As a British novelist, Graham Swift is well within his native literary tradition when he comes down firmly on the side of history. In ``Waterland,'' his third and most successful novel, Mr. Swift charts a narrative course spanning not only generations but also geography. While his territory is unique -- a watery and obscure patch of eastern England called the Fenlands -- his technique is familar to any number of fellow British writers, including Thomas Hardy and John Fowles. Yet Swift, who is enjoying some measure of notoriety for his work -- ``Waterland'' was a 1983 nominee for the Booker Prize, Britain's premier fiction award, and is his first novel published in America -- is also an author tempted by history's Gothic flip side. ``Waterland'' is a tale so full of mystery and madness, even murder, that one is inclined to hang the label ``Gothic romance'' around its 260-page neck and be done with it. While the author himself is inclined to agree -- ``If I were to err in one direction, I would prefer to err in the direction of melodrama'' -- critics have praised his novel's style as the perfect match for his subject.
A digressive and discontinuous narrative, ``Waterland'' discourses on the tortured rise and fall of two Fenland families, the Cricks and the Atkinsons. ``While the Atkinsons made history, the Cricks spun yarns'' is how Swift describes the differing clans.
``Certainly [``Waterland''] is a sort of meditation on history,'' the author said during a recent visit stateside. ``But I hope primarily [that] it is a strong story, that the ideas come after the story, after the drama. The novel is a wonderfully flexible form where one can bring together the physical world of actuality with the world of ideas and do it in a subtle and complex way.''
Slight of build and quiet in manner, Swift looks every inch the pinch-shouldered, tousle-haired, earnest young novelist. Swift's success with his latest novel has fostered this first visit to the United States as well as liberating him from a teaching position into full-time writing. Two earlier novels, ``Shuttlecock'' and ``The Sweet-Shop Owner,'' were originally rejected by American publishers as being ``too English,'' but all four works are now published in both Britain and the US.
He says he has ``mixed feelings'' about this nascent literary celebrity, but insists that the positive response to the unconventionality of ``Waterland'' indicates ``a more exotic element entering English fiction now.'' The traditional English novel of the 1950s, he says, ``that observation of social manners . . . is beginning to become a thing of the past now.''
Swift insists that the reason for such a sea change is twofold -- namely, the expanding influence of writers from Latin America and the Continent, including G"unter Grass, Jorge Luis Borges, and Gabriel Garc'ia M'arquez, and the tendency by a number of young English writers to ``see their own country through foreign eyes.''
Swift's own novel falls within this trend. Replete with slithery eels, creaking canal locks, and mysterious drownings, Swift's Fenlands is every bit as strange and evocative as M'arquez's native Colombia or Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County.
``You have this paradox of [a landscape] constructed in a very artificial way and yet is still wild,'' says Swift about his choice of setting. ``There is this very elemental struggle between land and water, of nature trying to get its own back.''
This struggle between man and nature, indeed the struggle between man and his own nature, forms much of the thematic bedrock of the work. It is no coincidence that the novel resounds with Dickensian plot twists as well as a skepticism about man's ability to improve himself or his situation. Dickens, Swift concedes, is one of his favorite authors. ``Progress can be this very illusory thing,'' he says. ``I'm not skeptical or cynical to the extent of believing that human beings cannot improve their lot . . . but I don't believe that it happens in a spectacular way.''
For the author, storytelling becomes a means of retrieving reason within the irrational, of locating perspective within the present, and ultimately discovering how individual human behavior coalesces into the larger pattern of history. ``I have as a natural storyteller great faith in the power of story,'' he says. ``It is one of the great possessions of humanity . . . to transform our experience into stories . . . the story is a way we come to terms with what we suffer.''
As Swift puts it in ``Waterland,'' ``When -- where -- how do we stop asking why? How far back? When are we satisfied that we possess an explanation?''