Monday, February 21, 2011

Reading group: Waterland by Graham Swift

Ann suggested this book in which a history teacher narrator, Tom Crick, due to lose his post for traumatic personal reasons, relates - both to a class of London teenagers and, in parallel, to himself - his own personal story and his family history, along with the history of the Fens out of which they emerged. The family story is one of isolation, hauntings, death, delayed development, murder, abortion and madness, and with incest at its heart.

Ann was attracted by the book's reputation as an evocative depiction of the Fens landscape which she often travels through, and the moment she suggested it, Doug, who grew up in Lincolnshire, immediately said that he knew the book and had loved it for that reason.

Everyone in the group agreed that it was indeed a vivid evocation of that flat, fluid landscape, and its mournful, uncertain atmosphere. However, Ann said that she found it hard to take the long and detailed historical digressions, those dealing with actual history - the French Revolution which Crick is supposed to be teaching (rather than telling stories), and the history of the drainage of the fens and its brewing industry - as well as the fictional history of Crick's brewing ancestors. (They are couched self-consciously in the mode of essays or lectures in a way that slows down the pace of the novel, making it leisurely, indeed ponderous, and are titled as such: 'About the Rise of the Atkinsons', 'About the Ouse'.)  Jo and John and Jenny agreed that the brewing and drainage bits were boring (though later Doug - who arrived very late - insisted that, to someone brought up in Lincolnshire, drainage was fascinating!). Ann said that after a while, however, she began to see a reason in the novel's style and structure, and then found it easier to accept: ie, with its digressions and the constant loopings back in the action, it was specifically structured like a river (the fictional river, indeed, the Leem, on which the story takes place). I agreed with this, and I said that I thought that likewise the prose, with its constant subordinate clauses, its often ponderous sentences interrupting themselves and looping back to earlier clauses, was intended to mimic the looping of a river over flat land and indeed the constant draining and silting of the land itself to which the novel refers early on. The novel deals in uncertainty, the uncertainty of the landscape and indeed the uncertainty of history, and while Ann could see that this is why it's often not clear what exactly happened at various points in the story, or what the motives of the characters were precisely, she found that lack of clarity very unsatisfying. On the whole, she thought that at times the novel worked really well, but that at other times it didn't, and she didn't like or care about any of the characters.

Jenny then said that one thing she thinks is great about our reading group is that it forces her to persevere with books she would otherwise have given up on, only to find that she enjoys them after all, and so it was with this book: for the first 150 of its 350 pages she was very bored but after that began to be engaged. Trevor said that the first time he read the book he hadn't thought much of it, but that this time he'd rather enjoyed it: he felt that once you knew the story you had more patience with the digressions and could enjoy them for themselves. Clare said that, like Doug, she had very much liked the book.

John and Jo were perhaps the most negative. While the story-telling theme and the mode in which it's conveyed seemed to me very clever (and were fascinating enough to me to keep me reading in spite of some doubts), John thought the book clever in a cold, manipulative way, and Ann, I think, agreed with him that it was 'too clever'.  He said he agreed with Ann that the characters and their relationships were unbelievable, and once he'd said it, there was general agreement about this, even from those who liked the book. There is a whole thirty years in the life of Crick and his wife Mary which is simply glossed over, and so you couldn't understand what had happened to their relationship, or therefore know on any deep psychological level the reasons for Mary's behaviour and madness which precipitate Tom Crick out of his teaching career. John thought the depiction itself of the sex etc was sordid - there is even a chapter titled, seemingly without irony, 'About Holes and Things' - and again everyone nodded.

As for the incest in the novel, Jenny, a sociologist, pointed out that incest happens more frequently than we tend to assume, especially in lonely and isolated places (and Ann said that a social worker had told her the same). I said that although I accepted this absolutely as sociological fact, I didn't think it was conveyed believably in the novel, especially from the point of the view of the daughter, and everyone agreed. Ann and I then discussed why this was so. This episode is self-consciously told in fairytale mode, and while we could see that this authorial choice would be based on the fact that fairytales can make the most grotesque seem matter-of-fact, we felt that it simply didn't work: we needed the depiction to be more psychological. At this point things got very confusing, as some people were muddled between the two couples in the story, indeed, just about everyone had been so at points  during the reading. John thought that was ridiculous, that you should have to keep checking back to sort out the different couples in the reading, but Clare thought it was an authorial intention - the idea that all these people's lives flowed into each other like the river. John said, getting back to the lack of psychological portrayal, a whole problem with the book was that none of the women are portrayed in any depth whatever; he came away with the distinct notion that the author didn't understand women: what did the women in the group think? Jo and I agreed, but Jenny said none of the characters were portrayed in any psychological depth, and Clare said they weren't meant to be psychologically realistic, they were symbols.

I then said that my main problem with the book was the voice: quite frankly, as an ex-secondary school teacher I found that Crick's relationship with his pupils and the way he spoke to them made me uncomfortable. In real life he'd have been laughed out of the classroom. While there were aspects of the book I liked, it's so framed by and saturated in this voice, that I found it hard to get past. John too thought that the way the pupils accepted Crick's attitude and mode of address was psychologically unrealistic, and Ann agreed with me that the way the main troublesome pupil ended up as Crick's champion, smelled embarrassingly of authorial ex-schoolteacher's wishful thinking. Jenny and Trevor said they didn't have a problem with any of this. John said that while Crick makes clear that he doesn't actually call the class 'children' to their faces, and also while John understood that Crick's calling them that 'silently' throughout the text was something to do with Tom and Mary's own childlessness, the very fact that he does this last simply creates - along with his pompous diction - a sense of a history teacher dustily out of touch and thus impossible to empathise with.

John now quoted a sentence which he thought was ridiculously long, pompous and convoluted with its sub-sub clauses:
And while this determined policy on the part of the parents might have expressed the simple recognition that their first-born was, after all, irreclaimable, this did not account for the rigour with which it was pursued: for that moment, for example, when the younger son, thinking it only right to impart to his less fortunate brother some of his, albeit frugal, learning, embarked (the future teacher in the making) on a programme of secret tuition; and, being found out, was not only stopped short in his scheme of enlightenment but was roundly told by the provoked father (who was not a man, it was true, easily roused to great temper or severity, especially since the death of his sad wife): 'Don't educate him! Don't learn 'im to read!' 
But Doug said that prose was great, and Clare said, Lovely stuff!

People now talked about the things they hadn't understood or thought weren't clear in the novel. Was Tom's brother Dick really not mentally slow after all, but had simply been held back? Did Tom's father know the secret concerning Dick? (The above-quoted sentence seems to imply an affirmative to both questions, but people had doubts.) Who was really supposed to be the father of the teenage Mary's baby? Were we meant to believe what Mary said about it, or not? Was there a hint of incest between Mary and her father, or not? Why did Dick commit his final act? Was he drunk, or not? What was the point of the bottles of special beer in the trunk? (People generally agreed that they had the fairytale role of a magic potion, and the trunk was a kind of Pandora's box). What was the thematic point of Dick's being designated a saviour of the world by a grandfather descended into madness? Everyone shrugged, and nobody knew. (In retrospect, I'd say this last was an illustration of the madness of trying to take control of the ebb and flow of the world.)

Ann posed the question as to why the French Revolution had been chosen by the author as the historical moment constantly referred to. It's another instance of people trying to control the ebb and flow of history, and Clare pointed to Crick's speech in which he says that revolution does not necessarily mean change (as people tend to think of it), since a revolving wheel returns to its previous point  - just as, I'd add, the Fens constantly return to water, and the rivers, like the Leem after the 1947 floods, silt up and return to land.

All however agreed that the chapter 'About the Eel', with its revelation that the life cycle of the eel is still unknown, was fascinating - even Jo, and a grudging John since it was so very symbolic of the theme of the book, though he said if he'd wanted that much detail he'd have gone to a bloody encyclopaedia. He said that if you took away all the pompous digressions which seemed to give the book dignity and boiled it down to the direct personal action, it would take up about twelve pages and make a pretty sordid little story.

Finally, he asked, 'What's the point of this book? What's it saying?' No one really answered - they laughed and groaned, taking his question as rhetorical - but I'd say that the book is an exploration of uncertainty, the uncertainty of history and of storytelling and the ultimately unfathomable nature of the motives of others. It's especially interesting because the novel borrows from, and thus ironises, the mode and language of the Victorian sensation novel which, while it similarly deals with secrets and corruption and breakdown of the social order, was underpinned by authorial certainty.  Like Ann, I'm not sure that the deliberate uncertainties of this book make for an ultimately satisfying novel, but even John had to admit that it was a fascinating experiment.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here


Dave said...

Hi, as I'm sure you are probably aware, Swift's latest book is due to release in June 2011.

There is an exclusive interview with him here for those interested in his new release and the background to the story.

First comment here, will keep reading as always.

Unknown said...

I'm glad I found this. I have just given up on this novel, something I very rarely do. I found it to be verbose. I didn't care at all about the characters which to me is a major failing in any novel. Tom Crick is a an awful character, flat and totally unbelievable. On the whole I came away from this novel irritated to say the least.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Hi, Unknown.

Thanks for leaving your thoughts. It's always good to know the reactions of others.