The Swan Whisperer by Marlene Van Niekerk

swan whispererI usually try and avoid books about writers. Or specifically works of fiction about writers of fiction. They can easily run dangerously self-aggrandizing or saccharine. You get this combo of O, my struggle! combined with something about the grand importance and essential nature of fiction — something I agree with completely but find suspect when delivered in the form of a writer constructing a clay model of themself.

(By contrast, I do love many books about books, from If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler to The Princess Bride to The Satanic Verses)

If you hadn’t guessed by now, The Swan Whisperer is a book about writing. Not just about writing, but formal creative writing classes. And not actually a book, but more a short story posing as one, about forty pages and illustrated.

The conceit here is that the narrator of the story is a South African creative writing teacher giving a lecture to her colleagues about an erstwhile student of hers who, on a trip to Amsterdam to snap his writer’s block, befriends the mysterious Swan Whisperer, an old man who descends to the canals every morning to commune with a legion of swans. The narrator goes on to explain that the student, Kasper, has been sending her cryptic letters, cassettes, and packages and excerpts of each are printed verbatim in the text.

It’s beautiful. The Swan Whisperer overcame any prejudices I had about books about writing. I’m usually not the type to sigh and wish if only this short tale were longer… but I did here. I wanted to continue, to hear more of Kasper’s secrets.

On the first page, Van Niekerk asks:

“What does one teach when one is a teacher of Creative Writing? The true? The good? The beautiful? Should one teach criticism, fantasy, or faith? What is the use of literature? What is its place on the greater canvas of human endeavours? And perhaps I should also ask: Can a story offer consolation?”

By the end of the story, I feel like maybe the answer is “Who knows?” or “Maybe it can’t possible do those things.” Maybe writing must instead be taught by winters abroad on frozen canals, falling in love with mute homeless men, savage history, love of fables, the sound of mountain rivers at midday.

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