‘‘It cannot be denied, children, that the great, so-called forward movements of civilisation, wether moral or technological, have invariably brought with them an accompanying regression. That the dissemination of Christian tenets over a supposedly barbarous world had been throughout the history of Europe -to say nothing of missionary zeal elsewhere- one of the prime causes of wars, butcheries, inquisitions and other forms of barbarity. That the discovery of the printing press led, likewise, as well as to the spreading of knowledge, to propaganda, mendacity, contention and strife. That the invention of the steaming engine led to the miseries of industrial exploitation and to little children working sixteen hours a day in coal mines. That the invention of the airplane led to the widespread destruction of European cities along with their civilian populations during the period 1939 to ’45 (…). And as for the splitting of the atom… And where history does not undermine and set traps for itself in such an openly perverse way, it creates this insidious longing to go backwards. It begets this bastard and pampered child, Nostalgia. How we yearn (…) to return to that time before history claimed us, before things went wrong.’’
Graham Swift, Waterland, Chapter 14, De la Révolution
‘‘Our work has always been about resistance as well as replication, friction as well as assimilation, subversion as well as orthodoxy. We are fascinated by the ways in which certain texts come to possess some limited immunity from the policing functions of their society, how they lay claim to special status, and how they contrive to move from one time period to another without losing all meaning. Accordingly, we mine what are sometimes called counter histories that make apparent the slippages, cracks, fault lines, and surprising absences in the monumental structures that dominated a more traditional historicism.’’
Catherine Gallagher and Stephen Greenblatt, Practicing New Historicism (excerpt from the introduction)
My first February book was Waterland. It is one of those books I came across during my studies whose title I thoroughly labeled ‘to be read’. It is a rather intricate and original book, published in 1983. It is a first person narrative (my personal favorite), incessantly analeptic, which means that you have to be very, very concentrated and dedicated when reading the 50 first pages. Then, you get used to it, and you begin to enjoy it. The narrator is a fifty years old history teacher, Tom Crick, who stops his ‘‘traditional history classes’’ and begins to tell his own vision of history and life through an intertwined tale about his native land, the Fens, and his personal life.
In this respect Waterland deals with the major elements of the English Novel tradition. It first reminded me of Thomas Hardy’s novels, because the land is described as one of the characters, with its influence, its role and purpose. Hardy’s Wessex is both a benevolent and treacherous land. The Fens’ inhabitants are ‘phlegmatic’(as if their blood was made of slime), and seem to live according to this ‘waterland’ : Tom Crick’s father is one of the masters of the water since he is a lock-keeper. The relationship with the land is ambiguous, at first one could believe that the novel is a love declaration to this part of England, but then it seems that nature is a merciless and superior force which sometimes overwhelms humans. Hardy’s Wessex works a bit like that too : the earth and sky make humans live, providing food and success : in Far From the Madding Crowd Bathsheba inherits an estate and wealth ensues. She is courted by men that are close to the land too (Oak and Boldwood : even in their names nature is omnipresent). But men and women are always threatened by the elements : the raging wind and tide, especially. It is in a forest shrouded by mist that Bathsheba meets Troy, the sea makes Troy disappear when he seemingly drowns. The sea spares him, but his death is only postponed, and finally Bathsheba marries a good shepherd. In Waterland the water is deadly too with the initial ‘‘accidental death’’ – or murder. The flatness of the Fens has something to do with the flatness of a stage – for a tragedy. The Fens seem to be a bleak territory, and its inhabitants have also bleak family-histories, full of madness and incest. One could say that it is the same thing everywhere, but the Fens are presented as a microcosm, an independent land, now claustrophobic, now fairytale like.
It also reminded me of traditional and ‘chronological’ bildungsroman (the epigraph is taken from Great Expectations) because the scenes we see from the narrator’s childhood are essential to understand the denouement. In this book one should not miss or undermine any detail. I really appreciate those novels written with a clockwork precision, where nothing is superfluous. Moreover, one of the main themes of the novel is storytelling, hence, transmission : first by the narrator’s mother and father, then Tom becomes a teacher and eventually tells the story to his students. There is a sense of learning and growing up in the first part of the novel. The adult narrator has a philosophical, wise voice, an ability to be ironical and sarcastic. It gives a very unique tone to the whole, it is still a bildungsroman close to George Eliot and Dickens- yet in a 20th century way.
The history of the Fens has shaped the character’s selves and future, because past is omnipresent. The narrator states that human beings are what they are because they have history. Yet history and story are intertwined here, which clearly makes Waterland a novel related to New Historicism . New Historicism is a type of literary and historical criticism that emerged in the 2d half of the 20th century, which aim was to break with Formalism and Structuralism, in order to reinvestigate the margins, the subplots, the under-stories of history. When Swift mingles the history of Europe with the tiny-scaled history of the Fens (the Empire-building of the Atkinsons is paralleled with the groundbreaking political changes of the 19th century, especially in France), he behaves as a New Historicist. Those critiques believe in the existence of the ‘eye-period’ : what people produced, did, and how they behaved in a certain time is more relavant than the great historical facts and characters chosen, recorded by classical historians. It is also a reflection on History itself : its use, relevance, and above all its artificiality. It is still a work of fiction, but its philosophical value, its thought-provoking power makes it the kind of books I’m always eager to read. To conclude, it is clearly one of those books which keep resonating in you simply because of their strength.
Waterland : 28th Jan 2018-6th Feb 2018.