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.)