Edinburgh International Book Festival
Baillie Gifford Main Theatre
13th August 2016
The Baillie Gifford Theatre is the largest event space in the Book Festival, so it is inevitable that it should be used for an author of the calibre of Booker-winner Graham Swift. Where else would you want to install him? This did result in some problems. Journalist Rosemary Goring, who chaired the event and interviewed Graham, appeared to have a comparatively soft voice that was not always enhanced by the amplification offered by her microphone. The author’s own normal delivery is slow and deliberate. If you add to that the rushing noise of a ventilation system (if that’s what it was), the result could be rather soporific for someone sitting at the back. Just one of those things!
On the other hand those conditions could just as easily make an audience concentrate its attention on what was being said. Once Graham was at the lectern, giving a reading from his new novel Mothering Sunday, we were all attention. He read from the beginning of the novel, which starts with the fairytale opening “Once upon a time” and describes the events of a single day, in 1924, in the life of a domestic servant; hers is the novel’s ‘voice’, as she looks back on events that happened several decades previously, since when she has become an author. There is a description of the ownership of a racehorse – how the head and body belong to one person, a leg each to others, and so on – and of the post-coital nakedness of the voice and the man with whom she is having an illicit affair. There is a nakedness and a deliberation in the words also, “… cock… balls… cunt…” and a poignancy in the knowledge that this is to be their last meeting before his marriage. The voice, Jane Fairchild – and what an ironic name that is for a motherless foundling on Mothering Sunday – finds herself at a pivotal moment in her life. How different it might have been if she had had a mother to go home to, rather than a lover to spend time with, and a borrowed copy of a story by Joseph Conrad to read.
Rosemary Goring suggested that the book was “saturated with sex, but nothing explicit.” Graham Swift disputed the term ‘saturated’, maintaining that a good author could (should?) “allow a few details to say the whole… You have to leave space for the reader’s imagination.” Mothering Sunday had been an idea that had simply occurred to him and was written very quickly, and when it was finished he set about editing it, even though it was short in its unedited state. Another thing that he disputes is the application of the term ‘novella’ to Mothering Sunday. To him it is a novel, with all the essential complexity of that form. “I never had any doubt about its dimensions,” he said, and attributed his confidence in the book, and in the process of writing and editing it, to his maturity as a writer.
Further discussion provided insights into that process, almost becoming a ‘how to’ lesson. Mothering Sunday isn’t the first published work by Graham Swift to be structured around the happenings of a single day. Nor is he only writer to structure a novel like that; as soon as I knew that Mothering Sunday dealt with a single day in the mid-1920s, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway sprung to my mind. However, Mothering Sunday is not a ‘modernist’ text, nor is it full to the brim with streams of consciousness. Similarly, as soon as I knew that there was no description of Jane Fairchild I thought of the second Mrs de Winter in du Maurier’s Rebecca. However, these are probably false associations, because the more I listened to Graham Swift, the more he seemed to be a writer who is very self-aware, aware of the processes I mentioned, and who does not consciously let other writers tap him on the shoulder as he writes.
The session is not about the book itself, and really this review ought not to dwell too much on it either. The session is about the author talking about the book. Judging how good one of these events is, therefore, is not always easy – it’s not the same as a poetry reading, a concert, a comedy turn, it’s not a performance per se. A session with an author at the Book Festival can be predictably formulaic: Introduction, reading, interview, Q&A, and the inevitable “I’m afraid that’s all we’ve got time for…” This one didn’t exactly sparkle, but it definitely held my interest. There is no formula for awarding stars for this kind of event, and after all, each one is a one-off and all must be seen in the context of Charlotte Square in August. All I can do is gauge it against the others I have seen in previous years, so what I will say is that despite the auditorium difficulties the event was what I have come to expect of the Book Festival when it hosts a serious author.
Reviewed by Paul Thompson