“An Act of Reconstruction”: Carol Shields, Swann


The faces of the actors have been subtly transformed. They are seen joined in a ceremonial act of reconstruction, perhaps even an act of creation. There need be no suggestion that any of them will become less selfish in the future, less cranky, less consumed with thoughts of tenure and academic glory, but each of them has, for the moment at least, transcended personal concerns.

Carol Shields’ Swann is a very clever book — too clever for me, in the end, because as it went on it became more and more clearly a conceptual set-up, the people in it more evidently pieces in a game. I like novels to have ideas. I think I probably criticize more novels here for lacking intellectual depth than for sacrificing character or feelings to abstractions. But the novels I like best (including Shields’ Unless) balance head and heart: they are both thoughtful and, at some level, sincere about their characters’ humanity. There are certainly touches of that sincerity in Swann, especially in the section about town librarian Rose Hindmarsh:

She cannot possibly be the one who set in motion the chain of events that led to Mary Swann’s death since she has never been capable of setting anything in motion. Never mind her work in the town office, in the library, and in the museum — she has always known, not sensed, but known, that she is deficient in power. So many have insisted on her deficiency, beginning with her dimly remembered soldier father who failed to come back home to Nadeau to take his place as her parent, and her grandmother who told her, moving leathery gums stretched with spittle, that she had the worst posture ever seen in a young girl, and her mother who said looks weren’t everything …. and the seditious blood that is pouring out of her day after day after day, making her weaker and weaker so that she can hardly think — all this has interfered with her life and made her deficient in her own eyes, and it is this that mercifully guards her against self-recrimination, from believing she is someone who might possibly have played a part in the death of the poet Mary Swann. Rose is a person powerless to stir love and so she must also be powerless in her ability to hurt and destroy.

For me, Rose’s deficiencies show Shields’ strength: she’s great at hitting that fine line between pathos and poignancy, creating sympathy without overloading us with sentiment. In Unless, she controls these elements with her acerbic first-person narrator. In Swann, though, I felt that she subordinated these emotional layers to the point she wanted to make.

So what is that point? I think (to put it bluntly and thus, inevitably, reductively) it’s that criticism is inimical to art. Swann opens with Sarah Maloney, a feminist professor (at 28, already somehow the author of a bestselling book based on her Ph.D. thesis — yup, that happens all the time!) now building her reputation as an expert on an obscure rural Canadian poet whose work she “discovered” in a classic act of feminist literary recuperation. She narrates one section; Morton Jimroy, who’s writing Swann’s biography, narrates the next; our sad friend Rose, who rather exaggerates how well she knew Mary Swann personally, gets a section; and then Frederic Cruzzi, who published Swann’s slim oeuvre. The final section brings them all together (about this part, more in a minute!).

All of the individual parts have their charms. Even Jimroy, who’s a self-absorbed twit, is occasionally endearing, especially in his meditations on the imperfect glories of biography:

The disjointed paragraphs he is writing are pushing toward that epic wholeness that is a human life, gold socketed into gold. True, it will never be perfect. There are gaps, as in every life, accidents of silence and misinterpretation and the frantic scrollwork of artifice, but also a seductive randomness that confers truth. And mystery, too, of course. Impenetrable mystery.

His phrase “impenetrable mystery” is a hint, it turns out, at the futility of everyone’s attempt (or pretense) to really know Mary Swann. The more they think they know about her, or claim to know about her, the more elusive she turns out to be. Sarah wonders how a woman who seems in every other way to have been unbearably ordinary could have produced extraordinary verse; Jimroy struggles to grasp what her life was like and how it might connect to or illuminate her poems; Rose builds her minimal acquaintance into a story of intimacy that she knows is illusory; Frederic Cruzzi knows almost nothing about Swann herself but is the only one who knows the poems on which everyone else’s interest hangs are themselves already half-truths salvaged from ruined manuscripts. As they try to create a full picture, the scraps of evidence one by one disappear, leaving them less and less certainty. Though there is a story about where all the evidence went, the literal explanation is clearly much less important, thematically, than the symbolic one: their subject evaporates, leaving only their theories of her, which reflect who they are, not who she was.

And they aren’t that great, really: they are indeed selfish, cranky, consumed with thoughts of tenure and academic glory. Their better selves emerge only when they put those unworthy motives aside and turn, purified, to “reconstructions” of Swann’s vanished work. Swann struck me as very much a book of the 80s, and surely “reconstruction” is offered as the better alternative to “deconstruction,” or (since none of the characters is, strictly speaking, a poststructuralist) to theory. Swann is, in part, academic satire á la David Lodge: the culminating sequence at the “Swann Symposium” would fit right into any of his early novels, in flavor if not so much in form. In this section Shields makes the whole academic enterprise look both silly and futile: what do the meanings spun out in deliberately elliptical fragments have to do with the meaning of the lines of poetry we read, or with Mary Swann’s own obscure, tragic life? Her short verses are a flimsy foundation for the edifice constructed on them.

Shields’ satire isn’t blistering: there are some acknowledgements that without the attention of scholars and biographers, many great poets — especially women poets — would have stayed unknown. She also makes each of her characters more than just a caricature, so that it is possible, at least provisionally, to sympathize with their quests to find out more, and to define their own lives through someone else’s. The final section, though, inexplicably presented as a script, strips away much of the nuance and turns the characters’ interconnected stories into an odd and, for me, uncomfortably arch farce. This was the point at which Shields lost me — both the strange formal decision, which I found both distracting and sort of lazy, and the turn to comic maneuvering.

As I finished reading Swann, I found myself thinking of A. S. Byatt’s Possession, which deals with a lot of the same thematic elements. It has been quite a long time since I read Possession, so I may be misremembering, but in my recollection, while it does bring out the comic aspect of scholarly obsession, it also cherishes it, even indulges it, matching its satire with a love story — and I don’t mean (just) the historical love story that’s uncovered but the romance of knowledge itself. The scholars’ quest, there, is balanced by the humanity of their subjects, which is given the kind of scope Mary Swann never gets in Swann. I would have liked the last part of Shields’ novel to be hers — for Shields to use her novelist’s licence to solve her “ineffable mystery,” maybe even to allow for the possibility of something more — something that’s not ridiculous — between the creation and the critic, the subject and the scholar.

One thought on ““An Act of Reconstruction”: Carol Shields, Swann

  1. Julie Crabb August 4, 2015 / 8:56 pm

    Interesting critique, Rohan! I’m glad you got a chance to read _Swann_, and I mostly agree with your take. I don’t remember finding the symposium dialogue at the end unsatisfying, but your observation is making me want to re-read it. I haven’t read David Lodge, but the Swann Symposium reminds me a bit of the conference at the end of Atwood’s _The Handmaid’s Tale_ as well, though Atwood’s critique is characteristically more piquant. I wonder if Shields’s relationship with academia was a little more fraught than Byatt’s was, leading her to mock more than grapple seriously with the relationship between “the creation and the critic, the subject and the scholar”.


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