Nonfiction from the trunk
Making an Elephant
Writing From Within
Alfred A. Knopf: 404 pp., $26.95
In the title piece of his first work of nonfiction, “Making an Elephant: Writing From Within,” Graham Swift remembers his father, a naval pilot in World War II who later became a civil servant in London. As a boy, Swift made his dad a wooden elephant; when they discussed what color to paint it, the writer-to-be insisted on gray, a literal touch, while his father argued for yellow or pink. Swift centers his essay on the memory of the two men his father seemed to be -- the adventurous flyboy and the sedentary clerk -- while invoking the inventory of childhood and a solid affection for the man. The piece touches down perfectly in the image of his father’s final worry: Where is his plane?
“Making an Elephant” is a compendium of picked-up pieces: meditations on the art of writing by the Man Booker Prize-winning novelist spanning several decades. This makes it a creature of many parts, like an elephant, and happily not all painted gray. The work here has been arranged in a loose chronology and forms a pastiche of literary notes: essays, interviews, memoirs and poems. There are even some photographs and drawings. None of it cuts particularly deep, but the whole is a sincere and affable appreciation of a life in letters. This book is intended as an illuminating companion to Swift’s career, shining soft lights on his background, his influences, his travels, his friends and his aesthetic concerns.
To help contextualize some of the older material, Swift has written updated introductions, and there are interviews with Patrick McGrath, Kazuo Ishiguro and Caryl Phillips -- all of which are revelatory in their own way. The conversation with McGrath offers some nice sidelights on Swift’s novel “Waterland.” These pieces feel like sections of a personal scrapbook, and while each is charged with some larger issues of a writer’s craft, method, approach and philosophy, they aren’t to be read for breaking literary news.
As a result, perhaps, there is a clear narrator’s distance in much of the book. Swift’s style is one of deft summary, in which rather than offering up charged moments he creates more general portraits instead. Even in “Santa Again,” a brief essay that recalls Salman Rushdie, under threat of fatwa, visiting Swift and his family at Christmas, we get such a picture. Swift says Rushdie was not solemn and was the “life and soul” of the party, but there isn’t a line of dialogue or a scene of the man playing charades. We miss the telling moment. Of course, the piece is meant to be an appreciation of Swift’s friend, but this is almost overshadowed by the image of the Special Branch guards eating their turkey and pudding, creating the delicious irony: “It sounds odd, but they rather restored Christmas for me. I mean the feeling for Christmas . . . that we grow out of . . .”
Swift’s account of a trip to Czechoslovakia for Granta to interview the dissident writer Jiri Wolf has more immediacy by being a kind of detective tale. The story bears a genuine vitality, for Wolf proves elusive -- as he should. Yet as Swift describes the twists and turns, each encounter has its own import and offers amplifying resonance to what Wolf, when he finally turns up, has to say.
The Czechoslovakia Swift turns up is something of a lost place, and a longing for such places runs through “Making an Elephant,” whether they be London neighborhoods or a bar in Canada, or the various sites in England that the author sees now through the prism of the films made from his books. Swift discusses two of these adaptations, offering divergent views of that strange phenomenon. The filming of “Waterland” (with Jeremy Irons) was a surprise, disconcerting in its transposition of scenes to the United States. But the production of “Last Orders” (which starred David Hemmings and Michael Caine) brought many things full circle for the novelist.
Swift is honest about the small pleasures of having a book filmed and the inevitable disappointments. Writers talking about such experiences always offer good company; we love war stories, especially when they are breezy and full of big names, as the ineffable words and images in a writer’s brain are made real by a sometimes heavy-footed film crew. Swift says it well: “The days are gone, if they ever really existed, when to have a novel adapted for film was like being touched by the gods.”
Although “Making an Elephant” offers a taste of Swift’s methods as a writer, the pieces here aren’t particularly analytical but conversational. In one essay, he gives us a light take on the phenomenon of reading to an audience. Perhaps the most substantial look at his process comes in a piece called “Local History and an Interview,” which starts with Swift confessing to having written with a fountain pen before discussing his affection for secrets and the manipulation of time in narrative.
Elsewhere, he speaks eloquently of the role place plays in his fiction, especially the fens of “Waterland.” There is a kindly nod to his youth, when he traveled in Greece with a volume by his early literary hero Isaac Babel, and a candid look at his first failed attempt at writing a novel. Swift confesses to going into his fiction projects not knowing where they may lead, so it is natural that he saves his most lengthy appreciation for Montaigne, our first essayist, who went off alone with nothing but himself as a subject and ventured (assayed) frankly into that unknown.
Swift’s poems are a pleasure, small vivid snapshots of how his mind works. They might best be called occasional verse, meditations on everything from love to credit cards, from a bookmark to a woman with breadcrumbs for the birds standing in a doorway. They are small surprises in a fresh turn of words, full of kind, penetrating questions that persist even after the page is turned.
The elephant, the legend goes, was made of many parts by a committee. The same might be said of this book, in which Swift, a fierce first-rank fiction writer, offers us a collection of luminous moments that is more than the sum of its parts.