The first book I remember being given by anyone outside my immediate family was an end-of-year prize awarded by the local Sunday school – Enid Blyton’s The Land of Far Beyond. I was six years old and the prize was for attendance rather than spiritual commitment, but it was a book, and all books were treasured. I don’t imagine it’s much awarded these days and, if it is, it must strike its readers as rather an odd sort of book on the whole – allegory isn’t really the mode du jour, and the fact that it’s essentially a retelling of Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress probably wouldn’t make it any more attractive to the average pre-teen punter, though Bunyan was still a name to be reckoned with in the late 1950s. I don’t know if this is a shame or not. With Philip Pullman’s more radical take on religion now available to us, Blyton’s anodyne theology may no longer be needed. But the book had a powerful effect on me, and – because this isn’t always the case – the effect was primarily, although not entirely, the one intended. It tells the tale of a bunch of people whose various sins are made manifest as physical burdens attached like shaggy buffalo humps to their backs. (So far, so Bunyan.) They’re an oddly assorted gang and, as they travel to the only place in which their humps can be removed, they meet with a series of adventures, or learning experiences as they’re now known. Slowly the travellers lighten their loads or, at worst, come to terms with them. For a children’s book with an anything but subtle purpose, it’s surprisingly complex, and many of the scenes have stayed with me, partly because of the striking illustrations by Horace Knowles, more of which can be seen here. In search of understanding and moral growth, allegory and the picaresque often go hand in hand, like Hansel and Gretel through the dark wood. But one of the problems about using allegory and the picaresque to talk about moral growth is that the former is necessarily binary, static (someone called Courage is hardly likely to take fright and do a runner), while the latter might involve changing surroundings and new adventures but the central figure need be no more than the string onto which these are threaded. Blyton gets round the problem – as Collodi did when he revised Pinocchio – by having the settings static but the protagonists capable of growth.
Which is a long but necessary way round to where I want to be. David Mitchell‘s fourth novel, Black Swan Green. Set in Worcestershire in the early 1980s, it’s a first person narrative and the teller of the tale is a thirteen-year-old boy called Jason Taylor. It’s customary at this point to remark that the book captures what it’s like to be a thirteen-year-old boy but surely that’s a rather reductive approach? Why should all thirteen-year-old boys be assumed to be the same? What makes Jason, and this book, special is that, although some of the situations (or ‘scrapes’ as they used to be called in the literature) are familiar enough – the book ticks off the usual boxes of childhood angst – bullying, divorce, first love, the fear of losing one’s reputation – Jason himself is a source of constant surprise. Unlike the allegorical heroes of strictly allegorical journeys, ciphers on a pre-ordained quest towards understanding, Jason’s an extraordinarily realised character, complex, thoughtful, confused about his needs, anxious about the effect he might be having on the world around him and, most importantly, capable of change. The world he travels through, like that of Pinocchio or Blyton’s heroes, is peopled by parents, other boys (and – at a tantalising distance – girls), neighbours, uncles and aunts – one of the most exhilaratingly comic scenes in a book that isn’t short of humour is a family meal in which Jason’s father and uncle spar in typical suburban hunter fashion. But other elements constantly intrude, or threaten to – disturbing figures with a fabular feel to them – and it’s sometimes hard to tell how far Jason’s creative imagination is at work as the confines of the Worcestershire village of Black Swan Green, where no swan, black or otherwise, has ever been seen, ripple and part to reveal something darker and more mysterious. Old ladies in houses hidden away among the trees, child-murderers, cannibals, corpses frozen beneath the ice of a local lake. Mitchell doesn’t help here, allowing his boy hero free rein to move from the real to the possibly-real, and the book would be a far lesser thing if he did. It’s all part of Jason’s world and, however phantasmagorical it might sometimes seem, not a word is wasted. He is, after all, a poet.
Jason’s status as poet is central to the book. There’s a wonderful conflict between his inner life and outer self, and glimpses of what might happen when that conflict is finally resolved. He briefly finds a mentor in the form of Madame Crommelynck – lovers of Cloud Atlas will be delighted to see her reappear – and is admonished by her, when pouring wine, with the following advice: “Always pour so the label is visible! If the wine is good, your drinker should know so. If the wine is bad, you deserve shame.” It’s a lesson worth learning, but not the easiest to apply in a world in which the very idea of poetry is even more gay, in the pejorative sense, than going to see a film with your mother, itself as close to a hanging offence as one can get to in the cut-throat jungle of rural early adolescence and survive. Jason already knows how hard it is to follow Madame Crommelynck’s edict. He points out:
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’.
It’s revealing that he should see the writer as a sort of vampire here, as though he already knows the extent to which he’ll be drawing blood from his own life and using it to write down what he sees and hears (and that doesn’t mean I think Jason Taylor is David Mitchell in any strict one-to-one correspondence, although I wouldn’t be surprised to find myself at least partly wrong). Magically, towards the end of the book, our hero finds himself writing words that we’ve only just read ourselves, as though the book were catching up on itself, like an ouroboros. Language does that, shaping and surprising and tripping one up, reminding one that the journey is at least as important as the arrival, that finding oneself in the same place and knowing it for the first time isn’t just a modernist trope. Even Jason’s stutter, memorably referred to as the Hangman, is a reminder that what we want to say might not always be that easy, and that the struggle -the struggle to be true to oneself and to utterance – is the largest and most lasting part of the achievement.