Every now and then I read something – a phrase, a turn of thought, and I think, “wow, Writer Dude, you just nailed that”. OK, I realize that my last sentence wasn’t exactly an example of the kind of effective writing I’m talking about, but you get my point. Here’s the fourth in what is thus far proving to be a highly intermittent feature in Mad Padre.
Hilary Mantel as Holbein might have painted her. Very clever, New Yorker, very clever.
I am indebted to James Wood for his 7 May review of Hilary Mantel’s second novel on Henry VIII’s servant and chancellor, Thomas Cromwell. I like historical novels, but I had to wince in agreement with Wood that this genre is “not exactly jammed with greatness”. He argues that what makes Mantel stand out is that she “seems to have written a very good modern novel, then changed all her fictional names to English historical figures of the fifteen-twenties and thirties.”
Here’s the passage that earns Mad Padre’s Language Play of the Week. Here Thomas Cromwell is thinking about his son, Gregory, from Mantel’s first novel in the series, Wolf Hall.
“He smiles. What he says about Gregory is, at least he isn’t like I was, when I was his age; and when people say, what were you like? he says, oh, I used to stick knives in people. Gregory would never do that; so he doesn’t mind—or minds less than people think—if he doesn’t really get to grips with declensions and conjugations. When people tell him what Gregory has failed to do, he says, “He’s busy growing.” He understands his need to sleep; he never got much sleep himself, with Walter stamping around, and after he ran away he was always on the ship or on the road, and then he found himself in an army. The thing people don’t understand about an army is its great, unpunctuated wastes of inaction: you have to scavenge for food, you are camped out somewhere with a rising water level because your mad capitaine says so, you are shifted abruptly in the middle of the night into some indefensible position, so you never really sleep, your equipment is defective, the gunners keep causing small unwanted explosions, the crossbowmen are either drunk or praying, the arrows are ordered up but not here yet, and your whole mind is occupied by a seething anxiety that things are going to go badly because il principe, or whatever little worshipfulness is in charge today, is not very good at the basic business of thinking.”
Wood notes that the passage works because it uses present tense (which overcomes the “long ago and far away” feel of the standard historical novel as well as “a free indirect style to establish Cromwell’s likable bluntness”. I agree, and I love how that “free indirect style” veers away from Cromwell’s son to his own experience as a soldier, and how Mantel captures brilliantly in a few, darkly comic sentences, what authors have been saying about war for ages, that it is stupid and chaotic, usually because it is run by stupid people. Update the language and it could be about any war up to the present.
Don’t think, gentle reader, that I took James Wood’s word for how good Mantel is. I grabbed Wolf Hall and devoured it over the long weekend. I now have the second novel, Bring Up The Bodies, which takes the story from the fall of Anne Boleyn to Henry’s third marriage to Jane Seymour.
Because I am so fond of Mantel, let me give you another passage, like the fellow on your street who drives his car with the music cranked and the windows open because he wants you to love the Black Keys as much as he does. Except I’m quieter. This passage is from a conversation Cromwell is sent to have with a troublesome English lord, the Earl of Northumberland, who needs to walk back rumours he has spread about his love for Anne Boleyn, before she has become the queen. Like the first passage, it captures the foolish, archaic world of medieval warfare with the world of commerce that has shaped Cromwell.
“He will not. He respects all ancient titles. All ancient rights.”
“Then let’s say I will. Let’s say I will rip your life apart. Me and my banker friends.”
How can he explain to him? The world is not run from where he thinks. Not from his border fortresses, not even from Whitehall. The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence, from places he has never imagined; from Lisbone, from where the ships with sails of silk drift west and are burned up in the sun. Not from castle walls, but from counting houses, not by the call of the bugle but by the click of the abacus, not by the grate and click of the mechanism of the gun but by the scrape of the pen on the page of the promissory note that pays for the gun and the gunsmith and the powder and shot.
“I picture you without money and title,” he says. “I picture you in a hovel, wearing homespun, and bringing home a rabbit for the pot. I picture your lawful wife Anne Boleyn skinning and jointing you this rabbit. I wish you every happiness.”
That passage works because, as Wood says, it is really about the modern world, about globalization and the power of finance which seems to be the only power that matters today. It works because of its internal lyricism (“the ships with sails of silk”) and the contrast with Cromwell’s blunt threat at the end, and it works because it supports the novel’s overall characterisation of Cromwell as a pragmatic, modern man who understands the world, even if he does not control it. It’s lovely.
Do yourself a favour and get to know Mantel. If you ever watched The Tudors on TV and felt dirty afterwards, you’ll feel better.
Read more https://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2012/05/07/120507crbo_books_wood#ixzz1vdNPTOCq