Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Half the World is Called Thomas

At last, I have finished Hilary Mantel’s Man-Booker winner this morning! For readers of Philippa Gregory and other historical romances, Wolf Hall might seem like it can offer no new thrills. The turbulence of sixteenth century England is old news thanks to the current mania for Tudors. The cast of characters we meet is familiar: dangerously intemperate Henry VIII; the woefully deposed Queen Katherine of Aragon; her successor, the cat-like Anne Boleyn; the doomed churchmen Wolsey and More (and Cranmer and Latimer)…

But there is a new star on the horizon and Mantel gives him a meaty role. When I saw the novel was Tudorian in theme and I had heard it was about a Thomas, I thought it was Thomas More, Catholic saint and writer of Utopia (as in “The Prince has read Utopia”). Wendy, the events manager at the bookstore scoffed, “It’s Thomas Cromwell!”
“Don’t you mean Thomas More?” I frowned. “Cromwell’s first name was Oliver. And he wasn’t alive yet.”
“No, the King killed Thomas More.”
“I think that was Thomas Becket, who wrote the Imitation of Christ. And Henry II killed him not Henry VIII.”
With the trusty aid of Wikipedia search we corrected our (my) abominable English history. Henry II killed Thomas Becket. Thomas a Kempis wrote the Imitation of Christ. Thomas More was executed under Henry’s reign. Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s minister, was also executed – but that’s getting ahead of our story. Wolsey’s first name is Thomas. Anne Boleyn’s father’s name is Thomas. “Half the world is called Thomas,” Cromwell thinks acidly.

Our man Thomas Cromwell is self-made: a man born in the gutter and abused by a cruel father. He escapes to Europe, fights in a few wars, and returns to serve Cardinal Wolsey – one of the most powerful men at the time - as secretary and continues to rise. He is a true Renaissance man:
“He is the very man if an argument about God breaks out; he is very man for telling your tenants twelve good reasons why their rents are fair. He is the man to cut through some legal entanglement that’s ensnared you for three generations, or talk your sniffling little daughter into the marriage she swears she will never make. With animals, women and timid litigants, his manner is gentle and easy; but he makes your creditors weep. He can converse wit you about the Caesars or get you Venetian glassware at a very reasonable rate.”
He speaks a dozen languages, and has the entire New Testament by heart. Despite his low birth, Cromwell breaks through the strict social strata that govern Tudorian England and gains access to the ear of the monarch.

He is a complex character: a man who is kind to his family and fair to his household and those under his protection. He is a “charmer and a bully”; he will do you a favor if you do him one. His duality is what makes him such an excellent character. The novel ends with More’s death, before we realize that Cromwell, too, is headed for the executioner’s. (How could we believe it? He has become one of the most powerful men in the kingdom.)

Mantel writes with a collage of details – the smell of lemons, or sizzling flesh, the pine of Christmas boughs, the scratch of a pen. The setting’s authenticity spreads; it is anchored in flesh and is weighted by objects: books, roasted pigs, robes. Her world is believable, her dialogue intelligent and acerbic, and though we know what will happen, Cromwell does not and we, following him, forget that we have the advantage of hindsight.

She contrasts the large events – the religious and political battles, the constant flux of fortunes – with the miniature:

“The fate of peoples is made like this, two men in small rooms. Forget the coronations, the conclaves of cardinals, the pomp and processions. This is how the world changes: a counter pushed across a table, a pen stroke that alters the force of a phrase, a woman’s sigh as she passes and leaves on the air a trail of orange flower or rose water; her hand pulling close the bed curtain, the discreet sigh of flesh against flesh.”

Wolf Hall is a novel about power: the struggle to attain it and the subsequent struggle to keep it, the dog-eat-dog nature of living at court, of staying on the right side of a changeable king. It emphasizes the power of words and of incantations, of admissions, of recanting. Saying that the host is just bread earns a beating, reading the Bible in one’s own tongue invites the charge of heresy or treason and a painful death.

I'm not sure whether Wolf Hall deserved to beat A.S. Byatt's Children's Book, but the two provide lush examples of how the historical novel can still succeed. I’ve heard Hilary Mantel is working on a sequel to Wolf Hall and I eagerly await it.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


I've kept a journal ever since I was in third grade, or Standard One as it was called in George. These diaries included such salacious content as: what I was wearing that day, the time I made toasted cheese all by myself, and long-standing feelings for various boys with bowl haircuts. That's the bad thing about writing in a journal, isn't it? You can't get away from the stupid things you did, or said, or the things you wanted so badly to happen.

Throughout high school, college and now into my semi-professional life, I've accumulated a pile of mismatched journals: gifts from birthdays and Christmases and graduations. Picked up in airports and museums and gift shops and grocery stores and hand me downs. They are on a shelf in my cupboard, in the corner. Shameful and exuberant and badly written and smudged, with terrible poetry in every volume.

I was given my first Moleskine journal two Christmases ago and I started it June 19, 2009, the day after I graduated, while my mother and I were in the car from Illinois to Minnesota. It's a tender volume at a particularly bright transition: collecting our belongings - Kristin and I - squaring our shoulders and moving west to seek our fortune. Last summer the sun shone from July to October, from early in the morning until 10 at night. Job applications, the feeling of failure, the surprise of being employed.

Everybody likes Moleskines. Join the queue, follow the crowd. But after thinking of Virginia Woolf writing in all those identical stitched-together journals, I pictured the exquisite uniformity of a row of books in indistinguishable black and said Yes. These books are slim and slip easily into every bag I own. When one opens to write, the page lie flat. I only write in black ink. The repetition makes it an intentional discipline.

This year I began a red Moleskine. Thought that after the three black journals I finished last year, this could be the Year of the Red. After finishing the red last month, I said No, it's back to black. And I haven't been able to find one since.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Status Anxiety

While I continue through some of the Great Books - Sir Thomas Malory's Morte D'Arthur at the moment - I admit frequent disheartening twinges. There are just too many. They are just too long. I have started too late. (But this way, I've heard, madness lies...)

I found an excellent article care of Arts & Letters this morning on the role of the Great Books fad in American Middlebrow Culture. I recognize this sort of status anxiety, but the writer of the article enables other middlebrow strivers who adhere to the American myth of betterment through self-education to feel known and vindicated.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Feeling Wolfish

As you might know by now, the winner of the Man-Booker Prize this year was Hilary Mantel with Wolf Hall. You can read more about the winner and her novel here.

Mantel was this year's favorite and still won - unlike last year's favorite, Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, which got the shaft. I was oscillating between Mantel and A.S. Byatt's Children's Book, which was released in the U.S. on the day the Man-Booker was announced. It would have been a triumph for Byatt. But then again, she'd won it already and perhaps one swimming pool (bought with her prize money for Possession) is enough.

Wolf Hall will be released in the U.S. this coming Tuesday, October 13th, and I have my copy winging on its way.

I put up a Man-Booker Prize table at the bookstore to draw more attention to literature presently published and recognized in the UK and to celebrate this month's award. Mostly consisting of various English memorabilia. Here are the pictures:

Very proud of the hanging umbrella, suspended by a safety pin from co-worker Mike's pants, and with Eric as Master of the Ladder.

I am so fond of seeing the Queen on the table. I had to sign a waiver to print out this picture.

Cuppa tea?

Various Booker books.

Can't wait to hang up that homely flag in my room, if it hasn't fallen apart by then.

Monday, October 5, 2009

(One more day until the Man-Booker Prize is announced...)

Friday, October 2, 2009

A Nip in the Air

It is finally October, which is one of the best months of the year. I am thrilled that autumn has arrived! Kristin says that I say this every time the seasons pass and that I am addicted to the change of the seasons. She may be right. I know I was ecstatic when the spring came this year. But autumn and I have a love affair: the rain is falling and the gutters gurgling; it is the perfect weather for candles, for huddling together, for soup, for bedroom slippers and plaid pajama pants, for crocheting hats and afghans, for excavating the scarves and sweaters from their long exile. And the pumpkin latte! (The best, best thing about the autumnal season.)

Let us celebrate this new season with a poem: (Forgive it for being another Philip Larkin so soon. It’s just the first verse.)

“And now the leaves suddenly lose strength.
Decaying towers stand still, lurid, lanes-long,
And seen from landing windows, or the length
Of gardens, rubricate afternoons. New strong
Rain-bearing night-winds come: then
Leaves chase warm buses, speckle statued air,
Pile up in corners, fetch out vague broomed men
Through mists at morning.”