Literary Review

The romance of remembering

Mothering Sunday; Graham Swift, Simon & Schuster, Rs.399.  

“Once upon a time.” This is the first sentence of Graham Swift’s new novel. A couple of pages earlier, before the title page, is an almost-hidden epigraph: “You shall go to the ball!” The traditional opening to a fairytale, preceded by an exhortation from the most famous of all Western fairytales, is used here both to invoke that tradition as well as to transport the reader in time in the quickest way.

We are in 1915, “when there were more horses than cars,” and the Sheringham family have just bought a racehorse, Fandango. But two pages later, there it is again: “Once upon a time,” and this time, it is March 30, 1924, but “a day like June.” The opening is itself a tale, a kind of amuse-bouche for the larger story that follows. This is a book about tales, and about time; about fictional truth and the fiction-making we call memory, and about words, “an invisible skin, enwrapping the world and giving it reality.” The world would exist without words, but tales — and memory — would not.

Swift’s Cinderella is called Jane Fairchild. She is an orphan, indeed a “foundling,” left outside an orphanage with neither name nor date of birth. Later, she becomes a successful writer, a “modern writer”, and she tells interviewers that for a writer it is a great blessing to have started life with no family, no history, to be free to write the narrative of your own life. Swift is very funny and knowing on this subject: the answers writers give to interviewers are fictions no less crafted than their novels.

From the orphanage, like most of her kind in 1915, Jane is sent off to work as a maid. By March 30, 1924, the Mothering Sunday of the title, she has been employed for seven years by the Nivens, an affluent family that lost all three sons to World War I. The Nivens’ neighbours, the Sheringhams, lost two sons. One, Paul, survived, and for seven years, Jane has been his lover. On Mothering Sunday — “a different thing from the nonsense they call Mother’s Day now” — all across Britain, servants are given the day off to visit their mothers. Paul is to be married in two weeks, to a woman of his own class, Emma Hobday. He invites Jane, who has the day off but no mother to go to, for what she assumes is one final tryst.

Mothering Sunday is the story of that encounter, but also of its remembering. Although it is written in the third person, we are almost always in Jane’s mind, and the tale, as we have it, is a memory, 60 or 70 years later, as well as a writer’s attempt to reconstruct experience as if it were happening now. Jane is proved to be prescient: the tryst is indeed final, although not in the way one might expect. But although she never sees Paul again, marries a distinguished philosopher and lives to be over 90, she returns constantly to the events of this day.

Why does her affair with Paul and its culmination turn into a lifelong obsession that refuses resolution, to the extent that she can never directly address it in her own novels? There are at least three reasons. Like many other contemporary novelists, Swift sees in the historical novel the lure of the counterfactual, of each life as just one in a set of possible lives. But unlike Kate Atkinson in Life After Life or Jenny Erpenbeck in The End of Days, who gave us a woman’s many possible lives, Swift shows us how the memory of the one life we have lived contains within it all those lost possibilities.

Jane never loses her fascination for these possibilities, but she is just as interested in understanding the events that did take place. Did Paul truly love her, or Emma Hobday? At times, and it is a beautiful thought, she fancies that in truth, she has the wife’s claim, and Emma is the mistress. But this interest — memory as a means of understanding and interpretation — is continually frustrated by the realisation that when we look into our memory, and attempt to make a narrative of it, true fiction, we find that most things are unknowable.

Above all, there are words. In her years as a maid, allowed by the Nivens to borrow from their library, Jane has been discovering them. The prose is full of repetition: sometimes incantatory, but most often because commonplace words — “cap”, “seed”, “maid” — can have two meanings, can exist in Jane’s life in two senses. She works as a maid, but in a country and era where to speak was to reveal your class, her language is her own, formed through listening and reading. Mothering Sunday, in this sense, is the story of how and why Jane Fairchild became a writer.

The book’s subtitle is “A Romance”, and undeniably, it is one, proof of the erotic potential of the plain style. On length alone, it will be called a novella. Unlike the young Jane’s favourite books, the adventure stories of Stevenson, Henty and Ballantyne, it isn’t really a “yarn”. By whatever name one might call it, it is a masterpiece, as indelible as only the best tales are.

Keshava Guha is a writer based in Bengaluru.

Mothering Sunday; Graham Swift, Simon & Schuster, Rs.399 .

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Printable version | Aug 3, 2021 7:39:31 AM |

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