- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 16, 2009

MAKING AN ELEPHANT: WRITING FROM WITHIN
By Graham Swift
Knopf, $26.95, 400 pages, illus.
REVIEWED BY MARTIN RUBIN

Of the cluster of British novelists born around the midpoint of the 20th century, Graham Swift is the quiet one. If his contemporaries Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, Julian Barnes and A.N. Wilson are the class hares, then Mr. Swift is definitely the group’s tortoise. But, nevertheless, in the past decades, he has produced eight novels, including “The Sweet-Shop Owner” and “Waterland,” collecting a clutch of literary awards in his native land and abroad, and capping it all with winning the most glittering book prize of all, the Booker, with “Last Orders.” In his characteristically unsplashy way, he has racked up a considerable achievement in the art of fiction.

So it is no surprise to find that this collection of short, nonfiction pieces reveal the same quiet, deliberate manner that readers will recognize from his fiction. Whether he is reminiscing about his own life or giving glimpses of those of other writers he has known, he is always graceful and low-keyed, never grating or showy for its own sake. Modest but not necessarily self-effacing, the persona he presents here is consistently attractive, leaving the reader always wanting just a little bit more, but still satisfied with what he has got.

And what you have here, as is inevitable with this kind of collection, is a hodgepodge of different sorts of pieces, memoir, reminiscence, travel pieces, meditations on aspects of the writer’s life. Mr. Swift remembers what we would now call his gap-year between school and university, traveling south-east across Europe. He certainly did it on the cheap, setting out with only the fifty pounds sterling (at that time worth about $140) which that era’s stringent British currency regulations allowed travelers.

“I’m still rather amazed I survived the journey at all. Fifty pounds was worth more then, but it was a paltry sum to spread over five months. I eked it out partly by sometimes ‘working my way,’ partly through some astonishing hospitality, but partly also by occasionally half starving and by sleeping in the open: on beaches, in ditches, under forest trees, or when I was in the Turkish interior, in ‘dosshouse’ conditions. But I never suffered any mishap, any physical injury or act of violence. …”

Yet he made it home safely, albeit standing most of the way in a train corridor all the way from Greece to England with a ticket that had expired because of an unscheduled last night spent in a Thessaloniki prison on account of his companions’ boisterous behavior. Looking back on those days from the vantage point of maturity, Mr. Swift summons up the true spirit and feeling of self-confident youth.

Glimpses of his later life are fragmentary and judiciously chosen. Painful childhood memories of getting his anti-polio inoculation notwithstanding its benefits mingle with equally fraught ones as an adult watching two of his novels being adapted as movies. His stoicism about such experiences does not prevent the real anguish he felt as a boy and the no less acute adult version from peeping through the cracks in his stiff upper lip! The title essay recounts a childhood experience of making a wooden elephant with his father; the act of father-son bonding being the point of the exercise and of his reminiscence. This segues into a low-keyed but deeply felt account of his father’s life, his exciting experiences during World War II being succeeded by a humdrum civil service job, and an early and happy retirement before his death from cancer at age 70. No family secrets are revealed here of the kind readers will find in Mr. Swift’s fiction. If there are any, they would be out of place given the tone and mien of these pieces.

This same quality of discretion is apparent in Mr. Swift’s portraits of various literary friends, living and dead. Even if their lives were the stuff of lurid headlines, as in the case of his close friend the poet Ted Hughes, what we see here is very different stuff. Even as contentious a figure as Salman Rushdie, not known for his cuddly manner, emerges as an ordinary nice guy here, as he enjoys Christmas dinner with the Swifts, complete with security officers guarding him. Detailing a bibulous experience with another writer on a book tour in Washington, D.C., is about as salacious as it gets in this volume. Mr. Swift is the least gossipy of writers. You come away from these pieces feeling that he is a very good person to have as a friend: fond, understanding, fun, but above all discreet, a man you can trust.

But it must be admitted that all these qualities so admirable in a buddy do at times make this book just a little bit dull. It’s not that one is necessarily looking for someone to dish a lot of dirt, but the low-key writing and the quiet manner so evident throughout do not really make for the most exciting reading. For that, readers are better off going to Mr. Swift’s fiction. But, as a way of knowing the decent man who writes it, “Making an Elephant” is a valuable book.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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