GLOWing in the ashes

In his latest novel, Graham Swift finds the big old truths in a funeral pilgrimage

Published May 6, 1996 11:40AM (EDT)

graham Swift's dedication to the art of the novel is single-minded. In a literary world full of tired totems and one-trick enfants terrible, this British writer is the stubbornly real thing. His work slices through the ephemeral and the trivial to the core of our concerns with death, family, nature and history -- both personal and collective.

At times Swift may seem to belong more to the 19th century than to our own. But if he is in any way an anachronistic throwback, he still delivers a surprising kick -- like the well-preserved bottles of decades-old Coronation Ale that played a pivotal role in the plot of "Waterland," his best-known novel (published in 1983 and later made into a film starring Jeremy Irons). "Waterland" was followed by "Out of This World" and "Ever After," two ambitious novels that helped cement Swift's reputation as one of his generation's formidable talents.

In his new book, "Last Orders," Swift follows a quartet of older men from working-class Bermondsey in South London to the sea at Margate, on a mission to dispose of the ashes of their friend and wartime comrade, a butcher with a troubled family. It's a sober, concentrated book, without stunts or distractions, that serves up its characters' passions and regrets with clear eyes and a full heart.

One of the novel's admirers, Salman Rushdie, had this to say about "Last Orders" when SALON interviewed him earlier this year:
"It's a beautiful little book.... It's just about this outing, these four drinking partners out for a day in this borrowed or rented car. That's all that happens, but it's very touching and funny and tells you a lot about what these people have been to each other, and it also tells you something about the ritual of death, this last rite of passage."

How did you come to write "Last Orders"?

My perfectly honest answer, which might also sound a bit pathetic, is that I really do not know. I'd love to be able to say that there was some little moment, some nugget of something that sparked the whole thing off. But I can't think of what that is.

I certainly know when I am in a novel. I know when I have a novel to deal with. I know when a novel has come upon me. But I don't know how I cross the border into it. Or at least, at the time, I'm not particularly bothered with making a note of it. Novels don't happen every day or even every year. I'm so glad to have a novel to get on with, that the least of my concerns is, what exactly was the starting point?

It would be very tempting to say that the book began for me, as it does indeed begin for the reader, when I imagined this pub with these people meeting for this very peculiar journey. And there may be some truth in that. But one could still ask, how did I get there? I think that novels come from pretty mysterious areas within you. They are in a way dreamed up.

You've said that you don't write "from your life," and that seems very different from the conventional wisdom.

I don't think of my own life and experience as a kind of reconaissance trip for my work. Life is life, and one lives it. So, because I happen to be in San Francisco, for example, I'm not thinking about useful research for some novel that I might partly set in San Francisco. I don't look at people I know and think of how I might turn them into characters in a novel. Not at all.

I really do have tremendous faith in writing as a leap into the unknown. But it is a leap that you take with the sort of rope of the imagination to hang on to. The imagination is a wonderful thing: it can cross the gap between you and some experiences you have never had personally, or to some person who is entirely out of nowhere and not someone you've known. That's the excitement, and of course it's the real creative element in writing.

Assuming that you have to write about what you know -- which is often the standard advice given -- is rather sad. The stock of your own experience is limited, so it might provide you with the material for one or two things, but sooner or later you've got to make it up. If I don't know how this novel began, how those characters walked into my mental life, that's because I had no starting point for them in real life. A mysterious and extremely exciting thing just happens. That's the great joy of writing fiction -- discovering things that come out of space at you.

The characters in "Last Orders" are generally older than you. Was it a challenge to get into their heads?

Well, I don't get any younger myself. These characters, people who are 70 or approaching 70, were of course once in their mid 40s, like I am now -- and indeed were once in their mid 20s, as I once was. So there is a connection. Dealing with older characters does enable you to explore such layers of time, and that's one of the appeals of them for me. They have a sort of historical dimension which is nonetheless written intimately into their personal life. It can be more archaeological, as it were.

The story doesn't have a central character, but "lucky" Ray, the betting man, is most often the narrator. How did you choose him?

This is a novel in which six or seven characters collaboratively tell the story, and I as an authorial presence am somewhere in the background. This could be a tremendous challenge to the reader. If there are several characters who each have a first-personal voice, the danger is of the reader going like that (moving eyes from side to side) all the time, like some kind of tennis march. And thus you need some sort of central hub.

But I certainly wouldn't want the reader to begin the book -- and I don't think this happens -- feeling, "ah, this is a character called Ray telling a story." And even as the reader might start to feel that Ray's the one to lean on for the central information, that's being undermined, because other characters start to acquire an unsuspected significance and solidity.

Did you have any literary models in mind?

A lot of people have said that it makes them think of Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying." And I say, yes, well, indeed there is a connection. I admire Faulkner very much, and there are obvious similarities between the narrative -- although I have my jar of ashes, Faulkner has his rotting corpse, and the setting is clearly very different. So without my having begun the book -- or continued writing it -- with that novel constantly in my mind, I think there is a little homage at work.

On the other hand, any story which involves how the living deal very directly with the dead -- a story about laying the dead to rest, a story about how the dead apply pressure on the living -- that's a very primitive subject. It's perennially told, and you can go from Faulkner right back to whenever, to Homer, and find this sort of funereal narrative. It's an archetypal thing.

Compared, say, to "Waterland," "Last Orders" feels more tightly focused on its characters' voices and the experience they're having. "Waterland," with its non-fictional elements, had more variety.

I think it was a more showing-off kind of novel as well. It had what this novel cannot have -- the advantage, if that's the right word, of an articulate central narrator with a lot of intellectual baggage. None of the characters in "Last Orders" is in any way intellectual or highly educated, and they seem to be constrained by their colloquial language, a limited (you might think) form of expression. I discovered soon enough that their language was capable of eloquence.

Articulate language, sophisticated language has the problem of getting tangled up in itself. It's a system of protection, in a sense. If you take that away you do strip things bare. There's a sort of nakedness in this book which I don't think I've achieved before.

Are the voices of these characters familiar to you from your own life?

Oh, sure. The language of the book is the language of South London, which I hear every day. But I wasn't interested in just transcribing that language. If I was I would have put lots of apostrophes and missing "H"s and so on. That's not a novel, it's a documentary. So the language of the book, which I hope does give the authentic feel of a particular locality, is nonetheless very selective.

While there is a lot of dialogue, there is also a lot of internal monologue, couched in that same external language. There, I hope occasionally I give the characters the opportunity to express thoughts that they would certainly have, but perhaps would not be able to put into words.

Like the passage where the undertaker Vic, staring at the war memorial, talks about how this one death of their friend needs to be seen in the context of all these other deaths.

Yes. A very silly literal response to that would be, "That character could never have said that!" But that character, like anyone, could have that feeling. Which he might not be able to articulate. But after all, novels are artificial things, with conventions and devices that enable things to happen that don't happen in real life. So some of these characters are momentarily very lyrical, very poetic. The way people are, or seem from the outside, is not the key to their inner being, by any means.

The book is very squarely and unapologetically about mortality. Were you afraid of depressing people?

What could be a bigger and more all-embracing subject than mortality? It is the one universal subject. But I think that this is definitely not a gloomy book. It's a comic novel in many ways.

On this journey, the purpose is to solemnize a death, and the unspoken purpose for all the characters is to try and engender some sense of human dignity. In their everyday lives they wouldn't be thinking of this. But now that they have to deal with the death, they also have to deal with a larger concept of dignity, duty, whether there is anything beyond. All those big things, all those highly serious purposes are constantly being undermined by the persistence -- I was going to say the pettiness, but that's to belittle it -- the persistence of all those foibles and little obstinacies and stubbornesses that just go with life. Time and time again this happens: in the wake of death, people do nonetheless make silly mistakes. They do forget the ashes. They do want to have one extra drink.

Death is supposedly a gloomy subject, but the more it's aired the less gloomy it becomes -- the more it enables life rather than impedes life. And I really do hope that the end of the voyage is liberating.

"Last Orders" has its moment in history, but it's not dotted with the brand-name ads and references to television that have become so standard in contemporary novels.

I think there's an awful circularity between media society and novels written within a media society, where novelists feel that they have to reflect what is around them, so they stuff their novels with references to contemporary media and advertising and so forth. And that just results in a sort of endorsement rather than a critique or anything new and creative.

I don't believe in the term "contemporary novel." I think what is of now is for journalists, if I may say so. The very word journalist means someone who deals with the day. A novel can't really be contemporary if it takes two years to write, because what was contemporary when you started will have changed. In any case, the form of the novel is just so beautifully open to dealing with long periods of time, and taking long assessments of changes and evolution in society and in private life, that why not do that? And all those things that a novelist with false contemporary concerns might put into a book are going to be meaningless if that book is read ten years later. So why not try to get beneath the surface?

One critic talked about the "autonomy" you grant your characters, and that's a trait we associate with playwrights. Have you ever been tempted to write drama?

Until "Last Orders" I don't think dialogue has been something my novels were particularly noted for. There's an awful lot of dialogue in this book, and much to my surprise I found myself enjoying it. Whether that means I have a lurking gift as a dramatist, I don't know. I haven't been tempted. I haven't been tempted by film scripts, and a lot of writers have, for a mixture of motives, of course. And I don't think it always helped their writing. I think if you know that you have a talent, then -- it may sound horribly moralistic -- you should try not to dissipate it. You should try to hold onto it and keep it, concentrate it -- not to do as the whole world tends to do these days, and diversify. Diversification doesn't work with art. Keep the old firm in business; don't go into other fields of trade.

There's a lot in your work that's about the relations between generations, parents and children. Are you a parent?

I'm not. I come from a family, like us all, but I don't have a family. And in any case, the family I come from is pretty small, and of course we've all gone our own way. But it was really a pretty secure, contented family "unit," to use that ghastly phrase. My childhood, for example, despite all the unhappy childhoods that I write about in my books, was really quite happy. So there goes another reason for becoming a writer!

I'm quite content not to have children, though who knows how I might feel when I'm old and gray. I'm living with the same lady friend for about 20 years and we have gradually evolved this position where it looks as though we're not going to have children. And we're fairly happy with that, as I think a lot of couples increasingly are. I've seen quite a few friends having children -- and having them quite late in life, which again seems to be a trend -- and not necessarily appearing too happy with it. But I shouldn't judge.

Creative people often choose to put their energy into their art.

We all like to feel that there will be something of us to leave behind, and nature's answer to that is progeny. I don't know how far you should stretch the analogy, but a writer's novels are a kind of progeny. Whatever posterity means these days! Because you kind of feel more and more that readers are probably dwindling as the years go by, so that by the time I'm no longer around there may be no more readers anyway. Everyone will be plugged into whatever contraption they have.

Yet it always seems that the reports of the death of reading are greatly exaggerated.

Actually I'm being slightly facetious, because I agree with you, I think that nothing does or will replace the storytelling urge. It's something that, from the receiver's end and the supplier's end, is so deep in human nature. The need to tell and be told stories is intrinsic to the creatures that we are. I can't see that disappearing. And thus there will always be a need for prose fiction -- for this thing that I have spent most of my life engaged in. But I do hope there are some kids coming out of school who are able to sit down with a book.

By Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at

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