October 2, 2009

Hilary Mantel: Wolf Hall

Posted in Mantel Hilary at 8:00 am by John Self

I approached Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall with great trepidation, and decided to read it only because of its Booker shortlisting. Aside from the length, my concern was the same one I have for most historical novels: that for full appreciation of the book, a good deal of background knowledge will be required of me that I don’t have. For example, would it be a problem that before reading about Wolf Hall, I’d never heard of Thomas Cromwell? Yes and no.

Hilary Mantel: Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall covers, with a little fringing around the edges, half a dozen years in the reign of Henry VIII, as he flexes his constitutional muscle to break with the Catholic Church – partly because he wants its money and assets in England for the Crown, but mostly because he wants a male heir to prevent another war of succession. His wife Katherine of Aragon cannot give him a son – at least that’s how he views it – so he wants to end his marriage and father a child with Anne Boleyn. (“If only he wanted something simple,” says his Lord Chancellor and Archbishop of York, Cardinal Wolsey. “The Philosopher’s Stone. The elixir of youth. One of those chests that occur in stories, full of gold pieces.”) However it is not Henry who is the central character, but Thomas Cromwell, his fixer: “the inconsolable Master Cromwell: the unknowable, the inconstruable, the probably indefeasible Master Cromwell. … He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury.” Cromwell appears in every scene of the book, referred to most of the time simply as “he”, which is an effective technique in training the reader to his viewpoint.

So, included in the fringes are Cromwell’s youth – son to the violent Walter, and subsequent runaway – and his quick learning. “You don’t get on by being original. You don’t get on by being bright. You don’t get on by being strong. You get on by being a subtle crook.” Cromwell’s cunning is present at a young age, when we see how he escapes from England to France:

He sees three elderly Lowlanders struggling with their bundles and moves to help them. The packages are soft and bulky, samples of woollen cloth. A port officer gives them trouble about their documents, shouting into their faces. He lounges behind the clerk, pretending to be a Lowland oaf, and tells the merchants by holding up his fingers what he thinks is a fair bribe. ‘Please,’ says one of them, in effortful English to the clerk, ‘will you take care of these English coins for me? I find them surplus.’ Suddenly the clerk is all smiles. The Lowlanders are all smiles; they would have paid much more. When they board they say, ‘The boy is with us.’

Cromwell begins his journey to Henry’s court as aide to Cardinal Wolsey. Initially a favourite of the king, instrumental in the dissolution of the monasteries and the crushing of heresies such as those who would translate the Bible into English, Wolsey “never lives in a single reality, but in a shifting, shadow-mesh of diplomatic possibilities.” However his power begins to exceed him: “[Wolsey] used to say, ‘The King will do such-and-such.’ Then he began to say, ‘We will do such-and-such.’ Now he says, ‘This is what I will do.’” He is accused of “running a country within the country” but the king is loyal to him until it becomes clear that Wolsey cannot deliver the “good verdict” from the Pope that he wants: an annulment of his marriage. Wolsey is doomed. Cromwell remains loyal (“What was England, before Wolsey? A little offshore island, poor and cold”) but is determined not to “go down with the Cardinal” – the only thing that Thomas Cromwell believes in, it seems, is Thomas Cromwell.

He ingratiates himself with Henry – the scenes where they come to know one another are among the most electrifying in the book – and becomes a councillor; Henry, in his turn, becomes Cromwell’s second surrogate father after Wolsey, and Cromwell is utterly invested in his life of ‘service’: “I shall not be like Henry Wyatt and say, now I am retiring from affairs. Because what is there, but affairs?” He is not popular with everyone, as he drafts the Act in Restraint of Appeals (…this realm of England is an Empire…). “Until now Master Cromwell’s talent was for moneylending, but now he finds he has a talent for legislation too – if you want a new law, just ask him.”

This is the spine of the story, but there is much commotion around the edges, and so many characters that, even with frequent recourse to the five-page dramatis personae, I never did work out the difference between Lords Norfolk and Suffolk, or several of the other cuckolds, in-laws and court hangers-on. My usual weakness as a reader is attention to detail while overlooking the larger themes, but here even the detail was difficult to grasp at times, though the telling – sometimes serious, sometimes playful – was always admirable. Mantel makes the reader work but does not withhold rewards, and the court scenes, forever at the edge of my knowledge, trod such an expert line that ignorance acted to stimulate my interest rather than freeze it. This is a huge story, after all, of England remaking itself, and the conflict between monarchy and clergy, from Thomas More to Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury. When Henry gets his ‘divorce’ (sorry to spoil it for you):

Warham shuffles up the to king. ‘Henry,’ the Archbishop says, ‘I have seen you promote within your own court and council persons whose principals and morals will hardly bear scrutiny. I have seen you deify your own will and appetite, to the sorrow and scandal of Christian people. I have been loyal to you, to the point of violation of my own conscience. I have done much for you, but now I have done the last thing I will ever do.’

“The English will never be forgiven for the talent for destruction they have always displayed when they get off their own island,” we are told. But there is plenty of destruction back home too. When Anne is pregnant, with what Henry hopes will be a son, “he is the beginning, the start of something, the promise of another country.” Wolf Hall gives us the politics and the personalities – even though the invention of those personalities must be a matter of some speculation, and not for an historical ignoramus like me to rely on. The old country still exists, and Mantel relishes the opportunity to pile on details of the dirt and disease rife at the time, with even those closest to Cromwell succumbing to ‘the sweat’: “one day walking and talking and next day cold as stones, tumbled into their Thames-side graves and dug in beyond the reach of the tide.”

The re-formation of England the book describes (“a miserable country, home to an outcast and abandoned people”) is inextricably linked with the Reformation running in parallel. Henry moves from crushing heresy against Rome to creating a church in his own image. The issues that exercise the reformers include literal interpretation of biblical scriptures: the origin of Purgatory, the transubstantiation of bread and wine. Cromwell finds that he cannot always rely on the Bible: “he knows the whole of the New Testament by heart, but find a text: find a text for this.” Similarly, Wolf Hall denies the possibility of knowing everything from a line-by-line reading of a book. “Some of these things are true,” we are told,” and some of them are lies. But they are all good stories.”

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99 Comments »

  1. Nick said,

    Sounds pretty good, but not my first choice of reading on the Booker shortlist (Suumeeeerrtiiime). Nor the second for that matter (probably Foulds’ maze)

    I’m wondering where this resurgence of enthusiasm for this particular period comes from: with the series (Tudor), the movie (the other Boleyn girl), this book and I’m sure a lot lot of others…
    I’ve got no doubt it’s interesting, I’m just wondering how the emulation works. Or if it’s just coincidental.

  2. John Self said,

    Those (Coetzee and Foulds) would be my favourites too Nick. I shied away from saying much about what I thought of Wolf Hall simply because I know my reading of it was far from informed or comprehensive – though that’s never stopped me before. Plus, to anyone who has lots of books piled up and vying for attention as the next read, almost any 650-page book is going to seem a chore at times. So I probably didn’t give it the leisure or enthusiasm it might otherwise have warranted. (But as ‘otherwise’ would require me to have a completely different mindset and interests, I’ll have to live with that.)

    The resurgence of the Tudors? Good question, though you could probably find a handful of works in any given period and yoke them together too. What about the TV series Robin Hood, Ridley Scott’s forthcoming film of Robin Hood, and Adam Thorpe’s novel Hodd? Coincidence?? Well, yes.

  3. Sam said,

    The chances of me reading this book are probably on a par with the proverbial cats in hell. I struggle mightily with historical fiction: Possession, The Nightwatch, The Crimson Petal and the White – all sit abandoned. I must lack the hist-fic gene.

    My usual weakness as a reader is attention to detail while overlooking the larger themes

    Even a cursory glance at the review of Summertime shows this not to be true.

  4. John Self said,

    Thanks Sam, but not so. On reading other reviews of Summertime, I see just how many pertinent aspects I didn’t even consider. Similarly I read about aspects of the structure of The Glass Room this week which had completely passed me by. I intended my comment not as false modesty, but self-awareness.

    Anyway I share your dislike for historical fiction, though I suppose it depends on how historical it gets – The Quickening Maze I really liked, and I suppose The Remains of the Day and all Patrick McGrath’s novels are historical fiction too. Hm, where do we draw the line, and why?

  5. Lee Monks said,

    Historical fiction: if you look at Bainbridge and According To Queenie, all research is worn lightly, but more so, it’s entirely believable, compulsive, funny and demands very little of a reader that may exhibit little foreknowledge of Johnson and so on. Too much historical fiction klaxons your duncery on page after page by digressing (perhaps interestingly of itself) into all kinds of arcana, biography or demanding hints at further reading. I would much rather, under normal circumstances, watch a documentary with a bit of an artistic slant. Having said that, I have no quarrel with any subject providing the characters etc are interesting enough in themselves. Surely the work should stand alone without factual back-up, and should merely be enriched by such knowledge? For me, if a novel is problematic for reasons of muddling historical density, I shy away from it. The mechanics are all wrong for me, I become aggrieved and resentful at the author expositing all their hard work. Not that I don’t respect their diligence: I am perhaps a bit of a philistine. I want characters that sing, not dusted off cadavers. I read a book recently (well, a few maddening pages before I pressed the ‘ejector’ button) whereby every utterance was accompanied with ‘Ah, but you see, Newtonian physics dicate that…’ and it did my nut. How about ideas rather than reconstruction? Or, ideas first, reconstruction second?

  6. anokatony said,

    Historical Fiction- Personally I think “The Crimson Petal and the White” by Michel Faber is one of the great recent novels. But we’ve all encountered bad costume dramas that went relentlessly on and on. When I read fiction, it is to gain insight into my own circumstances. Good writers of historical fiction have the empathy with their characters so that their story applies to us today. I’ve read enough good things about Hilary Mantel recently so that I will probably read one of her short novels before jumping into “Wolf Hall”.

  7. Sam said,

    Thanks Sam, but not so.

    Yeah, on second thoughts, you’re probably right.

    Hm, where do we draw the line, and why?

    Where the line is drawn has definitely changed. For instance, War and Peace was set during the Napoleonic Wars, which took place about fifty years before Tolstoy set quill to parchment. But no one thinks of that book as a piece of historical fiction. Whereas The Nightwatch, also set around fifty years before it was written, is definitely considered historical fiction. (I even saw some reviews referring to The Line of Beauty as historical.)

    I guess the reason for why this is, is because not much had changed in society between the time of the Napoleonic Wars and when Tolstoy came to write his book. (I’m relying on my own dusty knowledge of Russian history for that assertion – someone correct me if they know different). But everything has pretty much changed since 1950 and 2000 – the technological and sexual revolutions, say. I don’t think anything on a similar scale took place between 1812 and 1869, but I could just be talking out of my arse.

  8. John Self said,

    Good point Sam, but I’d also look at it another way. Nobody thinks of War and Peace as historical fiction because to most people today, 1812 and 1869 are both “a long time ago”, and not very far apart, and therefore not to be distinguished. On the contrary, everyone alive today knows that 2000 is very different from 1950.

    Or take Middlemarch (published in the 1870s, set in the 1830s). Its 40-year time differential is close to that of The Remains of the Day (published in the 1980s, set in the 1940s and 50s), yet we do think of Ishiguro’s as an historical – or period (is there a difference?) – novel. What this means, I think, is that a century from now, if people are still reading The Remains of the Day, they won’t think of it as an historical novel at all, just as we don’t with Middlemarch – the 1980s, like the 1940s, will to them be simply “a long time ago”.

    Tony, thanks for the Faber reminder. I’ve read a lot of his shorter work but have always shied away from The Crimson Petal for the usual reasons. Then again, I understand it’s not your traditional ‘historical’ novel – like The French Lieutenant’s Woman – but then, what is?

    Oh and Lee – don’t hate me but I have never been able to get on with Bainbridge. God knows I’ve tried. I remain quite relieved that her new novel, The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress, keeps getting put back because I know for sure that it will be highly acclaimed and I will want to read it, and equally for sure that doing so will be like banging my head on glass.

  9. Nick said,

    What do you mean by “Nobody thinks of War and Peace as historical fiction “?

    I’ve always thought it was the best of this kind and cannot really imagine anyone thinking of historical fiction without including ‘War and Peace’ within the genre, but that’s probably my own limitation.
    Yes, my conception of what historical fiction is is probably wrong: fiction imbricated within ‘important’ events which shaped history, or at least fiction taking place on background of historical events somehow influencing the story.

    How do you define the genre?

  10. Lee Monks said,

    John, it’s funny, I’m not overdone on most of her stuff but I found According To Queeney (correct spelling this time!) to be completely brilliant. When I heard it was about Johnson I was a bit wary of what on earth she was going to do with it but my fears were soon more than assuaged.

    I also think that your ‘Remains Of The Day’ is a perfect example of the problems that arise when we refer to the ‘historical’ novel. I think great novels shrug the tag off, frankly, and avoid sub-generic categorisation.

  11. Ben Johncock said,

    Great piece, John.

    I, too, picked it up because of the Booker nomination (I don’t usually read historical fiction – and, yes, where do you draw the line? Setting pre-1900 maybe?). It also had a good blurb on the DJ too – hats off to whoever wrote it.

    I also I read the first page in Waterstone’s and thought it exceptionally well written.

    As enjoyable as I’ve been finding it, it is a very ‘dense’ book; thick. Reading it is like wading through a very beautiful pond or peat-bog.

    One major irritant though:

    “Cromwell appears in every scene of the book, referred to most of the time simply as “he”, which is an effective technique in training the reader to his viewpoint.”

    I found this confusing. We’d see the pov of Wolsey for one sentence, then the following sentence we’d be back to Cromwell: “He XXX XXX” with no indication of the change. Confusing. Annoying.

    Norfolk and Suffolk were the same to me, too – like a medieval version of Ant and Dec.

  12. Sam said,

    John, good points. I’d just say (though I realise I’m on very shaky ground here) that I don’t think people at the time of publication considered War and Peace historical fiction, either (I think I read that in an essay on Anna Karenina, oddly enough, or maybe it was on Susan Sontag…), in the way that people did the works of Sir Walter Scott.

    I suppose we could make that the definiton of whether a work’s historical: what was the prevailing view of the readers at the time?

    Bringing it back to Mantel, I also struggled with Beyond Black. After a cracking start, it got blogged down in back-story, and began to feel quite plodding. Another reason for me to avoid Wolf Hall.

    P.S. They’re discussing the shortlist on Newsnight Review tonight. With John Carey – woo-hoo! (But also Michael Portillo and Rosie Boycott – meh.)

  13. Lee Monks said,

    Sam, I share your sentiment regarding the Newsnight Review panellists. Unfortunately, Portillo has an entirely bogus cachet in such matters due to his ridiculous appointment as Booker Chair. We’re talking about a man who probably tears through Eric Van Lustbader novels and considers them ‘thumping good reads’. Watch him – I predict – big up the Mantel BIG TIME. Offer respectful sniffs in the direction of Coetzee and Foulds. And suggest the Mawer is ‘intriguing’.

  14. John Self said,

    Nick, actually your definition of historical fiction is probably better. I suppose my own definition had been the rather woolly “fiction set in an historical time”, but that would include fiction written in earlier times, so maybe the inclusion of major historical events is essential – other books could then be called period fiction.

    Lee, agreed on the shrugging-off of labels and genres. Part of me would like to have all fiction lumped together in bookshops, but another part of me would hate having to wade through lots of Robert Jordan.

    Ben, nice to see you here! I am sure Ant and Dec would be delighted to be associated with Mantel’s tome. I suspect however that their own (which – yes I looked at it – is published with alternate paragraphs in bold and italic text) will sell rather better.

    Sam, agree completely on Beyond Black. What a shame after such a brilliant start. And on John Carey: well, I will be forever grateful to him for defending Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled when no one else would (one of his fellow panellists on Late Review, as it then was, actually calling for it to be burned – but what do you expect of a literary heavyweight such as Mr Parsons?) … but he is the author of The Intellectuals and the Masses, probably the only book I have found so maddening that I wanted to throw it against the wall. His argument that the modernists of the 20s and 30s were somehow trying to exclude ‘ordinary folk’ from literature is one that I found repellently snobbish. He retains the same bee in his bonnet even now, when he harped on the subject again in his recent review of Martin Stannard’s biog of Muriel Spark:

    So she moved away from novels with intelligible plots, characters and moral issues, such as The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie or The Girls of Slender Means (1963), to empty experiments in the nouveau roman such as The Driver’s Seat (1970). Stannard selects this as her “masterpiece”, apparently because it excludes the kind of person he feels superior to (“Readers seeking the comforts of realism are slapped in the face and sent spinning”).

    Alas these days, with a wakeful baby at home, I go to bed about an hour and a half before Newsnight Reivew starts, but I might tape it or iPlay it (is that a verb yet?). Lee’s predictions sound worrying on the nose. Eric van Lustbader, heh.

  15. I certainly regard War and Peace as historical fiction, but that probably just speaks to the weakness of the descriptor. I did think about it often while reading Wolf Hall because I think it does so much better a job of addressing a historical subject. Tolstoy brings us generals, military strategies, political strategies and a wealth of characters from different backgrounds, in the end weaving an intricate tapestry that captures the times. In choosing to focus entirely on Cromwell, Mantel presents a squint-eyed view of an important period in history, because it comes from only one person’s perspective (note how many of us find secondary character development to be almost nonexistent — in a 650-page novel!). I also am not qualified to comment on the legitimacy of her point of view, but I’ll admit the skeptic in me says that if historians have been ignoring it for 500 years they might have a point, despite what a novelist thinks. Whatever, the result of the approach — and Mantel’s very, very wordy writing style — is that I felt I was being “sold” a very telescopic picture, rather than presented a panorama of what was happening at the time and who was influencing those events.

    • anokatony said,

      Probably the best novel ever to win the Booker could be compared unfavorably to “War and Peace”.

      • lizzysiddal said,

        Hear! Hear!

  16. Sam said,

    I’ve never heard of Eric van whatshisface. And I don’t think I want to.

    Lee, I fear you may be right. Portillo’s a fan of Wagner, I think, so he may well favour the kind of corrective Wolf Hall seems to be offering on Cromwell. We shall see.

    But let’s not let Carey totally off the hook. He was the big supported within the jury that gave the prize to DBC Pierre. There’s very little to choose between Vernon God Little and The White Tiger in terms of artistic embarrassment.

    John, I read that review of Spark’s biography when it came out and agree that Carey is a scourge of the ‘intellectuals’ (he’s a great fan of Dickens, after all), but he is also, perhaps surprisingly, an anti-cultural relativist. And I think it was that which lay behind his slightly snidey review of Germaine Greer’s Shakespeare’s Wife recently. Full review linked below.

    ‘Greer’s evocation of Ann Hathaway’s emotions when her husband was roistering in town, leaving her in Stratford with the kiddies, deserves to be quoted in full. “If Ann loved Will, and we shall decide in default of evidence to the contrary that she did, she must have missed him terribly, especially in the long dark winter evenings, when she sat working by the dying fire as her children slept.” A touching scene. But one which, just possibly, casts more light on Greer than on Hathaway.’

    He seems to be hinting that all Greer’s anarchy and feminism has given her is a lonely spinster-ish life full of ‘long dark winter evenings’.

    John (Carey), I think you’re great, but, really, that does you no favours.

    http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/books/non-fiction/article2348774.ece#

  17. I’ve read Eric van Lustbader Sam, many years ago.

    Trust your instincts. Ignorance may not always be bliss, but knowledge here would not make you happier.

    • John Self said,

      Yes, wasn’t he honoured with the coveted task of writing more Bourne novels now that Robert Ludlum’s dead?

  18. John,

    I believe this is the first of a trilogy, having read this one would you propose to read the sequels?

  19. Mary said,

    Can’t resist a comment even though I’ve still got a quarter of `Wolf Hall’ to read. So far I’ve been impressed by some of the minute, polished details in her text. I ‘ve always thought Mantel is a very observant writer – her ear for the nuances of dialogue and for the visual texture of life in Tudor England is vivid and persuasive. However, having read `Beyond Black’ and disliked it, I feel that her real weakness lies in her inability to construct a convincing narrative. This is true of `Wolf Hall’ even though the actual historical facts give her novel a natural framework. It’s a great jelly-fish of a novel – huge, unformed and wobbling at the edges. It seems to unfold at exactly the same pace chapter by chapter without the peaks and troughs, the set pieces and the tensions of a really great novel. There are brilliant short sections but also page after page of confusing dialogue where I’ve long ceased checking out which one `he’ is. I can’t imagine ever wanting to re-read it.

  20. John Self said,

    Max, I probably won’t read the next books (though I didn’t realise there would be a trilogy, just presumed one more). It’s obvious at the end of Wolf Hall that there’s more to come, as Wolf Hall itself has only appeared briefly and I am guessing that the next book will deal with Cromwell’s involvement in Jane Seymour’s marriage to Henry (Wolf Hall is the Seymour home), and thereafter arranging for Anne of Cleves to be wife number four. It was this disastrous union, apparently, which led to his execution. (Now I’ve really spoiled it for you.)

    I think I am a little more forgiving than Mary, in that I had many of the same difficulties when reading it (though I wasn’t confused by the ‘he’, as I’d been forewarned and knew it usually referred to Cromwell unless otherwise specified). However I presumed that with a little more effort on my part I could have unravelled the names and relationships better. Perhaps I’m wrong on that and it’s Mantel’s fault. But I did like Fludd and I will read more of her books – just not the 600-pages-plus ones. (And that goes too for her French Revolution epic, A Place of Greater Safety.)

  21. Perhaps it is just one more John, I could easily be misremembering.

    I have to say, if you don’t fancy the next one, that to me suggests a problem with this one. Reading the writeups and comments, here and elsewhere, it sounds a bit of a pudding of a book. And does she really need all that space, two or more novels at 600 pages plus a time? I suspect not.

    Still, pudding or not, clearly a great many people love it. I’m just not getting the feeling I’ll be one of them, and given it’s the length of three Anthony Powell’s (never mind the quality, feel the width…) I think I’ll pass.

  22. comesthedervish said,

    I guess I’m yet another person who picked Wolf Hall up in Waterstones on account of the Booker Prize nomination. I really enjoyed it, for what it’s worth – Mantel writes with great wit and invention – and I’ve reviewed it at my blog, too.

    “Cromwell appears in every scene of the book, referred to most of the time simply as “he”, which is an effective technique in training the reader to his viewpoint.”

    I’m glad you picked up on this – so many other reviewers have not. I thought it worked stylistically as a sort of epithet in the same way as ‘He’ signifies divinity in the Bible.

  23. I loved Wolf Hall unreservedly, not because of any ability I have to follow the historical trails (that would be almost nil) but because I found it chock full of emotional paths for me to mosey down. I think Mantel’s characterization of Cromwell is so well rounded that I’m surprised it didn’t take 1000 pages to bring him out. Well, if the second part is also 650, that will deliver plenty more, won’t it. I think in order to capture her imaginative essence of Cromwell, the historical novel adds the right amount of plot development to make him seem real. I read for emotional payoff and found plenty in this novel. Childhood, marriage, work, friendship, and the attendant emotions of each were there for me in believable and abundant complexity. Can’t wait for the next volume!

    • Matthew Crockatt said,

      I’m with you Elizabeth!

      A worrying number of comments on here about the length of the book.

  24. Lee Monks said,

    So, the Byatt came out of the Newsnight Review Booker round-up rather well. As did Wolf Hall, of course. Though Portillo gave a nod towards ‘flawless’ Summertime and then refused to back it, deigning to commit himself to Byatt instead. Odd. Rosie Boycott also went for the Byatt. Thankfully these folk are not involved with the decision itself. On a slightly more frivolous (though only slightly) note, I’d never heard Mantel speak before the show (she ‘hails’ from the same town in Derbyshire as I do, so slightly curious) and she comes across as a screeching little Toby-jug of a woman. Like a minor Royal. I would imagine her accent has changed in the intervening years…

  25. John Self said,

    Thanks Lee – a useful digest as I taped the show but haven’t had time to watch it yet. I hope to post a review of Waters’ The Little Stranger before the announcement, but the Byatt is a lost cause as far as I’m concerned. Too many thinner books, too little time.

  26. Lee Monks said,

    All books were praised to different extents, but Mantel and Byatt were clearly favoured, with Carey and Esler going for Mantel. Portillo suggested that a similar situation was inevitable: that there was an idea as to what a ‘Booker’ winner should be and that those two adhered best to it. Carey seemed rather taken with the Waters, as did Boycott the Mawer. The Foulds was dispatched with faint praise, and even a ‘he’ll no doubt win it one day, but not this time…’ remark. There you go, no need to tune in now, John…although you may wonder why Mantel doesn’t have Corgis scurrying around her ankles if you do watch it…

  27. John Self said,

    Ha! Thanks again Lee. I think the Foulds comments are probably fair enough: it’s very good, and he’s very good, but the book is definitely flawed in my opinion.

    I enjoyed the Waters very much, but I think it a little too neat and smacking of what Mark Thwaite would call “establishment literary fiction.” That, of course, may stand it in good stead for the Booker.

  28. CaroleJ said,

    Dear John Self,
    Can you please ask Lee Monks (whoever he is) to post a video piece of himself reading from and discussing his latest novel? This should preferably be filmed during a period of intense anxiety prior to the judging of said novel – at, possibly, the most stressful point, so far, in his writing career. Perhaps he can also arrange that this recording should follow a life damned by ongoing illness and pain – illness responsible for physical effects.

    Then we can all watch him … and ignore the actual reading of his prizeworthy work, as well as refraining from intelligent comment on his fluent and probing discussion of his work. Instead, we can make rude comments about what he looks and sounds like.

  29. John Self said,

    A fair comment, Carole. Wikipedia says of Mantel:

    During her twenties she suffered from a debilitating and painful illness. This was initially diagnosed as a psychiatric illness for which she was hospitalised and treated with anti-psychotic drugs. These produced a paradoxical reaction of psychotic symptoms and for some years she refrained from seeking help from doctors. Finally, in Africa, and desperate, she consulted a medical text-book and realised she was probably suffering from a severe form of endometriosis, a diagnosis confirmed back in London. The condition and necessary surgery left her unable to have children and continued to disrupt her life, with continued treatment by steroids radically changing her appearance. She is now patron of the Endometriosis SHE Trust.

    So that’s you told, Lee.

  30. Lee Monks said,

    And then some!

    Yes, a typically sensitive post from myself, there. My thoughts still stand, of course, but no offence towards Hilary Mantel was intended. That she has been clearly blighted by enormous obstacles is inarguable, and she deserves a great deal of respect. Vastly over-rated writer, in my opinion, but frivolous caricaturisms aside, I take the jumpy dressing-down on the chin.

    As for a reading of my work, CaroleJ, I would be more than happy to post you a DVD of that, if ever I finish it. I will do so in the style of Billy Connolly for entertainments’ sake, just in case the work itself doesn’t stand up to your scrutiny and isn’t an over-long historical borefest. Please note, though, that I spend far too much time offending folk on message boards to actually do so any time soon. I fear Booker eligibility will pass me by for even the next nominations.

  31. Sam said,

    Oooh, I was born in the same Derbyshire town as Mantel, too.

    I enjoyed the show. Carey was great, and, to my surprise, so was Portillo, in that his comments on the various books were like Carey’s: precise and unsentimental. Boycott, on the other hand, mentioned her ‘heart’ in discussion of four of the books: ‘My heart was/wasn’t engaged’, ‘It had no heart’ etc: the kind of talk that means nothing. She, along with Julie Myerson and Kwarme Kwei Armah, seem to be the regular pannelists on review that have best mastered the art of speaking at length, but without actually saying a thing.

    Great to see Coetzee reading. Mantel seems to be saying the same things, in the same order and with the same words, in every interview she gives. Byatt sounds wonderfully intelligent (too intelligent according to James Wood’s review in the LRB). Waters seems very approachable, someone you’d love to sit in a pub with. Foulds and Mawer were okay, too, but seemed nervous, understandably.

    It’ll got to Mantel, which is fair enough. But come on, Coetzee!

  32. Lee Monks said,

    Really, Sam? Hadfield? Interesting. Have you also escaped?

    I am glad you mentioned the ‘heart’ issue as I’d meant to do likewise: I began to zone-out whenever Boycott was talking. She seems an intelligent woman etc but I just don’t buy her in these discussions. At least, as you say, Portillo had some clever observations, well-made, which in itself surprised me a little. Carey I always like to watch, if only because he is visibly engaged by writing that he likes – the man adores books and it’s pervasive and infectious to hear him rattle off passages that he admires.

  33. John Self said,

    She was brought up in Hadfield, Lee, but born in Glossop, apparently.

    EDIT: I’ve just looked on a map and they’re cheek by jowl anyway.

  34. Mary said,

    It would be a dull blog if we weren’t allowed any personal asides a la Lee Monk. I rather like his description of Hilary Mantel and I’m not sure a screechy voice has anything whatsoever to do with having endometriosis. Surely it would get a bit too reverential and precious if we can’t have a bit of fun at the expense of authors who parade themselves on national television? I’ve joined this blog because apart from John’s excellent reviews there are any number of bloggers here who like to have detailed and informed discussions and to let rip and surely that’s what it’s all about? PS I’m rowing my barge into the last section of `Wolf Hall’ but the horizon seems to be receding.

  35. Deb said,

    When I was young, the TV series “The Six Wives of Henry VIII” was very popular and, as a result, a lot of historical fiction from the 1920s through the 1950s was reprinted. Much of it was undeniably on the light side (Margaret Campbell Barnes is one of the authors I remember–she wrote lots of fiction about the Plantagenets and the Tudors, always including domestic scenes around a table of fireplace–because, after all, even with furs and jewels and castles, royal folk are just like the rest of us) and there was no “deeper meaning” to most of it, but it was a good introduction to British history. I found the best portrayal of Thomas Cromwell to be in Norah Lofts’s “The Concubine” (which is about Anne Boleyn). In the book, Cromwell is completely amoral, using a network of spies to keep tabs of everyone, including the King. Subsequent reading of history (non-fiction) indicated to me that Lofts was right on the money in her characterization.

    At this point in my life, I really don’t feel the need to re-visit that era, so Mantel’s book will have to remain unread.

    (Not to get too personal here, but I can’t figure out how endometriosis could have been diagnosed as a psychological problem, because there are definite, verifiable, and undeniable physical manifestations. “Shrill voice” is not one of them!)

  36. Sam said,

    Oh, sorry, neither Hadfield nor Glossop. For some reason I had it in my head that Mantel was from Matlock, another Derbyshire town. Don’t know where that impression came from as I have read the first half of Mantel’s affecting, if rather one-note, memoir Giving up the Ghost.

    Lee’s Toby-jug description had me laughing out loud.

    And can we please have a moment’s rememberance for Brooklyn: the Booker winner that never was.

  37. Lee Monks said,

    Indeed they are, John. Tiresome info: I’ve lived in both. I thought she was born in Hadfield for some reason (ie my lazy inability to actually check the facts) so thanks for clearing that up.

    Mary, I rather agree with you, unsurprisingly, but I do regret it if any Mantel fans think I’m having a cheap dig at her. What I said was genuinely how I found her, and I had always wondered about such things (I read her memoir and often read her reviews and so on) and tend to find authors fascinating characters in any case. Did she screech a bit? The evidence is there.

  38. Lee Monks said,

    Sam: Brooklyn should be on the shortlist, I totally agree. I am not fully-qualified to say as much having given up on at least three of the six on the list, but I thought Brooklyn a fine novel and thoroughly deserving of a place. I think Summertime is brilliant, though, so I’ll be cheering that on.

  39. [...] in Waters Sarah at 2:29 pm by John Self The Little Stranger is another book that I read only because of its Booker shortlisting (though I’m not sure that’s a good explanation in itself).  I’d read her last two [...]

  40. Sam said,

    Yeah, Brooklyn just keeps growing in my estimation. I’m sure I’ll re-read it sooner or later. I want to work out how he keeps it so goddamn plain, and yet full of dramatic lift.

    It is a strong shortlist, granted, but how much stronger it would be if the Mantel, Byatt and – what the heck – the Mawer were replaced with Toibin, Trevor and O’Loughlin. (What is it with me and Irish novelists?)

    I say this purely on past experiences of Mantel and Byatt, and only the first twenty or so pages of the Mawer – which is pretty dumb of me, I guess…

  41. John Self said,

    Congratulations to Hilary Mantel on winning the Booker Prize – good news, Matthew and Beth! Bad news, Lee…

  42. Hm, perhaps though just a touch predictable as a choice?

    How do you feel about this year’s Booker now it’s announced John? Or will that be a separate post? It hasn’t seemed to me a very exciting year, I’m going back to 2007 before I’m much enthused I think. Where are you on the enthusiasm front?

  43. [...] returned it to the library. My reader's block was never going to let me get through that brick. Here's a review, though. __________________ booklit | goodreads | [...]

  44. Hal O'Brien said,

    Cromwell is a character in A Man for All Seasons, and played by Leo McKern in the 1966 movie of Robert Bolt’s play.

    Oliver Cromwell was Thomas’s great-great-grandnephew, Wikipedia.

  45. Hal O'Brien said,

    “…quoth Wikipedia,” that is. Too much editing while putting in the link.

  46. Lee Monks said,

    Ah well. Congrats to Mantel, of course. I wonder if Coetzee hadn’t won it twice already…oh, that sounds like sour grapes, doesn’t it? Roll on the next ‘un…

    …in the meantime I can cheer myself up with the prospect of the new Ellroy and Auster. And that one day Mr Self himself might be amongst the judges. Shall we start the groundswell here?

  47. John Self said,

    Thanks but no thanks Lee! Presumably you too have noticed the effect of fatherhood on reading time… (Plus, it’s so much easier being outside the tent, pissing in.)

    Max, the fact that I didn’t read all the longlisted (or all the shortlisted) titles should indicate that I wasn’t wildly enthused about the prize this year. Having said that, there seems to be something close to a consensus (ie if enough newspapers say it then we’ll believe it’s true) that this was a ‘good year’ for the prize. Perhaps so in that I didn’t actively dislike any of the five shortlisted titles I read, but similarly I thought two of them at least (The Little Stranger and The Glass Room) were pretty pedestrian, even though enjoyable on their own terms. The only title on the shortlist that I felt to be a real work of brilliance – a real work of literature – was Summertime. And Coetzee’s permanence in the literary pantheon is already assured anyway.

    • Lee Monks said,

      I have, John, I have. In that before I know it my plans for at least 50 pages reading of an evening are scuppered…I tend to take MUCH longer on the toilet these days, let’s put it that way…and having a bath is always a drawn out affair to the extent that the missus ends up checking I am okay…oh, the guilt. I thoroughly enjoy every second with my daughter, and something has to go…

  48. Sam said,

    Apparently it was another 3-2 split… wonder who just missed out this year…

    • Lee Monks said,

      I would hazard a guess at Mawer, Sam, but I’ve no real idea…

  49. Thanks John,

    I have to admit to some disappointment that only historical fiction made the shortlist, I’m not absolutely persuaded historical fiction should even be eligible (unless it’s also literary fiction, which it generally isn’t in my view – the fact it’s naturalistic doesn’t make it literary) and it seemed to me a very conservative and backward looking list.

    But, I saw a bit of Hilary Mantel on Newsnight and she had good responses to that sort of criticism and an admirable attitude to her work and I hope the prize leads to more people enjoying her novels in future. There’s clearly a lot there to enjoy, even if it’s not to my particular tastes.

  50. John Self said,

    Yes it’s clearly a good win for booksellers, who can shift lots of copies of a fat historical novel, and also shift lots of copies of her backlist, which I expect will be rejacketed any day now. A good one for Mantel’s publishers too.

    And to drag things back to Lee’s ‘controversial’ earlier comment about Mantel, when accepting the prize she put me in mind of a minor Royal.

    • Mary said,

      Funny you should say that……Queen Victoria I thought

      • John Self said,

        You’re right Mary; major Royal, I should have said. (And I was referring to her clipped, cut-glass diction primarily.)

  51. Had say The Glass Room won (just to take an example), I suspect booksellers would have been less happy. Wolf Hall is in familiar, comforting even, literary territory and Mantel has a solid backlist as you mention.

    By contrast, a novel about a Czech house might not have been so saleable, though it probably wasn’t in the final running anyway.

    She does come across as a minor royal, Lee definitely has a point there.

  52. Lee Monks said,

    Queen Victoria! Great spot, Mary!

    ‘…the sheer bigness of the book…’ was cited by Naughtie as one of the reasons behind the triumph. Good to know, James…….

  53. Sam said,

    She didn’t half shoot up quick from her table as soon as she was announced as the winner.

    Her answer to Gavin Esler’s question about the lack of writers writing about this century was pretty much, ‘That’s for the journalists.’ No, Hilary, no.

  54. I thought Esler asked the wrong question. He started talking about whether the present was too dark, but that’s silly. I think the question is whether the present is advancing too quickly and is now too complex and too dependant on technological innovation for literary fiction to respond, ie can literary fiction speak to the present or can only sf now do that?

    And I think the answer is no by the way, I think literary fiction can still respond (and wish it did a bit more), but I still think it’s the better question. The problem with the present is issues of pace of change and impact of technology, not terrorism and an uncertain world. Was Thomas Cromwell’s world so much more certain?

    That said, what did he expect a historical novelist to say?

    Sheer bigness, oh dear, never mind the quality feel the width eh?

  55. Sam said,

    Well, I think a historical novelist, or any novelist, could simpy say, ‘There’s plenty of books set in the contemporary world’ – which there are, and which were submitted – ‘but maybe they need to be better.’ Or, as that might open up a bit of a hornet’s nest, she could’ve just said, ‘I got lucky – they liked my historical novel.’

    Either way, saying it’s not the job, or not one of the jobs, of the novelist to make sense of the world around us is pretty dumb.

    But it was an unexpected question, live on TV, after winning the biggest books prize in the land – her knee-jerk answer’s perhaps understandable.

  56. That was dumb, as was saying by the time it hits print it’s historical anyway. I think there is a slight difference between a novel set in say 2005 and one set in 1805.

    That said, how many British writers are writing quality contemporary fiction? The Americans, sure, but in Britain? I think it has got a bit backward looking of late, and the prize reflected that.

    Besides, there’s no guarantee she reads outside her genre, many genre writers don’t.

  57. Sam said,

    Zadie Smith, Martin Amis, Will Self, Alan Hollinghurst, Edward St Aubyn, Rachel Cusk, Monica Ali, Hari Kunzru, Nicola Barker, Tash Aw, Trezza Azzopardi…

    Plenty of writers are engaging with the world around us! And that’s just the British – the Booker’s open to the commonwealth, too.

    Can’t help feeling that all the ‘historical’ complaints that’ve come this year are a bit like the ‘geographically balanced’ complaints of last year; in the judges’ opinions these were simply the best books from those submitted. I really don’t think we can start extrapolating out to a comment on the state of British, or Commonwealth, fiction.

    In Mantel’s defence, she has, as she said in that Esler interview, written contemporary novels as well, so I’m sure she does read outside her genre. (She also reviews other (non-historical) novels regularly.)

    • Lee Monks said,

      Open it up to the world. I’ve said it before but I’ve never been more convinced that it’s time. That’d force one or two to raise their game, no? You could have a subsidiary award if needs be. You’ve won your fat cheque, Hilary – now hit the road and finish your cumbersome word-mountain trilogy! We’re letting everyone in! Imagine…

  58. John Self said,

    I thought Esler asked the wrong question. He started talking about whether the present was too dark…

    Idiot. But it reminds me of the passage in Tobias Wolff’s novel Old School, where he features a visit to the school by Robert Frost, and when a pupil complains that formal rhyme and rhythm in verse is inadequate in the face of ‘modern consciousness’ – beaten and blustered as it is by war and angst – Wolff puts these words in Frost’s mouth:

    Don’t tell me about war. I lost my nearest friend in the one they call the Great War. So did Achilles lose his friend in the war, and Homer did no injustice to his grief by writing about it in dactylic hexameters. There’ve always been wars, and they’ve always been as foul as we could make them. It is very fine and pleasant to think ourselves the most put-upon folk in history – but then everyone has thought that from the beginning. It makes a grand excuse for all manner of laziness. But about my friend. I wrote a poem for him. I still write poems for him. Would you honor your friend by putting words down anyhow, just as they come to you – with no thought for the sound they make, the meaning of their sound, the sound of their meaning? Would that give a true account of the loss?

    I am thinking of Achilles’ grief. That famous, terrible grief. Let me tell you boys something. Such grief can only be told in form. Maybe it only really exists in form. Form is everything. Without it you’ve got nothing but a stubbed-toe cry – sincere, maybe, for what that’s worth, but with no depth or carry. No echo. You may have a grievance but you do not have grief, and grievances are for petitions, not poetry.

  59. John Self said,

    Incidentally, if you live in east Belfast, check out your local charity bookshop for a signed first edition (second printing) of Wolf Hall. I’m sorry about the pencil marks in the margins, but you can always rub those off and resell it on eBay.

  60. Wow — there sure has been a lot happening here while we North Americans slept. A few thoughts:

    I think it is time for the anti-Mawer campaign to stop. I have been biting my tongue for some time now, but a lot of us found this to be a very, very good book (myself, Will Rycroft, Tom C just for starters). I can appreciate that it does not speak to some people; I can only say that I think that is their loss.

    Which brings me to the “historical” novel point. I am quite aware that it is a genre where I become very picky — I think one look at the longlist said this jury loves it. That’s not a criticism, just an observation about taste. And the short list, with the three (arguably four if you include the Mawer) tomes, confirmed it. Wolf Hall was the best of that bunch (I actually made money with a bet on it and I did not like the book at all). While I do think for someone who reads a lot of different authors from different eras Summertime was an exceptional book, I suspect that you need to be that kind of extensive reader to appreciate it. Hence, John Self’s admiration — and my guess is that if there was a 3-2 split, Coetzee was probably the two.

    And, alas, you can’t create a “world” prize because there would be simply too many books to read — 130 or whatever for the Booker, 95 for the Giller in Canada, close to 200 for the National Book Award in the U.S. and that’s only three English-language countries. (And only one of three American prizes.) Somebody might be able to create a prize that put together the shortlists from them all — but it would end up looking a lot like the IMPAC already does. The knock against the IMPAC is that it is late in the game but any global prize is going to have that problem — only about half this year’s Booker longlist has been published in North America to date.

  61. Lee Monks said,

    I hoard everything, John. I couldn’t give a book away. Duplicates maybe. I’ve got them coming out of my ears, teetering in piles in inappropriate places etc. A brand-spanker of a Booker winner? Admirable churn!

  62. Lee Monks said,

    Kevin, point most definitely taken on the manageability aspect of a ‘world’ prize. I just feel that it’s a rare old 12-month period that produces 6 exceptional Commonwealth novels, and I seem to watch exceptional novels from all over the globe – many from the USA – go largely unrecognised. There has to be a way to revamp the thing.

  63. I’m certainly not campaigning against the Mawer Kevin, if that’s the impression I gave. I do think Waterstones et al will be glad the Mantel won as it is I think more saleable, but the Mawer interests me most of this year’s list.

  64. John Self said,

    I don’t see any anti-Mawer campaign myself. He’s been mentioned four or five times on this thread, mostly in conjunction with the Newsnight programme on the shortlisted authors. It’s true that it was my least favourite of the shortlist, and my opinion of it tended to harden negatively as time went on, as is the way of these things, but campaign? Would that I had the energy!

  65. I do follow the three major U.S. prizes (Book Award, Critics and Pulitzer) and find that over the years my preference is almost evenly split between the best of those and the Booker — I’ll admit I tend to judge on the basis of shortlists rather than winners. And as for my personal taste, this year I would certainly take Richard Russo’s That Old Cape Magic over any book on the Booker list.

    Okay, it’s not a campaign. Interestingly, my friend in the publishing industry thought The Glass Room would be the “commercial” choice of preference — that even as a winner Wolf Hall would only appeal to a restricted group. I’m not sure that I agree with that assessment.

  66. Sam said,

    He started talking about whether the present was too dark

    He didn’t quite say that, at least not in the way that seems to imply.

    He said:

    ‘All six of these novels, in different ways, are historically based. How far do you think that’s because this twenty-first century that we’re in, however fascinating it is, it’s dangerous, difficult to come to terms with. Does it not move your imagination at all?’

    She said:

    ‘Well, I have written contemporary novels as well as historical novels. But by the time you get them to the printer, you know, they’re all historical novels. And we have a fine body of people who comment on the present day for us and they’re called journalists. And I do feel it’s a novelist’s position… a novelist’s job is to stand back and get some perspective, not to come at contemporary events with a kind of knee-jerk reaction.’

    I don’t find anything that wrong with Esler’s question; either it’s sentiment or the way it was expressed. I guess he could’ve been more aware that any era’s difficult to come to terms with when it’s the one you’re living through, but it’s perhaps still not enough to warrant calling him an idiot.

  67. I did not see the broadcast, but from the quotes presented, I’m with Sam. It is a fair question and an even better answer. Whatever the tilt of the jury towards historical novels might have been (and I do think it existed), I’m not going to argue that Monica Ali (present) or Margaret Atwood (future — shudder — she didn’t even make the Canadian top five) was unfairly overlooked. And I would not have read Heliopolis– set in the present — were it not for the jury longlist selection — and I quite liked it. And they did put the near-contemporary Not Untrue & Not Unkind on the longlist, dreadful book that it is.

    Finally, as a former journalist, I very much appreciate Mantel’s comment about the different roles. That, more than anything else, may inspire me to read more of her work — I’m thinking I may try Beyond Black because I picked up a remainder copy for $2 Cdn (that would be about a pound).

  68. Sam said,

    I really enjoyed Heliopolis. But then I think the O’Loughlin should’ve made the shortlist.

  69. anokatony said,

    Here’s a possible way a world book prize could work. Take the shortlists from the Booker, the US, etc. as the base. I didn’t mention Giller, Kevin, because that would be some duplication with the Booker. These prizes could continue as is, but the world committee could use the shortlists. That would give books on the shortlists another chance to prove themselves. Then for some countries, they could nominate only one book It might still get messy, because some countries might feel they deserve major rank rather than minor rank. Translations would still prove a huge problem, so maybe a world prize is out of the question.

  70. John Self said,

    Oh OK then, I take back my idiot-categorising of Gavin Esler. I didn’t see the programme and was just going on the paraphrase provided. Still, it gave me another opportunity to share that Tobias Wolff extract, so je ne regrette rien.

    I don’t really agree with Mantel though. I think novelists have – dare I say it – almost a duty to transform our present times into art just as journalists transform it into reportage. Then comes the question, of course, of how soon this can properly be done (ask the writers who have been tackling 9/11). Or perhaps Mantel takes the view of Zhou Enlai who, when asked in the 1970s what he thought the effect had been of the French Revolution, replied, “It is too early to say.”

  71. It is definitely “too early to say”. And I fully agree that journalists do not have a monopoly on the present and that at least some novelists have a duty to explore it as well. For some reason, I do think American authors do it better but that may well be a reflection of the last few years and nothing more.

    I agree that some global company could well sponsor a “global” book prize along the lines that Tony suggests. You would still have the problem of timeliness but it would be interesting. Having said that, Booker readers seem to be more interested in American works than American readers in Booker results — I can’t recall seeing a demand to open the Pulitzer to non-U.S. citizens, although I am sure someone must have suggested it sometime.

  72. I don’t think my summary was that far off. Whether or not though, I do still think it’s a stupid question.

    “…this twenty-first century that we’re in, however fascinating it is, it’s dangerous, difficult to come to terms with.”

    What century or period wasn’t dangerous? Difficult to come to terms with? Certainly Thomas Cromwell’s time was dangerous and difficult to come to terms with. John’s quote remains very salient. If US literary authors can manage to write about the present, why shouldn’t ours? Does that mean novels like say The Reluctant Fundamentalist are too difficult to be written? Plainly not, since it exists.

    I think her answer was problematic too, though in fairness it was off the cuff. “by the time you get them to the printer, you know, they’re all historical novels” – that’s nonsense. As I said upthread, there’s a world of difference between a book set in 2005 and one set in 1805, taking a while to get to print doesn’t make it historical fiction and it’s disingenous to argue it does. And as for the idea contemporary issues are for journalists, again, nonsense. Journalists have an important role to play, vital, but authors do too and the existence of one doesn’t remove the need for the other.

  73. Sam said,

    Spooky: I used that same Zhou Enlai quote this morning, in discussion on this very subject.

    As said above, I disagree with Mantel’s reply. The post-9/11 novel is a case in point, and an extract from James Wood’s review of Updike’s Terrorist is perhaps a better response to Mantel than I could manage:

    The novelist is always an imaginative opportunist, and here, it seems, is one area where novelistic explanation might be richer than its sociological or political rivals. The academic and journalistic analysis of terrorism is usually too indulgent of rationality or too indulgent of irrationality: either the terrorist’s motives are robustly explicable (the existence of a Jewish state, the American occupation of the lands of the desired Caliphate) or sensationally inexplicable (“but why this young woman with everything to live for set out one morning to commit her dreadful deed will never be properly understood. …”). Such work tends to founder precisely on the unimaginable–on the margin of irrational rationality that seems to lurk in the decision to blow up oneself and many others. “My task which I am trying to achieve is … above all, to make you see,” Conrad famously wrote. It may be that to see, to picture such a human being, to know how he talks and moves, above all to envisage what he fears and loves, is to go a long way toward the comprehension of his motives.

    So the novel should and will be drawn to this subject. And novelists, of course, have their own kind of vanity, whereby the temptation toward negative capability, to inhabit an Iago as easily as an Imogen, is hard to resist. If one can successfully “be” a man or a woman, a CEO or a cabbie, then why not also be a Muslim terrorist?

    It is, incidentally, an absolutely scathing review; the next line reads…

    But John Updike should have run a thousand miles away from this subject–at least as soon as he saw the results on the page.

    For those interested, the full review can be found here:

    http://www.powells.com/review/2006_06_29.html

    • ryan said,

      You write this as a riposte to Mantel, yet I think her character study of a reluctant torturer and executioner could be described as a post 9/11 statement.

      I agree to a point with Elizabeth’s praise for the dense weft of emotions in this novel. Yet at midpoint, nothing has struck with force since the death of his daughters. I felt little at Wolsey’s death, which seems strange for such an important character. Mantel is like a realtor of interpersonal connections giving a potential buyer a tour of Cromwell’s emotional neighborhood. She points out much, but rarely closes a deal.

      Perhaps that’s simply how she means to characterize Cromwell at this point, frozen up by the death of so many of his family. Certainly his break with Johane, and his distant notice of the little touches and petting of the Boleyn sisters suggest he is benumbed.

      For the moment, he’s a man of equanimity, of small kindnesses to his employees, insights directed at the ladies of court, and efficiency leavened by friendly chatter for the king. But with Wolsey gone, the novel has no emotional core. I’m not really sure what’s driving Cromwell. He takes little enjoyment of power. If wealth is important to him, there has been no scene to drive that home, only casual mentions of his charities, and a few quiet discussions of exotic carpets and possessions that don’t seem too important to him.

      Perhaps “what is there but affairs” is meant to be the answer. But I don’t get a sense of gusto for the matters of state. He seems merely to do his job; like a fireman roused at 2:00 am for a fire, he rub his eyes and trots off to the castle to interpret Henry’s dreams. Sure he notices his own talent. But the exercise of his skill doesn’t seem to motivate him.

      Maybe I should finish before reviewing. Anyway, thanks for some interesting commentary.

      • frisbee said,

        The incidents are like fleeting glimpses. I read it more like a diary than a novel. I hope you have finished reading by now. Anyways, I think Cavendish also has a vital role. Although he covers a very little part of the book, he will be the one to write about Cromwell & Wolsey.

      • Hi Ryan,

        Did you find an emotional core in the love and friendship between our man and Henry? I’m fascinated by your thought that he might be emotionally benumbed. I’m thinking that this characterization suggests a middle aged person who is in his peak of the great stretch of generativity as defined by Erikson. He seems like a real person to me, enjoying the daily grind on many levels, while keeping his emotional center focused upon the love for his family and his complex love for Henry.

  74. frisbee said,

    i’ve recently read ‘Wolf Hall’ and i liked it. i really could not resist to make a comment here – we can mention Scott’s ‘Ivanhoe’ as a historical novel. anyways, the mention of ‘he’ in ‘Wolf Hall’ without an reference is really confusing.

    • ryan said,

      “more like a diary than a novel”

      That’s pretty accurate. I thought it began with great force, but by the 400th page, I started to feel I was reading her notes for the chapter, rather than the finished product of a fiction writer. I think she ran out of steam. The idea of a follow-up book is mystifying. If she has any more Cromwell left in her, she should use it to fill in Wolf Hall before it goes to paperback.

      • Nick said,

        Too late. I’ve bought it in paperback a month or so ago.

        I haven’t read it yet… and after what you have all said, it’s far from being first on my reading mountain.

  75. [...] Bibliophile Asylum Fantasy Book Critic Farm Lane Books Medieval [...]

  76. frisbee said,

    Can you please define more clearly what do you mean by “this characterization suggests a middle aged person who is in his peak of the great stretch of generativity as defined by Erikson”? & “his complex love for Henry”? didn’t he love Wolsey as well?

    • Yes, I think Mantel’s Cromwell did love Wolsey, but his love for Henry was perhaps given a boost and the bond made deeper by the fact that Henry needed the strategizer Cromwell.

      I was referring to the psychologist Erik Erikson’s stages of development http://bit.ly/Erikson. Mantel’s Cromwell is written such that the traits of a healthy middle aged person appeared lifelike to me. Cromwell’s focus upon his work feels realistic. I read him to be someone who kept his emotional life closely worn, his hair shirt, so to speak.

      • frisbee said,

        Thanks for your answer, & yes, I agree that Cromwell was really helpful in Henry’s politics. He loved his family beyond everything. To me at first it seemed that Cromwell was choosing Jane (of Wolf Hall) for his son. But later it became clear that perhaps he was choosing her for himself, & that’s why he did not go to Johane any more!

  77. [...] TA: “Mantel makes the reader work but does not withhold rewards…” [...]

  78. Sam said,

    Despite what I said way back when above, I bought the paperback. But it seems Hil and me just aren’t a good match. This is the third book of hers I’ve now abandoned.

    Undoubtedly, it’s a majesterial work, magnificent, even. Her voice, however, just seems to repel me. But even I can see that the book’s deserving of all the plaudits it’s receiving.

  79. Lee Monks said,

    I entirely agree with you, Sam. I recognise the craft and the augered authenticity. But it feels like extraordinary determination as opposed to sweeping talent, and I don’t have her level of determination to ever finish one of her books. She never thrills, she merely forces respect.

  80. Sam said,

    That’s exactly it, and feels very true to my experience of Mantel: her prose gives me no joy, and this was made worse in this book by her determination to keep us from Cromwell’s Mind, despite writing from his PoV. I found it dismaying that even at Liz’s death we got very little of his inner life (that may be Mantel’s point, but it didn’t make very interesting reading).

  81. [...] Asylum [...]

  82. Joanna Panepinto said,

    Wolf Hall was the January 2011 read for our book club. Like one of your earlier bloggers, it was difficult to sort out the speaker especially when two characters were speaking within the same paragraph. That was my main difficulty.

    Apart from that, I found the novel an academic challenge, which is a good thing. I had to go online to learn about the history of that period, such as who was the Emperor, the King Francis and had to keep going back and forth through the character list and the diagrams of the houses of Tudor and York. With that done, I thoroughly enjoyed the book and was sorry when I finished. One thing, does Cromwell marry Jane Seymour, because I believe she was one of the six wives of Henry VIII?

  83. J. Mackintosh said,

    I’m surprised that Wolf Hall won any award – it was terribly written and didn’t flow well. I had to keep going back to see who said what as the dialogue was all jumbled up not to mention non-sensical in parts. Completely confusing and annoying. I love novels based on history and especially this period of which I’m pretty knowledgable but this was just a chore to read.
    Why is it that the books that appear to be written by someone on lots of medication win the literary prizes? Is it because it’s assumed that if something is difficult to understand it must be a work of genius?


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