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Carol Shields: Swann (UK: Mary Swann)

When I first saw this novel mentioned I immediately thought of Proust‘s Swann. It has nothing to do with him but is the story of Mary Swann, as the UK edition makes clear. Mary Swann is a Canadian poet. She has a brutal life and is brutally murdered but, during this brutal life, has managed to produce some fine poetry, behind the back of her vicious husband. There is only the one book of her poetry (called Swann’s Songs) and only a few of them have survived. Her posthumous cause gets taken up by the lit crit industry, as a variety of academics vie to promote her claims to fame and, at the same time, ride their way to academic fame on her back. The subtitle of the book is A Literary Mystery and, on one level, the book is a simple mystery as manuscripts and books are stolen and the various academics are under suspicion, while others try to find more about Swann. However, Shields is far more interested in the role of women and plays off the role of the brutalised Swann, who, despite her cruel existence, managed to produce some fine poetry, and in the role of the independent academic women (and men) whose existence is very far removed from that of Swann. Read the book as an amusing literary mystery which pokes fun at the academic industry but also read it to learn about the changing roles of women.

Publishing history

First published 1987 by Stoddart, Toronto