Want to write like Graham Swift? Want to be as good a novelist as he? Well, he’s now published Making an Elephant: Writing from Within (400pp, Picador , £18.99), and according to Hilary Mantel (no mean writer herself) in today’s Guardian, you should … er, not bother reading that.
Sadly, the impression left by Making an Elephant is that a proper memoir is just too much effort. The publisher’s jacket copy claims the book “brims with charm and candour”. Both terms apply to an elegant little essay on Montaigne and his translator John Florio. But it is doubtful whether Swift has calculated how his personal reminiscences will appear to writers who are outside the literary world and long for the chance to publish. The book will confirm their worst fears about literary back-scratching. Much of it is a prolonged old pals act. “Buying a Guitar with Ish” is about his friendship with Kazuo Ishiguro: “It’s perhaps not much known that Ish has a musical side.” There is a small photograph of the author drinking tea with his friend; it is captioned “Tea with Ish”. Another piece is about his friendship with Salman Rushdie in fatwa days. A third is about hanging out with Caryl “Caz” Phillips: “. . . I’ve probably – no, definitely – had more beers with Caz than with any other writer-friend.” Another is about fishing in Devon with Ted Hughes: there is a photo of the poet laureate, looking drenched; the fish we must imagine. Each of these sections has a separate introduction to tell us what it is going to say, in case we grow over-excited. The effect is of self-congratulatory padding.
Most embarrassing of all is an interview with Swift by Patrick McGrath, the New York-based novelist, first printed in 1986. Was it worth dusting off, to recapture such insights as “writing is a lonesome business”? The friends discuss “magical realism” – “I think it’s important for fiction to be magical,” Swift chips in earnestly. The writers of his generation, by being open to exotic influences, have helped save English culture from being “terribly self-absorbed and isolated”; Swift says that “English fiction of the immediate postwar period, up to the 60s and early 70s, was terribly bound up by its own Englishness” and “just didn’t travel”. How true; there was no one on the library shelves in those days but grizzled Greene and weary Waugh, musty Murdoch and saggy Spark; not an ounce of magic between them, was there? And of course, the rest of the world had never heard of them.
Writing writerly how-to books is, perhaps, harder than you might think. Nor have I ever bought a guitar with Ishiguro, although I once drank a pint of beer at the same table as noted playwright and critic Dan Rebellato, and I understand that noted novelist Douglas Cowie can play the guitar. [AR]