Graham Swift, Emperor of Last Year

The Guardian had a curious article the other day by the novelist Graham Swift, in which he constructed a very fine man of straw in order to justify why it was he was writing a book based on events as long as five years ago.

Any mention of Graham Swift, of course, immediately brings back to mind his novel Last Orders, and it’s curious resemblance to Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Whilst at the time many “literary heavyweights” (such as Ian McEwan and Zadie Smith) came forward and claimed that, despite the striking resemblance in structure, plot, style, diction, split narrative, one sentence chapters etc. (Wikipedia, I note, calls them “superficial similarities”), Swift’s work was far from an act of plagiarism, I still feel curiously uneasy about the affair. Yet looking into it after reading The Guardian piece, wherever I went, I only found people defending him (and castigating his Aussie accuser as an envious madman). There’s even a few dissertations available, comparing the two works: here’s one; and here’s another.

Now, it’s true, I haven’t read these dissertations from beginning to end – but it doesn’t take much effort to see that they’re incredibly badly written and argued. It’s as if Swift could only be found a plagiarist if he had copied As I Lay Dying word for word. Let me quote though what I take to be one of the finest pieces of argumentation ever, from the first dissertation: – this, be it remembered, from the Faculty of Arts and Philosophy at the University of Ghent:

Similar to Swift’s novel, we can detect references to Shakespeare’s work in Faulkner’s oeuvre and especially his masterpiece Hamlet. The clearest reference can be found in the title of Faulkner’s novel The Hamlet. Instead of referring to a person, the hamlet is part of the geography of Yoknapatawpha County.

If I was eleven, I imagine I would have been very proud of this argument and I’d have thought myself very clever indeed. (Though, to be fair, I’ve never read Faulkner’s The Hamlet, and there remains the possibility it is based on Shakespeare’s play).

The other thing, of course, this whole matter reminded me of was Bernardo Atxaga’s marvellous advice for plagiarists in his Obooki Prize-winning work, Obabakoak (a book which is, incidentally, all about borrowing stories – and much recommended), which I previously … er … copied in this post here. OK, so Atxaga specifically discounts plagiarising the work of Faulkner, but the rest of his instructions might have been followed to the letter, particularly I think:

All a plagiarist need do is alter the time and setting of his story: – other discrepancies from the original will then appear as a matter of course.


The plagiarist should learn something about metaliterature.

since these seem to be the basis of both Swift’s defence of himself (he specifically talks about postmodernism, homage, echoes etc) and others’ defences (which are largely based on the time and scene swap, and the general use of past writers).

Atxaga’s novel was originally published in 1988, and translated into English in 1992, which would be just about the right time for Swift, whose Last Orders came out in 1996.

While I can accept that authors continually borrow from one another (I myself am planning on pilfering a short story of Leonid Andreev’s), I still find something deeply disquieting and essentially wrong about Last Orders. But then again, perhaps it just comes down to the fact that I don’t think much of Swift as a writer and that in using Faulkner, he really doesn’t improve it any. After all, I’m not the world’s greatest defender of originality.


8 thoughts on “Graham Swift, Emperor of Last Year

  1. Beyond what you said, Obooki, I like how that first dissertation quote makes it look like Faulkner’s novel The Hamlet was actually “his masterpiece Hamlet“! Doesn’t anybody proofread English dissertations anymore? I need to read Obooki Prize winner Atxaga, who is merely a name to me at this point (I’m weak on Basque writers not named Unamuno and mostly weak on Unamuno himself). Thanks for the rec.

  2. To be fair to our dissertationist, though – both about his interpretation of the word “hamlet” and his sentence structure – I don’t think English is his first language.

    I’d really recommend Atxaga. In fact, I was only thinking the other day how good all the Obooki Prize winners have been so far, and how the prize was fulfilling its real purpose: which was, to demonstrate that I, judging on my own, could come up with a better list of prize-winners each year than any committee based official prize Both the Atxaga and the Cavazzoni are books I feel I want to go back to and reread (and this is very rare for me). (I don’t feel quite the same about Krasznahorkai though, perhaps because it’s a difficult novel to feel as fond of, being a bit more cold and intellectual – or perhaps, because I’ve only recently read it).

    Anyway, I’ve finally put up a winners list here.

    And that reminds me, I must get round to my yearly Unamuno book.

  3. A further comment on the dissertationist – and this isn’t necessarily his fault – but doesn’t it seem odd to choose a writer you admit to never reading before as the co-topic of such an exercise?

    I wonder what grade he got.

    The Atxaga book looks very interesting, thanks for the pointer.

  4. English Literature was always, as far as I recall, about writing essays on books you’d never read.

    I really must read some more Atxaga: perhaps, The Lone Man.

  5. Touché.
    There’s a difference between spoofing about something you’re supposed to have read though, and picking something totally new up and saying “you know, I might just pop out 10000 words on this little number”.

    I looked up Atxaga: the Obaba book is available but the Lone Man / Lone Woman seem to be OOP. I read they’re part of a trilogy, but no mention of the 3rd book…has he written it I wonder?

  6. I was browsing in my well-stocked but still fairly mainstream local bookstore when I saw not one but three copies of Obabakoak sitting on a shelf. Result! I nabbed one and will read it very shortly I imagine.

  7. Yes, I think they re-released it this year. Hope you enjoy it.

    Not to mean to dismiss it, but I feel a misgiving now about not giving the prize that year to Antonio Lobo Antunes’s The Return of the Caravels. Not that ALA won’t get his chance again, I suppose.

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