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Out of this (English) World: Englishness Seen from Abroad in Graham Swift’s Out of This World and Salman Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet

L’anglicité dedans et dehors: l’Angleterre vue d’ailleurs dans Out of This World de Graham Swift et The Ground Beneath Her Feet de Salman Rushdie
Catherine Pesso-Miquel
p. 99-114


Cet article compare deux romans contemporains en apparence très dissimilaires mais qui traitent des mêmes problématiques d’appartenance, d’identité, de nationalité fantasmée et de mythification. La nostalgie pour un passé rassurant mais révolu, l’exil, la nation, la guerre, et la figure du photographe figurent parmi les motifs que cette étude comparative brasse pour mieux explorer les notions de lieu et de déplacement, d’inclusion et d’exclusion, de nostalgie. L’anglicité rêvée est contrastée avec une réalité démythifiée, une Angleterre sale, grise et terne, hantée par la guerre et la mort. L’article achève cette exploration par une étude de la figure du photographe, condamné à l’exclusion car il ne peut prendre la photo sans sortir du cadre, sans s’exiler lui-même. L’ici et l’ailleurs s’affrontent, se font face, se reflètent et se copient dans un incessant jeu de miroirs.

This article compares a postmodernist novel by Graham Swift and a postcolonial novel by Salman Rushdie. There are obvious differences between those two novelists, and yet the two novels are surprisingly similar in their treatment of Englishness and inside/outsideness. Both dramatise the mythologizing of foreign countries, and of England and Englishness in particular, and both debunk the myths of bonny Englishness, and the nostalgia for a lost, safe world. Both novels set forth the less savoury aspects of Britain and America, their links with war, armament and terror, the dark side of the moon. The article thus explores the notions of location and located-ness, identity and belonging, before ending with an analysis of the figure of the photographer as outsider, necessary witness, who has to remain both outside and inside and, to step out of the frame in order to take the picture.

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  • 1 This difference is echoed in the contrasts between the hype that surrounds Rushdie’s work and the r (...)

1One might at first query the strategy of drawing parallels between the two contemporary British novels selected for this article, Out of this World (henceforth OTW) and The Ground Beneath Her Feet (henceforth GBF). Indeed the former, published in 1988, is relatively short, with its two hundred and eight pages, and was written by the reticent and self deprecating Graham Swift, who, some might argue, is quintessentially English, while the latter, published in 1999, is a huge Indo-Anglian tome written by the flamboyant and somewhat self-mythologizing Salman Rushdie1. Yet a surprising number of similar elements link the two works. Both use fragmented, anti-linear narratives while at the same time weaving a careful web of continuity through the use of linked metaphors, echoes and isotopes. In both novels the untimely death of a beautiful, charismatic young woman occurs, as if to confirm Edgar Poe’s remark, in his essay entitled “The Philosophy of Composition” (1846), that “the death of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetic topic in the world”. In both novels the story takes place in very different places: England, Germany, the USA and Greece in OTW, and India, England, the USA and Mexico for GBF, and those changes in location go hand in hand with interrogations about location and located-ness, identity and belonging, Englishness and Anglophilia/anglophobia, the oppositions between home and abroad, and what Rushdie calls the notion of outsideness. In both novels “the world” is set in opposition with other worlds and other-worldliness, and photography, together with the place and the role of photographers (who choose strange new angles from which to view, and to show, the world), play a very prominent part, both as themes and as metafictional metaphors. The article begins with a study of the rather conventional national images and clichés that inhabit the minds of certain characters, then turns to the debunking of those clichés by the two novelists, before arguing that both Rushdie and Swift problematize home and elsewhere, frontiers and borders, belonging and not belonging, containment and openness, without ever resolving the tensions and contradictions between those notions.

Anglophile Mythologizing

2In both OTW and GBF, the novelists have created a set of two scholars who function as mirror images of one another, thus offering a context in which anglophilia and an idealised Englishness can be defined and gauged, in opposition to another culture. In OTW, the scholarly figures are the great-uncles of the heroine, Sophie: her Greek maternal great-uncle, Spiro, from Salonika, used to be a university lecturer in English literature with a passion for England, Englishness and English romantic poetry. Her English paternal great-uncle Edward, born around 1895, had been a brilliant student of classical Greek culture at Oxford University, “the bright hope of New College”, who “marched off to war in 1915, his head full of the words and deeds of the Greeks and Romans and the myths with which they had filled their own heads” (Swift 187), and died soon after on the battlefield.

  • 2 Already a prominent character, albeit not yet a peer, in Midnight’s Children, where he is Saleem Si (...)

3In GBF, the father of Ormus Cama, the hero, is a Parsi lawyer called Sir Darius Xerxes Cama, knighted by the British, who has fallen in love with Englishness in general, and with English country estates and England’s upper class fascination for classical Greek culture in particular. His English friend, Lord Methwold2, has lived in India long enough to become fascinated by Indian mythology. With Methwold, Sir Darius Cama spends his time studying the intriguing similarities linking the Greek and Indo-Aryan mythologies; they discuss the theories of Max Müller and Dumézil, and all the bonds and transmitted traditions that could plausibly unite the gods and myths of eastern and western civilizations, as for example the striking similarities between Sita in the Ramayana and Helen of Troy. As James Wood put it:

In truth, the Greeks created the first world-literature, when they expanded their world into universal myth. Rushdie has championed [Roberto] Calasso's work on Greek and Indian myth—he has clearly read Calasso with greedy care—and [GBF] moves smilingly between various mythologies, Greek, Indian, and the easier mythology of contemporary celebrity. (Wood 1)

In both novels are featured quaint English mansions and their rich private libraries. In OTW the Beech family lives in a genuine Queen Anne manor house called Hyfield House, “with its own driveway, gardens, orchard and paddock” (Swift 198), that still holds dead uncle Edward’s library of Greek books, “the relics of a career that never happened” (123) “and plaster busts of Greek luminaries” (204). Edward’s books, “bought [. . .] by the yard by a bountiful if ignorant father” constituted “a whole range of classical texts in the best editions of the day”, “meant to last a lifetime” (124). But Edward died before he could invite his family to Oxford, to “tea in a don’s rooms, overlooking some ivy-encrusted court” (124). As for Spiro, the Greek scholar of English literature, he had in his youth “found his way to far-away London, even [to] the tranquil lawns of Oxford & Cambridge” (177).

4In Greece, Sophie’s mother, the orphaned Anna, lived dangerously through the second world war with her uncle Spiro, surrounded by hostile Germans and Bulgarians, reading and treasuring “Shakespeare and Wordsworth and Doctor Johnson” (178), books that if found by the enemy might have caused both of them to be shot “and hung head down from the plane tree in the village square” (179). Graham Swift constantly weaves analogies to strengthen his parallelism between the two scholars: for example Anna’s parents “had the mind of brigands”, “feuding with each other over piles of tobacco, waiting for the brown leaves to turn into banknotes” (176), whereas her English husband Harry, who was born in 1918, remembers the world of his childhood as a sepia world, in which, in the oak panelled study, Edward’s mostly brown books and the plaster busts of Homer and Cicero had “acquired a faint, tobaccoey sheen” (204, my emphasis). Anna Vouatsis, a starved, insecure Greek orphan, used to fantasise about the solidity and safety of an England she had never been to but had read about: “I dreamed of English winters, all “roaring fires and brass fenders in solid brick houses”, and of English summers in “cool, green England”, “[o]f fleecy English skies and English meadows and English willows draped over the cool Thames” (177).

5Rushdie’s Sir Darius, ensconced in his own private library in Bombay, on “a British style button-back leather chesterfield sofa”, would recognize Anna’s dreams as his own, since “whenever he dreamed, he dreamed of England: England as a pure, white Palladian mansion set upon a hill above a silver winding river, with a spreading parterre of brilliant green lawns edged by ancient oaks and elms” (Rushdie 1999, 86). In this idyllic portrait one can hear echoes of Henry James’s dreams of Englishness in the opening scene of The Portrait of a Lady, where the American Isabel Archer is charmed by the “old English country-house” (James 17), with its lawn sloping down to the river; everything enchants her, “the lawn, the great trees, the reedy, silvery Thames, the beautiful old house” (28). In Darius’s dream, “white curtains [are] blowing at the open French windows of the great house’s orangery wing” (Rushdie 1999, 86). In the spacious grounds of this dream house “figures from ancient Greece and Rome” (86) take up the classical connexion contained in “Palladian”.

6In both Swift’s and Rushdie’s versions of the ideal English house the weight of history can be felt, but typically, in Swift’s understated literary universe, Anna’s daughter Sophie dreams of a subdued, solid respectability, of “Mr Nicholas Hyde, Gentleman”, who had the house built in 1709, and strolled about “in his cocked hat and breeches”, with Mrs Hyde “in her hooped dress and bonnet” (Swift 65–66) while in Rushdie’s much more sensational and lurid version of dreamed Englishness, within the Palladian house can be found the “boudoirs of murderous Restoration miladies who had hidden their daggers and poisons in secret cavities behind fleur-de-lys panneling”, and “Baroque offices of power where bewigged grandees with perfumed kerchiefs had once dispensed patronage and largesse to their malodorous, genuflecting protégés” (Rushdie 1999, 87).

7This is the English mansion refracted through the imagination of a character who is an Anglophile mimic man (to use Naipaul’s famous phrase, which Homi Bhabha quoted and expounded on in the fourth chapter of The Location of Culture), and yet it does become an actual English house in GBF, the house of Lord Methwold. Sir Darius never sets foot inside it, but ironically when he dies his widow becomes Lady Methwold, and the house becomes hers (Rushdie 1999, 202). There, she often walks in the grounds, talking silently and wistfully to her dead former husband, aware that she possesses what he used to yearn for, “a place in England, perhaps even in Englishness” (330). In both novels, it is women who fulfil the thwarted dreams of the scholars: Lady Cama and Anna Vouatsis both become the mistress of an idyllic English country house, while Sophie fulfils Edward’s dreams of classical Greece by travelling to Athens and Drama.

The Dark Side of Englishness

8Nevertheless both novels present what we could call the other side of the coin, or, to use Swift’s consistent moon imagery in OTW, the moon’s dark side: the grey, dull, dead side of England. For Vina Apsara in GBF, England is “a museum”, “Ye old world”, a “living death”; in her mouth the “tidily unkempt country estate” sounds like “some grass-hut Africa” (Rushdie 1999, 330), and she urges Ormus to flee to America, to leave England where he can only “immigrunt the rest of [his] life away”, adding for good measure: “and let’s not forget immigratitude, that’s expected too, along with immigrovelling” (331). In America, she says, especially in New York City, “You get to be an American just by wanting, and by becoming an American you add to the kinds of American it’s possible to be” (331). In other words, in Vina’s worldview Englishness spells stasis, exclusion, racism, while Americanness constantly shifts, expands, includes, allowing individuals to reinvent themselves into ever new hyphenated, hybrid forms. Rai himself will become “a discontinuous being”, “not what [he] was meant to be, no longer what [he] was”, “an American, inventing himself anew”, concluding that “there is thrilling gain in this metamorphic destiny, as well as aching loss” (441).

In both OTW and GBF, some of the characters abandon home, England and /or India, to be reborn in New York, celebrated with a great deal of enthusiasm by Rushdie’s characters, with more ambivalence by Swift’s. In GBF Umeed, aka Rai, the narrator, comments on Ormus’s blind fascination with America, “the great Attractor”, “the place of light and horror, of speculation and danger and power and wonder, the place where the future was waiting to be born”, and bitterly compares this attraction to the pull exercised by Pleasure island on Pinocchio and all the other little donkeys (Rushdie 1999, 100). Yet Umeed too feels the power of attraction of “the fabled cities of America, with their pinnacled architecture, the outsize moon rockets and giant hypodermic syringes towering over their cavernous streets” (100). In OTW Sophie is seduced by “these clean, hard, soaring, futuristic lines” (Swift 16). She lives in Brooklyn, from where she regularly watches “that mirage of Manhattan across the water”:

The views in this place still knock me out, even though I’m no longer a goggle-eyed Limey. They still give me a kick. And do you know what’s so great about them? It’s that they’re absolutely man-made, they’re as man-made as you’re ever going to get. [. . .] That’s the big kick, that’s the come-on. It’s pure man-made, but it ain’t human. (183)

9Either you’re in the building, and humans far below mill around “like ants under lifted stones”, or you’re “down there at people level” and “then you step out and say to yourself, Wow, I’d almost forgotten: there’s this edifice” (183, author’s emphasis). There is “something splendid, something sublime”, Sophie thinks (184), in this preposterous disproportion between human beings and the buildings they erect. And yet the positive, laudatory images are elsewhere clearly denounced for what they are: illusions and sham, because Sophie fights the attraction of America which, she insists, isn’t the new world: “that old idea was always a dream, a come on, a sales pitch. The land of escape, the land of sanctuary. New worlds for old.” The fine buildings, she feels, are “mixed up with something crumbling, blighted, decomposed. As if the skyscrapers had to sprout out of some fertile rot” (16).

10Her husband, Joe, is the only son of an aged, dour, humourless lower-class English couple, about whom their son can say grimly, looking at a photograph of them taken on Margate beach, “you can tell they’re on holiday by the way they’re gritting their teeth” (153). Husband and wife are very much alike in their dull, unimaginative ways: Joe’s mother “was like a parrot sitting on his shoulder. A dull, cabbage-coloured parrot. What he said, she said.” (154). In this oxymoronic simile Swift humorously borrows a motif that is banal and endogenous in post-colonial literature in English (think for instance of the ubiquitous, raucous parrots in Anita Desai’s fiction), but exotic for western readers, and distorts it out of all recognition. In a long paragraph Joe remembers all the identical August holidays of his childhood, invariably spent in Mrs Goff’s bleak boarding house, grandly baptised “the Thanet Hotel”. The paragraph starts off with mock elegiac exclamation marks “Margate! The Thanet Hotel! Jugs of tea for the beach!” but soon turns into a horror story of suspicious trickles under the pier and the smell of sticky tar, “as if there were some unwritten English law that pleasure couldn’t be pleasure without a good tang of disgust” (155).

11Later, Joe is in a position to offer to send his father on a foreign holiday, and whenever he mentions the word “abroad” to him, his father gives him ‘this boggle-eyed, disbelieving stare, as if [Joe] had said ‘Moon’” (155). Joe’s parents epitomize the narrow-minded, suspicious insularity and chauvinism that can be found among English people, not only of the working class, and the equation between “moon” and dangerous foreignness ties in neatly with all the other lunar motifs woven into complex patterns in this novel which begins with a son remembering how he watched the televised landing of the Americans on the moon with his father, on July 20th 1969.

For Joe, English beaches conjure up nauseating pictures of “brown rust streaks on the concrete and rust clogging the struts under the pier, which always reminded [him] of shit” (154), and in GBF Ormus Cama’s first contact with England and Englishness is similarly disastrous: standing on the deck of a boat off the English coast, he sees nothing worth watching, nothing but a bovinely boring place: “the England he sees on the horizon is a low dark shape below a low grey sky, distantly mooing with uninterest” (Rushdie 1999, 278). “Uninterest” is one of Rushdie’s neologisms, a paradoxically interesting one in the present case, and the phrase used just before is purposely awkward and repetitive, with its insistent and monotonous internal rhyme in “low”. For Ormus, “everything shifts”, he finds it hard “to get a handle on England”, and later he is shaken by the brutality of the law-enforcing officers: “this is an England his [Anglophile] father never knew; at whose existence he could not have guessed” (278). This is, one might add, also the racist, anti-immigration England that Rushdie first depicted in The Satanic Verses.

12Graham Swift submits Greece to the same flattening, debunking process: Sophie, lying bored in Drama in a hotel “overlooking a square that radiated heat and inertia” thinks it is just as well that her great-uncle Edward died in the war before ever getting to Greece, because “Homer does not tell you [about] miles and miles of flat tobacco fields. Or about the sad stumps of crumbling minarets”, about “the flat caps, gold teeth and stubbly chins” of Greek men, and the mostly fat women “swathed in black” (Swift 126), and when you have read Homer you do not expect Thermopylae, where Leonidas held the pass, “keeping the world safe for democracy” to be this totally mundane, unromantic spot, this “pull-in with some road-houses where the Athens-Salonika buses take a half-hour break” (127).

13If grey, bland, featureless dullness is one way of demythologizing mythical places, another way consists in creating associations between positive images of the countries (England, the USA, Greece, Ireland, Argentina) and the notions of war, death, and mass killings through modern warfare and armament, and /or terrorism. In GBF the passion for mythology of Methwold and Cama is given a severe check when Nazi propaganda appropriates their field of research, confiscating the word Aryan and the swastika:

when language is stolen and poisoned, the poison works its way backwards through time [. . .] The word “Aryan” which, for Max Müller and his generation, had a purely linguistic meaning, was now in the hands of less academic persons, poisoners, who were speaking of races [. . .] of masters and races of servants, [. . .] races whose fundamental impurity necessitated drastic measures, races who were not wanted on the voyage, who were surplus to requirements, races to be cut, blackballed and deposited in the bin of history. (Rushdie 1999, 44)

14Everywhere the motivations and imagery of war and violence shadow the dream visions, turning them into nightmares.

  • 3 David Malcolm (115) also comments on “that common device of Swift’s character presentation – the in (...)

15Swift’s character Sophie reflects, in April of 1982, on the American dream being just that, a dream, and on the new world being in fact a tired old world that yearns nostalgically for the sweet pristine innocence of its lost motherland, England: “Oh to be in England now that—" she exclaims, quoting Robert Browning’s “Home Thoughts from Abroad”, but an aposiopesis—a trope that Swift uses often, some might even say too often, in this novel3—interrupts the quotation (“Oh to be in England now that April’s here”), after which, in a parenthesis, she finishes her sentence: “now, so it seems, they are off to fight the Argentines” (Swift 15). Joe and Sophie literally feed on dreams, since Joe sells holidays in England to Americans. The dreams of old world England are “what keeps us here in the land of the free,” comments Sophie, alluding to the American national anthem, “O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave/O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”. And idyllic Englishness, all green innocence and green meadows, is contaminated by the absurd jingoism of the Falklands campaign, England’s “last little war for old time’s sake”:

For all time’s sake! Those scenes at Portsmouth! That pantomime! [. . .] It wasn’t even a re-run, with twentieth-century props, of grand Victorian send-offs for illustrious imperial expeditions. It was the Trojan War all over again. Someone had raped our precious Falkland isles, so the ships must sail. And somewhere, in a sacred grove, behind the harbour, before the bands could strike up and the ships slip their cables, someone had discreetly cut the throat of a modern day Iphigenia. (186)

16The reference to the American anthem serves the same function as the juxtaposition of Browning and Argentina, since the song composed in 1814 by Francis Scott Key celebrates, in martial language and energetic anapaests, an episode of the 1812 war between the British and the Americans, namely the attack by the British of Fort McHenry in September 1814: “And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,/Gave proof thro' the night that our flag was still there.” The anthem is meant to inspire young men to martial vigour, in the same way as the Roman and Greek myths lured Uncle Edward to the killing-fields in 1915 and continue to seduce Sophie in 1982:

Am I a hypocrite? I think little boys shouldn’t play with toy guns, but I think Leonidas, holding the pass with his Spartans, was a fine, brave thing. And once I read Homer because I was told Homer was the greatest. But what else was Homer singing about so deathlessly than these guys with spears sending other guys down to Hades? (184)

17The martial references tie in with the main themes of Swift’s novel, in which the hero’s father is at the head of a huge British armaments business, and in which Britannia’s stern, ruthless visage is fore-grounded, to counter the dreamlike visions of a bonny, rural, peaceful England, all “thatched cottages and stately homes. Patchwork scenery. Sweet green vision” (15).

18The image that comes to epitomize England for Joe is that of its patron Saint, St George. He likes to talk to Mario, an American bar tender in New York, who loves the way Joe Carmichael speaks, “so English upper class”, not realizing that Joe’s accent is in fact “cheap”, because “what part of it hasn’t turned American, is North London: Tottenham” (149). To Mario Joe confides that: “the patron saint of [his] country wasn’t a saint like you think of a saint–you know, holy, gentle, saintly. He was this chain-mailed thug, jamming a spear down the throat of a writhing beast.” (156, author’s emphasis)

19One can hear in the detail of the spear an echo of Sophie’s debunking of Homer’s warriors, “these guys with spears” (184). Joe tends to identify with the ubiquitous lizards of Greece, and, because “dragons are just big lizards”, to feel more kinship with the dragon than with St George the dragon slayer: “something bad comes along, like St George in his chain mail, you just dart away. All you lose is the skin of your arse” (157).

20Since the novel is constructed as a series of homodiegetic voices, it is difficult to decide whether Joe is aware of the irony of his description of the Greek officers who have just effected the April 1967 coup: he is invited to a party, where he is struck by “the soldiers, the officers, none of them high-ranking or dripping with braid, but all of them wearing an expression of saintly authority” (160, my emphasis). We can notice therefore that Swift’s language deliberately draws a parallel between England’s thug-like patron saint, and “saintly” Greek military thugs. The novel seems on the surface to create a clear-cut difference between democracy in England and arbitrary tyranny in Greece: “in your country you have your system—Winston Churchill, Buckingham Palace, Rule Britannia—but here we do it differently, eh? Bam-bam! Everybody change!” exclaims Zoumboulakis, Joe’s business associate. And yet Joe has been reluctantly involved, since his business partners have asked him to back the colonel’s backers (158), therefore he also, in oblique, indirect ways, is responsible for the obscenity of those tanks standing like monsters from another age on the beautiful sunlit square (131), just as, even if he nobly refuses all the offers of a job in the munitions business of his wife’s grandfather, his wife and he are nevertheless “cushioned” by the grandfather’s money (148). And if Swift reminds us in his novel that the coup in Greece took place in April (1967), while his fictitious IRA terrorists choose to plant a bomb in the car of Mr Beech, head of Beech munitions, in April of 1972, that certainly is no mere coincidence: “Oh to be in England now that April’s here”. . .

21Behind democracy and a surface peace, a surface happiness, both novels by Rushdie and Swift spell war, war, war, and jingoism. Armstrong and Aldrin in July 1969, planting the stars and stripes in the soil of the moon, are “moon-men, mission-controlled men in their absurd outfits”, and look no different from the marines walking about in all their hardware in the lunatic war zones of Vietnam, far from their home, America, their lost world, “the World”, as they used to call it (Swift 13). Just as absurd and outlandish were Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tensing, in 1953, having conquered Everest, “looking like spacemen, standing on the top of the world with a Union Jack stuck between them” (151). In Rushdie’s novel the Vietnam war is also present, but in his slanted, postmodernist way, “at a slight angle to reality”, as he puts it in Shame (Rushdie 1984, 29), Rushdie has altered historical truth, and it is the British who are fighting a war in Indochina, not the Americans.

Boundaries and Transgression

  • 4 See A. N. Mondal’s article, The Ground Beneath Her Feet and Fury: The reinvention of location” (in (...)

22OTW and GBF also show the vanity of clinging to a vision of the world that includes clear-cut national boundaries and reassuring, containing borders. Dreams of things and people belonging in their place are shattered, as boundaries and demarcations blur and disappear, leaving the reader with the bitter aftertaste of a bleak, globalized world dominated by “Americana International”, “MTV, Nike, McWorld4” (Rushdie 1999, 441). But it is a world in which no one knows what is worse, the centrifugal or the centripetal forces. “Is the world getting bigger or smaller?” ask Sophie’s twins, (Swift, 184) and she has no answer. She feels nostalgia for the safe, small, limited world of her innocent childhood, remembers “thinking the world was like a coloured beach-ball, you could catch it in your arms” (52); the world used to be secure and limited, with a father who would “protect Sophie from the world by making “a separate world within the circle of [his] arms” (31). But now all sense of safety and finiteness has gone, IRA bombs tear open the home, creating empty, vacant space where the front door had been; there is “the sense of a new, barbarous world encroaching, a world no longer keeping to its former demarcations, its former protocol” (92).

23John Fowles, to underline the “enormous differences” that used to separate a Londoner and a girl born in Devon, has the narrator of one of his novels comment:

Yet this distance, all those abysses unbridged and then unbridgeable by radio, television, cheap travel and the rest, was not wholly bad. [. . .]. The entire world was not [. . .] only a push or a switch away. Strangers were strange, and sometimes with an exciting, beautiful strangeness. It may be better for humanity that we should communicate more and more. But I am a heretic, I think our ancestors’ isolation was like the greater space they enjoyed: it can only be envied. The world is only too literally too much with us now. (Fowles 115)

24In a novel published in 1988, years before 9/11, and months before the fatwa against Rushdie of February 1989, Swift’s characters felt their utter vulnerability: “there isn’t a point in the world where you can get away from the world, not any more, is there?” (15).

25And yet, in some ways, getting away from the world can be a duty, a necessity, in order to gain perspective, understanding, and in order to bear testimony, to make a statement. Both Swift and Rushdie construct the figure of the photographer as the one who has become the outsider, in order to take the picture: “the only people who see the whole picture are the ones who step out of the frame” states Rai, the photographer/narrator in GBF (Rushdie 1999, 203), meaningfully repeating words uttered previously by Sir Darius (43), and turning them into a self reflexive comment, the photographer being a metaphor for the writer. Graham Swift makes a similar point, by using the image of a screen, outside of which you must stay if you want to see what it shows: “Step through the screen and you lose the picture” (Swift 151). His own invented photographer, Harry, is well aware of his tragic duty:

A photographer is neither there nor not there, neither in nor out of the thing. If you’re in the thing it’s terrible, but there aren’t any questions, you do what you have to do and you don’t even have time to look. But what I’d say is that someone has to look. Someone has to be in it and step back too. Someone has to be a witness. (49)

  • 5 See the analysis of Madelena Gonzalez (163–176), who comments for instance on the ambiguity and amb (...)

26Harry repeats the same idea later, stating that someone has to “hold open the shutter when the world wants to close its eyes”, and his daughter Sophie will hate him for this: “I didn’t know which was worse, that the world contained such things or that my father had taken that picture” (78). The photographer is the hated outsider, the aggressor: “A photographer shoots” remarks Rai5 (Rushdie 1999, 213), echoing the parallel that Sophie draws between guns and cameras: “You can shoot with both. You can load and aim with both. With both you can find your target and the rest of the world goes black” (Swift 77).

27Sophie’s radiant childhood vision of the world as a coloured beach-ball has to make way for a similar image, which spells discord and danger this time, as she describes the map of England to her twins, raised in America:

England is like a little hunched-up old lady at the seaside, her back turned towards the rest of Europe, dipping her toe into the Atlantic Ocean and pulling up her skirts round her shrivelled body. [. . .] Someone has thrown in her direction a two tone beach-ball called Ireland and she is screwing up her face in displeasure. (191)

28The whole world, the planet, now visible from outside, from space, represents for Swift’s character Harry “the ultimate photo”: “The earth from the moon. [. . .]. All of it, the whole of it, everything. Hanging in the black velvet of space” (14), while for Rushdie it is Major Ed White, of the Gemini 4 mission, who is the “ultimate outsider”, “the only sentient creature hanging above the earth, outside the Gemini 4 spacecraft (Rushdie 1999, 288). And yet this tiny, vulnerable world is also suffering from the disease of incessant fissiparous-ness, or balkanisation, notably in India, where things keep “dividing and slicing” where “everything starts getting partitioned, separated by frontiers, splitting, re-splitting. Gravity dies. People fly off into space” (Rushdie 1999, 164). We yearn for the lost safety, the lost boundaries, the lost smallness and rootedness of each individual world, and yet, asks Rushdie’s narrator, what if “outsideness”, not belonging, were a boon, a bonus? : “What if all of it—home, kinship, the whole enchilada—is just the biggest most truly global, and centuries-oldest piece of brainwashing? Suppose that it’s only when you dare to let go that your real life begins?(176–77)

  • 6 See Catherine Pesso-Miquel, 139–140.

29In Shame (published in 1983) Rushdie had already written an apology of “the anti-myths of gravity” celebrating lack of roots and not belonging: “Roots, I sometimes think, are a conservative myth, designed to keep us in our places” (Rushdie 1984, 866). Rai dares us to disobey “the world’s head laundry” when it tries to brainwash us, ordering: “don’t jump off that cliff don’t walk through that door [. . .] don’t step across that line” (Rushdie 1999, 177), even if the price of freedom is terrible loneliness, “the vertiginous terror of the horizon spinning round and round like the edge of a coin tossed in the air” (177).

30Graham Swift’s hero Harry, the famous photographer, also grows up to be an outsider, belonging nowhere, thereby acquiring the necessary daring, the necessary vision. As a child, Harry dreaded going to boarding school as much as he dreaded going home to a cold father and a motherless house, and lived in a state of “numb suspension”: “I would say to myself: You belong nowhere. Or rather: This is the only place you belong—this transit region, this in-between space”. (Swift 121, author’s emphasis)

31It is Darius Cama who conceptualises the notion of “outsideness” by reacting to Dumézil’s theory that Aryan cultures rested on the triple concept of religious sovereignty, physical force and fertility, a division that does not satisfy him, because he would like to include a fourth factor: “what about outsideness? What about all that which is beyond the pale, above the fray, beneath notice? What about outcastes, lepers, pariahs, exiles, enemies, spooks, paradoxes? (Rushdie 1999, 42 43, author’s emphasis). In a lyrical, eloquent page, Rai/Umeed celebrates “rootlessness”, the souls that are “simply born not belonging”, “who come into the world semi-detached”, souls which are much more numerous than it might appear at first, since “we hide our secret identities beneath the false skins of those identities which bear the belongers’ seal of approval” (72–73, author’s emphasis). Rai celebrates those who “soar, [who] fly; [who] flee”, just as “in our myths, our arts, our songs” we keep mythologizing “the non-belongers”:

The tramp, the assassin, the rebel, the thief, the mutant, the outcast, the delinquent, the devil [. . .]: if we did not recognize in them our least-fulfilled needs, we would not invent them over and over again, in every place, in every language, in every time. (73)

32Rushdie links “outsideness” with non conformity, as applied in the field of culture, a word on which he puns, giving it its laboratory meaning of micro organisms grown on a glass slide: “most of us wrigglers make do with life on that slide: we even agree to feel proud of that ‘culture’”, but his heroes refuse to squirm and obey and conform, to “get [their] personae off the peg, [their] religion, language, prejudices, demeanour, the works”, insisting on “what one might call auto-couture” (95) rather than “culture”.

  • 7 Probably a wink at the Beatles’s song, “Will you still love me when I’m sixty-four”.

33Nevertheless such heroic, defiant attitudes cannot be sustained forever, and even the heroes are allowed a measure of peace and normality, of “rootedness”, “not the [roots] we’re born with, can’t help having, but the ones we put down in our own chosen soil” (414). Indeed both novels present an ending that is more “happy” than not, ending in fulfilled love and reconciliation; Mira and her daughter Tara becoming Rai’s “islands in the storm”, with “ordinary human love beneath [his] feet” (575), while Swift’s Harry, who is now sixty-four7, falls in love with the twenty-five year-old Jenny. Harry, the former news photographer, always between two planes, never in England for long, is now happy to see his world drastically reduced, revolving “round a cottage in a tiny village in Wiltshire”, feeling “that [he is] home, home.” (Swift 39).

34Love triumphs, Vina Apsara the nymph (Rushdie 1999, 55) is an alter ego of Venus, just as Ormus Cama is named after Kama the love god, and both of them are linked to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice: the powers of love, myth, culture and home resist resiliently, so that never finally are the tensions between home and exile, nation and abroad, identity and foreignness, roots and freedom resolved. Utter clarity and remorseless, definitive choices are finally shunned, in favour of a pragmatic foregrounding of love, a defiant rehabilitation of the corniness of a happy ending based on the adage “home is where the heart is”. Swift’s hero comes to the conclusion that we never cease to live in between two worlds, between a reality and the parallel realities we keep creating for ourselves:

I used to believe that ours was the age in which we would say farewell to myths and legends, when they would fall off us like useless plumage and we would see ourselves clearly only as what we are. I thought the camera was the key to this process. But I think the world cannot bear to be only what it is. The world always wants another world, a shadow, an echo, a model of itself. (Swift 187)

35The world, in other words, will always need photographers and writers, artists like Salman Rushdie and Graham Swift, both to represent the world and to transform it, turning it into another place, hopefully a better place, certainly “out of this world”. James Wood took Salman Rushdie as a perfect example of post-modernist writer of “world literature”:

  • 8 This is not as true of Salman Rushdie as of Nabokov or J. Conrad: Rushdie’s mother tongue is Urdu, (...)

Goethe may first have spoken, in the afternoon of the millennium, of "world-literature," but its existence is quite recent. It was born with modernism, and now flourishes darkly in an age of postmodernism. When writers became exiles or émigrés, when they began to write in their second or third languages8, and above all when the experience of this displacement became the subject of their work, then world-literature was born, for better or worse. Salman Rushdie is probably the purest example of this negative liberty. Literally homeless, Rushdie writes repeatedly about the actual and figurative centrifuges of modern life. (Wood 1)

36Yet OTW shows that you need not be an exiled, post-colonial writer to be able to write imaginatively and convincingly about exile and displacement, about home and abroad, belonging and not belonging. As Swift once remarked, “Terra incognita [can very well be] just around the corner” (quoted by Lee 9).

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Bhabha, Homi, The Location of Culture, London and New York: Routledge, 1994.

Fowles, John, The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969), London, Pan Books, 1987.

Gonzalez, Madelena, Fiction after the Fatwa: Salman Rushdie and the Charm of Catastrophe. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2005.

Gurnah, Abdulrazak, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Salman Rushdie, Cambridge: CUP, 2007.

James, Henry, The Portrait of a Lady (1908), New York: Norton, 1995.

Lee, Hermione, “Someone to watch over you”, The Guardian, March 8th 2003, Features & Reviews section, 9.

Malcolm, David, Understanding Graham Swift, Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2003.

Naipaul, V. S., The Mimic Men, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979.

Pesso-Miquel, Catherine, Salman Rushdie: L’écriture transportée, Bordeaux: PU de Bordeaux, 2007.

Rushdie, Salman, Shame (1983), London: Picador, 1984.

Rushdie, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1999.

Swift, Graham, Out of This World, Harmonsworth: Penguin, 1988.

Wood, James, “Lost in the Punhouse”, The New Republic, June 21st 2001.

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1 This difference is echoed in the contrasts between the hype that surrounds Rushdie’s work and the relative lack of interest in Graham Swift’s work in general, and in Out of This World in particular, which, as David Malcolm (132) notes, is “a quite unjustly underrated novel”.

2 Already a prominent character, albeit not yet a peer, in Midnight’s Children, where he is Saleem Sinai’s biological father.

3 David Malcolm (115) also comments on “that common device of Swift’s character presentation – the incomplete utterance”, which occurs “at certain crucial points—of evasion, of uncertainty”, when the characters “are approaching the unspeakable”.

4 See A. N. Mondal’s article, The Ground Beneath Her Feet and Fury: The reinvention of location” (in Gurnah [ed.], 169–183).

5 See the analysis of Madelena Gonzalez (163–176), who comments for instance on the ambiguity and ambivalence of “the double self of the photographer, the ruthless tant pis killer and the giver of immortality also” (Rushdie 1999, 222, quoted in Gonzalez, 165).

6 See Catherine Pesso-Miquel, 139–140.

7 Probably a wink at the Beatles’s song, “Will you still love me when I’m sixty-four”.

8 This is not as true of Salman Rushdie as of Nabokov or J. Conrad: Rushdie’s mother tongue is Urdu, but he cannot read it, and English is for him a second “first language”, the one in which he learnt how to read and write, as a schoolboy in Bombay.

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Catherine Pesso-Miquel, « Out of this (English) World: Englishness Seen from Abroad in Graham Swift’s Out of This World and Salman Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet »Études britanniques contemporaines, 37 | 2009, 99-114.

Référence électronique

Catherine Pesso-Miquel, « Out of this (English) World: Englishness Seen from Abroad in Graham Swift’s Out of This World and Salman Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 37 | 2009, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2017, consulté le 22 septembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Catherine Pesso-Miquel

Université Lumière-Lyon 2
Catherine Pesso-Miquel, ancienne élève de l’École Normale Supérieure de Fontenay-aux-Roses, a été Maître de Conférences à l’université de Paris-Sorbonne avant de devenir Professeur de littératures anglophones contemporaines à l’université Lumière Lyon 2. Membre de l’unité mixte de recherche LIRE-Sema (CNRS/Lyon 2), elle est l’auteur de plusieurs ouvrages, et d’articles portant sur le roman contemporain de langue anglaise et sur le roman post-colonial anglophone. En 2007 elle a publié aux Presses universitaires de Bordeaux une monographie sur Salman Rushdie intitulée L’Écriture transportée ; elle est également l’auteur d’une étude sur In Custody, d’Anita Desai, publiée aux éditions Atlande en 2008.

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