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  • “Telling it Unabridged”: Graham Swift’s Revision of Waterland
  • David Leon Higdon (bio) and Russell (Rusty) Reed (bio)

In early 1983, England’s William Heinemann and America’s Poseidon Press, a hardback division of Simon and Schuster, introduced their readers to Graham Swift’s Waterland, a novel reviewed so positively and read so enthusiastically that it quickly began to appear on reading lists, to become central to discussions of postmodernism, and to be recognized, along with D. M. Thomas’s The White Hotel (1981) and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981), as one of the most important British novels of its decade.1 General discussions of contemporary fiction such as Allan Massie’s The Novel Today and Malcolm Bradbury’s The Modern British Novel have singled it out for considerable praise. Massie called it “a masterly and intricate narrative” that is “profoundly and unmistakably English” and concluded that Swift “is undoubtedly one of the writers . . . [who] it may be asserted with real confidence . . . will play a large part in the future of the English novel.”2 Bradbury, discerning that Swift always writes about “an aftermath,” praised Waterland’s “fascination with fiction as history, history as fiction, that has been important in the novel certainly since the Sixties.”3 Taking the novel as a crucial example of the new historiographic metafiction, Linda Hutcheon viewed its protagonist as “in some ways an allegorical representative of the postmodern historian who might well have read, not just [R. G.] Collingwood, with his view of the historian as storyteller and detective, but also Hayden White, Dominick LaCapra, Raymond Williams, Michel Foucault, and Jean-François Lyotard.”4

Since 1992, however, discussions, interpretations, and generalizations about this novel’s literary worth and its significance to literary movements have often [End Page 287] been using a text of Waterland that differs significantly from the one used by the earlier reviewers, historians, and theoreticians, because while reading proofs for the second British edition Swift was tempted into making numerous revisions, unguided by any articulated plan. The currently available text differs substantively in approximately four hundred and fifty instances from the first edition in ways that reflect its author’s concern for vocabulary and syntax but that diminish key features of its narrator-protagonist. In a complicated manner, each word of this retrospective novel has a dual origin in its author and in its character, and as such, these revisions subtly readjust the psychological identity of the narrator. There is a quantitative difference between revising the text of a first-person novel and that of an omnisciently narrated novel. Revision of the latter may be only stylistic in range without significantly affecting character or theme or may completely refocus theme without readjusting a reader’s perception of character. In a first-person narration, however, revision of any word, or any sentence, may have an immediate impact on a reader’s understanding of and interpretation of the dual narrator/protagonist beyond the author’s stylistic concerns. Authorial revisions thus may have a double-layered effect. In the context of Swift’s seven other novels, one can see that Swift’s revisions in Waterland move in the direction of his later style and strategy where his narrators are less psychologically complex and often less interesting than in his first three novels. After summarizing critical responses to The Light of Day, Swift’s most recent novel, David Malcolm agrees with D. J. Taylor that “[c]hief among The Light of Day’s characteristics is its oddly desiccated feel—material stretched beyond its natural limit, characters reduced to a rudimentary minimum, prose pruned savagely back.”5

As with the first editions of Swift’s earlier novels, The Sweet-Shop Owner (1980) and Shuttlecock (1981), the first British and first American printings of Waterland are identical. Following the enactment of the 1892 Chace Act, which stipulated that any foreign book to secure American copyright had to be reset by American compositors, English and American editions of a novel could best be described as “brothers,” because of numerous potentials for textual differences.6 At present, however, English and American “editions” more resemble identical twins who assert their individuality through dressing differently. Thus, the...


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pp. 287-298
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