'Children, I want you to know of a wonderful book I’ve just read by Graham Swift; it’s called Waterland, and it’s a story of historical decline and collapse as told by a teacher like me.' Now, how would that go over—like a lead balloon, or a rubber crutch? Or could you take it all in stride, without the careless and impatient rebellion so often associated with the young? If the latter, you will learn, that
This is the challenge of Waterland (1983). From the earliest pages we are aware that this is a lecture, almost a sermon, as much as a story, heightened in the urgency of its telling by the exigent circumstances in the life of the “retiring” history teacher, Tom Crick. After 32 years as a history teacher, and now facing the shut-down of the history department at his school and a cataclysm in his marriage--after his heretofore stalwart wife is given a child ‘by God'--is being retired “for personal reasons” by his headmaster.
In response, Mr. Crick puts aside his well-honed lectures on the French Revolution and begins to instruct his students in the awful way that history intrudes in the present and the equally horrible fact that the Here and Now is ‘like a knife blade that easily and unceremoniously rips into the fabric of history.’ His story (and his history) is told as if in a fever of confession and supplication, but the lecture is yet much more; it is also a protest, an attempt at vindication, and a defiant attempt to stand up for the enduring value of explanation before it is too late.
It is a fascinating story, engrossingly told, involving the entire history of the Fenlands of East Anglia, but most particularly concerning the Atkinson family--farmers, brewers and shippers in the Fens over four generations--and their humble neighbors, the Cricks. (The narrator, himself a history teacher, is a Crick and the son of the lock and sluice-keeper on the river Leem, Henry Crick and his late wife, Helen Atkinson.) It is a mysterious tale of gothic coloring and remarkable suspense: remarkable especially since we are told early on ‘who done it’, but are carried along by the history teacher’s fervor in pursuit of the niggling “whywhywhy” of the sad, consequential events.
This pursuit leads us with Mr. Crick back to the rise of the Atkinson family to prominence in local business (the brewery of a distinct and sometimes magical ale) and civic affairs (the drainage and maintenance of the Fenlands and water-ways)-- through various digressions into geologic time and the life cycle of European fresh-water eels--to the eventual decline and fall of their (and the British?) empire, unto the tragic events of murder and suicide which occur during and just after WWII, and which compel the contemporary crisis of the novel.
The characters of the story, just so the events of their lives, range from the quaint to the macabre; including progressive men of ‘ideas’ and superstitious townsfolk; a catatonic relic of abuse and subsequent veneration; a brainless moron of considerable strength and deftness of hand; and even a recent if not modern witch (Children, I told you it was gothic!). The events of their lives also range from the commonplace but consequential (single acts of impetuous violence with dire consequences) told with a nostalgic charm and ironic forgiveness, to the mundane but magical (a beer brewed with incredible potency), to those knife thrusts of reality (the Here and Now) which take on a decidedly macabre aspect in the fact as much as in the telling. All of this plus incest, suicide and murder: What an extraordinary range of exposition!
The novel is structured in a seeming hodge-podge of digressions and voices, which can be confusing at first. But once we realize the logic of the heteroglossic (post-modern?) form, I think it goes more smoothly. The narrative is actually a composite of impromptu lectures to the class (signaled always and often by direct address, “Children”); a series of transcribed conversations with the rebellious student, Price, who may be the instigator of the teacher’s abrupt revolution in curriculum, and with the headmaster and friend (which are rendered consistently and traditionally in quotation marks); and oblique but lengthy references to the work-in-progress, A History of the Fenlands of East Anglia (which we eventually learn Crick is working on).
This amalgam of sources allows some changes of narrative pace and even of tense to occur without toppling our sense of dramatic unity. It also gives the book a decidedly modern, even post-modern, aspect. Once we realize this structure, too late for some no doubt, the narration flows rather well, though not always smoothly.* For, those sections of impromptu classroom sermonizing have a stop‘n’start jerkiness of incessant qualification and self-editing that inhibits the flow, but not the development, of Crick’s ideas. By the same token, although this ‘jerkiness’ does rather skillfully reflect the importunate, even desperate, state of the speaker’s mind, we are glad for the intervening chapters of fluid prose and occasional dialogues.
Whatever else he is, Crick is a character one can empathize with, (How many modern novels present characters so alien as to be unrecognizable as human, to say nothing of sympathetic?) and his situation and ad-libbed response to it are such as we can find understandable, if somewhat bizarre. And that is a pleasure. I believe it is also essential to Swift’s overall theme. For, as much as Waterland can be considered a reflection, even a disquisition on History, embedded within an actual history, it is also a plea for the need and the art of story telling—from myths and fairytales, to histories and disquisitions, and also to novels (even in their conventional form). Waterland is not primarily an argument for novels of character and substance, though it is this as well; it is primarily an example of such! It is a thoroughly modern example of an old-fashioned novel of character and ideas. It is a character-driven novel with a didactic purpose: viz. to plead the case for itself against the impatient and careless rebels of modern literature who would eschew character, plot and perspective – the bugbears of History – in favor of immediacy in such as Flash fiction—the keen blade of the “Here and Now”. His is a cautionary voice, a mature voice – and in 1983 a lonely voice – which warns against a too fanatic rebellion as well as against a too naïve progressivism.
It’s progress if you can stop the world slipping away. My humble model for
progress is the reclamation of land . . .But you shouldn’t go mistaking the
reclamation of land for the building of empires.
The didactic purpose of the novel makes the trope of the teacher at wit's end both clever (subtle) and effective (not too subtle). But it is the overall theme and the organization of themes and means of their exposition that makes this an excellent novel. It is technically brilliant. There will be criticism of some aspects of the novel and rightly so. But I’m sure its humanism and accessibility will outweigh its flaws and make it acceptable to just about everyone. And the pathos of the human story may make it a favorite for many. That Swift would write such a novel is unremarkable; but that he succeeds so well is truly remarkable and worth the time spent to discover it!
*I recommend that this book be read in large draughts, rather than in short sips. It's easy enough to get into the flow of the narrator's style of explanation when you are at it a while, but much more difficult to carry over this level of excitement and suspense to repeatedly interrupted sessions. Something will likely be gained one way and definitely lost the other way.