Taking Time to Smell the Prose(s)

I’ve been reading Black Swan Green by David Mitchell, which is billed as a semi-autobiographical bildungsroman. (I had to look it up, and you can, too, but essentially—although in some ways subtly different—it means a coming-of-age novel, like Great Expectations or The Secret Life of Bees or The Kite Runner.) It is a lovely book. Over and over I am astonished at the beauty of the prose, the sureness of the voice, the trueness of the characterization. It’s really good, kids.

The cover copy tells us the story “tracks a single year in what is, for thirteen-year-old Jason Taylor, the sleepiest village in Worcestershire in a dying Cold War England, 1982”—although there’s a whole lot going on here. (So, yes, by definition—that is, the age of the protagonist—it is YA. But you shouldn’t let that stop you if, indeed, calling a novel YA is a hindrance for you.)

Jason is bright, and sensitive. He writes poetry—under an assumed name, otherwise his friends would torture him for it—and submits it to the village magazine for publication. One local resident, Madame Crommelynck—an elderly, bohemian émigré who smokes too much—discovers his secret, though, and requests he present himself to discuss his poems with her. Here’s what happens:*

“A young man needs to learn when a woman wishes her cigarette to be lit.”


An emerald dragon wraps Madame Crommelynck’s lighter. I was worried the smell of cigarette smoke’d stick to my clothes and I’d have to make up a story for Mum and Dad about where I’d been. While she smoked, she murmured my poem “Rocks” from May’s magazine.

I felt giddy with importance that my words’d captured the attention of this exotic woman. Fear, too. If you show someone something you’ve written, you give them a sharpened stake, lie down in your coffin, and say, “When you’re ready.”

Madame Crommelynck did a tiny growl. “You imagine blank verse is a liberation, but no. Discard rhyme, you discard a parachute … Sentimentality you mistake for emotion … You love words, yes”—a pride bubble swelled up in me—“but your words are still the master of you, you are not yet master of them …” (The bubble popped.) She studied my reaction. “But, at least, your poem is robust enough to be criticized. Most so-called poems disintegrate at one touch. Your imagery is here, there, fresh, I am not ashamed to call it so. Now I wish to know a thing.”

“Sure. Anything.”

“The domesticity in this poem, these kitchens, gardens, ponds … is not a metaphor for the ludicrous war in the South Atlantic this year?”

“The Falklands was on while I was writing the poem,” I answered. “The war just sort of seeped in.”

“So these demons who do war in the garden, they symbolize General Galtieri and Margaret Thatcher. I am right?”

“Sort of, yes.”

“But they are also your father and your mother, however. I am right?”

Hesitations’re yeses or nos if the questioner already knows the answer. It’s one thing writing about your parents. Admitting it’s another matter.

Madame Crommelynk did a tobaccoey croon to show her delight. “You are a polite thirteen-year boy who is too timid to cut his umbilical cords! Except”—she gave the page a nasty poke—“here. Here in your poems you do what you do not dare to do”—she jabbed at the window—“here. In reality. To express what is here.” She jabbed my heart. It hurt.

X-rays make me queasy.

Once a poem’s left home it doesn’t care about you.

Well. That last line stopped me in my tracks the night I read it (as did the bit about lying down in one’s coffin, a sentiment with which any writer will identify).

Mitchell has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize twice (for number9dream and Cloud Atlas) and his praises sung on multiple continents. (Here’s an interesting article in the New Yorker.) There’s good reason for it. If you’re interested in the craft of writing, this guy’s got some, and it would be worth taking a look at.

I’ve been working late and I’m sleepy by the time I make it to Black Swan Green, so I am certain I don’t appreciate the craft as much as I should. But when I was typing this passage up just now, I was struck by how exquisite it is, and how much is going on.

Sometimes you really have to slow down to appreciate a thing.

*On pages 145–46 of a Random House paperback ©2006.


Tweet: If you’re interested in the craft of writing, this guy’s got some.

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    […] you’re a writer, you expose yourself to slings and arrows every day. I love that line in David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green: “If you show someone something you’ve written, you give them a sharpened stake, lie down in […]

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