Graham Swift on What Death Does to Words

Your story “Hinges” is told from the perspective of a middle-aged woman whose father has died, and who has to instruct the minister on what to say about him at his funeral. How did this idea come to you?

I often can’t recall how a story began. I think this one may have started with something very peculiar. A small girl and her father are standing in the doorway of a house, but the door has gone missing, or there’s something wrong with it. Why would such an odd scene have come into my head? I felt that I was going to write a story in which a door would acquire an almost animate, human status. The small girl in the scene, Annie, is my main character, but the finished story begins with her as a grownup woman. At a certain point in the narrative, Annie “returns” to her childhood. So the story works the other way around from how it first came to me. When I had only the childhood scene, I must have had the feeling that it would somehow link with the father’s much later death, and I suddenly found myself writing about a funeral. Stories evolve in strange ways.

When Annie and her brother, Ian, meet with the minister, they are unable to come up with anything to say about their father that doesn’t seem generic. Was he a particularly unremarkable man, or does the situation make it impossible for them to conceive of what might have been special about him?

I think the predicament is itself generic. Most of us, when faced with a death, don’t know what to say. It’s human and natural, which doesn’t keep it from being difficult, especially when you are formally required to say something about the dead person. How do you briefly—and publicly—sum up a person’s whole life and at the same time convey all your emotions about that person, not least that of grief? The cliché is perfectly apt: we are “lost for words.” We find it hard to put into words things that seem beyond words. I’ve always had a keen interest in and respect for inarticulacy: the things that go unspoken inside people, the stories that don’t get told, the things we just find hard to say. I’m fairly inarticulate myself.

Annie feels a lot of hostility toward the minister, who is, as she thinks, “benign” and simply doing his best. Why do you think she is so repelled?

I don’t think she’s quite repelled by him, but he makes her feel uncomfortable, and her discomfort may be precisely because, when she meets him, her inability to find words is exposed. At the same time, she’s aware that the minister has his comfortable stock of ready-made, practiced words and phrases, and these—for both Annie and her brother—amount to a kind of pretense. Annie doesn’t want to pretend; she would like to say something truthful, meaningful, and individual about her father, but doesn’t know how to. Her childhood memory of the door comes to her as a possible solution, but it stays, unreleased, in her mind. I don’t want to push the metaphor too much, but, when a story begins for me, I can feel that it’s like opening a door, or—more often and more frustratingly—I feel that I have the makings of a story, but I haven’t yet found the door.

Annie’s flashback to that moment with her father, forty years earlier, involves a carpenter. The memory has an undercurrent of sexual tension: this is the first time that Annie, still a young girl, has felt attracted to a man. How does that moment resonate with her feelings about her father?

The carpenter, though a seemingly minor character, comes to play a significant role—both serious and mischievous—in the story. When Annie has her memory, she is looking at her father’s coffin (with her father inside it). She has the thought that a coffin and a front door are both examples of carpentry, and that they are both “person-size.”

I don’t think I’m alone as a writer in seeing sex and death as a sort of inseparable combo. This is as old as humanity, as old as mythology—“eros and thanatos,” as it can be grandly called. It’s not just that Annie remembers at her father’s funeral that her first sexual feelings occurred in her father’s presence but that this sexual memory, as she looks now at her father’s coffin, is a means of restoring his presence, of bringing him back to life. What’s more, the sexual memory links with a whole set of possible sexual shenanigans (to do with the carpenter) that Annie, as a young girl, was not entirely unaware of. I hope that this brings into a story about death and a funeral a dimension of humor, even comedy. I’d hate to think that any story of mine didn’t have at least a flicker of humor. And sex and humor—another rich combo.

Throughout the story, Annie struggles with the idea of pretense and inauthenticity. She focusses on words, many of which now seem strange to her. Has the death of her father somehow detached her from language, or from meaning?

I think this comes back to my answer to your second question, and to the difference between the minister’s ready-made words and Annie’s struggle. Before the immensity of death, we don’t just lose words, but existing words can seem to shift and change, to become fragile or to acquire some new meaning. Death may throw up a word—like “minister”—that we haven’t had to think about before. The minister is himself aware that death can trigger a sort of desperate escape from the demands of language. People at funerals, even if they have something carefully prepared to say, can “break down”—sheer emotion gets the better of them. Annie doesn’t want to go down this road, though she nearly does. As you say, this story has quite a lot of focus on particular words, even a blunt, obvious word like “door.” This is something I like to do generally in my fiction: take particular words or combinations of words, perhaps familiar expressions or clichés, and see them in some new light. Though stories are made with words, they are driven by things beyond and beneath words. For this very reason, stories can prompt us to an awareness of words and our mysterious relationship with them. ♦

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