Swann: A Mystery / Carol Shields (1987)

I’m writing a dissertation on aspects of the biographical quest, and so everything I’ve been reading has had to relate to that lately. In the biographical quest (bioquest) novel, a genre identified by Jon Thiem, a quester goes in search of the life of someone from the past, doing detective-like work through archives, documents and old haunts to come to grips with the secrets of the subject and in the process, being changed themselves.  The prototypical example is A.S. Byatt’s Possession: A Romance, published three years after Carol Shields’ Swann. Swann is not a typical example of the genre, but it stands in interesting overlap with it.

I’ve read three of Shields’ novels now, and in all three I have found her tone ambiguous – elusive, maddening and clever. She writes with a satirical edge, and yet it is not only satire, she follows enough realist conventions and has enough depth of representation to ensure that. Swann makes contemporary literary critics out to be ridiculous – but it doesn’t only do that. The first ever symposium devoted to the poet Mary Swann is being held, and we see events leading up to it through the eyes of each of the main players, before the symposium itself is presented as a movie script in the final part (a choice which did not make sense to me). The critics are busy reading all sorts of things into her work, detecting influences and praising her brilliance; a biographer is writing the story of her life. Yet the part-time librarian of the rural area where Swann lived and died knows better about the truth of her life – she was a poor, uneducated farmer’s wife who invested no deeper meanings in her work; when she wrote of the desire for a well, she wanted a well, not baptism, for example. She was murdered by her husband hours after delivering her manuscript to a journalist who ran a small press publishing rural poets in his spare time. The publisher’s wife accidentally used the original manuscript to wrap fishbones; many of the lines were scrambled and the two reconstructed the work the best they could, inevitably ‘improving’ it along the way.

In the bioquest, the secrets of the past are (imperfectly) revealed – there is optimism about the recoverability of facts and of the value of scholarship and the work of the biographer. The absence of this is what places Swann outside the genre, in my opinion. It is inevitably a continuum – gaps and silences are a feature of the genre; Swann is mainly about the gaps and silences.

I found it an engaging read, in that maddening way I mentioned. Shields has a lot of insight into people, even when she’s skewering them.