells, tresses and twirls of swaying seaweed, a whole world of gripping life’ (Swift 2007, 213, emphasis added). The ‘gripping’ barnacles in the water and the clinging limpets (18), together with their ‘grassy equivalent’, marram grass, characterised by ‘its stubborn desire to cling and take root where no other plant will, on bare and barren sand’ (77), are all examples of life getting in the way of death. Swift’s poetic mastery of language mirrors that energy: the reader notes the harsh clusters of consonants in the adjectives qualifying the barnacles, or the elegant tetrameter conjuring up the fluid seaweed with alliterations in T, S and W. In Last Orders the stubbornness of life ‘getting in the way of death’ reveals itself in the paradoxical use of a language of birth and nurture in the context of funeral rites: Ray, about to scatter Jack’s ashes, is ‘cradling the jar in [his] arm’ (Swift 1996, 292, emphasis added), Vic fusses, and Ray comments ‘he’ll be handing out life-belts next’, and Ray throws handfuls of ashes ‘as if scattering seed’ (293, emphasis added). The stubbornness of life is expressed in a prose which, although it pretends to be unassuming demotic cockney is in fact a condensed, splendid, and poetic language, a language that really comes alive on the page. The famously superb last sentence of the novel, which reflects on the inextricable cyclical bond between life and death, is foreshadowed in a playful animal imagery that turns the waves into boisterous, sentient creatures, ‘[who] seem to know that something's coming’, because they are ‘jostling and squirming like animals at feeding time’ (286), as if waiting both for the rain and the ashes. ‘O grave, where is thy victory’ (I Corinthians 15: 55) indeed.

34As Swift’s characters try to deal with stressful situations, their ally is a capacity for self-derision and humour, linked to a constant awareness of the power and ambiguities of discourse. They share a delight in language and wordplay; they sometimes produce grim irony and bawdy humour, but they are also skilled at keeping emotion at bay with precious qualities of reticence, understatement, and stoic dignity. Thus antiheroic types are transmuted into characters with deeply human qualities and foibles that give the novels their peculiar ethical strength, their uncompromising refusal ever to give in to sentimentality, their undeniable and paradoxical power to move the reader deeply while appearing to eschew emotion. This is true of all Swift’s novels, even if one can note a general evolution towards a more open-ended, more optimistic outlook in Swift’s work. As he smilingly admits, ‘death crops up rather a lot in [his] work’, so much so that one English reviewer of Last Orders ‘went so far as to christen [him], good-humouredly, the “terminal novelist”’ (Swift 2009, 305). But in earlier novels like Waterland or Ever After, the ultimate outlook was exclusively grim and backward-looking, ‘like tying up into a knot the thread that runs into the future’ (Swift 1984, 197), whereas the more recent novels examined here have mellowed: if they are still concerned with the terrors of death, and with ‘the agonies of a mother robbed of her child’ (Swift 1984, 6), they have untied the knot and opened up the future, ‘like we aint been missed or overlooked altogether’ (1996, 284), integrating the possibility of a second chance, the possibility of a future joy so intense that no amount of diffidence or reticence would be able to stop emotion from betraying itself: ‘And the whole world would have to know, if I was lucky. Not me seeing the world but the world seeing me’ (1996, 283).

Haut de page


Aslam, Nadeem, Maps for Lost Lovers (2004), London: Faber & Faber, 2005.

Eco, Umberto, ‘Postmodern, Irony, the Enjoyable’, Reflexions on ‘The Name of the Rose’, trans. William Weaver, London: Secker and Warburg, 1985, 65–72, reprinted in P. Brooker, Modernism/Postmodernism, Harlow: Longman Critical Readers, 1992, 225–228.

Ganteau, Jean-Michel and Christine Reynier, eds., Impersonality and Emotion in Twentieth-Century British Arts, Present Perfect II, Montpellier: PULM, 2006.

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

Montaigne, Michel de, Essais (1580), Paris: Gallimard (Folio Classique), 2009, 3 volumes.

Montaigne, Michel de, Essays, translated into English by Charles Cotton (1877) last accessed on 30 October 2010: - 2HCH0002,

Multatuli, Max Havelaar (1860), trans. Roy Edwards, Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 1987.

Pesso-Miquel, Catherine, ‘“Immortal Longings”: la mort en représentation dans l’œuvre de Graham Swift’, Études britanniques contemporaines 17 (décembre 1999): 131–148.

Reynier, Christine and Jean-Michel Ganteau, eds., Impersonality and Emotion in Twentieth-Century British Literature, Present Perfect I, Montpellier: Montpellier 3 UP, 2005.

Roose, Alexander, ‘“Nous ne sommes jamais chez nous”: le combat de Montaigne contre ses passions’ Herman, Jan et al. eds., Traduire l’émotion, Les Cahiers des paralittératures 8, Liège: Éditions de Céfal, 2004.

Sterne, Laurence, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759–1767), Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 1985.

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

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

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

Swift, Graham, The Light of Day, London: Hamish Hamilton, 2003.

Swift, Graham, Tomorrow, London: Picador, 2007.

Swift, Graham, Making an Elephant: Writing from Within, London: Picador, 2009.

Waal (de), Frans, The Age of Empathy (2009), trans. M.F. de Palomera L’Âge de l’empathie: leçons de la nature pour une société solidaire. Paris: Les Liens qui Libèrent, 2010.

Haut de page


1 See the two volumes edited by Jean-Michel Ganteau and Christine Reynier on impersonality and emotion in twentieth-century literature and arts, in which some of the studies are inspired by T. S. Eliot’s 1919 essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’.

2 See also Georges Letissier’s article on The Light of Day, in which Swift’s treatment of emotion and adultery is compared with Graham Greene’s in The End of the Affair (in Reynier and Ganteau 2005, 195–204).

3 Paula’s fond memory of her first night of love with Mike insists on the simultaneity of sex and self-revelation, the ‘long, rhythmic waves’ of pleasure and words, ‘not just pillow talk but billow talk’ (27). This could be seen as a mise en abyme of the structure of Tomorrow: Paula is both remembering and rehearsing a future revelation, trying to find the right word, the right approach, fearing rejection and misunderstanding; her monologue provides a metaphor for the trials and fears of the writer attempting to convince the reader.

4 ‘[Y]et he himself remained unmoved, without uttering a word, his eyes fixed upon the ground’ (Charles Cotton’s 1877 translation of the second essay, ‘On Sorrow’).

5 ‘[H]e fell to tearing his hair and beating his breast, with all the other extravagances of extreme sorrow . . . . ’

6 ‘[B]ecause only this last affliction was to be manifested by tears, the two first far exceeding all manner of expression.’ Roose also quotes this example in his article on Montaigne’s struggle against his passions (96).

7 ‘The true swell, which gives the true pleasure’ (Sterne II, 6, 120); compare with Ray’s unambiguous use of the word ‘swelling’ in Last Orders (Swift 1996, 289), quoted above.

8 See also Jakob Winnberg’s article, ‘Eliot in reverse: Postmodern Sentimentality in Graham Swift’s Ever After’ (in Reynier and Ganteau 205–213).

9 For an analysis of the knight imagery, see Pesso-Miquel 136.

10 Droogstoppel, the unromantic and complacent coffee broker in Max Havelaar, particularly disapproves of this cliché, and is comically indignant at all the ‘lies’ of poetry: ‘One flies with some object or other “to the end of the earth.” . . . It’s all nonsense and lies!’ When he got married, he boasts, he took his wife to The Hague where she sensibly bought flannel to make vests for him, ‘and farther into the world than that, love never drove [them]’ (Multatuli 20).

11 Just as the phrase ‘falling out of love’ is avoided but enacted in neologism and metaphor when Rachel leaves George: ‘She was unchoosing me. Slipping her arm out of mine like a ship unties from its moorings. Sailing on’ (Swift 2003, 91).

12 The language of photography and focalisation underlines Swift’s metafictional wink.

13 De Waal is quoting the German psychologist Theodor Lipps.

14 I Corinthians 15: 55.

15 A witty neologism designed to rhyme and chime with ‘stewardesses’.

16 Swift likes to use ‘coming soon’ teasers and also good old-fashioned cliffhanger techniques, finishing a chapter on a question that only finds an answer much later, as in ‘How does a vet come into the story?’ (Swift 2007, 96).

17 ‘De l’exercitation’, Book 2, chapter 6 (Montaigne 2009, II, 6, 64–78).

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Catherine Pesso-Miquel, « No ‘screaming and shrieking in the wind’: The Playfulness of Reticence in Graham Swift’s Last Orders, The Light of Day, and Tomorrow »Études britanniques contemporaines, 41 | 2011, 85-104.

Référence électronique

Catherine Pesso-Miquel, « No ‘screaming and shrieking in the wind’: The Playfulness of Reticence in Graham Swift’s Last Orders, The Light of Day, and Tomorrow »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 41 | 2011, mis en ligne le 24 juin 2015, consulté le 08 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

Haut de page


Catherine Pesso-Miquel

Université Lumière Lyon.
Catherine Pesso-Miquel is a Professor of English Literature at the University of Lyon 2, France. Her research focuses on the contemporary novel and explores questions of voice, intertextuality, identity and gender. She has published monographs on American novelists, on Salman Rushdie and Anita Desai, and is the co-editor Fundamentalism and Literature (Palgrave Macmillan).

Articles du même auteur

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur


Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

Haut de page
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search