EESE 8/98


Graham Swift,  Ever After : a Study in Intertextuality

Hannah Jacobmeyer (Münster)


In line with the growing interest in the intertextual dimension of literary works, this analysis seeks to uncover some of the intertextual patterns inherent in the novel  Ever After  (1992) by Graham Swift, one of Britain's leading contemporary writers.

Intertextuality has become a major focus in postmodern literary criticism probably for two main reasons. First, its hybrid character as both being applicable to concrete passages of text and as an abstract concept of the relatedness of all writing; second, the pleasure which can be gained from investigating the hide-and-seek games which literary texts present with their intertextual references. The latter point relates to the playful aspect which is often highlighted in postmodern works and, likewise, in contemporary criticism. Seen from the author's point of view, intertextuality is introduced into the literary work on two levels: consciously and subconsciously. In its conscious use, i.e. as a strategy to create meanings, it allows for intricate, complex stories, challenging the reader with a handful of more or less clearly recognizable hypotexts. Instinctively, and not unlike the attempt to look up an unknown word in the text which will reveal a fuller presence of the passage in question, the reader tries to identify these other texts. This may happen to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the level of recognition of the hypotexts and on the reader's patience, or on his/her wish to find the actual pre-texts. Intertextuality generates tensions and excitement, even if the reader finds himself unable to solve all the intertextual riddles which are put to him. This consciously-used, concrete kind of textual criss-cross, which can be seen to emerge in all its contemporary multi-facetedness (not just texts, but all kinds of media are involved) from the ancient rhetorical device of  imitatio , allows for a pragmatics of intertextuality, as opposed to the overarching, abstract phenomenon which was first claimed by Julia Kristeva (Kristeva 1967).

Thus, on a subconscious level, the writer of postmodern fiction always and inevitably falls prey to intertextuality, in the sense that no written or spoken utterance can possibly be free from the influence of (all) other texts. Just as it is in the nature of all writing to defer meaning endlessly, from one linguistic sign to the next, so meaning is being sought - and deferred - by calling up different (literary) texts. The point which Jacques Derrida makes about the 'différance' of writing can be observed on any level of textual production - up to the automatic and inevitable weaving of texts. Intertextuality is therefore second nature to the literary discourse as such (especially if taken literally: the 'running to and fro' designated by 'discourse' already refers to the [inter-]textual movements).

In  Ever After , as in every literary work, this abstract intertextuality is of course much harder to grasp, or to define - not only because every reader will 'find', or suspect, his/her very own hypotexts in the work, but also because no author could possibly give an account of the number and kind of texts which have influenced (and are wrought into) his work of fiction. This potential, which is left to the reader to define as he/she likes, the vagueness about the actual content of the work in question, is what can appropriately be called a work's 'intertext'. But even on the level of a concrete intertextuality, it can be assumed that postmodern literature, with its sharpened awareness of an ever-intruding universe of texts as well as with its eclectic ways of composition, contains more consciously-chosen hypotexts than the literature of preceding periods.

Graham Swift is generally ranged among the less adventurous writers as far as his (knowing) use of intertextuality is concerned: his writings belong to a moderate, 'muted' postmodernism (Broich 1993: 38). Among his novels which have so far been published (including the most recent one,  Last Orders ), intertextuality is a striking element only in  Waterland  (1983) and  Ever After  (for intertextuality in  Waterland , see Bernard 1991). While  Waterland  attracts attention mostly as an example of so-called historiographic metafiction,  Ever After , with its 'contemplative' character (a qualification used repeatedly by the novel's hero, Bill Unwin, to describe his life), draws greater attention to the hypotexts involved. If  Waterland  focuses on history/(his) story,  Ever After  chooses the form of romance as a narrative frame for Bill Unwin's and Matthew Pierce's story. As the following analysis will show, romance invites intertextuality more naturally than other narrative forms, becoming the actual site where texts meet.

Identifying Intertexts: 'aleatory' versus 'obligatory'?

Even a first, brief look at  Ever After  will show that several clearly distinguishable hypotexts are integrated into the novel, for example several plays by Shakespeare,  Hamlet  being the most prominent among them if we consider the frequency of its presence in the hypertext. The remaining difficulty, however, is how to approach the task of identifying as many pre-texts as possible - ideally, a complete list of the existing hypotexts. This becomes difficult as soon as intertextual markers, such as quotation marks, italics or other distinct differences in comparison with the hypertext, are missing.

Michael Riffaterre claims that a hypotext can always be assumed when the reader finds 'ungrammaticalities' in the text (Riffaterre 1990:57). Although this proves to be helpful insofar as it sharpens the reader's attention, it also remains vague, especially in the case of the contemporary, i.e. postmodern novel: with its tendencies towards fragmentation and an admixture of traditional narrative structures, ungrammaticalities are bound to occur.  Ever After , for all its 'muted' postmodern character, presents no exception to this rule. The novel seems to suggest hypotexts everywhere until the story, which begins  medias in res , has settled down somewhat and allowed the reader to piece together those passages from the beginning of the text which could not be fully understood at the time. Nevertheless, if a pre-text is introduced without any markers and altogether subtly, such as for instance the passage from  Love's Labour's Lost  (212), the reader might as well suppose that an existing pre-text lurks behind any other phrase, such as 'I find myself a rich man' (7) or 'What worldly adroitness I can muster, what chutzpah and charm, what spring in my step' (42). Almost every passage which is in some way striking (the latter of the two examples also calls for attention because of its alliteration and rhythm) could be called 'ungrammatical'; and again, every reader will find ungrammaticalities in different phrases or passages of the text.

Riffaterre's second suggestion which provides some initial help in identifying intertexts is linked to the first one, and proves to be equally vague when tried in practice. At first, the distinction between 'aleatory' and 'obligatory' hypotexts seems helpful in reducing the complexity of the problem:  Hamlet  will of course be identified as an obligatory pre-text, while all those bits and pieces that the reader carries into the hypertext by way of spontaneous associations (stimulated, for example, by the last movie he/she has seen, or the last novel he/she has read) must be called 'aleatory' and can be excluded from the discussion (Riffaterre 1984: 24). However, a number of examples from  Ever After  reveals that the categorization of 'aleatory' versus 'obligatory' is too open-meshed a net to catch the phenomenon of intertextuality: it does not account for changes in a quotation, as in 'Under the Indian bean tree, who loves to lie with me' (88), which is an echo of 'Under the greenwood tree,/ Who loves to lie with me' from  As You Like It ; it does not foresee the problem of very short passages, which might or might not be regarded as 'obligatory' hypotexts, such as 'O England!' (199), a possible quotation from Shakespeare's  Henry V  (II.Pr.16); it does not solve the problem of proverbs and whether or not these should be seen as 'obligatory' hypotexts. Riffaterre's distinction cannot assess any of the borderline cases where a pre-text comes to mind but cannot be pinned down with absolute certainty. When Matthew Pierce writes to his wife before embarking on the sea-journey to the United States, 'And yet as I sit here, a traveller about to submit himself to the deeps' (55), is this an obligatory verification of the Tennysonian pre-text of 'Ulysses' ('the deep/ Moans round with many voices' etc.)? And what about the intertextual quality of the name 'Unwin': is it derived from Dickens'  Oliver Twist ? Just as Bill Unwin is an orphan, and lost in the world, so is Oliver Twist, and 'The next one as comes', says Mr. Bumble in Dickens' novel, 'will be Unwin'.

Behind Riffaterre's system of binary opposition lies his assumption that hypotexts lead to the one and only possible interpretation of the (hyper-)text. Undoubtedly, a number of hypotexts can always be identified as definite cases of reference to another literary work, but the possibilities inherent in intertextuality seem to point to a multiplicity of different readings rather than to a single one.

 Hamlet : constructing meaning from the pre-text

 Hamlet  is the most frequently evoked pre-text in  Ever After . The play takes on several functions, its most striking one being that of a general key or aid towards understanding the story. If hypotexts usually seem to render the text more complicated,  Hamlet  helps to clarify matters in  Ever After , especially at the beginning. The novel confuses the reader at the onset both in respect to the plot and to the I-narrator. The story's point of departure is obviously its end, as the narrator gives the reader to understand: 'These are, I should warn you, the words of a dead man' (1). In fact, Bill Unwin's near-death is the last one of the deaths to happen, chronologically speaking, but it is the first one to be told. Furthermore, the narrator asks the reader to distrust him before he has actually started to tell his story: '[these are] nothing more than the ramblings of a prematurely aged one' (1), thus leaving the reader disoriented because there does not seem to be any firm ground for the story.

Here, the pre-text of  Hamlet  takes over a stabilizing function and provides a means of comparison. When the narrator demands that his audience should read  Hamlet  instead of his own story ('for a large part of my life [...] I have imagined myself [...] as Hamlet', 4; 'For Claudius, read Sam Ellison', 6), i.e. that the pre-text is the more realistic, more reliable, indeed the 'truer' story of the two, he offers the reader a way to qualify or modify his 'ramblings'. In fact, given the intertextual foil of  Hamlet  which accompanies the whole of the hypertext, the narrator can be said to underestimate his readers' power and far-sightedness ('you have no means of comparison and only my word to go on' (4) - whereas in fact the reader has  Hamlet  as a means of comparison).

If  Hamlet  takes on a stabilizing and ordering function, the hypertext naturally also deviates from its hypotextual basis. One fundamental difference to Shakespeare's play is stated in the same breath as is the similarity with it: 'the odd thing is I have always liked him [Sam]' (6); 'You see, I thought Sam killed my father. So to speak. But now I know he didn't' (11). The reader knows, therefore, from the very beginning that  Hamlet , as an overall key to an interpretation of  Ever After , must in its turn be read with a critical distance. Thus, the pre-text of  Hamlet  also mystifies and again complicates its hypertext.

Characters in  Ever After  are strongly influenced by the pre-text of  Hamlet , and Bill Unwin most prominently so. The protagonist of the novel shares several character traits with the protagonist of the play. Both are reluctant to act and to speak openly about matters, the common topic of the protagonist's assassinated father being just one example (despite the fact that Bill's father committed suicide, he himself believed that Sam induced the suicide and thus views Sam as a murderer until shortly before the latter's death, when he learns about his true parentage). If Bill Unwin is modelled on Hamlet, his reluctance is also typical of Swift's narrator figures, as David Leon Higdon explains:

Naturally,  Hamlet  is one such indirection, mask and/or substitution through which Bill can tell his story.

Another parallel between Hamlet and Bill can be seen in the relationship with the mother. If Hamlet is usually interpreted along Oedipal lines, similar ideas about an incestuous relationship between Bill and his mother occur, particularly in chapter II ('"Do up my buttons, sweetie, would you? There's an angel." / A whole world existed in which men did up the backs of women's dresses at four o'clock in the afternoon', 17f.), or when Bill's mother is said to be jealous of her daughter-in-law. The figure of Hamlet is, of course, an unusually rich intertextual source for the construction of Swift's narrator because Hamlet cannot be reduced to a single interpretation: Hamlet is a brooding  and  an acting figure, he is melancholic  and  witty, suicidal  and  murderous, Oedipus  and  suitor of Ophelia. More examples can be found, which show how intricately the figure of Bill is modelled on the figure of Hamlet. The relationship between the two texts - which according to Harold Bloom is the only really existing textual site (see Bloom 1975: 3) - proves to be many-faceted.

If Bill, on the one hand, resembles his famous intertextual model, on the other hand he is a rather boring and unexciting figure. He never achieved particular success in anything (unlike his wife or his 'father', Colonel Unwin, or his stepfather, who made a fortune in plastics or his mother, who was a singer). Quite on the contrary: Bill is a 'loser figure', albeit in a literal, dramatic sense after the loss of all of his family. He admits that he is 'the dowdy, forgotten moth' (43). Even in the most dramatic situations, he appears only as a voyeur, a helpless witness, a victim or a mere chronicler. However, the novel puts him in the privileged place of I-narrator and protagonist. It seems that this potential for the special, the outstanding, is added to the weak figure through the pre-texts and that the figure of Bill Unwin can be interpreted as a void filled with hypotexts, a blank onto which pre-texts are being projected. He is, in a way, the 'produit combinatoire' (Barthes 1970: 74) of - in this case above all, obligatory - hypotexts.

To go once more back to Shakespeare's play, it is also worth pointing out that Bill unites the figures of Hamlet, Polonius and Horatio. On one occasion, he uses the words of Polonius to interpret Katherine Potter's advances towards him (85) and once characterizes Matthew Pierce (whom he usually views as 'just another disillusioned idealist, an over-reactive Hamlet type' (211) - thus establishing a kind of Hamlet-triad recruited from three different texts) as 'prating Polonius' (176). But Bill can also be understood as a Horatio figure who lives on after the deaths of his beloved ones to tell his/their story: 'in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,/ To tell my story' ( Hamlet  V.2.353 f.).

However closely-linked the figure of Bill is to that of Hamlet (Polonius, Horatio), he is also distanced from this model in the course of the novel, especially when he discovers that Sam, or Sam's relationship with Bill's mother, very probably was not the decisive cause of Colonel Unwin's suicide, and that he was always wrong in seeking his revenge as he did. That Bill's real father is yet another person, a nameless train-driver, carries the story further away from the Shakespearian pre-text. At the point of time when Bill expects Sam to apologize for the grief he caused Colonel Unwin, and does so with an allusion to  Hamlet  ('[h]e is here (Claudius at his prayers) to atone for his part in my father's death', 154), the distance from the pre-text becomes obvious. Bill cannot 'fool' the reader, or indeed himself, with a Hamlet identification; the evoking of Hamlet in this place rather stresses the difference between the two texts. Thus, meaning in  Ever After  is created not just  from  the pre-text of  Hamlet , but also  against  it.

Characters are perhaps the main focus in Swift's novels: 'Over all, though, towers Swift's interest in his characters' confessions [...] his deep commitment to viewing them within the historical ties linking past and present' (Higdon 1991: 181). However, the pre-texts in  Ever After  take on an important function regarding action, as well. On the one hand, the pre-texts, in particular the plays among them, advance the action in  Ever After . This is necessary as there is little or no action in the novel: in fact, the only consistent action is that of remembrance. Remembering his life and his losses is for Bill a form of case history, of anamnesis, which will gradually lead to the healing of his wounds. The plays introduce some forward movement into the novel; the intertextual references to them promise the reader that there is as similar structure of beginning, middle and ending in this seemingly immobile, paralysed story - paralysed as is its teller.

Secondly, the hypotexts,  Hamlet  in particular, take over the function of conveying all the extreme elements, such as the extremely violent, or extremely sad parts of the story. One example is Ruth's suicide, which is rendered in the words of Charmian from  Antony and Cleopatra  (cf. 121). The pre-text can help to alleviate the hypertext and therefore take on the role of an aesthetic norm:

The hypotexts assume the function of shaping the novel. They establish meaning(s) by evoking common features, such as the similarities between Bill and Hamlet, as well as by setting themselves against the hypertext. The shaping process takes place on every level of the novel: figures, plot and narrative.

Intertextuality and the form of romance

 Ever After  may be classified quite obviously as a romance (see Maack 1993: 279), although there is no mention of romance in the title. Both Bill's and Matthew's stories are marked by the love for their wives, particularly in the case of Bill whose wife Ruth, a famous actress, had been the centre of his life until her death. The novel closes with a description of Bill's and Ruth's first night together: a culmination of their love story which Bill begins to tell as far back as the seventh chapter. The intertextual references, not just in the seventh chapter ('Dido and Aeneas [...] A midsummer night [...] I was a puckish soul [...] Jack shall have Jill; nought shall go ill', 77 f.) but throughout the novel stress the theme of love between man and woman.

Love is only one element which is considered to be typical of romance. There is also the quest which Bill and Matthew undertake in the form of an inner journey, not of a visible itinerary. This quest is partly a search for the father: just as Bill is torn between the 'truths' of three father-figures (Sam, Colonel Unwin and his genetically true father, whom he has never got to know), so Matthew looks to a triad of fathers, neither of whom can qualm his anxieties: Matthew's real father has become estranged from him, partly through drinking; his father-in-law, Rector Hunt, fails to comprehend Matthew's crisis, and he himself loses faith in the Father, God. However, this search for the father is only the kernel of a general crisis which overwhelms both figures. Matthew's questions and problems are presented in the nineteenth-century context of Darwinism. For Bill and Matthew, a whole system of life values is shaken; they do not trust meanings or explanations behind the events which they experience any more. Ansgar Nünning calls this an 'epistemological scepticism' (Nünning 1995: 333). Bill and Matthew look for the fullness of being, for firm ground on which to base their lives. As Bill summarizes: 'And so I sit in these college gardens [...] trying to recover my substance' (10). The garden, of course, is another symbol reminiscent of romance.

Romance as a narrative form asks for an intertextual capacity on the part of the reader. It can be composed of various elements which can be weighted differently, such as symbols and themes (death, love, repentance, resurrection), names and figures, interlacement techniques and narrative style. Romance also generally unites with other narrative forms, especially in the postmodern novel. The most prominent example for such a mixture of forms is A.S. Byatt's  Possession: A Romance  (1990). The reader must therefore be prepared to recognize the romance and to put together its elements and patterns, similar to the intertextual riddle which is put to him/her (cf. Bronfen 1996: 129).

A typical romance feature is the postponing of an end, or a solution. The questing after some kind of treasure or presence which can take various forms as a material or spiritual reward is regarded as the actual romance structure (cf. Parker 1979:4). This means that romance always happens 'in between' (between the initial problem which motivates the quest, and the [happy] ending) and is therefore related to the concept of intertextuality which views the space between hypertext and hypotext as the scene of intertextuality. Intertextuality, which aims at a clash of texts, is symptomatic of the wish for a 'dire total', for a covering of the gaps between signs (texts) and meanings. Similarly, romance pursues the goal of a holy grail which can satiate the wish for total love, or total happiness. Both romance and intertextuality articulate the desire for a presence (a meaning, a treasure, a recognition), while at the same time endlessly postponing such a presence.

Appendix I: A list of hypotexts in  Ever After 

Appendix II:
Remembrance as the Highest Achievement of Life - the Specific Meaning of Intertext

References

Graham Swift,  Ever After  (London: Picador, 1992).

Roland Barthes,  S/Z  (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1970).

Catherine Bernard,  Graham Swift: La parole chronique  (Nancy: Presses Universitaires, 1991).

Harold Bloom,  A Map of Misreading  (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975).

Ulrich Broich, "Muted Postmodernism: The Contemporary British Short Story".  ZAA  41 (1993).

Elisabeth Bronfen, "Romancing Difference, Courting Coherence: A.S. Byatt's  Possession  as Postmodern Moral Fiction". In: Rüdiger Ahrens/Laurenz Volkmann (eds),  Why Literature Matters. Theories and Functions of Literature  (Heidelberg: Winter, 1996).

David Leon Higdon, "'Unconfessed Confession': the narrators of Graham Swift and Julian Barnes". In: James Acheson (ed.),  The British and Irish Novel Since 1960  (London: Macmillan, 1991).

Julia Kristeva, "Bakhtine, le mot, le dialogue et le roman".  Critique  23 (1967).

Annegret Maack, "Die  romance  als postmoderne Romanform?".  Literatur in Wissenschaft und Unterricht  36 (1993).

Ansgar Nünning,  Von historischer Fiktion zu historiographischer Metafiktion, Bd. II: Erscheinungsformen und Entwicklungstendenzen des historischen Romans in England seit 1950  (Trier: WVT, 1995).

Patricia Parker,  Inescapable Romance. Studies in the Poetics of a Mode  (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979).

Michael Riffaterre, "Production du roman: l'intertexte du Lys dans la Vallée".  Texte , 2 (1984).

--- "Compulsory Reader Response: the Intertextual Drive". In: Judith Still/Michael Worton (eds),  Intertextuality. Theories and Practices  (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1990).

Graham Swift Websites:

Autoren-Archiv des Hanser-Verlags