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Lest he forget

Making an Elephant: Writing from Within
Graham Swift
Picador, 402pp, £18.99

Against all odds, this is a tender and admirable book. It was initially conceived as a slab of reheated journalism, the kind of book that “writers of fiction are sometimes tempted to put together”, as Swift admits. Often the temptation has proved all too strong; of the 19 writers who appeared alongside him on Granta’s 1983 Best of Young British Novelists, six have put their cuttings file between hard covers, some more than once. As the author of numerous well-received novels, including Waterland and Last Orders, Swift was certainly in a position to follow suit. He has made a point of not quite doing so.

The book still feels like a collection: most of its 19 items have appeared before, in newspapers and magazines, and nothing has been done to disguise this. In the brief introductory chapter, however, Swift presents Making an Elephant as an exercise in self-revelation, intended to provide “a glimpse or two” into his life. This is not the first book to repackage a novelist’s ephemera in this way, but Kurt Vonnegut was being at least partly whimsical in offering Palm Sunday as “a sort of autobiography”. Swift isn’t.

All of Swift’s journalistic assignments have pertained directly to his own experience – there are chapters here on reading aloud and being on the Booker Prize shortlist – and most have emphasised the importance of place, either in his novels (the Fens in Waterland, Margate in Last Orders, Wimbledon in The Light of Day) or in his life (Sydenham, where his father grew up, and Devon, where he used to go fishing with Ted Hughes). Even when not fulfilling its brief as a makeshift memoir, the book is concerned in some way with “writing”, but it is typical of Swift that he makes the reader sensitive to both meanings of the word.

“Writing” is, naturally, the most straightforward way of describing what writers do – and what they should be allowed to do, without fear of reprisal. The writers whom Swift meets in Prague shortly before the Velvet Revolution have long harboured a desire just to write, away from the dangers and distractions of politics. A chapter on Swift’s one-time friend Salman Rushdie also picks up on this theme. But “writing” is also the most straightforward word for what writers produce, and the only word that encompasses the entirety of Making an Elephant.

Swift has a passion for splitting words, for yoking opposites, and for identifying paradoxes. He is also obsessed with clichés, epithets and platitudes, as anyone who has read Last Orders and The Light of Day, or just heard their titles, will probably have noticed. He defends the use of certain phrases – “life and soul”, “getting close to nature”, “if only I’d known then” – but, like Beckett, he is also keen to excavate cliché to see what it obscures or conceals. Occasionally Swift catches himself out, as in this passage:

One of the few regrets of my life is that I have no formal grounding in music. I never had a musical education or came from the sort of “musical home” that would have made this possible or probable, though I was born at a time when an upright piano was still a common piece of living-room furniture. I need to be a little careful about what I’m saying. I never came from a “writerly” home either: I didn’t feel that was a barrier, and if I’d got involved in music at an early age, might it only have thwarted my stirrings as a writer? Or just left me with bad memories of piano lessons?

Writing in this passage is a form of scrupulous self-examination, a conveyor of thought rather than its protective cover. Many writers would surely have discarded the first half of this paragraph, but for Swift the turning point is crucial. This shedding of presumptive certainty is part of what he admires in Montaigne, the subject of the last item in the book.

Making an Elephant is an unlikely work; the only recent book to which it bears any resemblance is Stepping Stones, the collection of interviews that the poet Dennis O’Driscoll conducted with Seamus Heaney. Swift even uses the metaphor of stepping stones to describe “the cautiously darting momentum” with which he wrote the 30 poems presented here, and he compares his profession as a “pen-pusher” with his father’s as a “book-keeper”, just as Heaney’s “Digging” compares poetry to his father’s manual labour (there is a photo here of Swift as a boy “at work” with a spade at the beach).

But the most significant overlap between these back-door autobiographies is the use they make of the interview between writers. When Swift interviews his friends Caryl Phillips (“Caz”) and Kazuo Ishiguro (“Ish”), or is interviewed by Patrick McGrath, the discussion centres on particular details, revealing specific differences in approach. Philip Roth used the writer-to-writer interview to stunning effect in Shop Talk (of which the novelist Ivan Klíma, whom Swift, too, met on his trip to Prague, was a subject), but otherwise it has been called upon all too rarely, and some of its most exciting possibilities – Irvine Welsh and Doris Lessing, Bret Easton Ellis and Wole Soyinka – have yet to be exploited.

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, God special issue