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From Short Stories to Novels and Essays. Graham Swift’s Making an Elephant—Writing from Within (2009)

Graham Swift nouvelliste, romancier, essayiste: Making an Elephant—Writing from Within (2009)
François Gallix
p. 83-90


Après avoir écrit un recueil de nouvelles et huit romans, Graham Swift vient de publier son premier livre d’essais: Making an Elephant — Writing from Within. S’agit-il d’une transformation dans l’écriture et la thématique de l’auteur ou d’une simple parenthèse? Après avoir cherché à définir certaines des caractéristiques de l’écriture des essais en tant que genre littéraire, une analyse de ce nouvel ouvrage de Swift — en particulier son paratexte et une étude de la traduction des Essais de Montaigne par Florio — essaiera d’apporter une réponse à cette question.

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“But in the end what matters is this wonderful, silent private encounter between the reader and the writer through the book. That what it’s all about.”
(Swift in Morel 18)

“Every book is an object of solitude. It is a tangible object that one can pick up, put down, open, and close, and its words represent many months, if not many years, of one man’s solitude, so that with each word one reads in a book one might say to himself that he is confronting a particle of that
solitude.” (Auster 136)

1The object of this article is both to examine a few aspects of Graham Swift’s first collection of non fictional texts: Making an Elephant—Writing from Within, which has just been published in Britain and to find out how far it fits in with the main characteristics of the literary genre of a “Book of Essays”, or whether most constraints have been subverted. One of the reasons for underlining this new aspect in Swift’s writing is also that the book includes two key passages commenting on Montaigne’s Essays—which seemed to radiate proper waves in accordance with the theme of this issue. What is also at stake here is to see whether this sudden change of genre in fact confirms constant elements in Swift’s writing that were already there, but perhaps hidden in his novels or whether it is just a parenthesis.

2So far, Graham Swift has published eight novels, the latest being Tomorrow in 2007. His first book was a book of short stories: Learning to Swim and Other Stories, but he now says he is now no longer at ease with short texts. Being what we may call a fisherman-writer, Swift has also published, along with David Profumo, a critical anthology of fishing in Literature, The Magic Wheel, which is not only a critical collection of literary texts on the theme of fishing, but also includes his own version of the art of the novel when he draws a thought-provoking parallel between the angler and the writer as he explained in Le Monde in 1997: “Le pêcheur est aux prises avec un autre élément, la rivière, le lac. En dessous, il soupçonne quelque chose qu’il ne voit pas, mais qu’il tente de capturer. L’écrivain fait de même qui s’évertue à ramener à la surface des choses invisibles, minuscules, universelles” (Swift 1985, 3).

3One possible guideline to see whether Making an Elephant follows the constraints of the book of essays as a genre could be Aldous Huxley’s Preface to his Collected Essays (1959). While somewhat provocatively setting no limits to the themes of those collections of texts“the essay is a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything” (Huxley 4)Huxley distinguishes three main directions. The first one deals with the personal and autobiographical aspects of texts—which includes anecdotes and descriptions. The second pole focuses on the objective, the factual, the political or the scientific sides and the third on the abstract and the universal.

4In fact, essays often combine autobiography, philosophical discourse, correspondence, travelling journals. In Swift’s case, two pieces are about hiking in Greece. Essays mostly appeal to reason, rather than imagination. They thus exclude novels, short stories and poetry. By including poems in his collection, Swift did not totally stick to the genre. As in novels, the paratext plays a particularly important part so as to attract the attention of the reader (particularly Montaigne’s “curious” or “courteous reader”). If, according to Wolfgang Iser in The Act of Reading, “each text constitutes its own reader” (Iser 157), the reader of essays seems to have more freedom than the reader of fiction because he is not expected to read the book from cover to cover. For him, the table of contents is always of capital importance and he will pick and choose in what is more like an anthology or a florilège. This freedom works both ways as it echoes that of the author.

  • 1 Le Monde 19 mars 1983.

There is no generic indication on the cover or on the first page of Swift’s first book of non-fiction, but his short and dense introduction does underline the fact that it certainly marks a vital change in his themes and in his writing strategy. Indeed up to then, his declarations about himself had voluntarily been very vague and blurred, pretending, for instance in his answer to a journalist from Le Monde, that he did not know where precisely his ancestors came from, preferring to send his readers back to his fiction: “Lublin [in Poland] perhaps, as in the short story ‘The Watch’, in Learning to Swim.”1 Having up to then very carefully avoided an autobiographical approach, Swift here, for the first time clearly decided to adopt a much more “personal touch”, as he put it, and to write about his life as an author and his very fruitful contacts with other writers: Salman Rushdie, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ted Hughes, Caryl Phillips and Patrick McGrath. One of the issues here will be to try and find out why Swift decided to add autobiography to pure fiction and how much it may affect his way of writing his next book.

5“Making an Elephant” is certainly a good title, first because it is puzzling, but also because the enigma is fully explained half-way through the book (217). It is a revealing biographical element (“a small incident”) connected with Swift’s father when the young boy decided to make a wooden elephant to please him. What could have been a mere anecdote, as in Huxley’s first pole, turned into a very symbolical event that may even encapsulate Swift’s attitude to writing, thus justifying his choice for a title. When the time came for the young Swift to paint the elephant, he could not envisage another colour but grey while his father suggested pink. The older Swift-turned-essayist commented: “The strange reversal stays with me, as does the sad object of it all: that I should have been the realist, he the fantasist […]. I wish I’d painted it pink” (218).

6“Writing from within” is just as enigmatic for a sub-title. For the first time, Swift made a point of showing the inside story of his life as an author, he “puts himself to the front, coming out from behind the scene”, as he explained in his Sorbonne lecture. What is it like, on the inside to be a writer? Somehow, the book is Swift’s own “Portrait of the artist as a writer”, a portrait he draws by answering the questions why and how do I write, as suggested in the epigraph from Pope: “Heavens! Was I born for nothing but to write?” (Sowerby, 270).

7My own interpretation of the sub-title, not accepted by Swift (in the Sorbonne lecture), is that it could also be a reference to Salman Rushdie’s friendly visits, often at Christmas time during the fatwa when the two authors had some of the best conversations about writing—“writing from the inside” (276)—brief one-to one exchanges, as he called them. When asked at the Sorbonne if he could give the contents of one of those “conversations from within”, Swift mentioned what he called Rushdie’s “brief word—his rubric—on fear: ‘the thing was that you had to quell it, to crush it at once, as soon as it arose, give it no further space, otherwise you were lost’ ” (275).

8The cover photograph—the inside of an old-fashioned typewriter revealing its spokes with the keys—is not just an illustration to draw the reader into the text. Its full meaning is made plain on page 202 and in itself, it could be the germ of a Dickensian gothic short story based on Swift’s childhood. The way he developed it orally during his lecture increased the “short story aspect” perhaps blurring the border between reality and fiction. When his grand-father was working for the Oliver Typewriter company in Sydenham, the young boy used to be scared to walk up the four or five flights of stairs in the dark house, which seemed to him “incredibly tall, and spooky”. He made it a challenge and was rewarded, when he finally found the old typewriter on the landing: “it drew me magnetically, via that climb of terror. I was allowed to sit there with some sheets of paper and thump away” (202) [orally “thumped away” became “bashed away”].

9The book also includes a number of illustrations, paintings, postcards and photographs—some obviously from a family album. Descriptions of photographs and paintings (real and fictitious) with effects of ekphrasis are part of Swift’s writing technique in most of his novels, particularly in The Sweetshop Owner where Willy Chapman describes the photograph of his daughter’s baptism several times and in Out of This World where Harry Beech is a photographer. In the book of essays, they are, of course, real photographs or postcards that become interactive as the reader has to decode some of them by himself. Thus, the lithograph of the bird by John Gerard Keulemans on the flyleaf has no caption underneath it. The bird is a swift. The reader will also make his own choice. Particularly striking, on page 366, is an old photograph of Wandsworth’s prison in the 1940s, with the inmates coming out and seeing “the light of day”, thus reminding the reader of Swift’s title for one of his novels.

10Swift’s readers expect to find a first person narrator often connected to a very elaborate stylistic technique as in Last Orders with its multiple voices spread into 75 fragments, or in Tomorrow, where a feminine voice—Paula’s—s heard throughout the book. Swift enjoys getting into the skin and brains of his characters, and seeing through their eyes. Here, for a change, it is not his characters’ but Swift’s own voice, unmasked and undisguised, that is heard. It also gave him the opportunity to share with his readers selected pieces from his writer-friends’ conversations.

11As for the way Swift handled time in the editing of the chapters in a book that is not a random collection, the chronological order—starting at the age of six, with a photograph of “the author in the 1950s” making sand-castles on the beach and going on until 2005 with his answer to an interview in Wandsworth about his way of writing, is only apparent. The time shifts that are part of Swift’s subtle way of writing his novels are also found in this non fictional work where, as he put it in his introduction, it “hops forward and back”: “this condition of shifting time is a natural habitat for me, because it’s the habitat of memory. Memory is not sequential. We’re all formed by our past” (370). There is also an extra chapter that unites present and past, dealing with Graham Swift reading and writing in 2005. As for the last chapter, “Michel de Montaigne: Périgord, 1533–93”, it is not only a very perceptive introduction to Florio’s translation of the Essais, it also makes the reader penetrate Swift’s consciousness about his own conception of writing.

  • 2 In latin “exercitation”: a written or spoken disquisition, essay, discourse.

12The first passage about Montaigne’s Essays is an excerpt from Swift’s talk during the SAES Nice conference in 1997. It was inserted as if it were a mere digression about the theme of death—such a Swiftian theme that the author of Last Orders with Jack Dodds’ last will that his ashes should be scattered into the sea, was once nicknamed by a reviewer as a “terminal novelist” (Miquel 131)—a label he himself ironically accepted. Indeed, the topic runs through his works from The Sweetshop Owner, which is the story of Willy Chapman’s last day, to Ever After’s incipit: “These are, I should warn you, the words of a dead man.” (1) The link with Montaigne is Swift’s commented quotation from chapter “Of Exercise or Practice” (“De l’exercitation”2). In the Essais, Montaigne writes about the apparent impossibility of writing about one’s own death—Death, “the last assay of life”—and finally doing so by relating an autobiographical episode when, after falling off his horse, he had been taken for dead. The moment of death is described by Montaigne as pleasant, comparable to that of falling asleep:

Il me sembloit que ma vie ne me tenoit plus qu’au bout des lèvres: je fermois les yeux pour ayder (ce qui me sembloit) à la pousser hors, et prenois plaisir à m’alanguir et à me laisser aller. (Montaigne 350)

Methought my selfe had no hold of me but my lips-ends. I closed mine eyes to help (as me seemed) to send it forth, and tooke a kinde of pleasure to linger and languishly to let myselfe goe from my selve. (Florio’s translation [Swift 394]).

13What is very characteristic and revealing about Swift’s attitude when quoting this purple patch from Montaigne and for the reason he gives for choosing it, is not only due to the theme of death that impregnates and connects the texts of the two authors separated by almost five centuries. More than that, Swift deeply appreciated the fact that Montaigne “made of himself his subject”, and thus transmuted a very personal experience shared by every human being—which is not far from what Swift was hoping to do in his first book of essays.

14The last chapter, “Michel de Montaigne. Périgord, 1533–93”, tackles the same topic from another angle. A proper essay in itself, it is preceded by a short introduction in which Swift describes the circumstances of the episode. After answering a questionnaire set up by the Folio Society in 2004 about the one book he could not do without, and having chosen Montaigne’s Essays, Swift was asked to write an introduction. In his own essay, Swift clearly stated what seemed to differentiate him from Montaigne: “fiction isn’t in my case, an autobiographical exercise. Montaigne is the shining example of an opposite, or complementary position: a writer of non-fiction who was, in effect, a great and irrepressible autobiographer” (383–84). He also realized that, by writing about himself, Montaigne became his reader’s friend by drawing his own self-portrait.

15What follows is a short biography of the member of the Parliament of Bordeaux. An important issue in Swift’s text is that of translation. Already Montaigne had been inspired by Plutarch’s Œuvres Morales, translated into French by Jacques Amyot. Swift read the Essays in John Florio’s 1603 translation. The translator, of Italian origin, applied what was called “translata proficit”: “what is translated increases the meaning”—which meant that, at times, Florio did not hesitate to include three adjectives or adverbs, or verbs (“fureter” translated by “to pry, to search, to ferret” where Montaigne only needed one), the result being that, contrary to contemporary translations, the English version is longer than the French original, and yet, as Swift wrote, it remains a magnificent translation in Elizabethan English, “one of the great bridges of literature” that Shakespeare most probably read. He certainly got his inspiration from Montaigne’s “Of the Cannibals” for The Tempest. Commenting on the passage from “Of Physiognomy” where Montaigne explained that there is no need to fear death because nature will take care of it, Swift underlined the fact that Florio suddenly uses a very concrete anglo-saxon word, so beautifully chosen and still perfectly understood. Montaigne addresses the reader in three repeated rhythmic movements with perfect clarity: “Si vous ne savez pas mourir, ne vous chaille, nature vous en informera sur le champ, plainement et suffisamment; elle fera exactement ceste besogne pour vous, n’en empeschez vostre soing” (Montaigne 1013, italics added). John Florio’s translation keeps the rhythm and slightly increases the friendly companionship with the reader: “If you know nothow to die, take no care for it, Nature her selfe will fully and sufficiently teach you in the nick, she will exactly discharge that worke for you; trouble not your selfe with it” (Swift 394, italics added). Indeed, “in the nick”, according to Swift, “makes you feel at home, it is such a comforting expression” (Sorbonne lecture).

16Finally, it seems that Swift’s now recognizable voice after writing eight books of fiction can be heard in a very similar way in a genre which he has transcended and transmuted—that of a collection of essays. About Montaigne, Swift wrote: “in short, he needs no label, he is simply here” (390). This could certainly apply to Graham Swift in Making an Elephant.

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Auster, Paul, The Invention of Solitude, New York: Sun Press, 1982.

Gallix François, Graham Swift—Écrire l’imagination, Bordeaux: Presses universitaires de Bordeaux, 2003.

Huxley, Aldous, Complete Essays, vol. VI (1956–1963), ed. James Sexton, London/New York: Chatto and Windus, 1983.

Iser, Wofgang, The Act of Reading, a Theory of Aesthetic Response (1976), Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978.

Miquel, Catherine, “ ‘Immortal longings’: la mort en représentation dans l’œuvre de Graham Swift”, Études britanniques contemporaines 17 (décembre 1999): p. 131–147.

Montaigne, Essais (1580), Œuvres Complètes, Albert Thibaudet, ed. Maurice Rat, Paris: Gallimard, La Pléiade, 1962.

Montaigne, Essays (1603), transl. John Florio, Oxford: OUP, The World’s Classics, 1904.

Morel, Michel, Graham Swift ou le Temps du récit, Paris: Messene, 1996.

Sowerbys, Robin, ed. Alexander Pope. Selected Poetry and Prose, London, Routledge, 1988.

Swifts, Graham, The Sweetshop Owner, London: Allan Lane, 1980.

Swifts, Graham, Learning to Swim and Other Stories, London: Picador, 1982.

Swifts, Graham, Waterland, London: Heinemann, 1983.

Swifts, Graham, With David Profumo, The Magic Wheel: An Anthology of Fishing in Literature, London: Heinemann, 1985.

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

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

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

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

Swifts, Graham,“The Sorbonne Lecture”, 30 April 2009,

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1 Le Monde 19 mars 1983.

2 In latin “exercitation”: a written or spoken disquisition, essay, discourse.

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François Gallix, « From Short Stories to Novels and Essays. Graham Swift’s Making an Elephant—Writing from Within (2009) »Études britanniques contemporaines, 38 | 2010, 83-90.

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François Gallix, « From Short Stories to Novels and Essays. Graham Swift’s Making an Elephant—Writing from Within (2009) »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 38 | 2010, mis en ligne le 11 avril 2016, consulté le 29 novembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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François Gallix

Université Paris-Sorbonne.
François Gallix est professeur émérite de littérature anglaise contemporaine à l’université Paris-Sorbonne (Paris 4). Il a publié de nombreux ouvrages et articles dans ce domaine et il est directeur honoraire du centre de recherches ERCLA (Écritures du roman contemporain de langue anglaise). Ses recherches se concentrent actuellement sur Graham Greene, dont il vient de publier une longue nouvelle inédite, sur Graham Swift et Edgar Allan Poe. Il travaille également sur les pastiches littéraires et la traduction.

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