Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. April 2004

5.12. Narration in Literature and Writing History
HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Gabriella Hima (Budapest)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

Narrativisation of History: Graham Swift's Waterland

Aylin Atilla (Ege University, Turkey)


Contemporary British writer Graham Swift's Waterland (1983) is a historiographic metafictional novel which questions the problematic representation in historiography and fiction by combining both fictive and historical narration. The novel not only consists of remarks about fictional and historical representations, but it also de-naturalises and subverts the conventions of narrative and traditional history writing. This is not simply a case of revealing narrativity and fabulation metafictionally, but narrative representation, that is, story telling, becomes a historical act in the novel. The protagonist and narrator, Tom Crick - a history teacher - has spent his life trying to "unravel the mysteries of the past," and is now being dismissed from his job as the school is "cutting back on history" (Swift 5). "Turning [his] lessons into ... -story-telling sessions (153), he starts telling his life within the stories of his ancestors. While telling these stories, he also questions story-telling and its relation to literature and history. Thus, the novel meditates on story telling, self-reflexively questions fiction within a fiction, where history, too, is considered to be a form of story telling.

Waterland is sceptical about narrative or any narrative based on sequence. Tom Crick, both the narrator and the historian of his life story, is sceptical about chronology and sequence, and he tries to deconstruct aspects of narration. First person narration always casts doubts about the reliability of autobiography, but ironically the novel questions the reliability of story-telling, history and personal histories by relating them to fairy-tales and myths. Like a historian, Crick rethinks past events, tries to shape them to give them meaning. Linda Hutcheon in The Politics of Postmodernism maintains that "the narrativisation of past events is not hidden; the events no longer seem to speak for themselves, but are shown to be consciously composed into a narrative" (The Politics 66). The question that Crick poses - whether we know the past through the present or present through the past - is also the concern of the postmodern historian. Hutcheon states that historical meaning is seen today as "unstable, contextual, relational, and provisional." In this debate, postmodern fiction underlines making stories out of chronicles and constructing plots in order to decode "the strategies of meaning making through representation" (The Politics 67).

Tom Crick, while telling his life story to his students, questions the meaning of the past and its recording of events. Price, a voice of the students, who wishes to live in the "Here and Now" (60), embodies all the objections to history or Crick's stories. History of man's existence in public time is for Price useless as he wants a "future" (141). This past that Price rejects is Tom Crick's past at the same time. In fact, Crick's retelling the story of his life has one reason: he is trying to understand what has happened or what has gone wrong in his life. While putting the memories into words, he reconstructs his stories and his personal history. With his own stories he falls into time and history. He explains this as "it is precisely these surprise attacks of the Here and Now which, far from launching us into the present tense, which they do, it is true, for a brief and giddy interval, announce that time has taken us prisoner" (61). Crick emphasises that writing autobiography comes after a fall, and it's the same with writing history; "History begins only at a point where things go wrong; history is born only with trouble, with perplexity, with regret" (106).

Without doubt, the story of Tom Crick's life, moving forward and backward, circles around a main question of what has gone wrong in his life. The discovery of Freddie Parr's dead body in water in 1943 is the traumatic event he remembers. He explains his purpose of recalling events from his past: "It is all a struggle to make things not seem meaningless. It is all a fight against fear," and he tries to find a plausible reason for his constant story telling: "What do you think all my stories are about ... I don't care what you call it ... explaining, evading the facts, making up meanings, taking a longer view, putting things in perspective, dodging the here and now, educating, history, fairy-tales - it helps to eliminate fear" (241).

Autobiography or history - attempting to share things in a narrative form - require that one be both a historian and a writer. Iin Crick's words, "History is that impossible thing: the attempt to give an account, with incomplete knowledge ... So that it teaches us no short-cuts of salvation, no recipe for a New World, only the dogged and patient art of making do ... we come, not to an Explanation, but to a knowledge of the limits of our power to explain" (108). While recalling the events, interpretation, aphasia and traumas distance us from reaching the facts, so fact and fiction mix within and through each other what we call reality. "Art of making do" (108) and undo may mean constructing history and reconstructing it. Crick believes that "history was a myth" (62), but he continues, "until a series of encounters with Here and Now gave a sudden urgency to my studies. Until the Here and Now, gripping me by the arm, slapping my face and telling me to take a good look at the mess I was in, informed me that history was no invention but indeed existed ... and I had become a part of it" (62). Tom Crick intertwines with many stories and textualises his self in the stories he tells to the students and to the reader. Crick's detailed life story historicises the self, but he is aware that historicising the self can never control reality or what is Here and Now. He cannot hinder Freddie's murder or his brother Dick's suicide or his wife Mary's abortion or her kidnapping a child from a supermarket and her mental breakdown causing her to end up in a mental hospital.

As there is no simple Now, it always recalls Then, because the experience of time is not linear in memory. Therefore, Crick's recall of the past is not linear, it moves forwards and backwards. That is why he believes that "life is one tenth Here and Now, nine-tenths a history lesson" (61), in which his past and future become a part of it. Tom Crick's description of history is also a description of the novel; according to Crick, history "goes in two directions at once. It goes backwards as it goes forwards. It loops. It takes detours. Do not fall into the illusion that history is a well disciplined and unflagging column marching unswervingly into the future" (135). As Elizabeth Ermarth in Sequel to History maintains: "the humanist construction of time is historical, and postmodern writing subverts this temporality and its projects" (Ermarth 7), just as Tom Crick tries to do.

Crick's first story in the novel takes place in a Fenland setting where "history merges with fiction, fact gets blurred with fable" (Swift 208). The flat "fairy-tale" landscape of the fen country of England "both palpable and unreal" (8) is so quiet that it drives its people to telling stories, especially telling the "most unbelievable yet haunting of fairy-tales, their own lives" (7). For Crick, Fen lands and waters represent reality, they tell true stories. Natural history is nonhistorical, that is, cyclical, and it needs markers. History seems to be linear, reaching to a goal or progress, but Tom Crick warns the reader about the world's progress: "My humble model for progress is the reclamation of land. Which is repeatedly, never-endingly retrieving what is lost ... But you shouldn't go mistaking the reclamation of land for building of empires" (336). Crick uses the silt and the fen metaphor to tell that both creation and reality are monotonous and slow. Reality, according to Crick, is something we create in "the grand repertoire of history" (41) to convince ourselves that we exist in time. His tales from the fen country is slippery, yet, as Crick puts it: "History, being an accredited sub-science, only wants to know facts. History, if it is to keep on constructing its road into the future, must do so on solid ground" (86). The implication of Tom's looking back into the geological past may imply his wish to restart history by carrying the time to the beginning, back to the creation of the world.

There are stories in Crick's life story that cannot be told, like Mary's abortion and Dick's being a child of incest, these are untold stories, which are put aside and which create ruptures. Remembering them does not heal but hurt. Tom's quest to understand the "whywhywhy" (107) of history is frequently interrupted by the impossibility or indeterminant accuracy of an event. Crick's wife Mary is barren because while she was a teenager she attempted to induce a miscarriage, which resulted in abortion. This event is recalled from the repertoire of Crick's memory when he wants to find an explanation of why his wife kidnapped a child from the market. Yet, Tom voices all these traumas by telling them to his students; he even mentions his wife's illness, schizophrenia, which he describes as "a series of pure and unrelated presents" (148). Only by narrating in this way, do Crick's memories become facts when they are uttered. He knows that he cannot shape his life, but at least he can assume control over his past by telling it. Tom's history of weaving stories detours through time, making connection between the past and the present to impose meaning to his life, because he wants to place himself in a historical context to make his life meaningful, and to provide a subject position for himself. His childhood memories are as important to Tom as the French Revolution to World History.

The historian, like Tom Crick, should form the past as a narrative, because the past is formless and meaningless or it does not have the rhetorical forms that will make it meaningful. Keith Jenkins, in Rethinking History, maintains that "in translating the past into modern terms and in using knowledge perhaps previously unavailable, the historian discovers both what has been forgotten about the past and pieces together things never pieced together before" (Jenkins 13). Private or public, all histories combine a certain amount of data, categories and concepts for explaining, and form themselves into a narrative structure for their presentation. Hayden White's influential work Metahistory opens with an account that what the traditional historian sees as an "event" in the past, the postmodern historian sees as a "text" in the present (White ix). White continues his argument that the historian works as a writer and arranges the event in the chronicle in a narrative with a beginning, a middle and an end, like a story-teller (7). In another work, Tropics of Discourse, White suggests that history should be read as events with "symbolic structures" or as "extended metaphors" (91), which we encounter in literature. White adds a further claim to this, maintaining that "they contain a deep structure content which is generally poetic, and specifically linguistic in nature, and which serves as the precritically accepted paradigm of what a distinctively "historical" explanation should be. This paradigm functions as the "metahistorical" element in all historical works" (Metahistory ix).

In postmodernism, both fiction and history are considered to be discourses with systems of significations which use narrative and rhetorical strategies. Traditional history depends upon conventions like causality and chronology, but, as Hans Kellner in "Language and Historical Representation" maintains, it is hard to distinguish the boundaries between the continuity of reality and the "powers of narrative to make things continuous" (129). As Elizabeth Ermarth discusses, "reality, as postmodern narratives show, never stays the same; it is not inert but interactive and thus continually constructed and reconstructed" (Ermarth 66). On the other hand, in Baudrillard's view "a degree of slowness ... , a degree of distance ... and a degree of liberation ... are needed to bring about the kind of condensation or significant crystallisation of events we call history, the kind of coherent unfolding of causes and effects we call reality" (Baudrillard 39). Most past events may be potential historical facts but the events, which are narrated, are the ones that become real.

To conclude, Graham Swift offers a new way of representing history which is not derived from the official accounts but taken from the unofficial, usually unrecorded perspective of the victims of history with a metafictional self-consciousness. Waterland is theory conscious and examines various theories, such as those proposed by religion or progress, and it covers a wide range of subjects from history such as British and French political events, World War I and II, the history of technology, the history of places (Fenland), the history of families, the history of individual people. At the same time, Waterland exposes the autonomy of narrative conventions, and it foregrounds the literary features of history's representations. The narrator Tom Crick by subverting the closure and causality of both historical and fictive narrative, works as a historiographer because historiography, as Linda Hutcheon states, is "no longer considered the objective and disinterested recording of the past; it is more an attempt to comprehend and master it by means of some working (narrative / explanatory) model that ... is precisely what grants a particular meaning to the past" (The Politics 64). The reconstruction of events of the past is in fact traumatic for Tom Crick, yet he deeply believes that "man ... let me offer you a definition ... is the story-telling animal" (62). He says, "he has to go on telling stories. He has to keep on making them up. As long as there's a story, it's all right" (63). Crick continues by asserting that "but all the stories were once real. And all the events of history, the battles and costume-pieces, once really happened" (297), "but when the world is about to end there'll be no more reality, only stories ... we'll sit down in our shelter and tell stories, like poor Scheherazade, hoping it will never ..." (298) end. As Crick says: "All the stories once were real" (257), it is narrative that bestows reality upon them.

© Aylin Atilla (Ege University, Turkey)

Works Cited:

Baudrillard, Jean. "The Illusion of the End," The Postmodern History Reader. Keith Jenkins (ed). London and N.Y.: Routledge, 1997.

Ermarth, Elizabeth Deeds. Sequence to History. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Hutcheon, Linda. The Politics of Postmodernism. London and N.Y.: Routledge, 1993.

Jenkins, Keith. Rethinking History. London and N.Y.: Routledge, 1999.

Swift, Graham. Waterland. New York: Vintage Books, 1992.

White, Hayden. Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth Century Europe. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.

------. Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979. pp: 90-99.

5.12. Narration in Literature and Writing History

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