Monday, February 08, 2010

mantel, more m&b, peer

#7 Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel

A book perfect for everyone who hated A Man For All Seasons, loved A Man For All Seasons, and also for those who have no idea what A Man For All Seasons is about. In short, yes, it is worth all the hype. There aren't even a few novels that I like wholly or even primarily for their style, but this book is really unusually good -- it is original, thoughtful, musical, and very clever. I foresee several trips back into these pages over the year.

The novel is about Thomas Cromwell, the lawyer and politician who facilitates Henry VIII's marriage to Anne Boleyn and England's schism with the Catholic Church. Like the writing, the title is both simple and allusive on multiple levels: Wolf Hall is historically the seat of a family that is characterised only in a very minor way through the book - the Seymours. We know what history makes of them. It also articulates what Cromwell knows about the court and how man is wolf to man [a maxim wearyingly familiar to the Harry Potter fans reading this]. England is a horrible place in this book, a country where corruption and dogma are at war with each other, and the caprice and stupidity of the leaders of the nation have destroyed its government's moral fibre. The otherwise saintly Thomas More is a deeply repellent man in this book, someone who would not only die for his beliefs, as was made much of [and well, I thought, since I like the play and Paul Scofield] in A Man For All Seasons, but one who would lie, trap and kill others for it without hesitation, too. This book is for Cromwell what Bolt's play is to More -- it sets him up, and pushes him unabashedly, as a hero; not a martyr or an ideologue, but a clever, caring man with a distaste for murder and an infinite capacity to negotiate, charm, cajole and bully. His own politics are clear -- he is an admirer of Tyndale, a believer in commerce, and a prime mover in keeping Henry VIII happy at all costs. In creating a 650-page argument for Cromwell as truly a man for all ages, in his rationalism, his survivalist instincts, his sense of humour and his broad, humane intelligence, Mantel makes no bones about trying to win us over.

'And you have a son,' the cardinal says. 'Or should I say, you have one son you give your name to. But I suspect there are some you don't know, running around on the banks of the Thames?'

'I hope not. I wasn't fifteen when I ran away.'

It amuses Wolsey, that he doesn't know his age. The cardinal peers down through the layers of society, to a stratum well below his own, as the butcher's beef-fed son; to a place where his servant is born, on a day unknown, in deep obscurity. His father was no doubt drunk at his birth; his mother, understandably, was preoccupied. Kat has assigned him a date; he is grateful for it.

'Well, fifteen...' the cardinal says. 'But at fifteen I suppose you could do it? I know I could. Now I have a son, your boatman on the river has a son, your would-be murderers in Yorkshire no doubt have sons who will be sworn to pursue you into the next generation, and you yourself, as we have agreed, have spawned a whole tribe of riverine brawlers - but the king, alone, has no son. Whose fault is that?'


'Nearer than God?'

'The queen?'

'More responsible for everything than the queen?'

He can't help a broad smile. 'Yourself, Your Grace.'

'Myself, My Grace. What am I going to do about it?

The style is sweepingly charming. It's left to the reader to allow themselves to be swept away, or try to find a break in this cascade of enthusiasm. The whole project leans outwards in service of this literary persuasion -- you enjoy slipping into its skin to see what England was really like at the beginning of the modern age [and you can smell it], you admire its finesse and appreciate its humour and suppleness and kindness because they all work in service of Thomas Cromwell. It lost me in the last third of the book, as perhaps is inevitable, because its impossible for anyone to appreciate the historical situation uncritically. Perhaps just why a man as intelligent and capable of iconoclasm as Cromwell suddenly loses his inner life when it comes to Henry VIII is a subject Mantel will address in her upcoming sequel - if there are answers, I would like to hear them.

Nonetheless: the nearest effect I can describe is that of one of my favourite novels, Kiran Nagarkar's Cuckold, which is also a literary argument in service of an overlooked, reviled man, to rescue him for our sake as much as his own. In that novel the protagonist is the husband of Mirabai, the Crown Prince of Chittor, and while Mantel and Nagarkar could not be more different as writers -- as different as Henry VIII and Mirabai -- the effect is the same. It works to convince us that maybe our ways of being modern are timeless, no matter what transpires in history and what forces govern its propulsion. As the faults of politics are constant, so perhaps are some of its virtues.

Absolutely worth a read.

#8 Wanted: Royal Wife and Mother, Marion Lennox

Another gem from the Mills & Boon stable, this time a classic [which means no sex anywhere, so not a feminine heart or sensitive core in sight]. An Australian archaeologist and equestrienne makes a disastrous marriage with the Crown Prince of the European kingdom of Alp de Ciel, gives him a son and is cast out of the family and divorced unceremoniously. Five years later, the evil royal hubs is dead and the little boy is capable of speech, movement and fitful charm. Inevitably, his uncle, the dashing Prince Regent, takes little Mathieu to Australia to find his Mummy, and bring her back to Alp de Ciel. As you might imagine, romance ensues.

I got through all the way to the end, which counts it a success in my book, so you can take this as a recommendation, although nowhere near the level of the Serrador Express.

#9 Ideas of a Nation / Selected Speeches, Jawaharlal Nehru

Penguin India is putting out a series of tiny volumes called Words of Freedom, anthologising select speeches of some of the leaders of India's political freedom movement. I got this selection of six of Nehru's most famous speeches as a gift for my granddad, who of course heard them on the radio at the time etc., and I thought I'd log it here just to applaud the sheer pleasure of Nehru's rhetoric, a lot of which stems from the literary inclination of his intellect. One of the most endearing things about Nehru's style is that he starts with the default assumption that he is making the most reasonable declarations in the room and everything else - his arguments, his demands, his outrage, his resolutions - is predicated on this unquestionable reasonableness. He is a bit of a Wodehousian figure in his Harrow handicaps; he is not free of the odd boyish literary handwave or the clunky cliche by any means. But he is refreshing and heartwarming. So often his rhetorical position was to be the lodestar, the conduit, the orator whose job it was to be presumptuous enough to speak for his time. It left a lot to work with.

#10 Curfewed Night, Basharat Peer

This is a memoir-cum-journalistic account of growing up in Kashmir with the explosion of militancy in the late '80s, the idea of independence and the horrors of military occupation. Narrative journalism comes with built-in pitfalls, but Peer's style here is so little the one of the pamphleteer, and so much one of the fabulist, that he unearths a reality that would absolutely have resisted any attempts at aphorism and slogan. This is a haunted, haunting book, full of stories about how much a village in Kashmir can be like a village anywhere else in India, and at the same time how little. It's about how defiance, dignity, and other ideas related to self-determination can become completely meaningless in war. It's about the unthinkable stories - husbands who don't return, sons whose bodies return, men freed from torture camps with their sense of self completely shattered, brides abducted away from their weddings and raped. It's a book that compels itself, one story following another as the years pass, as Kashmiris leave and return, as the false promises of violent resistance fade away and come to life with each generation. There is no 'hearts and minds' policy at work here from the Indian government, only a terrifying military presence and a persistent puppet-hand in the democratic life of the state.

The idiom of the book is thoroughly Indian [or subcontinental, I should say], with its lyrical insistence on memory as narrative, its tone not so much of alienation as of loss, its emphasis not on history but on 'the past.' Peer is a sincere writer, and a forthright one. It's a cri de coeur as much as a scrupulous account of Peer's own journey through the decade trying to collect voices. It's deeply personal, and I thought of it as a book everyone who lives outside Kashmir should read at least once -- the sooner the better.


  1. I started reading Wolf Hall but never got past the Cardinal Wolsey scenes in it. More than Cromwell, I remember Wolsey and his theatrics better as being very refreshingly different from what I knew of Wolsey from Henry VIII. And ya, Mantel adds that flourish to the Cardinal. Like Cromwell's description of his scarlet robes or the Cardinal's despair of not finding anything to gift the king. I should really get myself around to reading it whole.

    Will you be reading Cuckold as part of your reading series? Or have you already done it?

  2. pulicat3:37 am

    Well said about Curfewed Night - "everyone who lives outside Kashmir should read at least once -- the sooner the better."