Carol Shields is one of those authors who never disappoints. The Republic of Love was in my Top Five books of 2016 and I have enjoyed all the work of hers that I have read. Swann is a playful and insightful look at the work of literature and academia as a group of disparate characters jostle for position as authority on the work and life of a newly discovered poet, Mary Swann, the ‘Emily Dickinson of Canada’.
Swann is the story of four individuals who become involved in the life of Mary Swann, a rural Canadian poet whose unique and naïve poetry is discovered literally hours before she is violently murdered by her husband.
The mysterious life of Mary Swann is told in chapters from the point of view of each of the four protagonists. Sarah Moloney is the feminist scholar credited with having discovered Mary’s work, while Morton Jimroy is a biographer of Ezra Pound who has taken Swann as his latest subject. Rose Hindmarch was the librarian in Mary’s town and now runs the Mary Swann Memorial Rooms while Frederic Cruzzi was Mary’s first and only publisher, who may have had a greater influence on the work than anyone could guess.
Swann is a novel about biography – what we keep and what we leave out when exploring the life of someone else. Morton Jimroy needs an explanation of Swann’s murder in order to find the hook to hang her writing on, but her writing comes from the ordinary, the everyday. Sarah Maloney dismisses Mary’s notebook as unimportant because it contains meal plans, lists of chores, notes on the weather. However, these are the very things that influenced Swann’s work, the ordinary that makes her words universal.
All the characters here are hiding the pieces of Mary’s life that they don’t like until any true picture of the woman, the writer, is lost. Sarah hides Mary’s notebook, while Rose denies the reality of the books that Mary borrowed from the library in order to protect her reputation. Frederic Cruzzi has never admitted that his wife inadvertently almost destroyed Mary’s original manuscript and that some of the words in her work may not be her own. Concurrently, someone appears to be stealing important artefacts relating to Swann’s work, from all of the protagonists.
Through all these omissions, Shields explores how reputations are shaped, not by the work itself, but by the industry that springs up around that work and comes to define it.
Universities are nothing but humming myth factories. Dear God. How we love to systemize and classify what is rich and random in life. How our fingers itch to separate the tangled threads of theme and anti-theme, moral vision and moral blindness, God and godlessness, joy and despair, as though all creativity sat like a head of cabbage on a wooden chopping block, ready to be hacked apart, first the leaves, then the hot, white heart. Scholarship was bunk—if they only, only knew. It was just a matter of time before the theoreticians got to Mary Swann and tore her limb from limb in a grotesque parody of her bodily death.
Shields takes this idea a step further, showing how each of these narrators has inserted themselves into Mary’s story until the notion of Mary as an autonomous writer has all but disappeared, and she is merely Swann – a jumble of ideas and theories far removed from her work, and indeed, her life. Shields is interested in the gulf that exists between art and its audience and in the shaping of reputations that may or may not be justified.
By now—it was morning—a curious conspiracy had overtaken them. Guilt, or perhaps a wish to make amends, convinced them that they owed Mrs. Swann an interpretation that would reinforce her strengths as a poet. They wanted to offer her help and protection, what she seemed never to have
The final section of the novel takes place at a symposium celebrating Swan’s work, where all four characters gather for the first time. This section takes the form of a film script and plays on the mystery aspect of the novel where all the meaningful items relating to Mary Swann have been stolen – the copies of her work, her pen, the only remaining photos – until Swann’s work literally remains only in the minds of her readers.
She’s the right person at the right time for one thing: a woman, a survivor, self-created.
Swann is a delight of a book, beautifully structured and featuring a host of fantastically realised characters. The book is a satisfying comedy of manners, yet always at the heart is Mary Swann. Carol Shields never lets us forget this unknowable woman whose words have touched so many, but who could have just as easily gone unread and unknown. Perhaps her affection for Mary Swann comes from her own belief that her own work could easily have been overlooked. In an interview she once said,
“I could easily have been …one of those women who erases herself, who somehow slips out of her own life. I only missed it by one generation”
By understanding the possibility of being the one who falls through the cracks, Shields brings real heart to this charming, funny and beautifully written book.
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