Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift

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Graham Swift Photograph: Murdo MacLeod

… And could she disentangle it, the stuff she’d seen in her mind’s eye, from the actual stuff of her own life?

In 1935, fleeing wartime persecution, the great philologist Erich Auerbach set up shop in Istanbul and began to assemble his iconic study of the representation of reality in Western culture, ‘Mimesis’. With only the ‘insufficient’ resources of the Istanbul University Library at his disposal, Auerbach had to rely on his primary texts, and thus produced a masterclass in fine-grained, close analysis of style, from Homer to Woolf. Each text is brought onto the bench for examination: dissected, anatomised, exposed.

This is perhaps a digression from the matter in hand. I went to Auerbach for his chapter on Virginia Woolf when I began to think about how I might begin describe the swirling, concentric temporal structures of Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday. Digression, if it can be referred to as such, is, appropriately, this novella’s stock-in-trade. Digression is not the really right term, for in order to digress, to meander off course, it is necessary to be on a course in the first place (etymologically, a digression is a sidestep, a deviation from a walked path). Swift’s novella is interesting because the ‘course’ or ‘path’ is not discernable. The story is focused emphatically on the events of a single morning, but its telling is complex and subtle, looping backwards, casting forwards. It is not quite the case, as Auerbach finds it to be with Woolf, that a ‘framing occurrence’ is interrupted by a number of revealing digressions, ‘excursuses’. Swift’s circling monologue is more rootless even than this. ‘It is March 30th, 1924. It is Mothering Sunday’ proclaims the flyleaf. Is it? Is it not also the 1990s, when a ninety-year old novelist reflects on her youth? And is it not also the occasion of an interview when, for the umpteenth time in the novelist’s life, crass questions fail to do justice to the complexity of lived experience?

For all this temporal complexity, this novel produces a vivid picture both of a single morning and of the life that turns around it. The free indirect discourse foregrounds Jane, a twenty-two year old maid in a country house (and, we are continually reminded, later a novelist) who, with no mother to visit, cycles off into the spring sunshine to spend a fateful morning with her lover. The rendering of her inner life is exquisite: little turns of phrase – feast your eyes – recur and recur, as if swirling to the forefront of her consciousness. The mind’s eyes and ears are constant preoccupations: the experience of living is always interwoven with what the mind’s eye is re-living, as well as with those things thought but not said, and the reader is made party to these internal utterances. There is also a recurring disparity between experience lived and experience recalled. Looking into the perfect March air, ‘she could not see, or would not remember seeing, any flaw’. Seeing and remembering having seen are perpetual antagonists.

The novella is a difficult form, because of its scale. It is neither a novel nor a short story. The painterly handling of fleeting images and sensations, the pointillistic rendering of passing details, and a talent for locating the pivotal moment on which to turn whole lives: all these remind the reader of Swift’s mastery of the short story format (as exhibited in his acclaimed collection England and Other Stories). There are beautiful image studies peppered throughout: boys killed in the war stare through and past the protagonist and into the invisible clicking shutters of a camera; a carpet is ‘the colour of cigarette smoke caught in sunlight’. Some of these images are very like Woolf: the phrase ‘church bells throbbed beneath the birdsong’ rang bells for me, recalling the leaden circles dissolving in the air in Mrs Dalloway. The invocation of Conrad, master of short form, does contribute to a feeling of self-consciousness. But then, self-consciousness is in many ways what this book is about: it is a glistening study of the writers’ craft, preoccupied by the inadequacy of words for the task of pinning down things. ‘A thing is not a word, no. A word is not a thing [… but] words were like an invisible skin, enwrapping the world and giving it reality’.

By Robert Hawkins


9781471155239Mothering Sunday By Graham Swift, Scribner UK, £12.99