Thursday 18 March 2010

Carol Shields: Mary Swann (1987)

Original US/Canadian title: Swann, A Mystery
Edition: Fourth Estate, 2000
Review number: 1398

Mary Swann was originally published simply titled Swann, and this UK edition clearly suffers from a degree of bizarre schizophrenia in this respect: Mary Swann on the front cover, Swann in the page headers.

Carol Shields' fifth novel continues to look at the concerns which informed much of her writing, principally the life stories of the kind of ordinary women who would often be dismissed as unimportant. But here Mary Swann is not herself a character in the novel; it is entirely about the way that other people think of her. For Mary Swann was a farmer's wife in deepest rural Ontario, who appeared perfectly ordinary in herself. She was married to a brutish husband who barely permitted her the only intellectual pleasure she had, access to the small collection at the nearest library, and who eventually murdered her. Yet she managed to write poems, on scraps of paper, good enough to be published. And, after she was killed (the most dramatic event in her life), one of the books of her poetry was picked up and read by an academic, who launches Mary's career in the world of English literature.

The novel is about the months preceding the first academic symposium on Mary Swann. The first four sections are written from the points of view of four people important to the study of her work: her discoverer, her (frustrated) biographer, her closest friend, and the man who published the poems in the first place. The final section abandons the standard narrative form, and purports to be the script of a film set at the symposium. In a book which is about how literary reputations are constructed, the introduction to the script explicitly makes the ironic point that all of these people, including Mary herself, are fictional: a deliberate ironic pin bursting the bubble of the reader's suspension of disbelief.

In a way, this has been clear all along. Mary Swann is really too good to be true, if the reader takes a minute to think about it. She embodies everything that the feminist academic community is searching for: a good poet, able to produce her work despite being downtrodden by the patriarchal system and her specific circumstances, a victim to the brutality of men. She wrote without the elitist requirement of a room of her own: no private study in a house in Bloomsbury for her. Mary fits the role too well for her to be believable. But it is clear that part of Shields' intention in Mary Swannn is to poke fun at the academic world, and to examine the way that the reputations, personalities, and even works and lives of the creators of literature are manipulated by those who claim to study them objectively. This means, incidentally, that there is considerable humour here, perhaps more direct than in any of Shields' other novels.

One very positive aspect of Mary Swann is the high quality of the poetry that Shields has written for her, encapsulating the descriptions given to it by the other characters in the novel. It is all too easy to describe a fictional character's literary work as outstanding, but to be unable to deliver quoted examples which live up to this standard. Not only must the quality be good, but the excerpts should also not be in the author's usual style, so that they should be distinct from the rest of the narrative. Shields gives the impression that she has managed to do all of this with ease, making the poetry a pleasure to read.

Carol Shields is also a superb prose stylist in her own right, as can be seen from any of her novels or short stories. Perhaps more so in the short stories, even, because they are often light on plot and concentrate on characterisation. However, here, the final film script section is less polished, probably because of the choice of form. Ending with the poorest part of the novel proves anticlimactic, even though it contains the climax of the plot. But even so, I enjoyed Mary Swann immensely - 8/10.