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19 August 2020

Illusions of grandeur: writers in awe of their own conjuring tricks

The latest novels by Graham Swift and Daniel Kehlmann take the conceit of literature as "rough magic" about as far as it will go.

By Leo Robson

The idea that literature is a cousin of sorcery or sleight of hand goes at least as far back as Ovid’s poem sequence Metamorphoses, though its ubiquity in modern times can probably be credited to Shakespeare’s (highly Ovidian) final play The Tempest, in which the concept of “rough magic” is used to encompass both spells and stagecraft. According to this strain of thought, language is in the business of creation and mutation, and the writer is a sort of master-mage, a conjuror of new life who reads minds and travels through time while performing lightning-quick transformations with the help of metaphor.

The latest novels by Graham Swift and Daniel Kehlmann, both virtuoso writers in their very different ways, take this conceit about as far as it will go – or further. Here We Are concerns a trio of illusionists in Brighton in 1959, the last summer of good old-fashioned entertainment, in Swift’s view. Kehlmann’s Tyll, which has been shortlisted for the International Booker Prize, follows a notorious, possibly demonic trickster around Bavaria and Westphalia during the Thirty Years War (1618-48).

Both novels perform ostentatious tricks with time-scheme. Swift makes repeated leaps to 2009, when Eve White, a former magician’s assistant, is resisting overtures from would-be biographers of her late husband, the performer Jack Robinson. Kehlmann uses his omnipotence to move Tyll half-a-millennium forward and jumps back and forth to tell the story, presenting his central character at the height of his fame (recalled by an audience member who has since been killed), as a fledgling tightrope-walker, and as the employee of Frederick V, the beleaguered “Winter King”. At one point Kehlmann winds forward to the early 18th century – as in Here We Are, the main events of the novel have become the stuff of legend – when a fat old Viennese count is writing his memoirs and striving to recall when the Kaiser commissioned him to track down the most famous jester in the Holy Roman empire, said to be stranded in a ruined abbey.

Neither book is exactly reticent about employing literary devices reminiscent of its subject matter, but Swift appears to view this as his only task. At times his novel feels like an exercise in the generation of approximately relevant tropes. Barely 50 pages from the end, he is still keen to make his point: “It was not just that a vase of flowers had appeared from nowhere. He himself had become a different person.”

On the whole Swift seems rather too amazed by the existence of figurative language. When the third member of the trio, Ronnie, who starts off as Jack’s sidekick and Eve’s boyfriend, takes a train from Oxfordshire back to Brighton, Swift writes: “Surrey became Sussex.” Approached by fans in the street, Jack “becomes” his most famous character, Terry Treadwell. The implication is that the reader, before turning to this novel, imagined that language was straightforward and reality simple. But it’s Swift who ends up seeming naive. In one scene, he attempts to ring mystery from the extraordinary changes that Ronnie observes during a postwar visit to London, implying the buildings had been magically turned into rubble, when it’s clearly the work of the Luftwaffe.

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Swift’s writing has become more overtly omnipotent in recent years, with the shift – in Wish You Were Here (2011) and Mothering Sunday (2016) – to a roving third-person narrator following decades of monologues. But even when his work was overseen by a single backward-looking character, he always exploited the potential for dramatic irony. Mothering Sunday was his first novel that didn’t hinge on some dreadful secret mentioned in the early pages then strenuously concealed. Here We Are shows Swift returning to his old ways, with the added irritation that the postponement applies also to the mystery – the thing we’re supposed to be curious about – and not only its solution. In previous novels, we have been waiting to know why a character is holding a gun, or what they are going to tell their children the following day. In this case, we are only told that there was an incident involving Ronnie and “the police”. It hardly whets the appetite.

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To keep things moving, Swift indulges in a fair bit of verbal analysis – for example, of the way “business” and “beat” are able to denote more than one activity or phenomenon. “Windfall” is described as a “hocus-pocus sort of word that might mean anything”. But most words – windfall is surely among them – mean particular things, and the reader cannot simply accept, at least not without some form of clarification, the claim that Ronnie’s mother was at the same time “hardened” and “softened” by the Second World War.

In novels such as Last Orders – which won the Booker Prize in 1996 – and The Light of Day (2003), Swift was keen to ask what a cliché might still have to tell us, or what fun there is to have with it. The new novel, by contrast, harasses the reader with sentences such as, “The show must go on, but sometimes things happen and it can’t,” and the would-be philosophical conundrum, “The show must go on. But must it? Who says?” This makes for a somewhat jerky reading experience. You cannot encounter a phrase such as, “She’d try anything once” or, “Show him what was what” without pausing to consider what Swift is up to, though all too frequently the conclusion is that no marvellous act of mutation has transpired, the cliché remains a cliché.

Daniel Kehlmann – one of the most feted German novelists at work today – splashes about in similar waters, but his ideas are grander and his effects more elaborate. Kehlmann’s anti-hero and part-time protagonist, Tyll, is a commanding figure, like Prospero without Miranda or redemption. But the novel’s composite narrative structure seems more sinister and elusive when Tyll is presented via other viewpoints, as a visitor or interloper, than when we are given, say, a dutiful account of his jester apprenticeship. (He practises a great deal.) The focus on the historical cast allows some broad clues to Kehlmann’s invention – for example, a flashback to the original production of The Tempest, attended by the Winter King’s wife, Elizabeth Stuart. (She enjoys some post-show chatter with the playwright.)

Kehlmann’s emphasis on forms of language goes beyond idle wordplay and informs the novel’s engagement with language as a tool of power. “Your Highness” indicates one thing and “Your Majesty” another. When Tyll is asked what the Kaiser is like, he replies: he sleeps, and he likes it when people are nice to him. But in an atmosphere of superstition, names and titles retain a symbolic power that is easily mistaken for real. The Winter King debates with Elizabeth whether he could possibly play the Caesar role in the unfolding conflict when the title of his opponent – the Kaiser – is literally derived from Caesar.

At one point, literary interpretation is exposed for its tendency to transfigure the truth, when Donne’s “No man is an island” is invoked as a poem intended to urge James I to support Frederick V. But Kehlmann is not averse to reminding us of more banal ways in which language is a form of prestidigitation, a slippery act. At one point on his quest to locate Tyll, the Austrian count meets a former soldier from the Kaiser’s army who tells him he was “almost in Vienna once”. He asks what happened, and the soldier replies that “nothing happened, I didn’t make it”. Just as Ronnie in Here We Are observes that a green baize card table is also “not a table”, Tyll tells an audience member, “My sister over there is Nele. She’s not my sister.” And Kehlmann is guilty of the occasional groan-provoking in-joke: “A king without a country in a storm, alone with his fool – something like this would never happen in a play, it was too absurd.”

If there’s a larger problem, it’s that Kehlmann’s nimble way with concepts never pervades the novel’s tone or texture. The set-pieces are solidly done. (There’s a lot of fear and awe from onlookers.) This may be a product of the self-consciousness that he brings to a subject surely better-suited to the impish and on-the-hoof. On finishing both these books, one is left with the sense that being mechanically playful is as flat a contradiction as you would expect, and that literature may be on easier terms with its own magical essence when authors are not nudging us persistently to notice it.

Here We Are
Graham Swift
Scribner, 208pp, £14.99

Daniel Kehlmann translated by Ross Benjamin
Riverrun, 352pp, £18.99