Swann

Overview

Carol Shields's award-winning and critically acclaimed "literary mystery," first published in 1987.

Swann is the story of four individuals who become entwined in the life of Mary Swann, a rural Canadian poet whose authentic and unique voice is discovered only hours before her husband hacks her to pieces.

Who is Mary Swann? And how could she have produced these works of ...

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Swann: A Novel

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Overview

Carol Shields's award-winning and critically acclaimed "literary mystery," first published in 1987.

Swann is the story of four individuals who become entwined in the life of Mary Swann, a rural Canadian poet whose authentic and unique voice is discovered only hours before her husband hacks her to pieces.

Who is Mary Swann? And how could she have produced these works of genius in almost complete isolation? Mysteriously, all traces of Swann's existence—her notebook, the first draft of her work, even her photograph—gradually vanish as the characters in this engrossing novel become caught up in their own concepts of who Mary Swann was.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Viking has wisely decided not to publish this fascinating novel as a mystery, as it was designated in Canada, where it earned excellent reviews. While two rather bland mysteries animate the plot, the book's considerable impact is as a combination of psychological novel and satirical comedy of manners that wittily dissects the pretensions of academia. The titular Mary Swann was murdered on the very day she had shown her poems to a publisher who recognized her talent. Fifteen years after her death, a symposium is to take place; the story focuses on four people who will attend: a ferociously engagee feminist scholar who ``rediscovered'' Swann's poetry, a misanthropic biographer committed to writing about Swann, a silly spinster librarian in the tiny town near Swann's home and the gruff but kindly publisher who issued her works in a limited edition. Each commands a section of the narrative and, in cool, witty prose, Shields artfully conveys their personalities, as well as the distortions each has made, for their own reasons, in Swann's life and work. Meanwhile, however, a thief is systematically stealing every extant copy of her book. In the end, Swann's life remains unknowable, though by now completely altered by her devotees' speculation and obfuscation. Adroitly illuminating the chasm between appearance and reality, this intelligent, provocative novel is sure to pique readers' interest in Shields's earlier work, Various Miracles , just reissued by Penguin. July
Library Journal
Mary Swann, a fictitious poet, was brutally murdered by her husband; her poems were published posthumously. Some years later, as this novel opens, a group of scholars meets for a Swann Symposium. We follow four of the participants as they prepare for the meeting: Sarah Maloney, brilliant young feminist scholar; Morton Jimroy, literary biographer; Rose Hindmarch, librarian; and Frederic Cruzzi, small-town journalist and publisher. Each distorts a different aspect of the life and work of Mary Swann. This novel delightfully satirizes academia and the literary world, wryly exploring the notion of textual criticism. Shields is well known in Canada; Swann should make her better known in her native United States.-- Mary Margaret Benson, Linfield Coll. Lib., McMinnville, Ore.
From the Publisher
“One of the best novels I have read. . . . Deft, funny, poignant, surprising and beautifully shaped—in total command of itself and its language.” —Margaret Atwood

“A compelling work . . . exquisitely crafted.” —The Globe and Mail (Toronto)

“Gently satirical . . . [Carol Shields] has a compassion for her characters that can make you ache for them.” —The New York Times
“Well-drawn characters, expert writing, and silky malice are combined in an exceptionally satisfying work of fiction.” —The Atlantic Monthly  

The New York Times
"Gently satirical… [Carol Shields] has a compassion for her characters that can make you ache for them."
The Atlantic Monthly
"Well-drawn characters, expert writing, and silky malice are combined in an exceptionally satisfying work of fiction"
Daily Mail
"A teasing literary mystery and a sly parable of human egotism."
Margaret Atwood
"One of the best novels I have read… deft, funny, poignant, surprising and beautifully shaped—in total command of itself and its language."
Kirkus Reviews
"A brilliant literary mystery...a delightful send-up of the scholarly sideshow that surrounds a work of art."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780140134292
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 8/28/1990
  • Series: King Penguin Series
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 5.18 (w) x 7.76 (h) x 0.23 (d)

Meet the Author

Carol Shields

Carol Shields (1935–2003) was born in Oak Park, Illinois. She studied at Hanover College, the University of Exeter in England, and the University of Ottawa. In 1957, she married Donald Shields and moved to Canada permanently. She taught at the University of Ottawa, the University of British Columbia, and the University of Manitoba, and served as chancellor of the University of Winnipeg. She wrote ten novels and three short story collections, in addition to poetry, plays, criticism, and a biography of Jane Austen. Her novel The Stone Diaries won the Pulitzer Prize, the Governor General’s Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award; it was also shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Shields was further recognized with a Canada Council Major Award, two Canadian National Magazine Awards, the Canadian Authors Association Award, and countless other prizes and honors. 

Biography

Carol Shields's characters are often on the road less traveled, and the trip is never boring. She has written about a folklorist, a poet, a maze designer, a translator, even other writers -- appropriate professions in novels in which characters struggle to find their own paths in life.

Shields often focused on female characters, most notably in The Stone Diaries, her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel documenting the birth, death, and everything in between of Daisy Goodwill. Goodwill's story is told over a century, in various voices, featuring Shields's wry humor and her ability to convey what she has called "the arc of human life."

But don't pigeonhole Shields as a "women's writer." "I have directed a fair amount of energy and rather a lot of rage into that particular corner [of the] problem of men and women, particularly men and women who write and how women's novels are perceived differently from men's," Shields said in a 2001 interview. In 1997's Larry's Party, she swapped genders, writing from the perspective of a male floral designer who discovers a passion for mazes.

Unafraid to experiment with genres, Shields wrote an epistolary novel (A Celibate Season, coauthored with Blanche Howard), a sort of "literary mystery" about the posthumous discovery of a murdered poet's genius (Swann), and short stories (collected in Dressing for the Carnival and other titles). Though she often covered serious topics, she rarely did so without humor. Her novel of mid-life romance, Republic of Love, was called by The New York Times a "touching, elegantly funny, luscious work of fiction," an assessment that could be applied to the bulk of her work.

Shields changed her viewpoint yet again for Unless, but the circumstance was a tragic one. The book, which resurrects the main character from Dressing Up for the Carnival's "A Scarf," was written during the author's battle with breast cancer. "I never want to sound at all mystical about writing,'' she said in a 2002 interview, ''but this book -- it just came out." Though not touching on her own illness, Shields did what she had always done -- took her own questions and lessons, then used them to produce a story that speaks its own truth.

Shields passed away on July 16, 2003; she was 68.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Carol Ann Warner
    2. Hometown:
      Victoria, British Columbia, Canada
    1. Date of Birth:
      June 2, 1935
    2. Place of Birth:
      Oak Park, Illinois
    1. Date of Death:
      July 16, 2003
    2. Place of Death:
      Toronto, Canada

Read an Excerpt

1

As recently as two years ago, when I was twenty-six, I dressed in ratty jeans and a sweatshirt with lettering across the chest. That’s where I was. Now I own six pairs of beautiful shoes, which I keep, when I’m not wearing them, swathed in tissue paper in their original boxes. Not one of these pairs of shoes costs less than a hundred dollars.

Hanging in my closet are three dresses (dry clean only), two expensive suits and eight silk blouses in such colours as hyacinth and brandy. Not a large wardrobe, perhaps, but richly satisfying. I’ve read my Thoreau, I know real wealth lies in the realm of the spirit, but still I’m a person who can, in the midst of depression, be roused by the rub of a cashmere scarf in my fingers.

My name is Sarah Maloney and I live alone. Professionally — this is something people like to know these days — I’m a feminist writer and teacher who’s having second thoughts about the direction of feminist writing in America. For twenty-five years we’ve been crying: My life is my own. A moving cry, a resounding cry, but what does it mean? (Once I knew exactly what freedom meant and now I have no idea. Naturally I resent this loss of knowledge.)

Last night Brownie, who was sharing my bed as he does most Tuesday nights, accused me of having a classic case of burn-out, an accusation I resist. Oh, I can be restless and difficult! Some days Virginia Woolf is the only person in the universe I want to talk to; but she’s dead, of course, and wouldn’t like me anyway. Too flip. And Mary Swann. Also dead. Exceedingly dead.

These moods come and go. Mostly Ms. Maloneyis a cheerful woman, ah indeed, indeed! And very busy. Up at seven, a three-kilometre run in Washington Park — see her yupping along in even metric strides — then home to wheat toast and pure orange juice. Next a shower, and then she gets dressed in her beautiful, shameful clothes.

I check myself in the mirror: Hello there, waving long, clean, unpolished nails. I’ll never require make-up. At least not for another ten years. Then I pick up my purse-cum-briefcase, Italian, $300, and sally forth. Sally forth, the phrase fills up my mouth like a bubble of foam. I’m attentive to such phrases. Needful of them, I should say.

I don’t have a car. Off I go on foot, out into a slice of thick, golden October haze, down Sixty-second to Cottage Grove, along Cottage Grove, swinging my bag from my shoulder to give myself courage. Daylight muggings are common in my neighborhood, and I make it a point to carry only five dollars, a fake watch, and a dummy set of keys. As I walk along, I keep my Walkman turned up high. No Mozart now, just a little cushion of soft rock to help launch the day with hope and maybe protect me from evil. I wear a miraculous broad-brimmed hat. The silky hem of my excellent English raincoat hisses just at knee length. I have wonderful stockings and have learned to match them with whatever I’m wearing.

“Good morning, Dr. Maloney,” cries the department secretary when I arrive at the university. “Good morning, Ms. Lundigan,” I sing back. This formal greeting is a ritual only. The rest of the time I call her Lois, or Lo, and she calls me Sarah or Sare. She’s the age of my mother and has blood-red nails and hair so twirled and compact it looks straight from the wig factory. Her typing is nothing less than magnificent. Clean, sharp, uniform, with margins that zing. She hands me the mail and a copy of my revised lecture notes.

Today, in ten minutes, Lord help me, I’ll be addressing one hundred students, ninety of them women, on the subject of “Amy Lowell: An American Enigma.” At two o’clock, after a quick cheese on pita, I’ll conduct my weekly seminar on “Women in Midwestern Fiction.” Around me at the table will be seven bright postgraduate faces, each of them throwing off kilowatts of womanly brilliance, so that the whole room becomes charged and expectant and nippy with intelligence.

Usually, afterwards, the whole bunch of us goes off for a beer. In the taproom on Sixty-second we create a painterly scene, an oil portrait — women sitting in a circle, dark coats thrown over the backs of chairs, earrings swinging, elbows and shoulders keeping the composition lively, glasses held thoughtfully to thoughtful lips, rolling eyes, bawdiness, erudition.

They forget what time it is. They forget where they are — that they’re sitting in a taproom on Sixty-second in the city of Chicago in the fall of the year in the twentieth century. They’re too busy talking, thinking, defining terms, revising history, plotting their term papers, their theses, and their lives so that no matter what happens they’ll keep barrelling along that lucent dotted line they’ve decided must lead to the future.


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Reading Group Guide

Carol Shields's award-winning and critically acclaimed "literary mystery," first published in 1987.

Swann
is the story of four individuals who become entwined in the life of Mary Swann, a rural Canadian poet whose authentic and unique voice is discovered only hours before her husband hacks her to pieces.Who is Mary Swann? And how could she have produced these works of genius in almost complete isolation? Mysteriously, all traces of Swann's existence -- her notebook, the first draft of her work, even her photograph -- gradually vanish as the characters in this engrossing novel become caught up in their own concepts of who Mary Swann was.

1. Carol Shields spoke of becoming a writer because there weren't enough books that examined women's friendships and women's inner lives -- or, as she put it, "the kind of book I wanted to read but couldn't find." In what ways does Shields's fiction bring the lives of women to the surface, or into our understanding? What sorts of female experiences does she illuminate?

2. In her novels and stories, Shields often experiments with using different voices. The Stone Diaries shifts between first-, second-, and third-person narrative; one section of Larry's Party is recorded almost entirely in dialogue; Happenstance is a novel in two parts, one narrated by the husband, one by the wife; the stories in Various Miracles come from a wide variety of narrative standpoints. Discuss point-of-view in Shields's works, and the importance of telling one's own stories -- as characters or in real life. Also, what is the role of the writer in telling other people's stories for them?

3. Though she's lauded as awriter who brought the lives of ordinary people to the page and made them extraordinary, Carol Shields took some exception to the idea in one interview: "I have never known what 'ordinary' people means! I don't think I quite believe in the concept…. There's no one who isn't complicated, who doesn't have areas of cowardice or courage, who isn't incapable of some things and capable of great acts. I think everyone has that capability. Either we're all ordinary or else none of us is ordinary." Discuss the role of ordinary life in Shields's fiction. How do her above views come across in her writing? Is there a respect for the everyday that you don't see in works by other writers?

4. Shields once commented that she'd often set up the structure of a novel, determining such elements as how many chapters there would be, and how long they'd be, before she even set out to write. "I need that kind of structure," she explained. "[S]ometimes I change it. But mostly I don't.… I love structures, and I love making new structures for novels." Discuss the overall structures of different novels and how they relate to the content. For example, does Larry Weller's love of garden mazes say anything about the twenty years of his life covered by Larry's Party? What meaning can be found in the one-word chapter titles of Unless? How does Shields use, or even undermine, the biography format in The Stone Diaries?

5. "I'm concerned about the unknowability of other people," Shields once said. "That's why I love biography and the idea of the human life told or shown. Of course, this is why I love novels, too. In novels, you get to hear how people are thinking. That's why I read fiction." How does Shields expose and often celebrate the inner lives of her characters? Can you find examples of characters who aren't really known to those around them? How do their relationships suffer, or thrive, or even just survive, in the face of such distance?

6. How does what you know about Carol Shields as a person affect your reading of her books? Are you able to separate the author from her work? Do you feel the need to? What parallels can you draw between her approach to life and those of her characters? For instance, most of her main characters are women at mid-life, and many of her characters are writers or work in other areas of book publishing (translators, editors, etc.).

7. In interviews about Larry's Party, Carol Shields commented more than once that men were "the ultimate mystery" to her. Discuss the male characters in Shields's fiction -- both those in prominent roles, like Larry Weller in Larry's Party or Tom Avery in The Republic of Love, and the many husbands and lovers that seem to populate the sidelines of other stories and novels. How successfully does Shields portray the world of men in her work? Are there common characteristics you can trace between books? Are some of her male characters defined by the women they love? Or is it more often the other way around?

8. Many of Carol Shields's works explore the ways individuals interact with their communities. Some characters are defined by their loneliness, while others struggle with their responsibilities to the people around them, whether it's their family or a larger group. Discuss the roles of family and community in Shields's fiction.

9. Carol Shields has always been well-known for her love of language, and its slipperiness. In what ways does her writing call attention to itself as writing? Are there particular stories or novels that you find playful? Or linguistically complex?

10. Author and literary journalist James Atlas, who edited the series for which Shields wrote her Austen biography, once said about Carol Shields, "she is our Jane Austen." Compare Shields's fiction to that of Austen -- are there common themes or techniques? What other major authors would you compare Shields to, and why? Where does her work fit into our literary canon?

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