Literary Lives Wound Around a Mystery


SWANN by Carol Shields, New York: Viking, 313 pp., $17.95

`SWANN'' is a mystery of sorts - about a woman poet brutally murdered by her husband some 20 years before the story opens, and about the strange disappearance of her posthumous effects: notebook, manuscripts, even her photograph. But mystery is merely one aspect of this intricately designed, playful, yet serious novel.

At the heart of the story is the tragic life and death of Mary Swann, a little-known Canadian poet whose fame is starting to spread some two decades after her death.

Swann's homely, yet powerful, poems express the hardship of her life on an isolated, run-down farm and remind readers of a primitive Emily Dickinson. Radiating outward from the central mystery of Mary Swann, like planets round a sun, are the stories of four people who are trying to preserve and interpret her work. The tragedy of Swann's life is balanced against the comedy of these literary types, whose viewpoints of Swann - and of one another - are expressed in four narratives, followed by a concluding playlet in which all four meet at a Swann symposium.

We first hear the distinctive voice of Sarah Maloney, a 28-year-old academic among the first to ``discover'' the merit of Swann's poetry. We learn a lot about Sarah. She loves writing and receiving letters from a far-flung network of friends, relatives, colleagues, and former students. Most of all, she delights in the soothing pleasures of an orderly daily life: ``Whenever I meet anyone new, I don't say, `Tell me about your belief system.' I say, `Tell me about your average day.'''

One of Sarah's correspondents is Morton Jimroy, a well-known biographer eager to get his hands on Mary Swann's notebook. Aside from being reluctant to let it out of her hands, Sarah Maloney is also uneasy about letting him see it, because it is so disappointing. Far from offering glimpses of the creative mind at work, Swann's notebook is merely a collection of shopping lists and memos like ``Repair door-latch.'' Swann's average day is too quotidian, even for Sarah.

The second part of the book is from Jimroy's perspective. Shields does a fine job of showing how stuffy and conceited he is, while eliciting our sympathy for this lonely, 51-year-old divorc'e, and for his genuine commitment to poets and poetry, and even for the fascination he's come to feel for his collegial correspondent, Sarah Maloney, whom he's not yet met.

Mary Swann's closest friend, librarian Rose Hindmarch, is the focus of the third section, an amusing and affectionate portrait of a prim, old-maidish woman, whose intelligence and helpfulness make her a pillar of the rural community. The fourth section introduces the delightful Frederic Cruzzi, 80-year-old newspaper columnist and polyglot citizen of the world, who settled at last in Canada, where he once ran a small press that published the one and only edition of Swann's poems.

The various facets of literary life - criticism, biographies, publishing, symposiums, memorabilia - are mocked with a familiarity that has clearly bred affection rather than contempt. Yet it is through the dedication of these busily hypothesizing scholars, critics, and curators that Swann's legacy is lovingly preserved.

Artfully constructed as it is, this novel has more than ingenuity to recommend it. Indeed, the four ``Swannians'' (Sarah, Morton, Rose, Frederic) are portrayed so richly, one wishes one could follow their stories past the symposium where they finally meet and put their heads together to figure out why Swann's literary effects have been vanishing. One senses, from the skill with which Shields evokes character on the one hand while spinning variations on literary themes with the other, that she is capable of probing more deeply without sacrificing surface polish.

At one point in the book, Sarah Maloney reflects, ``It's possible to be brilliant without being profound - or, in Mary Swann's case, profound without being brilliant.'' ``Swann'' leans more toward brilliance than profundity, yet it has a touch of the profound about it as well.

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