The Tennessean, December 16, 1984, page 12-D
SWALLOW. BY D.M.Thomas. Viking. $16.95.
‘Swallow’ Proves Thomas Proficient
Complex Novel Richly Symbolic, Well Structured
Reviewed by JOHN BETHUNE
Celebrity is not kind to serious writers.
Particularly in an age in which publicity is an end in itself, celebrity tends to dull authors’ talents, swell their egos and expose their weaknesses. For a time, D. M. Thomas seemed another of celebrity’s victims.
After the initial enthusiasm over his novel The White Hotel, both a popular and a critical success, a backlash against Thomas set in. Critics began to stress the shortcomings of the book. Their second thoughts seemed justified when Thomas published in The New York Times Magazine a shallow and self-congratulatory essay on his success.
By the time he brought out his controversial translation of Pushkin, sentiment had turned against him. The critics not only panned his translation, but implied that he had plagiarized. Celebrity had apparently done its worst,
But in his subsequent novels, first Ararat, now Swallow, Thomas has conducted a brilliant defense of his talent, and transformed his experience of celebrity from a handicap into a remarkable literary asset.
The plot of Swallow indicates Thomas’ intent to satirize literary celebrity. He has imagined an Olympiad, as celebrated as the Olympics, for story-telling improvisationists.
The novel is structured around the deliberations of the judges, who, in the course of deciding the winner of the contest, replay portions of the improvisations and discuss their virtues and flaws.
One of the favorites is a beautiful Italian improvisationist, Corinna Riznich, a part of whose five-hour-long improvisation turns out to be Thomas’ novel Ararat. Her chief competitors are a Russian poet and improvisationist and a Britisher suspiciously like Thomas himself. This situation allows Thomas to explore the relationships between life and fiction, critics and authors, and originality and plagiarism.
Swallow is one of those rare novels that teach the reader how to read. When this reader found his judgment of an early passage in the novel articulated with a devastating stupidity by one of the judges, the experience was both humbling and enlightening. A case of literary entrapment, perhaps, but a profitable one.
The debate among the judges, in large part concerned with the story told in Ararat, clearly refers to real criticisms of that novel and of Thomas himself. Despite the judges’ pretense of objectivity, their motives, none quite pure, are personal and political.
But Thomas is not merely wreaking his revenge upon his critics. He is stealing their best lines.
Borrowings of this sort, for which Thomas has been frequently criticized, are at the heart of his conception of art. The often heated debate of the Olympiad judges is fueled by suspicions of plagiarism. Corinna’s improvisation is said to have relied excessively on that of the Russian, Markov, who in turn is feared to have borrowed from Southerland, the Britisher.
Southerland appears on the verge of winning when one of the judges happens upon the source of his improvisation: an autobiographical essay by D. M. Thomas. Confronted with the evidence, Southerland withdraws from the competition, blaming his photographic memory. But the imaginative borrowings hardly stop there. That night each of the judges has a dream that ‘plagiarizes” the day’s improvisations.
Thomas’ aim is not to advocate plagiarism but to question the concept of originality. When one of his characters defends the Soviet novelist Sholokov against charges of plagiarism he remarks, in an appropriately borrowed phrase, “All art is collaboration.”
If Thomas has a polemical purpose here, it is to attack the notion that art is somehow self-contained, separate from or above life. In this respect, the judges cannot be faulted for the impurity of their motives.
Art, Thomas implies, may not be judged solely for itself but only in relation to life. Literature exists only through collaboration with the reader, and with the world. Thus Swallow is not limited to narrow concerns about originality in art.
Perhaps the most impressive achievement of the book is its incorporation of the most debated contemporary issues: the nuclear threat, East-West relations and women’s rights. Art is important in the novel not only for itself but for what it tells us about ourselves.
Collaboration is as essential to human existence as to art. A recurrent motif in the novel, as the judges themselves point out, is the crossing of borders. The borders separating East from West, men from women, or one individual’s consciousness from another’s are purely artificial.
The swallow is the book’s primary symbol of the real interdependence of things. Corinna’s character Surkov. a Russian poet, writes how, while traveling in East Germany, he was drawn to the heavily defended border. Here, at the seemingly uncrossable boundary between East and West, where there seemed “no escape,” he noticed a flight of swallows defying the border and its guards:
“Yet spontaneity and flight
Flourished above the sombre hollows,
Between the true and the false road,
Birds sang in complete freedom; swallows
Criss-crossed the border, and in bright
invisible writing traced a code.”
Thomas’ characteristic combining of poetry and prose in his novels works brilliantly in Swallow. To judge from his poetry here, he is not only one of the most talented novelists now writing but one of the most skillful practitioners of narrative poetry.
Since one of the main themes of this novel, as Thomas says in his preface to it, is the “mysterious way” stories are “connected yet independent,” potential readers should be warned that Swallow is in part a continuation of Ararat.
Thomas is right to say that one can read and understand Swallow without having read its predecessor, but the novel will be far richer to the reader familiar with Ararat.
Swallow is serious and ambitious, yet thoroughly entertaining. Though some critics will continue to howl, this virtuoso novel proves not only that Thomas has come to terms with his celebrity, but that he richly deserves it.
John Bethune is a Sewanee, Tenn., free-lance writer.