I must confess: I have never read one of Graham Swift’s novels. But reading his first long work of nonfiction, Making an Elephant: Writing from Within, made me want to rush to my local library and gather up a stack of his fictional tales (especially his Booker Prize-winning novel, Last Orders). I had met the man, telling of his literary and day-to-day life, in his own fine and witty words; now I wanted to meet the novelist.
Making an Elephant is a funny sort of book, in that it is not easily categorized. It contains interviews, memoir, a lecture on writing, various personal memories about Swift’s friendships and career, a small collection of poems and an elegant essay on the French writer Michel Montaigne. But this veritable curio cabinet of detailed reminiscences makes for an extraordinary autobiographical look into the literary and otherwise ordinary life of an accomplished, though wryly self-deprecating novelist—one who taught himself to write.
The book’s title, taken from an essay about Swift’s father, is a wonderfully tender, poignant, yet cogent analysis of his father’s life and legacy. Hoping to please his straight-arrow, responsible, handyman father, Swift endeavored to fashion a wooden silhouette of an elephant, which he then painted a realistic gray hue, even after his father fancifully encouraged him to paint it pink or yellow. “Grey it was. . . . The strange reversal stays with me . . . that I should have been the realist, he the fantasist.”
Several other pieces in this literary collection shine brightly as well: Swift’s local history of the town in which he lives, combined with a catalog of his writing habits and credo; a determinedly merry Christmas celebration spent with the beleaguered Salman Rushdie; meditative fishing forays with poet Ted Hughes; shopping for a guitar with author Kazuo Ishiguro; and my favorite, a moving tribute, called “Negronis with Alan,” to his former mentor and editor, Alan Ross. A pleasure to read, from first word to last, Making an Elephant is sure to move writers and readers alike to join the legions of Graham Swift fans.