It's surprising how quickly we disappear from sight and sound after we die. Of course, we expect that to happen eventually. Within a hundred years, we are certainly in the historian's bailiwick; later the archaeologist sifts through bones and post-holes to make a few bare inferences. But most of us fade away long before that. We remember our grandparents and, perhaps, a few intimations and rumours of our great-grandparents. Then: nothing. Lost and gone forever.
We resist this obliteration with words. In the old days, we sang and spoke around the fire the songs and stories of our ancestors. Now, we write the words, and often, we write our own histories¨as memoirs. That's one of the reasons there are so many memoirs: they are our personal pre-emptive strike, designed to head off, or delay for as long as possible, the inevitable long siege of nullity.
Sometimes a memoir can retrieve some lost ground too. The writer searches out information about forebears and pulls it together before it disappears. She may come across a diary or scraps of intelligence in old newspapers or in censuses. Even so, facts decay fast; they become unreliable and fragmentary. The sleuthing memoirist must fill in the gaps by making it up, fictionalizing the story, trying to construct what might be called the aesthetic, rather than the literal, truth of what happened. And that's what David Reynolds does in Swan River.
When Reynolds was still a little boy in England, his old Uncle George gave him a mission: to find out about the mysterious disappearance of Reynolds' grandfather, Tom, who deserted his family in the East End of London, and eventually turned up in the frontier settlement of Swan River in central Manitoba. As an adolescent and a young man, Reynolds slowly assembled the story from his elderly father's surprisingly detailed memories of his childhood, from the volumes of his grandmother's diaries, from a handful of letters¨some of them from Tom himself¨and a family bible. Decades later, at the age of forty-nine, he traveled to the remote Canadian town and discovered the scant remains of his grandfather's life there.
In Swan River, Reynolds tells a parallel story: of his own childhood, of coming-of-age in the Thames-side town of Marlow and, later, in 1960s London¨the time of sex, drugs, rock and roll, hair and simple-minded politics. He fictionalizes this story as well¨with a novelist's detailed dialogue. Reynolds' family is full of colourful characters. Besides Tom, the drunk and absconder, there is "La Frascetti", Reynolds's great-aunt, a music-hall artiste whose completely justified claim to fame was the trick of playing the violin with her feet while walking on her hands. There's his grandmother's father who would retire to bed at nine every evening to read and to receive friends and family in benign patriarchal splendour. Most fascinating of all is his father, already fifty-six when Reynolds was born (his mother was forty), whose Jekyll-and-Hyde persona encompasses humanist, socialist politics, an enduring love for his son, and ferocious rage towards his wife whom he comes close to assaulting many times. He might have killed her once if the young Reynolds had not entered the room and defused his anger. The father had been a writer, once successful enough to have bought a yacht and a Rolls Royce with his royalties. But he fell from publishers' grace, and after Reynolds' birth, he worked as a travelling seed salesman, chatting with farmers about crop yields. He was often accompanied by his young son, who navigated their course along the country lanes, and rolled cigarettes for his father as they discussed politics and ideas.
Reynolds himself appears as sweet, equable and naif, notable for his balance and composure through adolescence and his parents' battles and divorce. Yet he often comes across as a bland, sometimes dull character. He shows barely a shred of adolescent sullenness, and no anger or rebellion. He is rude to his mother only once when she gently suggests that, at eighteen, he's a bit young to get married, and that's about it. Still, it's laudable that he never goes through a phase of impatience or disgust at his parents for their stupidity; his love and respect for them continues unattenuated into his adulthood. His father remains "the cleverest, funniest man in the world;" his mother is "the most loving, unselfish woman." Reynolds meets his life's reverses¨the shattering of his family, academic failure, the betrayal of love and his oldest friend's heroin addiction¨with remarkable, if colourless, self-possession.
As it turns out, Tom deserted his family for the usual banal reasons: booze and threatened violence (Reynolds stays firmly on the surface of things and declines to explore the connections between his father's and his grandfather's rage). Tom's subsequent life, apart from the fact that it remained unknown for some time, was not particularly mysterious. If, in the end, Reynolds' search for his grandfather is disclosed as too slight a premise for the book, he strings out his quest with skill, and it's by far the more interesting of the two narratives.
When Reynolds was still a child, his father told him about Aristotle who said it was all right to make things up: fiction distills the truth, contains its essence. Writers who make up a good story can get closer to the truth of things than those who merely recount facts. Reynolds' achievement in Swan River is his imaginative distillation of the facts of his family's history. He succeeds in convincing us that his story is the story of the way things were. ˛
Derek Lundy tells the story of one of his own ancestors in The Way of a Ship: A Square-Rigger Voyage in the Last Days of Sail, published by Knopf Canada this October.