No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

#37: Wolf Hall - Hilary Mantel

Beyond and beneath this whole realm of England ... there is another landscape: there is a buried empire, where he fears his commissioners cannot reach. Who will swear the hobs and the boggarts who live in the hedges and in hollow trees, and the wild men who hide in the woods? Who will swear the saints in their niches, and the spirits that cluster at holy wells rustling like fallen leaves, and the miscarried infants dug into unconsecrated ground: all those unseen dead who hover in winter around forges and village hearths, trying to warm their bare bones? For they too are his countrymen: the generations of the uncounted dead, breathing through the living, stealing their light from them, the bloodless ghosts of lord and knave, nun and whore, the ghosts of priest and friar who feed on living England, and suck the substance from the future. (p.575)

Set between 1527 and 1535, Wolf Hall is the first of two novels focussing on Thomas Cromwell, Secretary of State to Henry VIII, friend of Cardinal Wolsey, kingmaker ("the blacksmith makes his own tools") and statesman. It's a departure from Mantel's usual dark, slightly uncanny material: yet many of the same ingredients are present, above all her marvellous knack of making strange what should be commonplace.

Cromwell -- almost always simply 'he', in prose: it's tight third-person, present-tense point of view, though occasionally there's a complicit 'we' -- is a paradoxically likeable character. In the first chapter, he leaves behind Putney and his base beginnings: by the second chapter, a quarter of a century later, he's advisor and factotum to Cardinal Wolsey. For Thomas Cromwell is a singular man, a social chameleon possessed of an extraordinary memory for detail, a frightful reputation (which he maintains by a serene refusal to talk about his past), and prodigous energy. He is ruthless, private, wealthy through his own efforts. He is an intensely private man living his life on the public stage.

It is no good to explain. It is weak to be anecdotal. It is wise to conceal the past even if there is nothing to conceal. A man's power is in the half-light, in the half-seen movements of his hand and the unguessed-at expression of his face. It is the absence of facts that frightens people: the gap you open, into which they pour their fears, fantasies, desires. (p.359)

Cromwell's privacy extends to his own internal narrative: he's not given to reflecting upon his emotions. His grief at the death of his wife and daughters in an outbreak of the plague is vivid and honest: his subsequent affair with his dead wife's sister is scarcely hinted until he realises that there are rumours, and that he must give her up. It would be commonplace for such a character to seem cold, withdrawn, bloodless: that Cromwell is so sympathetic is a triumph.

Wolsey, who is more like a father than Cromwell's own abusive parent, values Cromwell: Henry says "You were born to understand me." Cromwell's ambition does not encompass Henry, but Henry's unborn son: "I can build my own prince" (p. 467). A blacksmith makes his own tools. Consummate statesman, Cromwell never lets his feelings show in matters of state, even while he's exasperatedly thinking that it is a characteristic of Henry, to run before you to where you were not quite going. (p. 532) He is loyal to those he serves, refusing to abandon Wolsey after the cardinal's fall: he is fiercely protective of those he thinks of as 'his folk', and determined to do right by them in this uncertain world.

He's also given to a wry black humour, more Mantel than anything else in the novel:
The trouble with England, he thinks, is that it's so poor in gesture. We shall have to develop a hand signal for 'Back off, our prince is fucking this man's daughter.' He is surprised that the Italians have not done it. Though perhaps they have, and he just never caught on. (p. 76)

Mantel's prose is neither stilted nor pretentious: it's certainly not authentic 16th-century colloquial English, but there's a definite sense of the late medieval. 'Never caught on,' in the passage above, sits comfortably with similitudes that evoke the period: "as miserable as dawn on Ash Wednesday" (p. 79).

There's plenty of historical detail in here: I'm not very familiar with this period, but I recognise some of the allusions and names, though suspect I'm missing the majority. Anne's devoted lutenist Mark Smeaton exasperates Cromwell: I know (from Donizetti's Anna Bolena) that he'll come to an unpleasant end. Cromwell is fascinated by Guido Camillo and his Theatre of Memory, though in Cromwell's mind there's more to Camillo than a method for memorising detail: It is likely ... that we shall never know what his invention really was. A printing press that can write its own books? A mind that can think about itself? (p. 647) Hans Holbein's portraits are part of the wallpaper of English life: "Easy majesty would be called for," he [Cromwell] says.
Hans beams. "I can do it by the yard." (p. 603)

There are other aspects of the novel that give a strong sense of time and place: an undercurrent of the Matter of Britain, the medieval myth of Old England, all the ways in which English life -- country life -- has continued unchanged for hundreds of years. A sense of history, too: revolt and bloodshed in the recent past (the Cornish uprising) and martyrs, executions, heresy. Cromwell is a man of reason and rationality, yet he's aware of the dark and bloody history behind the Tudors, and it colours his fancies:
He closes his eyes. Ladies move behind his lids: transparent like little lizards, lashing their tails. The serpent queens of England, black-fanged and haughty, dragging their blood-soaked linen and their crackling skirts. They kill and eat their own children: this is well-known. They suck their marrow before they are even born.(p.612)

I'm still thinking about the title. The eponymous Wolf Hall is the Wiltshire seat of John Seymour, father of Jane (who appears a third of the way through the novel as one of Anne Boleyn's ladies). Wolf Hall, in Cromwell's mind, comes to stand for incest and fornication: Seymour has an affair with his daughter-in-law, throwing the family into disrepute. "They could tell Boccaccio a tale, those sinners at Wolf Hall", says Anne Boleyn to Cromwell, laughing. I wonder if Wolf Hall is a metaphor for the complex and impulse-driven behaviour of Henry towards women -- perhaps towards England.

History tells me what happens next: I trust Hilary Mantel to evoke something of how it might have felt to live through that, a singular and solitary man: the inconsolable Master Cromwell: the unknowable, the inconstruable, the probably indefeasible Master Cromwell. (p. 568)

Sunday, May 17, 2009

#36:Blackberry Wine -- Joanne Harris

Jackapple Joe was the first adult book he had written. But instead of releasing him it had trapped him in childhood. In 1977 he had rejected magic ... He was on his own and that was the way he wanted it. As if when he dropped Joe's seeds into the cutting at Pog Hill he was also letting go of everything he'd clung to in those past three years: the talismans, the red ribbons, Gilly, the dens, the wasps' nests, the treks along the railway line ... (p. 284)

Picked this up as light reading (literally and figuratively!) and was pleasantly surprised. I liked Chocolat and have amassed a small collection of Harris's novels: judging from Blackberry Wine they are ideal quick reads: short chapters, simple plots slowly playing out, likeable characters and straightforward prose with moments of magic.

Jay Mackintosh is a blocked writer: one literary bestseller (Three Summers with Jackapple Joe) behind him, and a series of cliched SF thrillers (The G-sus Gene, Psy-wrens of Mars) under a pseudonym, which pay the rent. In his cellar are six bottles of home-made wine, Joe's Specials, which he's rescued from oblivion. Escaping London, he heads for the fictional French village of Lasquenet, where he encounters the widow Marise -- who thinks the house he's just bought should be hers by right -- together with her deaf daughter and a cast of local colour.

He takes the wine with him, which is handy as this novel is narrated by a Fleurie '62, pert, garrulous ... cheery and a little brash. And he finds himself returning in memory to those Seventies summer holidays, exiled to a small Northern mining town, growing up in the company of local eccentric Joe and learning about gardening, wine-making, voodoo charms and astral travel. Joe taught him that living alongside a railway is like living on a beach: the tide brings new jetsam every day. (p.28) In fact, Joe's still with him in a very real sense. And the radio plays golden oldies from those lost summers ...

Jay unravels the mystery of Marise's nasty past, and comes to a few conclusions about his own life: fame, fortune, memory, loyalty, abandonment, love. There's a lot of abandonment in this novel: Jay is abandoned by his parents, his friends and by Joe, and in turn he runs away from things. (I felt he treated his London girlfriend Kerry pretty shabbily, though she was portrayed as a one-dimensional literary golddigger.)

As in Chocolat there's a quiet undercurrent of magic, though nothing explicit: strange things are happening, and Jay gradually regains an element of faith that he'd lost. Only then can he recognise Joe's final gift to him.

Occasional switches of viewpoint (things that neither Jay nor the lageniform narrator could know) are jarring: there is a plethora of detail concerning gardening. And there are a few loose ends that I'd have liked tied off (Jay's family, Marise's mother-in-law). But on the whole a satisfactory read, evocative with the smells and sounds and tastes of childhood summers and enriched by threads of simple magic.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

#35: Watchmen -- Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons

Things have their shape in time, not space alone. Some marble blocks have statues within them, embedded in their future.

Reread for bookclub. There's a lot in there -- primarily the connections between graphics and words, the visual tricks, the palindromic nature of the chapters that each start and end with the same, or similar, images -- that I hadn't noticed on previous reads: did I notice them this time because the film had referenced or reworked them? There are certainly plot elements that I didn't pick up on the first few readings, back in the 80s: JFK, genetic engineering, the right-wing leanings of most of the costumed heroes, the casual sexism. And I suspect that when I first read Watchmen I had far less idea of how comics worked -- how to read that connection between text and image.

Some observations:
- Rorschach may be a monster but he is a principled monster. We do not do this thing because it is permitted. We do it because we have to. We do it because we are compelled.
- This was never our world: for instance, the motto of the Watchmen USAF is per dolorum ad astra (through suffering to the stars).
- There is some glorious prose.
- Adrian Veidt (who would like to be the Buddha when he grows up) is clearly a Villain, given his expressed preference for Stockhausen and Cage. <g>

I really want to see the film again now, not instead of but as complement to the book.

#34: The Gone-Away World -- Nick Harkaway

I grew up with the Nuclear Threat. It lived on the corner of my street and it walked with me to school. Gonzo and I used to play with it when none of the other kids wanted to talk to us. We got so tired of playing Armageddon with that damn unimaginative Nuclear Threat that we implored it to learn another game, but it never did. Mostly it just sat there at the back of the classrooom and glowered. And then one day we heard it was dead. Some people seemed pretty upset about this, but I was just glad I didn't have to carry it around any more. Kids are selfish.
(p. 299)

The world's moved on: been moved, by the Go Away War, in which ontological bombs have destroyed whole cities and killed four billion people via a controlled editing of the world within a discrete area, stripping out the information and leaving nothing behind -- not even regret. (p.159) Normality, or the best approximation of it, is maintained by the Pipe, which supplies FOX ('for inFormationally eXtra-saturated matter' (p.302)) to the livable zones. And the Pipe is maintained by Jorgmund, a shadowy entity with an opaque agenda.

The nameless narrator of The Gone-Away World is a member of The Haulage and Haz-Mat Emergency Civil Freebooting Company of Exmoor County. The Company is recruited to deal with a fire on the Pipe, and our narrator prays silently I want to come home.

The next few chapters are backstory: where are we? What's the Go Away War? Who are these people and why should we care about them? Those chapters also set up the major themes of the novel: identity, loyalty, the nature of reality. There's repeated discussion of sense and reference (the description and what's described), and of the connection between matter and information/ Yes, it's deeply philosophical and profound, but it's also hilarious. War-sheep, pirate monks, ninjas, mimes, the deleterious effects of flourescent strip-lighting, and the ultimate perversion (EXPLICIT EROTIC MOVIES -- WITH A STORY!!! ...Shame! Narrative! Outcast, unclean! p.318).

As per the quotation at the top of this review, this seems very much a post-Cold War novel, a response to growing up in the late 20th century with the spectres of nuclear war, mutually assured destruction, radiation sickness, fallout. War is only one aspect of the novel's matter, but it is vivid, inescapable, archetypal.

This is not an attack. It's atmosphere. It's war as a condition, war as furniture. We are under seige by a notion of war. (p.286)

Despite the familiar names -- Exmoor, Cricklewood -- and a context that includes the United Island Kingdoms of Britain, Northern Ireland and Cuba Libre, already being referred to by the wits as Cubritannia (p.37), this is not recognisably our world. I'm not sure why the author used so many familiar elements to build a setting that is alien, foreign, other.

I very much like Harkaway's prose style (though his proofreader could have done a better job). I like his metaphors, his joyous headlong riffs, his characterisation. It would've been easy to overdo the surrealism, the sheer weirdness of this scenario, but the flights of fancy are balanced by bitter sobriety.

I am betrayed, murdered, rescued, healed and bereft. I have saved the world and been rewarded with five shots in the chest ... I am toxic waste. I have known heaven, and now I am in hell, and there are mimes. (p.413)

It's hard to talk about this novel without discussing the twist, which I think is foreshadowed effectively, has stunning dramatic impact and makes sense both in terms of the events that precede it and the themes of the novel. (Your mileage may vary.) I'm less convinced by the conclusion, which seems a little facile: that big problem? Not so big.

Yes, it's about war. Yes, it's about reality. Yes, it's about brotherhood and loyalty. And yes, it's about pirates and ninjas and mimes, oh my.

we will see what can be achieved, and how we are changed, by living with a world which can reveal us to ourselves or assail us with our fears. (p.353)

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

#33: The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon -- Stephen King

The world had teeth and it could bite you with them any time it wanted. She knew that now. She was only nine, but she knew it, and she thought she could accept it. (p.141)

Trisha is nearly ten, tall for her age, pretty smart. Her mother is keen on Family Activities: this week's is a walk on the Appalachian Trail, but Trisha can't enjoy herself with her mom and Pete sniping at one another about her parents' divorce. She steps off the path to pee, and gets lost. Very lost.

In her pack she's got a packed lunch, her Walkman and her Gameboy. The Walkman lasts longest and probably saves her life: at night, she curls up under a dead tree and listens to a baseball game, the Red Sox, with her hero Tom Gordon pitching.

She cried in relief. She would be found. She was sure of it. Tom Gordon had gotten the save and so would she. (p.76)

The woods are empty -- empty of humans, anyway. Trisha sees beavers, deer, a meteor shower. She wades through swamp-water and munches on fiddlehead ferns. The search parties have no idea how far she's gone, and are still scouring the area where she was last seen. Trisha feels utterly alone, except for her radio: but there's something watching her, something that is clearly not a figment of her imagination. (As she slept, something came and watched her. It watched for a long time ... (p. 129)

There's a dark voice from inside her too, a jeering mocking voice that tells her she'll never be found. Trisha is less afraid of what the voice says than of its existence within her.

King's narrative voice is interesting though sometimes jarring. We mostly see events from Trisha's point of view, but occasionally (as with the watcher in the woods above) we zoom out, to discover that the searchers are looking in the wrong place, that the thing in the woods is real, that Trisha's turned away from safety. The reader is informed of dangers, threats, horrors that Trisha's only peripherally aware of.

There are some wonderful images: watching a meteor shower, bits of rock further off the path than she could ever get dropped into earth's well of gravity (p. 157); all the air between these woods and the world she had so foolishly believed was hers (p. 124). On the whole, the style is simple, matter-of-fact, descriptive: a nine-year-old's stream of consciousness. And like a stream there's a lot going on beneath the surface: Trisha missing her father, growing up suddenly and drastically, discovering the stuff that TV and radio never tell you, discovering the darkness within which will never entirely leave her now.

The Girl who Loved Tom Gordon is a subtle horror story and a rite of passage. It's also a fascinating lesson in writing point-of-view.