Swann

Reviewed: October 31, 2003
By: Carol Shields
Publisher: Penguin Books
313 pages, $12.95

The rivers of this country

Shrink and crack and kill

And the waters of my body

Grow invisible

                  - Mary Swann

In Swann the late Carol Shields created a multi-faceted mystery that leaves a lot more questions than it offers answers, while at the same time it explores the fervid and overheated world of literary criticism.

Mary Swann lived a quiet, desperate life in Nadeau township, somewhere in rural Ontario. To most she seemed a bedraggled farm wife, stretched to her limits by a tough life and a hard husband. She loved to read, but the local librarian could relate only the names of authors who were far from literary in their creations. Nevertheless, Mary wrote poems. What inspired her, what her method was, no one knew.

A few of them appeared in the back pages of a local paper during her lifetime. Then she was dead, brutally hacked up by her husband for reasons which, once again, no one ever understood.

It as only after this that her book appeared. Hardly more than a chapbook, really, it comprised 125 poems held together by staples between grey paper covers and titled Swann’s Songs. There were only ever 250 copies and they languished, forgotten, for over 15 years before the book fell into the hands of Sarah Maloney, an American academic in search of a thesis.

Thereby hangs much of the tale, related during the first 65 pages of this book by Sarah’s slightly overheated, slightly desperate first person voice. She’s continuing with her studies, organizing a symposium on the works of Mary Swann, wondering if she hasn’t infused these simple rhymes with more substance then they would contain, fretting over the fact that Mary apparently had no literary precursors whatsoever. Whoever heard of a writer without influences? Why is Mary’s journal so pedestrian, and what on earth did she want with that awful rhyming dictionary?

Even more dismayed is Morton Jimjoy, the unlikely literary biographer with whom we spend the next 60 pages. Morton is infected with a number of unfortunate traits, and our stay with him is unpleasant. Like him, we come to loathe the subject of our study. Morton always concludes his research hardly able to bear the people about whom he writes, deconstructing them past the point of no return. He is a thief, but not even the possession of the pen with which Mary Swann wrote her poems is enough inspiration for him.

Rose Hindmarch is, among several other things, the curator of the Swann Memorial Room, a room which reconstructs a much nicer space than Mary ever had in the house where she died. But it’s representative, don’t you see? Rose, the town librarian, knew Mary only slightly, but knew a little of her writing, and it was she who suggested that Mary take it to Frederic Cruzzi, the former newspaper editor. Our time with Rose is pleasant, but tinged with sadness as we see her in decline.

Frederic Cruzzi, on the other hand, is a pleasure, even if he is aging and missing his dead wife. He has good memories, and it is from him that we learn just where the poems of Mary Swann did come from - sort of. Like the others, Frederic had only a distant connection with Mary, met her only once in fact, on the day before she died.

The final section of this multi-layered book is perhaps the oddest of all, for it is 90 page play called “The Swann Symposium”, and while it and all the characters in it are clearly identified as fictional in the Director’s Note, it is, in fact, an account of the very celebration to which everyone we have met so far has been preparing to go.

It is at the symposium that an offstage subplot which seemed to have been a coincidence comes to the fore. Someone has been slipping along after us through the pages of this book, removing any actual published material dealing with or containing the works of Mary Swann. By the end of the play not a shred of physical evidence exists that the subject of this study group ever produced anything and the principal characters are left trying to reconstruct from memory some of what they know should continue in the world.

Why did Mary die? How was she ever inspired to write poetry? By what process does literary work become significant? What literary thief pillaged the written record and why did he or she do it? None of these questions are resolved at all. Perhaps this is all one famous writer’s commentary on the process of becoming famous.

This is a fascinating book, one which I decided to read after hearing an abridged dramatization of the story on CBC radio one evening. Clever, insightful and intriguing are all words that come to mind. Even after you’re pretty sure where it’s going, you want to stick around and find out how.