“It’s Like A Mirror”: Maggie O’Farrell’s “Hamnet”

Hamnet coverIn one way, Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet has not, in its effort to win the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction, chosen its moment well: a historical novel set in the sixteenth century, it must defeat Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror & The Light in its own Tudorbethan sub-category before even having a hope of triumphing in the tournament proper. It’s not that the novels’ approaches to the period are entirely similar – O’Farrell does not restrict herself to the third-person limited, and she opts for the economical over the encyclopaedic – but equally, and beyond the jerkins and the ruffs, they certainly share a lyrical, empathetic approach to the Tudors that inevitably situates them side-by-side on a shortlist.

In another key way, however, Hamnet is the perfect novel for the moment – because it is a plague book. No one really knows what killed the only son of William Shakespeare – he is primarily remembered by his orthographic near-double, the Prince of Denmark. But O’Farrell has chosen to have him bitten by fleas, and in so doing  has written, quite without planning it of course, a novel that became in 2020 simultaneously rather too close to the bone and also unusually comforting.  We should all, of course, still be paying attention to the high politics and state-making with which Mantel concerns herself; but in 2020 much of our attentions have also turned inward. Hamnet speaks to the smaller world of the domestic space, riven by disease and shattered by grief, out of control and yet also the only unit left to us in making sense of events. “Every life has its kernel, its hub, its epicentre,” we read early on, “from which everything flows out, to which everything returns.” Hamnet is about that hub, where The Mirror & The Light is about – seeks to encompass – all its many spokes.

The novel begins with Hamnet running. He is, like most young boys, in persistent motion. At this particular moment, his family are nowhere to be seen, distracted by concern for his sister, Judith. Of course, this activity will end soon and the familial fretting will guiltily shift focus – and, equally naturally, the contrast is O’Farrell’s point. Also part of the purpose of the novel’s opening pages is sketching the geography of the very small world in which its events are set. When William eventually leaves for London and Southwark, we do not follow him; we instead stay in Stratford, and mostly on Henley Street – though occasionally we, like the characters, make the trip to the space of Shottery, where the Hathaways reside. This tight mise en scene offers O’Farrell the opportunity to paint the intimacy of the enclosed spaces in which most of the characters spend much of their time: the kitchen, the glover’s workshop, the bedchamber. The few streets of Stratford, too, become material in our reading the novel, and even a funeral procession to Holy Trinity is given the ballast of attractively quotidian detail.

By centring the novel in this way, its comparatively rather small stakes in fact come to matter a great deal – as of course they should. Hamnet isn’t really concerned with William except in his role as a father and husband; we spend most time with him early on, as a frustrated Latin master, and he becomes a mystery to us once he adopts the earring of the rakish playwright. The novel is, despite its title, in large part the story of his relationship with Anne – here known by her own insistence as Agnes. Agnes, the sister of the boys to whom William is assigned as Latin master, is given by O’Farrell the same gifts of human sympathy and understanding which are so often assigned to her husband; his self-actualisation becomes as much her project as his own. “She can look at a person and see right into their very soul,” he says of her, before London and Hamnet’s death drive wedges between them. “There is not a drop of harshness in her. She will take a person for who they are, not what they are not or ought to be.”

This comes as special relief to William, since his own father – the harsh glover, John – has no patience for his son’s sense of displacement, nor his apparent lack of interest in the practical trades to which John has devoted his life. Agnes, however, recognises that William “had more hidden away inside [him] than anyone else she’d ever met.” When William chooses to leave for London and not take his family with him, this hidden part bites the hand that has fed it. “It is evident to Agnes now … that her husband is split in two,” and duality feeds much of the rest of the novel: life and death, brother and sister, husband and wife, London and Stratford, sickness and health. Unusually, in doubleness the novel finds much not just of its conflict but also its consolation. In the novel’s denouement, for example, Agnes steals away to London, unbidden by her husband, to discover what his double life involves – adultery, probably, dissipation surely. But instead she attends the Globe, and sees a production of Hamlet, in which William plays the ghost of the young man’s father.

Her husband wrote these words, these exchanges, but what has any of this to do with their boy? … Why would her husband have done it? Why pretend that it means nothing to him, just a collection of letters? How could he thieve his name, then strip and flense it of all it embodies, discarding the very life it once contained? How could he take up his pen and write it on a page, breaking its connection with their son?

[… But] her husband has pulled off a manner of alchemy. He has found this boy, instructed him, shown him, how to speak, how to stand, how to lift his chin, like this, like that. He has rehearsed and primed and prepared him. He has written words for him to speak and to hear. She tries to imagine how her husband could have schooled him so exactly, so precisely, and how it might have felt when the boy got it right, when he first got the walk, that heartbreaking turn of the head.

[…] Hamlet, here, on this stage, is two people, the young man, alive, and the father, dread. […] He has taken his son’s death and made it his own; he has put himself in death’s clutches, resurrecting the boy in his place.

Having spent hundreds of pages, and in novel-time several years, with this family – who are in many ways historically, culturally, religiously distant from us – this passage, in which William at first has no idea his wife is present, is profoundly moving. This is because O’Farrell has picked apart the grief of the Shakespeares, the absence in their life that the plague has created. When Hamlet first dies from his sickness, which he has suffered while all the while his father is in London or travelling belatedly back, Agnes can barely believe it: “It is an impossible idea that her son, her child, her boy, the healthiest and most robust of her children, should, within days, sicken and die.” William, at first so distant as to see confoundingly unmoved, ultimately admits the same: “I am constantly wondering where he is,” he confides to her. “Where he has gone It is like a wheel ceaselessly turning at the back of my mind.” The complexity of this family, the doubleness of the individuals that make it up, the tight confines in which they share space, are laid bare – rent open, cast into chaos – by the random event of illness. Each member of the family must first identity, then acknowledge, then somehow accommodate, the knowledge that “[what] is given may be taken away, at any time. Cruelty and devastation wait for you around corners, inside coffers, behind doors: they can leap out at you at any moment, like a thief or brigand.” Hamnet is in part a book about how one family might do that.

Their pain is heightened by how arbitrary is Hamnet’s death. In a bravura passage, O’Farrell proposes sketches how, for “the pestilence to reach Warwickshire, England, in the summer of 1596, two events need to occur in the lives of two separate people, and then these two people need to meet” – but, in the telling, she makes clear how reductive even this emphasis upon chance proves to be. In fact, the necessary connections are even more rosicrucian and random. The two people are a Murano glassmaker and a cabin boy: the second contracts fleas from a monkey he plays with; the first is sick one day and his understudy fails to pack a shipment of beads safely, instead using rags the cabin boy’s fleas eventually migrate to onboard the vessel. When the beads are eventually delivered to Stratford-upon-Avon, as a result of yet more coincidence and hundreds of miles from Alexandria and Murano, a young boy dies. The almost improbable chain of events encourages fear – buboes send Stratford into cold shivers – and also, of course, superstition and foolishness: when a doctor arrives in a plague mask, Hamnet asks why he wears the strange device. “Because he this it will protect him,” Agnes explains. Will it? the boy responses. “His mother purses her lips, then shakes her head. ‘I don’t think so.'” But wear it he does.

All of this, needless to say, feels grimly relevant. But there is also a certain consolation in reading of plagues past, of quarantines and isolations and cumbersome prophylactics that – though terrifying then as now – also connect us to other human beings through shared experience and the empathy we can, with effort, practice in its presence. Hamnet adopts a laconic style that is never lachrymose or over-laden with pathos; but it is also deeply sad while finding room for hopes: of reconciliation, of memory, of love. I don’t think, in the quality of its execution or its clarity of vision, it has much in fact to fear from the mirror or the light.

“Wine of Head-Spinning Strength”: Hilary Mantel’s “The Mirror & the Light”

The Mirror & the LightAbigail Nussbaum has already written about The Mirror & the Light, Hilary Mantel’s third and final Cromwell novel, in so circumspect a way as to render this post redundant. She has in the past been more of a fan of this series than me – I enjoyed Bring Up The Bodies  but find the way Mantel deals with historical context difficult to wash over – but her critical reading of this concluding volume is generous enough to encompass both its merits and its failings:

All of it is expertly turned, beautifully written, absolutely fascinating. But it also has the feel of marking time. Quite a lot happens in The Mirror and the Light, for all that one might go into it expecting it to be a mere period on Cromwell’s life. It’s 450 pages before Jane Seymour dies. 600 before Anne of Cleves shows her face. In between there are crises galore—Henry’s daughter Mary nearly talks herself onto the gallows through her refusal to acknowledge her father as the head of the church; the peasants’ army nearly reaches London, baying for Cromwell’s blood the entire time; the Poles and the Courtenays scheme while pretending loyalty to Henry and cooperation with Cromwell. But rather than come together into a crescendo, there’s a certain episodic feeling to it all.

This was my experience of the novel, too. Bring Up The Bodies remains for me the best of the trilogy because it is also the leanest, hemmed in both by the volumes around it but also the events and timelines they set in motion and bring to a close. Structure was forced upon Mantel in that intermediate novel, in other words, but in The Mirror & the Light she seems – just as Wolf Hall struggled at times to get going from a standing start – to be reluctant to reach the end. What results is a dilatory experience, and one in which – uniquely in this series – the historical material, Mantel’s undoubtedly deep and broad research, starts to show. We get a lot of this:

It was like killing a cripple; but Henry Tudor did it, so as not to lose the Spanish bride. With Warwick dead, his sister Margaret was in the hands of the king; he made her safe with marriage to a loyalist. “My grandmother wed her to Arthur Pole,” the king says. “I made her Countess of Salisbury.” [p. 99]

Reader, you don’t need to know this. The conceit is that Cromwell does – or rather, that he may. Cromwell’s challenge at all times is to know everything, map out all potentialities, in order to make up for his absence of position, standing and force. The novel thus drowns him slowly, piling incident upon incident until the deluge is too great even for him to withstand. Cromwell loses because he loses control. This is an effective explanation of his downfall – and at the present time a compelling depiction of a society so beset that radical change and personal destruction is inevitable. But the novel, too, loses control.

February, the king sends Philip Hoby into France. Hoby is a gentleman of the privy chamber: a gospeller, good-looking and keen, and well-briefed by himself, the Lord Privy Seal. The king thinks he has a chance of Madame de Longueville, despite the King of Scots’ claims that they are affianced. But there is no harm in looking at her sister, Louise. There is another sister, Renée, who they say is bound for a covent. [p. 534]

It goes on and on. There are walk-on parts for every vaguely famous Henrician notable, and many more besides; the cast of principal characters grows as Cromwell’s own star wanes; the plots become, again no doubt deliberately, impossible to contain. In an episode-long Start The Week interview to mark publication of this novel, the BBC’s Andrew Marr interviewed Mantel as if she were not a novelist but a historian, asking questions of motivation and meaning, interpretation and incident, that might have been better directed towards Diarmaid MacCulloch. But what was fascinating is that Mantel could answer them as if she were a historian, too. The Mirror & the Light, with its compendious qualities and apparent need to encompass not just its own story but all the ones that might have happened instead or did happen to one side of it, betrays this shift in her style.

In another way, though, I was reminded most keenly of fantasy as I read this novel. The Mirror & the Light shares little with George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, and in one respect they are particularly alike: their scope. Both series take in a huge number of characters, each with their own agendas and desires, and both range across a number of years and a complex sequences of world-defining events. Where Martin conveys these via multiple perspectives, the defining quality of Mantel’s series is its fixation on only one; her literary achievement in creating a convincing consciousness out of this choice is of course these novels’ crowning glory, and what elevates them to the presumed pantheon of early twenty-first-century greatness. But A Song of Ice and Fire in fact balances its many plotlines and coincidences, vignettes and cameos, with more finesse. Much in Martin happens off-screen, imparted by rumour or letter; so, too, in Mantel. Much proves to be irrelevant or tangential, as in Mantel. And much of Martin’s narrative, too, cannot possibly be held in the reader’s mind constantly and at all times – or even requires itself to be. In Mantel, this becomes wearying, even over the course of a single instalment; in Martin, it often does not.

Perhaps this is because Martin’s popular fiction includes the sort of signposting or summarising – the telling and the showing – that literary fiction eschews. Mantel’s novels are Henrician courts in miniature – difficult to navigate, impossible to unravel, both compelling and claustrophobic. “That is how the enemy is hoisted, flying into the air while his horse carries on without him,” we read of a joust. “You hardly hear him hit the ground because the courtiers are yelling like drunks at a bear-baiting” [p. 790]. The noise, in other words, is part of the experience; and it’s meant to be distracting. The telling is secondary to the effect.

How much you get on with this novel will depend a great deal on how much you mind its approach. For me, the hyper-granular world-building feels both overwhelming and unconnected to the novel’s real project – to create in Cromwell a convincingly modern personality, a character we can relate to even as the world through which he moves is alien and strange. Given these novels are so loved by so many, I’m open – as I was back in 2009 – to the idea that this is my failing not the novel’s. Another of this year’s Women’s Prize shortlistees, Bernardino Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other is also a garlanded novel I admire but cannot love – and in which I don’t quite see the transcendental virtues others can perceive.

As The Mirror & the Light expands ever outwards across its remarkable length (and we should pause here to marvel at Mantel’s ability to stretch her novel across this sort of page-count without ever once making a prosodic slip), it only becomes more and more itself. And it is too late for this trilogy, as it becomes too late for poor old Thomas Cromwell, to win your allegiance if it has not already.

The Booker Shortlist 2012

In considering this year’s Booker shortlist, we should get the obvious out of the way first: Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up The Bodies is head and shoulders above its competitors. Not only that: it is a better novel than Wolf Hall, which of course won the prize in 2009. These twin killer facts might suggest it is a shoe-in for the gong this evening, but it will surely be difficult for the panel to reward Mantel for two consecutive books when there is also a third on the way. It would risk turning Mantel into the China Miéville of the Booker, and this seems inimical to the prize’s vision of itself.

As one might intuit from this photo taken last night at the Booker’s event on the South Bank, many fancy Will Self to pip Mantel to the post. Umbrella, however, is a wrecking-ball of a novel, demolishing as it goes not just the cosy complacencies of the literary novel but also itself. Self’s suggestion that modernism retains currency feels confected and unconvincing, offering us in a weird kind of way the shock merely of the old. In the wake of Umbrella, I’ve been re-reading John Carey’s The Intellectuals and the Masses, since Self seems to reserve special ire for it (“a curiously patrician form of pro-populism”): Carey may well cherry-pick his case, but what he demonstrates beyond doubt is that modernism proceeded out of its own milieu, not some Romantic eternalised present. Umbrella reads like radical nostalgia.

My thesis is, then, that Self and Mantel will frame this afternoon’s discussion between the Booker judges – but act as alienating poles between which a compromise will need to be found. On one level, almost any of the four remaining books could fit that bill: with the possible exception of Swimming Home (which nevertheless John Mullan was inexplicably enthusiastic about on telly last week), each has something to recommend it. Narcopolis, if bloated and over-stylised, is regardless the closest this shortlist gets to a fresh kind of literary experiment, whilst The Garden of Evening Mists, though overly po-faced and in some need of an edit, in many ways comes closest to Mantel’s brand of narrative interest. It seems to me, however, that one book more than the others is best placed to slip through the Symplegades of Self and Mantel.

The Lighthouse is a small but perfectly formed novel without baggage and with a high level of literary accomplishment. If, as a first novel, it is not as ambitious as either of the shortlist’s big names, it is certainly more successful in its aims, and on its own terms, than any of the books except Mantel’s. If we assume, then, that Mantel cannot win – and that she and Self will divide the panel into warring houses – then the moment may be Alison Moore’s. Compromise candidate or no, The Lighthouse would be a deserving winner – and its victory an exciting prospect for small press publishers.

ETA: I am in the event really very pleased that the judges went for the best book, regardless of the politics. They should be commended, as should Mantel. Bravo!

“Roses Snatched From The Thorns”: Hilary Mantel’s “Bring Up The Bodies”

When I read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall back in 2009, I was less complimentary than most. Despite the weight often attached by the cognoscenti to my sceptical eyebrow,  the novel went on to win that year’s Booker Prize. I wanted, in the wake of that victory, to return to Wolf Hall and attempt to see past my discomfiture with its vision of Thomas Cromwell. It is, however, a big book – and I turned to new projects instead. Happily, then, the publication last month of Bring Up The Bodies, Mantel’s sequel, gave me the excuse I was looking for.

On the other hand, this new novel is a different beast. It is slimmer, for a start, and far more focused: where Wolf Hall began in 1500 and ended only in July 1535, its sequel covers barely 11 months – the period of Anne Boleyn’s fall from favour, from September 1535 to the summer of 1536. This paring-down has two principal effects: first, it imposes upon the novel something approximating a plot which, though often progressing off-stage in the way of a play, has a beginning, a middle and an end; second, it demands a more detailed appreciation of Cromwell’s own decision-making. In Wolf Hall, years flicked by rapidly and schematically – Cromwell moved in an upward trajectory at times almost by luck, and the wisdom of his canny maneuvres were the novel’s organising principle; here, he is more subject to events.

The style of all this, though, is broadly similar: as I wrote in my post on Wolf Hall, Mantel inspires in the reader a kind of fugue state, drifting at seeming random from one dream-like vignette to the next, always in the third person and always following him, Cromwell. He says, he speaks, he directs. Every other character – from the highest in the land to the lowest – revolve around him, Cromwell. “The fist of Cromwell is more proximate than the hand of God,” quips one character [pg. 115], and in so doing cuts to the quick of Cromwell’s dominating presence in the novel. Indeed, humour has a far more significant role in Bring Up The Bodies than its predecessor, with even its opening cast list featuring a grim punchline (the final actor listed as “a French executioner”. This makes for a more playful and supple style than Wolf Hall‘s occassionally occluding severity – although admittedly its lighter tone and shorter timespan works against quite the depth of Tudor grime accrued by the first novel.

What’s odd about this sunlight is that Bring Up The Bodies sees Mantel step away – only a little, but step all the same – from Wolf Hall‘s vision of the Good Cromwell. Her previous refutation of Robert Bolt was made rather too strenuously, and perhaps in recompense Bring Up The Bodies gives us a more ambivalent, more compromised character. The nature of this depiction is encapsulated early on: “He has always done what was needed to survive, and if his judgement of what was necessary was sometimes questionable … that is what it is to be young. Nowadays he takes poor scholars into his family.” [pg. 66]   That is, we see a Cromwell haunted by his past (‘The Dead’ get their own section of the cast list) who is intensely involved in convincing himself he is making amends. When questioning the musician Mark Smeaton, and in an instance of the way in which Mantel captures beautifully the theological anxieties of the age, Cromwell says smoothly: “I think you have become too assured of forgiveness, believing that you have years ahead of you to sin and yet though God sees all he must be patient, like a waiting man: and you will notice him at last, and answer is suit, if only he will wait till you are old.” [pg. 336]  It’s hard not to hear Cromwell talking to himself here.

As Colin Burrow has pointed out, however, the novel works like the Tudor court: rumours of beheadings and poisonings reach us of which Cromwell denies all knowledge, leaving us to wonder if they are unfounded or he self-deluded. “Ireland is quiet this Christmas,” Mantel explains, “in greater peace than she has seen for forty years. Mainly he has brought this about by hanging people. Not many: just the right ones. It’s an art, a necessary art.” [pg. 135]   Yet Cromwell’s pragmatism still gives him room to mythologise the morality of his methods: “I will not rack him,” he insists of one of four men involved in the Boleyn affair. “I do not want him carried to his trial in a chair. And if I need to rack a sad little fellow like this … what next? Stamping on dormice?” [pg. 277]  When we first meet the Cromwell of Bring Up The Bodies, “he comes into his hall to find versions of himself in various stages of becoming” [pg. 7] – his rooms full of portraits in varying stages of completion – and throughout the novel Master Secretary is writing himself a history.

As in Wolf Hall, that history is primarily one of the march to modernity. This Whiggish whiff is tempered by a sly vision of Englishness – “The Italians […] say the road between England and Hell is worn bare from treading feet” [pg. 34] – and Cromwell’s England is most clearly characterised by the double standards of his own self-awareness. “You will not hear of any talent I possess, that England cannot use,” he boasts to his enemy Stephen Gardiner [pg. 72], but these talents are so useful to this putatively modern England because it is itself emerging into an age which requires quiet hypocrisy. The dissolution of the monasteries, and the manuevers to enthrone Jane Seymour as Queen, both take place in sotto voice, less stated aims than private enrichments. “The French do not understand law courts and parliaments,” sighs Cromwell. “For them, the best actions are covert actions.” [pg. 380]  But public actions are not necessarily private meanings, and it is the the spurned Katherine of Aragon who captures the tenor of Tudor England best: “Ah, do you see, I am an Englishwoman now! I know how to say the opposite of what I mean.” [pg. 140]

Indeed, Bring Up The Bodies has a sustained interest in the role of women in this apparently ineluctably male society. “Women have to adapt themselves,” sighs Margery Seymour [pg. 17], and the novel looks with some interest at the ways in which those adaptations are made. George Boleyn’s poor wife, Jane Rochford, says of her father, “He paid less mind to contracting me to Boleyn than he would to selling a hound or puppy” [pg. 265], and in his usual way Cromwell professes to feel pity for the downtrodden: “she is fighting with the women’s weapons that are all she has,” he opines of Anne. But in truth it is men’s visions which dictate this impossible position – and Cromwell does little to alleviate them, deciding Jane Seymour’s fate with only an interest in her virginal appearance. “What do we look for in a queen?” the King’s Treasurer wonders aloud. “She should have all the virtues of an ordinary woman, but she must have them to a high degree.”[pg. 215] This prescriptiveness – modesty, humility, obedience – sets the fate of the novel’s women as surely as they do the poor scholars Cromwell pretends to patronise.

Bring Up The Bodies, then, is about power and privilege – and in this way, like its forebear speaks to our present moment. Indeed, this Cromwell still feels “stuck like a limpet to the future” [pg. 406], and this still renders the historicity of the novel – which, though narrower than the world-creation of Wolf Hall, remains one of its primary projects (Mantel is good at images that evoke a society – Anne “orders her women out [… like] a child scaring crows” [pg. 106]). But in allowing a greater complicity in this older, more ambivalent, Cromwell, Mantel at least succeeds in subsuming her protagonist more clearly in the period through which he passes. This produces a surer sense of both time and place in which events overtake even this non-Machiavellian Machiavellian (The Prince “seemed almost trite to him, nothing in it but abstractions” [pg. 71]).  Events – history – catch up with every figure, of course; they write over us, or writes is out, at their convenience. “Unless truth is pleasing, personable and easy to like, she is condemned to stay whimpering at the back door.” [pg. 159]  Perhaps; but in the third volume of what seems increasingly to be a trilogy best judged in toto, the wolves will be at Thomas Cromwell’s door.

Review Nicely, Children.

If it's rubbish, should we say so?

A review of Neal Asher’s latest science fiction adventure, Orbus, was published on Friday by Strange Horizons. It was written by me. I didn’t make many bones about my view on the novel, which was pretty negative. Especially in sf reviewing, there seems a strong tendency to praise more than criticise; a sense that the genre needs encouraging, or reviewers need not to abuse their position, pervades many review outlets, to the extent that even a poor book gets a review of which several paragraphs are devoted to what it does well (for which we should read ‘averagely’, or simply ‘not quite as badly’). I’m guilty of that, too: towards the end of the Orbus review, I did my best to give Asher some credit for a few interesting ideas and his knack for scary monsters.

Still, the eminently reasonable and sensible Paul Raven tweeted this about the review: “[…] the almost complete lack of punch-pulling from Hartland was a real eyebrow-raiser.” In response, Ian Sales made the point I make above: “sadly, too many reviews these days are dishonest – yes, find something nice to say, but don’t ignore the bad.” The final part of the he said/he said I’ll quote here is Paul’s reply: “Troo dat – but even so, I’d flinch from giving a kicking that thorough, possibly because I’m not a published writer.”

I know exactly what Paul means: my own eyebrows were raised by a review this weekend, namely Hilary Mantel’s take-down of Lindsey Davis’s new British Civil Wars romp, Rebels and Traitors. Rather than leaving the good bits to a consolatory end, Mantel gets the sweeteners out of the way early: “Her research has been assiduous and detailed, her commitment to the subject is impressive, and the background detail is often eye-opening.” Her final sentence, though, is a real wounder: “Perhaps it is just as well that there is no sentence in it that you would want to read twice.” Ouch.

The eyebrow-raising in this case, at least for my own part, was more a case of seeing a recent Booker-winning writer of historical fiction laying into another writer of historical fiction with such abandon. In a sense, then, my problem was the opposite of Paul’s: Mantel, unlike for example me, is a published writer – indeed, in the same ‘genre’ (for more on which thorny question, go here) as the book she is reviewing – and her take-down could well be read as more problematic as a result. I assume Paul’s point (if it isn’t about careerism!) is simply that Tor publish Asher and don’t publish Hartland, and that therefore Hartland should doff his cap a bit more. Fair cop. At the same time, though, is a published fiction writer – if (and I don’t buy this) more qualified – more trustworthy as a critic, particularly of a work close to her own patch? The published writer thing seems to me a red herring on more than one level. Had Tor published my (non-existent) rip-roaring sf manly adventure, does that make me any better a critic of Asher’s? Might it not make me worse?

Disclosure: I haven’t read Davis, but Mantel is a reviewer I’ve agreed with in the past, and she isn’t currently having any problem with sales. Merely the coincidence of my and Paul’s responses struck me. Further for the record, I agree with Jonathan McCalmont in the comments to my original review: sf reviewers shouldn’t make nice with disappointing fare just because it’s been crafted in their bailiwick, published writers or no.

A Quiet Weekend

guardian-logo2Dan didn’t feel very well this weekend, so mostly we just sat, relaxed and read! We’d bought the Guardian, which is always good for a few hours, and both read “The Heart Fails Without Warning“, a succinct story from Booker-winner Hilary Mantel. The Review section also included another Booker snippet from Lucasta Miller, who came out and said, as far as it is possible for a Booker judge to come out and say, that her favourite was the Coetzee. She also suggested that the other judges recognized, too, that  Summertime is the book which will ‘last’. It read very much like a minority report. The paper also had some bad news for the Tories, and a piece by Polly Toynbee which Dan insisted was what he’d said.

We may also have watched The X-Factor…

Booker Winner Announced

So it was indeed Wolf Hall, in the end (though not, I note, as the result of a unanimous vote). On Newsnight Review last week, Gavin Esler and John Carey loved it, whilst Rosie Boycott and Michael Portillo felt much the way way I did about the book. They could not, however, agree on a book which was better – Carey clearly liked the Coetzee (and had what seemed a grudging soft spot for The Little Stranger), Portillo and Boycott the Byatt (which I won’t be rushing to read after Adam Roberts’s review of it).

I’m just halfway through The Glass Room, which is a sort of modernist soap opera and certainly not close to the Mantel on any level, whatever issues I have with its historiography and forbidding style. I still think that The Quickening Maze is better written, and Summertime better structured, but Wolf Hall was perhaps the favourite because it is so vast. I probably owe it a re-read.

“Write Your Heart Wide Open”: Coetzee and Foulds’s Booker Books

“A book should be an axe to chop open the frozen sea inside us,” declares one character in the course of J.M. Coetzee’s latest novel, Summertime. Were this line not written by a man who has already won the prize twice, it might be fair to suspect it of being shameless Booker bait. Likewise, the luminous prose of Adam Foulds’s The Quickening Maze is just the sort of writing the Booker likes to reward. No surprise, then, that both novels wound up on the shortlist – not least because, Booker boxes ticked aside, they are both of the very highest quality.

The Quickening Maze
The Quickening Maze

Foulds’s novel is the story of the High Beach Private Asylum in and around 1840. He presents Dr Matthew Allen’s sanitorium in Epping Forest as a literary nexus, into which both John Clare – an inmate – and Alfred Tennyson – a patient’s resident relative – are drawn. This pair are different from each other as both poets and men, but Foulds resists the temptation to throw this separation into high relief by contriving anything as unsubtle as an actual meeting. He instead settles for the passing quality of coincidence. It proves enough: Clare, almost forgotten by the literary establishment, and Tennyson, about to take off, move through the novel along distinct but comparable lines.

This trick is extended to the large cast of characters, major and minor, who populate the Asylum: Allen himself, a vain self-styled liberal whose attention is too easily drawn from project to project; his daughter, Hannah, who develops an unreciprocated romantic attachment to the misanthropic Tennyson; a band of gypsies at large within the forest who provide the novel with its few moments of true community; and assorted inmates, from self-denying Margaret, who suffers from religious mania, to George Laidlaw, who is convinced he is personally responsible for the National Debt. If the depiction of Clare’s madness remains the book’s great achievement – and this is a book which believes unequivocally (and perhaps unfashionably) that madness exists – then it is not because he economises when dealing with the rest of cast. Each character is given their own distinctive voice – indeed, it is part of the novel’s project that each consciousness is given an almost hermetic completeness. In particular, Hannah’s doomed courtship of Tennyson, and subsequent attempts at others (she has inherted her father’s flightiness) is executed with such precision and care that her voice manages to pull together what would otherwise threaten to be a disparate selection of barely related narratives.

The other unifying factor is Foulds’s language, about which Adam Roberts has already waxed lyrical. I’m more positive about the book than Adam I think because I also see unity elsewhere. Concerned with the formation of identity, this is very much a novel of construction – on one level, Allen becomes obsessed with the idea of manufacturing a machine which can carve wood to the standard of a human artisan, whilst on another Tennyson broods about the reception of his poetry by the London elite. In this way, the novel asks us to understand a person not just by how he sees himself – Clare’s madness is essentially seen as a solipsistic insistence on ideas without external corroboration – but also by how he is seen by others – Allen’s deep-seated need to prove himself, for example, proceeds not in small part from the pressures of his dead father and disapproving brother, devout Sandemanians both. The sense of community with which Foulds so tenderly (and yet visercally, in a scene of animal dismemberment) invests the gypsy scenes, is the best hope of a sane give-and-take between self and society. Of course, the Victorian completion of enclosure finally removed the gypsies’ right to the land.


Summertime, too, asks questions about identity, choosing as its focus John Coetzee, a recently deceased writer who is as isolated and solitary as Foulds might fear we all are in a post-enclosure age. John Coetzee is, of course, a fictionalised version of the author himself, and there is much amusement to be had here merely from enjoying the vast helpings of meta which are heaped upon the book: it follows Coetzee’s Youth and Boyhood, and those books are referenced here as the opening two volumes in an uncompleted trilogy; our interlocutor, a young and somewhat gauche English biographer, is drawing together John Coetzee’s notebook fragments and interviews with five important figures in John’s life of the early 1970s, attempting a sort of ersatz third volume. “It sounds a peculiar way of selecting biographical sources, if you don’t mind my saying so,” remarks one of the interviewees, and the reader is led to agree. This is no definitive biography, fictional or otherwise.

The point here, of course, is two-fold. Firstly, there is no such thing as definitive biography, or indeed a logical way of selecting “biographical sources”. Secondly, and more importantly, Coetzee contends that – whether famous or no, alive or dead – we cede much of our ability to construct our identity to those around us, and yet even a compilation of those responses cannot reach the truth. Coetzee’s language is, naturally, less showy than Foulds’s, but if so it is also, as if this needs saying, more controlled. Summertime is a clear, crisp and intricate novel – the work of an expert. If its central themes sounds rather obvious, it is true that perhaps the novel’s failures, such as they are, lies in a lack of ambition. Most notably, The Savage Detectives performs exactly Coetzee’s trick but better: though John Coetzee is constructed throughout the novel, the reader also feels he is always in plain sight; Bolaño performs the quite phenomenal sleight of hand of never allowing his poet protagonists to appear centre-stage, however much his interviewees circle them. The Savage Detectives is a tour de force which Summertime, for all its clarity of thought and language, cannot match.

Yet for all that similarity of purpose and presentation, it’s still unfair wholly to condemn Summertime for its failings in comparison with another, greater, text. As one would expect, Coetzee still packs into 260 pages enough aphorism and observation to nourish a lesser writer’s whole career. His novel is a beautifully structured anti-narrative, with resonances and echoes throughout which lift the material beyond itself. In particular, the manner in which he renders the personal political – extrapolating outwards John Coetzee’s personal failings (about which the interviewees are merciless) into the larger tapestry of South Africa’s political history without apparently straining or stretching – is very neat. Neat, in fact, might be the best description of the book. If this makes it sound polite or safe, that may in a sense be fair; but from its ironic title onwards it is also a deeply ambivalent, playful, and quietly contrary novel, which rewards deeper thought and closer reading. It is almost, therefore, a quintessential Booker winner.

‘Almost’, of course, because it has yet to win the prize. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall remains inexplicably the favourite to win. Though on further consideration I begin to see its advantages over what looks increasingly like the slight-if-clever The Little Stranger, subjectively I still found Mantel’s opus the least satisfying novel on the shortlist. Already sufficiently garlanded, Coetzee may be looked over this time, since this is not quite his best work; but in that case Foulds’s effort, though obviously an outlier, deserves consideration: a work of great poetic beauty which shares thematic muscle, as well as focus, with Summertime, it is also perhaps more spirited and daring. Wolf Hall, on the other hand, is probably more ambitious still – but its larger canvas still looks messier to my eye than Foulds’s bravura miniature.

“What Is There, But Affairs?” Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall”

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel
Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

Just Google for reviews of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. The critical response to this historical novel has been rapturous: everyone seems agreed that it is a staggering achievement, a historical novel of rare scope and humanity. Diana Athill thinks that the book boasts a better imagined world than any book since Middlemarch. This is some praise. So why was my experience of the novel not quite so enjoyable?

In part, no doubt, it’s because I can’t entirely get on board with its historiography. The book builds on the early positions I described last week, until it’s clear that Cromwell is an ambivalent figure: modern, yes, but largely because of his lack of belief. Those around Cromwell are characterised by an allegiance to a system: More’s Catholicism, Norfolk’s feudalism, Wolsey’s royalism. Cromwell, on the other hand, has an almost Nietzschean approach. “I distrust all systematizers, ” wrote the philosopher, “and I avoid them. The will to a system is a lack of integrity.” Mantel’s Cromwell likewise believes in personal respect and education, a fully humanist perspective which sets him at odds with the medievalised England to which he is born. Mantel sees his meritocratic rise – from smith’s son to soldier, trader to merchant, lawyer to Lord Chancellor – as a symbol of the birth of our modern age.

He doesn’t give birth alone: Wolsey builds the apparatus of the state, Cranmer creates the intellectual and theological space for Cromwell’s actions. But these men are not the novel’s focus. So tightly is the novel about Cromwell that it is written in the present tense, with a reliance on the third person: Cromwell is always ‘he’, like God. Like a deity, Cromwell is in the process of creation, of forging modern England. This is a valorising of the traditional view of Cromwell as venal and self-serving, his lack of principle turned into a virtuous absence of dogma. But it also places him to one side of his own period – time and again, he is used a sort of counterpoint to the Henrican court which never truly accepts him – and yet undboutedly Cromwell’s opinions and actions were products of that age. His dissolution of the monasteries was less the inauguration of a brave new world than an implicit adjustment to its terms.

So the novel’s central project feels anachronistic to me: it is shrouded in witty dialogue and some nicely alien set pieces which add versimilitude, but ultimately it never quite feels real. I’m fairly sure this is unfair on the book, and I wish I could feel differently. The novel emphasises its unreality, floating past in dreamy vignettes which succeed each other in a sort of trance-like passage of events. This isn’t history. And yet nor is it quite fiction: there are no passages of elaborate description or internal monologue, no attempts at rigorous characterisation. The figures enter and exit the stage very much in the style of reanimated historical personages: the novel expects us to know something of the story of Anne Boleyn, wants us to join in with a knowing wink and a nod of the head. It cannot claim to be doing its own heavy lifting; and yet it treats the material on which it relies with a cavalier detachment, all Cromwellian justification to the point of the creation of a Mary Sue.

It Is He
It Is He

Undoubtedly, there is much to like about this novel: an intelligent exploration of power, a lovely new version of a familiar story, and a depiction of politics which rescues the politician-as-human-being. Many important events pass in a paragraph; others, far more mundane, take pages. That focus on Cromwell is the beating heart of the book, and if you buy it the novel works. If, like me, you don’t, then the narrative starts to falter. The modern age to which Cromwell plays midwife is indeed a hall of wolves: full of rapacious apetites and unfathomable agendas, no longer governed by a system and home to mere ambition. I like this idea, and yet it is hung so entirely upon its questionable depiction of one man, and fanned so thinly across its other characters and their own stories, that it doesn’t work for me.

Perhaps all this represents an exciting experiment in the historical novel. On the other hand, it risks reading a tad portentously: Cromwell is mythologised whilst the novel tries to pretend to realism. In responding so vigorously to A Man for All Seasons, Mantel has perhaps fallen into the trap of beatifying Cromwell too much. Maybe I’m missing something, but however complex and peopled her tale, it never attains the depth of Middlemarch, a novel which gave each of its voices equal weight. Wolf Hall is instead a fabulation with borrowed supporting structures: a doorstop of a book which ultimately has room for only one perspective. If you like that perspective – and most seem to – then you’ll love the book. I, on the other hand, am a mere curmudgeon: for me, Wolf Hall is ultimately an interesting, but unconvincing, read. The Little Stranger remains my favoured candidate for the Booker.

“We Have Done As Our Predecessors Have Been Wont To Do”

A nice line in bowing...
A nice line in bowing...

Those three Henrican Lord Chancellors – Wolsey, More and Cromwell – seem to hold an endless fascination for historians and fiction writers alike. From Anthony Munday to Robert Bolt, that procession of Thomases has proved fertile ground for speculation. I’m just in the midst of yet another example of this tilling, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. It’s been on my shelves for months, and was shortlisted for the Booker in July – which was probably the kick I needed to actually read the thing. Communicator has already pointed out that Mantel opposes Bolt – in her fiction, Cromwell is the humane moderniser, More the (faintly absurd) medieval hangover.

I haven’t yet read enough of the book – I’m not quite halfway through – to be able to pass judgement as to whether Mantel succeeds in her design to present Cromwell as an accidental politician, a modern spirit in an otherwise alien age. I do so far like, however, the extent to which the intense politicking of the Tudor court is not made the be-all and end-all of the plot: Cromwell’s inner life is here much broader than that, and the depth of the characterisation is strong. It may not, though, ultimately be convincing – More was, it seems unecessary to say, as much a product of his age as either of his predecessors. No signpost to the future, him.

It’s interesting to compare Mantel – though no doubt she would be scandalised by this – to the often close-to-farcical US TV serial, The Tudors. The show makes absolutely no attempt to be historically accurate – it is happy to merge two or more historical figures into one character, collapse time for its own narrative convenience, and most of all makes each and every one of its characters a modern figure in a remote historical age. It is  disjointed, illogical and unintentionally hilarious, but one of its most compelling figures is Thomas Cromwell, played with more than a dash of charisma by James Frain as the ultimate pragmatist – one moment a secret Calvinist, the next a thorough moderate, allied with the Boleyns and then against them, Wolsey’s servant and then his Judas. (In Wolf Hall, Cromwell’s loyalty to his first master is stressed again and again.) Unbelievable as it may seem to claim historical fidelity for The Tudors, this feels closer to the truth of the real Cromwell than the ‘oops, I seem to be popular at court again’ career path Mantel has so far given hers.

The Tudors‘ third season begins here in the UK on August 21st, on BBC Two. Wolf Hall is, as they say, in all good bookshops, yadda yadda.