A novel approach to heroism Literature: An unassuming novelist's book about ordinary people living a "quiet heroism" wins Britain's top fiction award.

Sun Journal

November 20, 1996|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- Graham Swift's world is south of the Tower Bridge, a place of crumbling docks and tattered row homes where tourists and novelists rarely go. It is the setting of his novel "Last Orders," a work that meshes drama and comedy as it follows four men bearing a friend's ashes on a pub crawl and pilgrimage from the working-class neighborhood of Bermondsey to the sea at Margate.

"It ain't like your regular sort of day," Swift writes in a local London dialect, setting in motion a tale that has struck a critical nerve.

Last month, "Last Orders" claimed Britain's top fiction award, the Booker Prize, an honor that launched Swift into the class of literary star. In a country that publishes more than its share of pretentious literary novels revolving around trendy London neighborhoods, Swift's book has reminded critics and readers that there is plenty of drama to be mined in the lives of ordinary people who work with their hands, hang out in pubs and bet the horses.

The Times of London gushed: "As memories unroll, Swift uncovers with steady-handed delicacy all that is extraordinary -- quiet heroism, silent stoicism, hidden raptures -- in ordinary-seeming lives."

It's awfully nice to win the Booker. Since emerging with the prize, Swift has been inundated with requests for interviews, autographs and public readings.

In one memorable interview the morning after his triumph, Swift declined to provide a list of the world's leading writers.

"And why are you not prepared to name the world's leading writers?" boomed the interrogator.

"Because I have a huge hangover," Swift said.

Perfect timing

For Swift, 47, the Booker comes at the perfect time, midcareer, in his prime, with plenty of distance from his first triumphant work, "Waterland," a Booker finalist in 1983.

"The extra success of winning the Booker might have just knocked me off balance," he says. "I think I have now won it at a time when I'm better able to deal with it."

The Booker has given novels in Britain the allure that Oscars offer movies in the United States. Awarded to the author of the best full-length novel in English by a citizen of Britain, Ireland or one of the Commonwealth countries, the prize has been around since 1969. Within the past decade, it has become An Event.

Bookies take bets on the finalists. The British Broadcasting Corp. provides live coverage of the awards ceremony under the gilded chandeliers at Guildhall.

The award is taken seriously by London's literati and the media. It comes with a $33,000 prize (that is, 20,000 pounds) and yields about 100,000 added sales for the winning book. Swift's book, published in January, is back on the best-seller list.

But almost every year, it seems, the list of finalists is trashed by one critic or another and the winner is found wanting by at least one of the judges who votes on the thing. Carmen Callil, head of this year's judging panel and founder of the feminist publishing house Virago, was said by the press to have objected to Swift's book. But in public, she said that "Last Orders" was "a wonderful book that will give pleasure to thousands of people."

The Booker season also yields the usual laments about the death of the novel, especially in English fiction, which one leading critic labeled as "hide-bound, unadventurous and leadenly deliberate."

Author avoids pessimism

What does Swift make of all the hand-wringing? Not much.

On the so-called death of the English novel, Swift says, "I honestly don't feel that pessimism. It's possibly a rather fashionable thing and part of the British character to be pessimistic."

As for the Booker, he says, it's a nice award for the readers.

"The Booker Prize has absolutely nothing to do with encouraging writing," Swift says. "What it has a lot to do with is encouraging reading. And since writers require readers, that element of the Booker Prize is something we can hardly quarrel with.

"It's the one moment in the year when the general public gets some excitement out of serious fiction."

The British reading public has taken Swift seriously for years; his six novels and short-story collection have received critical praise while producing decent sales.

A civil servant's son, Swift was raised in south London and educated at Dulwich College, which lists Raymond Chandler and P. G. Wodehouse among its alumni. He studied English at Cambridge University and then spent three years researching a doctoral thesis on "The City in Nineteenth Century English Literature." It was then that he decided to pursue a childhood yearning to become a writer.

"By my early teens I think inside me had evolved the desire and ambition to be a writer, not that I had any talent for it," he says.

"It must have come through reading, which was a major form of entertainment when I grew up. Through reading I got the feeling that writers were people I would want to emulate. I was thrilled that writers could create the magic inside a book. I thought writers were good people.

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