Wednesday, December 2, 2009
"Wolf Hall" by Hilary Mantel
Wolf Hall: A Novel (Man Booker Prize)is more the story of that guy who kills the cow than the big shot who eats the steaks.
Hilary Mantel's time and setting are the oft-told English Court of King Henry VIII.
And while the randy and capricious Harry (is their a supreme ruler who is not?) and his short-lived wife Ann Boleyn come in for some decent portraiture, "Wolf Hall" is the story of an influential aide to both, Thomas Cromwell.
Although we don't watch the goings-on at court unfold from Cromwell's point of view, Ms. Mantel uses him as guide and compass through the seven or so years during which Ann Boleyn worked her whiles on Henry who extricated England from the Papacy's influence to marry her.
You know, probably, how she failed to deliver a much-desired heir, cheated sexually, and lost her head as a result, but this book does not venture there.
It journeys, instead, early into the young Cromwell's life as a low-born country boy whose father comes within a hair's-length of beating him to death before deciding to strike out on his own.
He is a seasoned fellow with no small measure of luck who becomes a good soldier in France, and better banker in Italy, before returning to England where his cause is taken up by one influential Cardinal Wolsey whom he serves in turn.
The first parts of the book detail Wolsey's fall from grace at court and his simultaneous death at the news of it. The latter parts render Cromwell's rise at court as someone useful to an archly-rendered Boleyn, and later Henry, for his skill as bureaucrat (of a pre-modern kind).
This skill primarily involves the undoing and capital punishment of one Thomas More, the Holy See's top dog in England.
But it entails all manner of "fixing" including arranged marriages, unarranged ones, deaths at the hand of the state, the purchase of properties for the crown, and other things those of us born in a modern democracy have such a hard time wrapping our minds around.
And that's what makes it most fun. There is also the usual confusing family politics of succession (the bastard son of the deposed King borne by his second wife and shunted in The Tower, etc.) rendered no less intelligible by this otherwise superb writer.
Cromwell is sympathetic even if he is prized mostly for certain hard-assed qualities and a talent for using his low-birth and war pedigree to intimidate gentle ladies and men alike.
The fact he is something of state-sponsored monster is obscured by the fact we're rooting for him. Cromwell takes in all manner of folk needing help and turns them out of the house at Austin Friars and onto varying paths toward prosperity.
He represents something of a democratic green shoot growing in the golden brown wheat fields of aristocracy.
Here's one of highwayscribery's favorite lines about Cromwell regarding his close alliance with Ann Boleyn; who was nothing if not the wrecker of Henry's first marriage with Spain's Katherine of Aragon.
"He sighs. It's not much, to know that all the merry young whores are on your side. All the kept women, and the runaway daughters."
Mantel's greatest triumphs are the elevation of Cromwell as archetype for the true governmental mechanic (think Rahm Emmanuel), and her making believable the goings-on behind closed doors, the stuff of closed council, as she paints them.
"The fate of peoples," the author writes, "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 recent winner of the British Commonwealth's "Man Booker Award," useful as far as such things go, which in this case is pretty far.
The writing is economical, the transitional passages are deft and colorful, her application of language is economical but rich, her focus never so tight as to lose that English subtlety for telling you a story with a point not too obvious.
It's a big literature, fancy-schmanzy in reach and range, all the while being a page-turner that sheds light on an important, if under-celebrated, historical figure.