Black Swan Green: question

I don’t read a lot of contemporary novels, so I genuinely don’t know the answer to this question, but are there many descriptions of British Bulldog(s) in recent fiction? The game’s mix of terror, fun and danger is such an elemental part of childhood; I find it hard to believe it hasn’t been used before.

Next is his gardening supplies site, thegrassyknoll

Since I’ve been typically slack in shouting about it, I’m sure you’ve all been to The Book Depository by now. All I can say is that it seems a very good thing: like walking into a bookshop where it’s easy and pleasant to browse and there’s lots of interesting stuff on the shelves and in the air. Amazon and ABE are just functional places to me now; this is a cheering alternative.

And we’re of course pleased to see it in good hands (though I want to start referring to him as the Sinister Overlord of the British Litblogging Scene. I think it’s a catchy title, and could stick.)

In this Uproarious farce, Steve and Leo Spend a Day Together Drinking in Galway

There’s something I’m curious to know.

This might only be of interest to Gaddis fans. But if you’re keen to follow, you’ll need to familiarise yourself with Carpenter’s Gothic. You might it find it easiest to take a look through these notes or even these extracts from notes. All you’ll need is a basic grasp of setting and characters.

Now, here’s what it says on the back cover of my copy of CG:

In this tempestuous comic novel, Liz and Paul, the occupants of ‘Carpenter’s Gothic’ do battle with the Reverend Ude to preserve the African mission on which they live.

No, it’s not the missing comma before ‘do’ which bothers me. Nor is it the wildly inaccurate generic claim, even though “Tempestuous comic novel” doesn’t leap to mind when describing a terrifying portrait of marriage-death in a loveless world where all chances of connection and creation are destroyed by a capital-machine built from politics, evangelism and PR.

I want to know why it’s wrong, because that’s simply not the setting or story of CG. The right names are there (Liz, Paul, Ude), and some of the right themes (African Missions are important), but it’s like they’re in a crazy remix. How does this happen? Did someone explain the plot over the phone to someone else, then that person forgot, and sort of put it together from what they remembered?

I also want to know if anyone has other examples of this. Misleading blurbs, fine, ten-a-penny, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen another book jacket actually getting the plot substantially wrong.

(By the way, I’ve asked Atlantic, and they don’t know what happened: the editor responsible has left. And, of course, I’m not mocking them here: rather, thank you once again for these reissues; better Gaddis in print with inaccurate plot summaries on the back than Gaddis out of print.)

A Ramble on Black Swan Green

Before we begin, I’d like to remind everyone that the Telegraph refused to review Cloud Atlas because it was too hard. No special relevance. I just like to bring it up every now again.

I’ve mentioned before now that I’ve accidentally joined a book group. Most months it only serves to culture resentment at having wasted valuable reading time on books that would struggle to impress Mark Lawson. This month, though, it’s forced me to read Black Swan Green. I wasn’t especially looking forward to it. People don’t have that much enthusiasm around the place: the old media outlets are bigging it up, but they were slightly blind to how hard Cloud Atlas would hit, so I wrote that off as nervous compensation.

(Oh, incidentally, I don’t think I’ve ever directly mentioned BookWorld before now. The to-read pile, in particular, is one of the great sights of the litblogs, and bound to inspire sympathy in any booklover. Also, she’s a London Library fan. I think it is the best place in the world: simply the best place in the world. A longer post on that subject will follow.)

I enjoyed it a great deal. I think it’s been underestimated in some places, and mistaken in others. I’ll ramble for a bit and see if I can say what I saw in it.

At first I thought it was a bit wooden, and that the voice was a bit off: that it would switch from the Findus-Crispy-Pancakes register to a much more writerly one uneasily and without too much concern – however, the longer I looked at it, the more I thought that was a good thing.

It looks to me like an attempt to take the materials of an Eighties childhood and make art out of them. It doesn’t want easy nostalgia or the recognition-cheer: instead it’s seeing if that passed world of tat can be built into something formal and affecting; if something cognate to a late Romantic bildungsroman can be assembled from Wotsits. Now that is an interesting question: it’s obvious that ooh-the-eighties can be used for easy laffs, and that the detritus of the decade is helpful for cute scene-setting or nostalgia-for-the-now post-modernism (Coupland’s better than that, I think, but is the reflex illustration, and I’m feeling lazy) but to make a very old-fashioned sort of story out of them — that’s interesting to me.

By old-fashioned, I don’t mean Jane Austen nice plot-and-characters; as I say, it’s late-romantic to a crazy extent, the story of the education of an artist, a poet. That’s most explicit in the chapter where he’s receiving poetry criticism at the vicarage, but I think it’s there throughout.

It’s going for the uncanny a lot. I’m not sure that it always hits it – the fact that I’m noticing and that it’s fairly straightforward to list how the elements work suggests it doesn’t – but the motifs are all there. Doubleness is big: right in the title, of course, the Black and the Green surrounding the swan. Then you’ve got the double proper with the unborn twin. And that unborn twin – the whole book is saturated with death, or the limits of life and death. The drowned, especially: not just the kids at the lake, but the dead sailors in seaside conversation. Then there’s the Hangman, and almost-ghosts hidden everywhere.

He’s picked the right uncanny motifs — what is that grey cat doing turning up time after time? And why so many birds? The crows, owls, nightingales and the swan (I mean we all suspect that bird language is comprehensible and a passage into a different world of perception right?) Even the dogs — nature keeps slipping Jason from the school and family world, and dragging him to encounters with the strange.

There’s the chapter with the Gypsies, another of the great nineteenth century escape/weirdness figures reimagined in BSG.

So I like all that. Plus the upfront stuff is good: strong too on the psychology of the bullied and bullying, the cowardice of boys and the quiet average boy; the stuttering stuff was very sympathetic, etc.

I have one nagging question: it’s not even a reservation, it just interests me. Why isn’t Mitchell funny? He often shows everything he needs to be funny – an ear for bores, fun situations, acute understanding of embarrassment – but it doesn’t make me laugh. Why?

In any case, I’m a fan. This might just be a minor work for Mitchell, but it doesn’t make me doubt he’s the best of the generation. That instinct to build properly, to shape his work in strong and subtle ways, the willingness to go down curious paths, the voice tricks: I remain sold.

(Incidentally, I enjoyed this article on Walter De La Mare, who’s one of the parallels you’d want: the great poet of uncanny childhood. Nice to see him appreciated: despite living (as the article points out) till 1956 and being admired by moderns, he got chucked out with the old canon – Newbolt, Masefield, all the stuff that mid-century criticism removed from the school anthologies. It is a wonder that no-one reads him any more, though, given his clarity, formal grace and child-fascination (the great pathology of now): I even wonder if it’s true, and it’s not just the metropolitan literary establishment who’ve dropped him.)

On On Beauty: A Novel: A Blog Post

Posting below, I forgot to mention my puzzlement about Howard’s End and On Beauty.

As we know, OB is an homage to HE. But it only really follows the plot up to about halfway through; much of HE simply isn’t in there. And elements which correspond – willing the painting as willing Howard’s End, for instance – are sidelined as the novel goes on.


Theory one: She couldn’t be bothered making it fit. She had a novel that she wanted to write, and that took precedence over pastiche and homage.

Theory two: One morning, she woke up with a brilliant idea for her next novel. She had a fully formed plot that turned on families from different worlds, an unlikely friendship and the disputed inheritance of a treasured possession. She started writing furiously, then one morning, over their bowls of Waitrose Choco Rice Pops, she effused about the new project (up till now, of course, she’d kept the silence necessary to forge great works in the erm forge of the mind. Not that forges are particularly silent places, but you see what I mean) to Nick Laird. He agreed it was a fabulous idea, and that he’d really enjoyed the way E.M. Forster had handled it.

Annoying. Wile E’s legs are still moving, but he’s gone over the edge of the cliff. What to do? Best plan: beef up the resemblances on the first half, add detailed correspondences, treat it as a work paying tribute to the original, and then just carry on with the somewhat different novel you’d planned in the second half.

Just speculation and invention, but it puzzles me why it isn’t much like HE, really.

Blog-reading—also how it started for Proust

Congrats to Zadie Smith: last week posting maudlin comments on blogs, this week winner of the Orange Prize for Ladies’ Fine Writing.

I didn’t like the book: so, if a late night blog-crawl has landed you here, Zadie, don’t follow this link. It’ll only upset you (Summary: you shouldn’t have used ‘cernuous’. Also, bollock the editor – they let through ‘hallelujah’ spelt two different ways in a single paragraph. And also forgot to tell you which bits of the novel didn’t work, which is probably the bigger dereliction of duty now I think about it.)

Anyway, I too have trouble getting out of bed. Perhaps a pet or child would help? They often make agitating noises or display a playful interest in one’s nose early in the morning. The frustrating lack of a snooze function qualifies my endorsement.

[Edit: Oh – my jabbering! I forgot to say that the whole post at Eve’s Alexandria is a strong analysis of what’s wrong with OB, and that the whole site is terrific. I’m wondering why I haven’t been there before. Laziness?]