"Children, only animals live entirely in the Here and Now. Only nature knows neither memory nor history. But man- let me offer you a definition- is the story-telling animal. Wherever he goes he wants to leave behind not a chaotic wake, not an empty space, but the comforting marker-buoys and trail signs of stories. He has to go on telling stories, he has to keep making them up. As long as there's a story, it's all right. Even in his last moments, it's said, in the split second of a fatal fall- or when he's about to drown- he sees, passing before him, the story of his whole life."

In the novels we have read, story telling is a mechanism of narration of both fact and fiction. With Tom Crick's definition of man in mind, how should we critically read these postcolonial, story-rich novels? Is it possible to decipher the more valid his-stories from those that are created for the purpose of enriching the author's intent? For example, Yvonne Vera's concoction of rituals are nothing but fictitious stories, but one could also assume her novel was based on truths- and therefore painting a history of falsities. In her writing style, the author is able to decide whether stories are read as truths. How should we read these novels of historical stories without meddling with history? [Corey Binns]

One contrast in Graham Swift's Waterland which was made quite interestingly was that between different ideas of practical education and "pointless information."

"Lessons over. Dusk enveloping the playground.

'It just so happens, Tom, that I agree with the powers-that-be. Equipping for the real world. It just so happens that I think that's what we're here for.' A demonstrative hand waved towards the playground. 'Send just one of these kids out into the world with a sense of his or her usefulness, with an ability to apply, with practical knowledge and not a rat-bag of pointless information-'" (22-23)

The sense of usefulness that the headmaster Lewis praises is apparently not what the study of history provides.

"What is a history teacher? He's someone who teaches mistakes. While others say, Here's how to do it, he says And here's what goes wrong. While others tell you, This is the way, this is the path, he says, And here are a few bungles, bothches, blunders and fiascos...He's a self-contradiction, since everyone knows what you learn from history is that nobody-). An obstructive instructor, a treacherous tutor. Maybe he's a bad influence. Maybe he's not good to have around...

"Darkness. A school playground...

"A teacher walks, with unsteady gait, across the playground. the teacher is a little drunk..." (235-236)

So history teaches mistakes, without necessarily teaching how not to make them. From history you learn that nobody- nobody what? succeeds? succeeds where they intended? nobody lives? nobody knows?

A recurring image is that of the playground. In the first quotation, the headmaster motions toward it in referring to the children and their futures as useful members of society. In the second, Crick, the history teacher is wandering around the playground drunk.

Is the playground representative of "the real world?" In which some grown children play purposefully, practically but not understanding all the "blunders, botches, and fiascos," that won't let things "work out?" And others like the history teacher (the grown, drunk ones) loiter with "unsteady gait," in the playground, drunk because it "makes the world seem like a toy..." (236)

How does the author so effectively make the seemingly wholesome, prosaic world of good, able children with a purpose in life seem so much more sinister than the ambiguity and fear or cynicism taught by history? What are all these children really doing in the playground? [Jennifer Ellingson]

Graham Swift's narrator in Waterland is obsessed with history and the difference between "the Here and Now" and past/future (or maybe just "other") times. Naturally he's a history teacher. With the character's mindset noted, how are we to interpret the author's own intent when he puts sentences like "Only nature knows neither memory nor history. But man. . .is the story-telling animal. Wherever he goes he wants to leave behind not a chaotic wake, not an empty space, but the comforting markerbuouys and trail-signs of stories."? What is Swift trying to say about stories and their relation to history?(i. e., are they separate? is History, a force, or history, a record, the dominant mode in the novel?) How does his idea differ from the manner of Nehanda, Bones, and Anthills of the Savannah? How much of a difference does it make that Swift is not struggling with an attempt to reconcile an oral culture with a literate one (or is he in fact?)?[Greg Gipson]

So far all the books we have read have led to discussions of orality vs. discursivity, or verbal vs. written communication. Swift's novel is written in oral language, as a story or lecture spoken by Old Cricky the history teacher, who begins describing the fens as a "fairy-tale" [8] and introduces new sections with classic story initiation phrases, like "once upon a time" [226]. He also interjects with asides to his audience like "now lets be clear, we're not just talking about ordinary paternal affection" [226].

Also note how lapses the teacher takes from straight story telling into philosophizing. One repeated subjet he does this on is the significance of history: "People who drew simple-minded comparisons and conclusions, people whose sense of history was crude, who believed that the past is always tugging at the sleeve of the present...[160]." Another common subject is children:

Children, do you believe in education? Do you believe that the world grows up and learns?... What is a history teacher? He's someone who teaches mistakes. While others tell you, This is the way, this is the path... [235]

How does this narrative style fit into our previous discussions of the uses, powers, and significances of the written and spoken word?[Margaret Hander]

Reality is uneventfulness, vacancy, flatness. Reality is that nothing happens.

I present to you History, the fabrication, the diversion, the reality-obscuring drama. (40)

And there's no saying what consequences we won't risk, what reactions to out actions, what repercussions, what brick towers built to be knocked down, what chasings of our own tails, what chaos we won't assent to in order to assure ourselves that, none the less, things are happening. And there's no saying what heady potions we won't concoct, what meanings, myths, manias we won't imbibe in order to convince ourselves that reality is not an empty vessel.(41)

But man...is the story-telling animal. Wherever he goes he wants to leave behind not a chaotic wake, not an empty space, but the comforting marker-buoys and trail-signs of stories. He has to go on telling stories, he has to keep making them up. As long as there's a story, it's all right. (63)

According to the narrator, stories help fill the void of reality, stories help you forget the empty space of existence. How does the role of the story in this novel compare with that of the other novels we have read so far? Do they have the same function? Does the African version also serve to alter reality? [Alaka Holla]

I was interested in discussing the notion of storytelling within the early Crick family who lives in the Fens, and throughough the novel Waterland by Graham Swift.

How did the Cricks outwit reality? By telling stories. Down to the last generation, they were not only phlegmatic but superstitious and credulous creatures. Suckers for stories. While the Atkinsons made history, the Cricks spun yarns." (17)

To me, this seemed to be the first mention of a theme that could connect to our previous post-colonial readings and discussions. In fact, the description "superstitious and credulous creatures" seems as if it could have been lifted from a European colonizer's description of the Yoruba, of Ibos, or of many of the other indigenous populations we have read about.

Can we stretch the connection a bit more and transfer the Cricks' reasons for storytelling ("to outwit reality") to some of the native African populations? How in touch with reality were they? And are we thinking of "their reality" (ancestors, spirits, the land), or a general, universal "reality" (awareness of what is going on in the rest of the world and a cognitive awareness of what is happening to their own people as they are colonized)? This is a pretty subjective/philosophical question, but in light of all our thoughts about colonization, I wonder how the Africans perceived of colonialism, especially in relation to their methodology of telling stories. What in storytelling is universal, what is specific to culture and place, etc., etc. all that stuff. By the way, this is absolutely a beautiful book! [Zandra Kambysellis]

Yet the Here and Now, which brings both joy and terror, comes but rarely - does not come even when we call it. That's the way it is: life includes a lot of empty space... What do you do when reality is an empty space? You can make things happen - and conjure up, with all the risks, a little token urgency; you can drink and be merry and forget what your sober mind tells you. Or, like the Cricks who out of their watery toils could always dredge up a tale or two, you can tell stories... I believed, perhaps like you, that history was a myth. Until the Here and Now, gripping me by the arm, slapping my face and telling me that history was no invention but indeed existed - and I had become part of it. (61-2)

Crick, like many characters we have discussed, comes from an oral tradition as he writes a sort of social history involving the people of the fens. What do you think the English 'powers that be' felt about Crick's style? What are the similarities and differences in Crick's storytelling of the 'Great Narrative' of history and storytelling in the African tradition? How do their styles differ from an 'old white men' or a 'great war' version of history? Which do you think is more relevant to daily existence? In what circumstances would one version be more or less relevant? Why would certain cultures or people choose one version over the other? Is it simply because of writen vs. oral culture? [Dave Washburn]

In a continuation of our discussion at the end of our last class, I think it would be interesting to discuss how Graham Swift explains life as a series of explorations - of history and sex. "Supposing it's revolutions which divert and impede the course of our inborn curiosity. Supposing it's curiosity - which inspires our sexual explorations and feeds our desire to hear and tell stories - which is our natural and fundamental condition" (194). Sexuality, reality, history and love all become entwined in a cycle of explanations - causal relationships, that Swift ties to the land and the water. Dick swims out to sea to die, like the eels. The land, the water, dictate the emotions, interactions, curiosities of its people. "[S]exuality perhaps reveals itself more readily in a flat land, in a land of watery prostration, than in, say, a mountainous or forested terrain, where nature's own phallic thrustings inhibit man's, or in towns and cities where a thousand artificial erections (a brewing chimney, a tower block) detract from our animal urges" (182). [Molly Yancovitz]

Reading Questions

Last modified 8 March 2004