312 pages
ISBN 0-88619-056-8





Reviewed by Gildas Roberts

Gildas Roberts is a university professor of English at the Memorial
University of Newfoundland.


D.M. Thomas is a puzzle. Is he a purveyor of matchless profundities and the master of dazzling fictive techniques: a latter-day Nabokov, whose native tongue is English? Or are his profundities pseudo and his techniques meretricious: is he more Charles Morgan than Vladimir Nabokov?

The present novel purports to tell of the finals of an improvisatory Olympiad held in Finland in the midsummer of 1982. Six international finalists compete (or don’t compete, as in the case of the Israeli, who draws Saint Teresa as his theme for improvisation) before an international panel of judges. D.M. Thomas’s last novel, Ararat, turns out to be but the first part of the improvisation presented by the luscious Italian finalist, Corinna Riznich. As well as the lengthy continuation of her entry, we get in Swallow the entries of the Russian and English finalists, and an autobiographical piece by D.M. Thomas himself which is interspersed with fragments of King Solomon’s Mines, “scandalously amended” by D.M. Thomas. Breasts loom large everywhere. At all times, and in all places, there is a prodigious amount of sexual activity of all kinds: indeed, one of the several meanings of the title Swallow is the final act of the female partner in fellatio.

The main intellectual preoccupation of the novel seems to be a consideration of the fine line between literary emulation and plagiarism. While the judges ponder like a portentous bunch of crazed literary critics whether the Italian improvisation is not too heavily dependent on that of the Russian finalist “to be considered truly original,” the Russian is outside apologizing to the Italian for having “borrowed” his poem, to a certain extent, from something she had told him in confidence ...the previous autumn.” Both owe much to King Solomon’s Mines, etc. The entry of the English finalist turns out to be a close copy of an autobiographical fragment published by D.M. Thomas in an American magazine. When confronted with this, the Englishman withdraws in confusion, mumbling that he continued to believe that “his verses were in some sense original” and that he “had not intended to deceive anyone.” It will be remembered that the chorus of praise which greeted Thomas’s most famous novel, The White Hotel, was interrupted by several persistent cries of “Plagiarism!” His main purpose in writing Swallow seems to have been to present his apologia.


Thomas, D.M., “Swallow,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 24, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/37181.