Saturday, September 26, 2009
Man Booker Prize II: Mantel’s Wolf Hall
Wolf Hall is the family home of the Seymours, but they, and their house, appear only on the peripheries of this accomplished and much-praised novel. Centre stage is Thomas Cromwell, his rise: from bashed-about blacksmith’s son and vagrant to Henry VIII’s most powerful and trusted counselor. Mantel treads lightly, and with a wealth of leavening ordinary quotidian detail, through some rather over familiar history: Katherine of Aragorn on the way out, Anne Boleyn on the way in, Henry desperate for a male heir; and at the very end there are inklings of the coming import of Jane Seymour and the titular palace. But that’s not really what’s going on, because Mantel’s Wolf Hall is actually the court, where a higher-class of dog eats a higher-class of dog (‘The saying comes to him [Cromwell], homo homini lupus, man is wolf to man’ 572).
And indeed Mantel does the infighting and politicking of the nobles that swarm about Henry very well indeed, partly because the court is always parsed in the context of the country as a whole; the politics are to do with the larger realm, not merely a group of representative nobs. Courtiers constrained by one another and by the need to service Henry’s will; Henry constrained by his sense of what his own people, prone to riot and quick to voice their disapproval at their king shunting off his poor old wife for a younger model, will tolerate. Here’s Cromwell at home, with a servant he picked up in the continent and new to England:
It is late. Upstairs he closes the shutter, where the moon gapes in hollow-eyed, like a drunk lost in the street. Christophe, folding garments, says, ‘Is there loups? In this kingdom?’
‘I think the wolves all died when the great forests were cut down. That howling you hear is only the Londoners.’ 
Wolf Hall, in other words, is England. That’s well observed, I think.
So how to judge this exceptional novel? I admire the writing very much indeed: the prose is flawlessly handled, beautifully paced and weighted, timed well, the dialogue is brisk and deft, the overall balance of elements expertly done. On the other hand, I wonder to what extent the fact that I am also a writer got in the way of more actual, or genuine, appreciation; because what I found myself admiring most is Mantel’s superb technical accomplishment (she is, truly, one of the most technically able and brilliant writers in English alive today), reading with one part of my brain thinking ‘that’s a good bit, that’s very good—(as it might be, “mobled queen” is good)—how is she achieving that effect? What’s she doing there?’ That of course is not how most people read; for most people technique does not trump content: character and plot come first. Calling somebody a writer’s writer is a back-handed way of saying they’re the kind of writer ordinary readers won’t like much. So the question is how well does the book manage on the reading a novel, rather than the reading to pick up tricks and techniques for one’s own writing, level?
Well, we’re given a detailed Cook’s tour of Thomas Cromwell himself, such that we may start to feel we understand him pretty well, after the interiorised, Jamesian manner of childhood-shapes-psychology, psychology-determines-behaviour sort of way. And the worldbuilding is superb; the creation of a suitably rounded, enter-into-able place. But I felt that Mantel’s thumb was in the balance when it came to judgment: her Cromwell too easy to like, too hard to dislike, her Thomas More the opposite. Too much a deliberate slapback (as Dan Hartland notes) to Man For All Seasons. Hartland says he can’t get aboard the book’s historiography. He’s the Leonardo Di Caprio character in Titanic, and historiography is the plank of wood at the end of the film. That’s his situation. Read his post now before he sinks, spookily, straight down through icy waters.
He has about a quarter of a point, in his criticism. The novel’s representation of politics is indeed, arguably, a smidgen too Tudor West Wing—I don’t mean slick, I mean modern-feeling. History in this novel is not always estranged—but then again there are moments when it acquires the beautiful dislocation that separates Mantel’s representation from the twenty-first-century people in fancy dress and horsehit in the streets school of historical novelisation. Those moments lift the book.
History determines the present—as somebody, I forget precisely who, put it: ‘always historicize.’ And the Reformation still shapes contemporary England. There are deep-rooted reasons why Tony Blair could announce his conversion to Catholicism only after he had left office; and they’re dilute versions of the same reasons Charles II could only declare his faith secretly, on his deathbed.
Now, Mantel does a very proficient job of bringing the past into the present. The description (say) of a Lollard being burnt at the stake, and the climate of violence and torture, is rendered very vividly, in ways that bring the experiences to our modern sensibilities. But it wouldn’t work nearly as well if Mantel didn’t also have the instinct to balance those descriptions of violence with passages that do the opposite; passages like these:
He turns a page. Grace, silent and small, turns the page with him. The office is Prime. The picture is the Nativity: a tiny white Jesus lies in the folds of his mother’s cloak. The office is Sext: the Magi proffer jewelled cups; behind them is a city on a hill, a city in Italy, with its bell tower, its view of rising ground and its misty line of trees. The office is None: Joseph carries a basket of doves to the temple. The office is Vespers: a dagger sent by Herod makes a neat little hole in a shocked infant. A woman throws up her palms in protest, or prayer: her eloquent, helpless palms. The infant corpse scatters three drops of blood, each one shaped like a tear. Each bloody tear is a precise vermillion. 
This ekphrasis, by reformulating the novel’s concerns—with children, with versions of holiness, with violence and death—in a more deliberately stylized manner, works yeast into the dough of the c20th/c21st ‘well-made novel’ aesthetic that dominates elsewhere. It restores a little of the magical estrangement of history. And the fineness of writerly touch with which it is done is simply exquisite: a balance of observational beauty (‘her eloquent, helpless palms’) and symbolic beauty (the precision, for a novel about the beginnings of English Protestantism, of ‘a woman throws up her palms in protest, or prayer’). There are various other bits of ekphrasis in the novel, to do for instance with Holbien’s various portraits, although they tend to be a touch too concerned with painterly verisimilitude to work as beautifully as this prayer book scene.
So, yes: Mantel is too canny to have her characters spouting prithees and forsooths; and from time to time she strays a little too far in the other direction; by which I mean: having her characters not only talk in an inoffensive transhistorical manner, but sometimes get a little too hip, crack a little too wise. On the other hand, when she has a chessplayer touch a piece and says ‘j’aboube’  it’s probably a typo. Unless it’s a really, really obscure, ‘boob’-related joke.
The paperback edition of this was just released in Canada yesterday; my copy is en route and your comments have whetted my appetite for it.
Speaking of historical fiction, someone (perhaps my Ph.D. supervisor?)once recommended H. F. M. Prescott’s The Man on a Donkey as one of the best works of historical fiction in this (well, the 20th) century. Have you read it? It’s been on my TBR list for ages but I’ve never gotten around to it. Maybe its time has come.
The Booker goes to: