Guilty as Charged: Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies

Bring-up-the-BodiesThere’s a feeling of power in reserve, a power that drives right through the bone, like the shiver you sense in the shaft of an axe when you take it into your hand. You can strike, or you can not strike, and if you choose to hold back the blow, you can still feel inside you the resonance of the omitted thing. (Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall)

“Did Anne,” Cromwell wonders towards the end of Bring Up the Bodies, “understand what was coming?” Even as the confessions are gathered that condemn her–even as her own uncle carries the warrant for her arrest, she goes “blindly through her last morning, doing what she always used to do.” What should she be doing, though? What could she be doing that would make any difference? We know, after all, how the story ends–but the fleeting poignancy is that she can’t be sure, can’t even altogether understand how she has lost the game she played with such brilliance. “Ready to go?” asks her uncle Norfolk; “I do not know how to be ready,” she replies.

It’s telling that Anne’s defeat manifests itself as disorientation: in the intricately plotted and plotting world Mantel has created across the first two books of her Cromwell trilogy, awareness is everything. Cromwell relies for his own power on his literal network of informants as well as on the relentless acuity of his inward eye, arranging and rearranging players and pieces in his mind until he is as sure of success in his political life as he is in the game of chess he portentously plays with Edward Seymour, brother of meek Jane, object of King Henry’s latest obsession. “A world where Anne can be queen is a world where Cromwell can be Cromwell,” it occurs to him in Wolf Hall. In Bring Up the Bodies he must discover how Cromwell can survive as Cromwell in a world where Queen Anne must be replaced. Anne’s rise enabled his, but her fall must not bring him down, and so with clinical precision he rearranges his alliances and once again commits himself to getting Henry what he wants. That this time his duty to his king coincides with his own longstanding grudges–against those who destroyed and then mocked his fallen mentor, Cardinal Wolsey–makes his job just that much sweeter.

Cromwell’s cold vengefulness, originating as it does in his love for Wolsey, paradoxically humanizes him: though instrumental in the suffering and death of many men (and one woman) whose guilt is at most ambiguous, nonetheless he is hardly a monstrous figure. Yet who could read his interviews with these victims of Henry’s caprice and not recoil? Wily, sophistical, manipulative, relentless, he twists both their words and their silences into the shapes that serve his single-minded purpose. “Did you think the king would die, so you could marry Anne?” he demands of Henry Norris. “Or did you expect her to dishonour her marriage vows during the king’s life, and become your concubine? It is one or the other.” “If I say either,” protests Norris, “you will damn me. You will damn me if I say nothing at all, taking my silence for agreement.” That is, exactly, Cromwell’s method. “And what do you think of brother George?” Cromwell asks him:

“You may have been surprised to encounter rivalry from that quarter. I hope you were surprised. Though the morals of you gentlemen astonish me.”

“You do not trap me that way. Any man you name, I will say nothing against him and nothing for him. I have no opinion on George Boleyn.”

“What, no opinion on incest? If you take it so quietly and without objection, I am forced to conjecture there may be truth in it.”

“And if I were to say, I think there might be guilt in that case, you would say to me, ‘Why, Norris! Incest! How can you believe such an abomination? Is it a ploy to lead me away from your own guilt?'”

He looks at Norris with admiration. “Not for nothing have you known me twenty years, Harry.”

What takes Norris longer to realize is that though he will die for his alleged guilt with the queen, his death settles a different debt, “a fat extract from the book of grief”: he and the other accused men once “turned the cardinal into a beast” in a play for the court, depicting him as “a howling animal, grovelling on the boards and scrabbling with his paws.” In the audience was Cromwell, “leaning against the panelling, silent, wrapped in a robe of mourning black.” “Would Norris understand it if he spelt it out?” wonders Cromwell;

He needs guilty men. So he has found men who are guilty. Though perhaps not guilty as charged.

On its own terms, it’s a faultless logic–perhaps even a faultless justice. Anne must go; adultery and treason will be the charges; the charges must be proven, so the men must be found guilty; once they are found guilty, Anne’s guilt too is concluded; they die, she dies, and the king is free to marry Jane Seymour and beget a son for England. The men must be found guilty of adultery and treason whatever the facts of their relations with the queen, but as they are at any rate guilty of something else, their deaths are deserved and no moral harm is done.

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If that reasoning makes you squirm, then you are onto what I suspect is Mantel’s game, which seems to be to test the limits of our sympathy (our complicity, even) with a protagonist driven increasingly by calculation and self-interest, one who, despite having strong loyalties and family affections himself, is all but unmoved by the human desperation his machinations engender. The Cromwell of Bring Up the Bodies is colder and more sinister than his counterpart in Wolf Hall — or perhaps the difference is that the earlier Cromwell is an underdog, on the rise, always a compelling dynamic, whereas in Bring Up the Bodies, though he is still disdained by the court for his lowly origins, now he is Master Secretary, seemingly both omniscient and omnipotent, and holding on to power is never as attractive as winning it. Mantel plays her hand deftly, though: Cromwell himself recoils just enough from his own cruelties to keep him on the right side of unforgivable. Interrogating young Francis Weston, child of privilege (“never a moment’s doubt about his place in the world, never a moment’s anxiety”) Cromwell sees “the boy’s head sink into his hands”– “Perhaps the facts will come out now?” And then, inexplicably, he excuses himself and leaves the room. Is it the truth he fears? Why, if it will legitimize the accusations, the sentences, the deaths that are already inevitable? To save Weston, perhaps, from denouncing his friends and then living — dying — with that betrayal? To preserve Weston’s innocence, such as it is, in a world where innocence seems impossible?

Or perhaps he just needed air. Let us say you are in a chamber, the windows sealed, you are conscious of the proximity of other bodies, of the declining light. In the room you put cases, you play games, you move your personnel around each other: notional bodies, hard as ivory, black as ebony, pushed on their paths across the squares. Then you say, I can’t endure this any more, I must breathe: you burst out of the room and into a wild garden where the guilty are hanging from trees, no longer ivory, no longer ebony, but flesh; and their wild lamenting tongues proclaim their guilt as they die. In this matter, cause has been preceded by effect. What you dreamed has enacted itself. You reach for a blade but the blood is already shed. The lambs have butchered and eaten themselves. They have brought knives to the table, carved themselves, and picked their own bones clean.

The horror is manageable as long as the unreality predominates. His lawyer’s skills entrap his victims and the credit is his for maneuvering them into position; they, on the other hand, believe that if they just tell the truth somehow they can restore themselves to life. Norris “seems to think that with eloquence, with sincerity, with frankness, he can change what is happening,” but already, to Cromwell’s eyes, he is “the dying man.”

Of Anne, especially, Cromwell prefers not to know too much, not to come too close. “You know, I created you,” she says to him when he comes with the others to take her to the Tower. He shows no particular malevolence towards her; in fact, he repents having brought the Constable of the Tower, William Kingston, along on this errand, as “his office, and his appearance have struck terror into the hearts of the strongest men.” She is more his antagonist than his enemy–though again there is satisfaction for Cromwell in seeing one who brought Wolsey down brought down in her turn. When he thinks she is about to speak to him sincerely, confessionally, he is momentarily touched with both compassion and unease:

She is on her feet, detaining him, timidly touching his arm; as if it is not her release she wants, so much as his good opinion. “You do not believe these stories against me? I know in your heart you do not, Cremuel?”

It is a long moment. He feels himself on the edge of something unwelcome: superfluous knowledge, useless information. He turns, hesitates, and reaches out, tentative . . .

But then she raises her hands and clasps them at her breast, in the gesture Lady Rochford had showed him. Ah, Queen Esther, he thinks. She is not innocent; she can only mimic innocence. His hand drops to his side. He turns away.

He is relieved — not that she is guilty, for he has nothing more certain than his own belief that “she would commit any sin or crime” to tell against her — but she does not intrude upon him any inconvenient truth. All he ever wants is “the truth little by little and only those parts of it we can use.” Anne’s protestations of innocence, especially if truthful, would not be useful at all for Cromwell’s purposes, or the king’s.

And what about Mantel’s purposes? “The evidence is complex and sometimes contradictory,” she says in her author’s note about the “circumstances surrounding the fall of Anne Boleyn”; “the sources are often dubious, tainted, and after-the-fact.” So there’s one reason to leave the case against her unresolved: we can’t, historically, be sure. Besides, what is sure is the necessity of the judgment against her: it was shockingly irrelevant whether the accused men were in fact her lovers, whether she did in fact commit incest with her brother. Her trial was never really about that, and so from that perspective Mantel is right to keep our attention on the process, the political and, we might say, genealogical forces arrayed against her. This focus, in turn, keeps our attention on Cromwell, on his successes and failures, and on the moral equivocations of his ultimately triumphant plot against her, given both the difficulty and the irrelevance of making the actual case. “Was she guilty or not?” is the question Thackeray refuses to answer about Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair, and as a result our judgment is deflected from her to those around her, as well as to ourselves. A guilty Anne is a weak opponent; an innocent Anne is a martyr. Mantel’s Anne, instead, is neither guilty nor innocent but defeated:

He believes he understands Anne, as Wriothesley does not. When she said the queen’s lodgings were too good for her, she did not mean to admit her guilt, but to say this truth: I am not worthy, and I am not worthy because I have failed. One thing she has set out to do, this side of salvation: get Henry and keep him. She has lost him to Jane Seymour, and no court of law will judge her more harshly than she judges herself. . . . She knows adultery is a sin and treason a crime, but to be on the losing side is a greater fault than these. . . .

He says, “Anne is dead to herself. We shall have no trouble with her now.”

wolf-hallUnlike Anne, we knew all along that this was how the game would end: though most of the multitudinous details Mantel provides will probably be unfamiliar to all but the Tudor connoisseur, Anne’s execution cannot surprise any reader. Mantel knows this perfectly well and even plays with it — the very title of Wolf Hall foreshadows Anne’s failure even as the novel details her success. Historical fiction can hardly be built around suspense. Bring Up the Bodies is gripping nonetheless because, knowing what will happen, we still wonder how and why events unfolded as they did, and because also Mantel is brilliant at the other aspects of the novelist’s craft: characterization above all (Cromwell, of course, and Anne, but also Henry, who is miraculously liberated from the burden of clichés and caricatures that have accreted around his bullish figure over five centuries) and setting, too, all of the elements contributing to our understanding of the world she has created, which is permeated with implications that reach well beyond plot:

These days are perfect. The clear untroubled light picks out each berry shimmering in a hedge. Each leaf of a tree, the sun behind it, hangs like a gold pear. Riding westward in high summer, we have dipped into sylvan chases and crested the downs, emerging into that high country where, even across two counties, you can sense the shifting presence of the sea. In this part of England our forefathers the giants left their earthworks, their barrows and standing stones. We still have, every Englishman and woman, some drops of giant blood in our veins. In those ancient times, in a country undespoiled by sheep of plough, they hunted the wild boar and the elk. The forest stretched ahead for days. Sometimes antique weapons are unearthed: axes that, wielded with double fist, could cut down horse and rider. Think of the great limbs of those dead men, stirring under the soil. War was their nature, and war is always keen to come again. It’s not just the past you think of, as you ride these fields. It’s what’s latent in the soil, what’s breeding; it’s the days to come, the wars unfought, the injuries and deaths that, like seeds, the soil of England is keeping warm.

Through the vehicle of Cromwell’s own peculiar, wide-ranging, far-seeing consciousness, Mantel transports us away from the particular towards the near mythic. Her prose oscillates between the immediate and the imminent, and thus, though we follow the individual stories intently, we can’t forget their small size, the small part her men and women play in the story that began long before them and will go on long after. “One day I will be gone,” reflects Cromwell at the end of this volume, “and as this world goes it may not be long”:

I will leave behind me a great mountain of paper, and those who come after me . . . will sift through what remains and remark, here is an old deed, an old draft, an old letter from Thomas Cromwell’s time: they will turn the page over, and write on me.

“Either my enemies will do for me or my friends,” he thinks wryly, and the final volume of Mantel’s trilogy will presumably tell the story of how this comes to pass. It will be interesting to see if, as Cromwell finally plays a losing hand, Mantel is tempted to sentimentalize him, or at least to be more decisive about his guilt or innocence than she is about Anne’s. She has established the basis for his defense: if he is cruel (and how easily Anne’s French-inflected version of his name, “Cremuel,” slurs into that word when you’re reading), if he is cunning and self-interested, he is also loyal and even loving. She shows him, not as an inherently evil man, but as a man who has sought to shape his destiny in an unforgiving environment and has adapted in order to survive. “The world corrupts me,” Cromwell says to Thomas More in Wolf Hall;

Or perhaps it’s just the weather. It pulls me down and makes me think like you, that one should shrink inside, down and down to a little point of light, preserving one’s solitary soul like a flame under glass. . . . I truly believe I should be a better man if the weather were better. I should be a better man if I lived in a commonwealth where the sun shone and the citizens were rich and free.

Is that where we should rest our case, then, on the flickering light of his best self? Or does this exculpatory statement sound a little too pat from the man who stands over the fallen body of the king and “seems to body out and fill all the space,” staring down his enemies and seemingly calling Henry back from the dead? Though the argument of the novels might be that Cromwell is no more (and no less) than an exemplary man of his age, the form of the novels, which keeps us up close beside him at all times, insists on the force of the individual character. So do we blame him for his conduct or not? So far, I think we are left hovering between excuses and accusations. Perhaps here too, as with Anne, judgment is beside the point, but if we reserve judgment in the case of a man like Cromwell (at least as Mantel has shown him to us) I also think that we have to feel within ourselves “the resonance of the omitted thing.”

Robert Graves, I, Claudius: Telling and Showing

I, Claudius is the complete antithesis of the shallowly sentimental historical fiction I’ve been reviewing and complaining about recently. There’s something almost ruthless about Graves’s approach as a historical novelist: he simply refuses to pander to his readers with rhetorical flourishes, dramatic scene setting, even dialogue. Paragraph after paragraph, page after page, rolls by with hardly any relief from long unbroken blocks of text. We are carried along not by emotion (except, occasionally, suspense) but by morbid fascination and curiosity about what happens next. And to make matters worse, or better (depending on what kind of reader you are) our curiosity is impeded by the sheer voluminousness of the information he gives us, starting with the endless citation of names, all very much like one another–there’s Agrippa and Agrippina and Agrippinilla, Livia and Livilla, Gaius, Gallus, Gemellus, at least two each of Nero and Drusus and Drusilla…and these are only a few among the most prominent or more lasting characters, as nearly every anecdote includes a roll call of more and more. Events pile on one another in the same relentless fashion:  ascensions to – then falls from – power, children, marriages, affairs, rapes, murders, wars, accidents, deaths, brutalities and obscenities, and the very occasional tenderness. The effect is of a crowded and rapidly moving procession to which we, through Claudius, are passive, sometimes bemused, often horrified, spectators.

This is a novel (more properly, a history) so full of incident, none independently more engrossing or significant than the others, that it is at once too easy and very difficult to find an exemplary passage. This one will do:

The close of the year was marked by the banishment of Julilla on the charge of promiscuous adultery – just like her mother Julia – to Tremerus, a small island off the coast of Apulia. The real reason for her banishment was that she was just about to bear another child, which if it were a boy would be a great-grandson of Augustus, and unrelated to Livia; Livia was taking no risks now. Julilla had one son already, but he was a delicate, timorous, slack-twisted fellow and could be disgreagrded. Æmilius himself provided Livia with grounds for the accusation. He had quarrelled with Julilla and now charged her in the presence of their daughter Æmilia with trying to father another man’s child on him. He named Decimus, a nobleman of the Silanus family, as the adulterer. Æmilia, who was clever enough to realize that her own life and safety depended on keeping in Livia’s good books, went straight to her and told what she had heard. Livia made her repeat the story in Augustus’s presence. Augustus then summoned Æmilius and asked whether it ws true that he was not the father of Julilla’s child. It did not occur to Æmilius that Æmilia could have betrayed her mother and himself, so he assumed that the intimacy which he suspected between Julilla and Decimus was a matter of common scandal. He therefore held by his accusation, though it was founded rather on jealousy than on knowledge. Augustus took the child as soon as it was born and had it exposed on the mountainside. Decimus went into voluntary exile and several other men accused of having been Julilla’s lovers at one time or another followed him: among them was the poet Ovid whom Augustus, curiously enough, made the principal scapegoat as having also written (many years before) The Art of Love. It was this poem, Augustus said, that had debauched his granddaughter’s mind. He ordered all copies of it found to be burned.

To paraphrase SNL, it goes on like this for 300 more pages. Probably 80% of the novel tells us what happens in just this kind of direct expository fashion. Graves’s prose is lucid and emphatic, energetic but without elaboration, very nearly without anything identifiable as a personal style, or even a personality, which is particularly strange and unexpected because the entire narrative is first-person narration, by Claudius himself.

Claudius is a bit player in most of the action he recounts, a witness more than a participant. He speaks as an outsider and aspires to a historian’s objectivity and detail: this accounts for the cool, persistent tone of the narrative. Yet we are learning more about him than we think, as we read along, and that’s the other 20% of the book: just by this aspiration to honesty, he distinguishes himself from the self-seeking liars and schemers who populate his world and the novel, and his self-deprecation – repeated and amplified by the scornful way he is dismissed as foolish and insignificant by almost everyone around him – does express his personality, as does his relegation of himself to the sidelines. Tacitly, implicitly, through the story he tells, Claudius shows us the man he is. For Claudius, of course, is no fool – as even Livia, his deliciously ruthless and conniving grandmother eventually sees. “Do you want to live a long busy life, with honour at the end of it?” inquires the historian Pollio, after a surprising encounter with young Claudius in the Apollo Library. “Then exaggerate your limp, stammer deliberately, sham sickness frequently, let your wits wander, jerk your head and twitch with your hands on all public or semi-public occasions. If you could see as much as I can see, you would know that this was your only hope of safety and eventual heroism.” This is precisely Claudius’s strategy, though to call it a ‘strategy’ is to impute to him more self-directed cunning and self-control than he allows himself in his own text. Still, we realize, as he does, that he survives because he represents no threat, issues no challenges, raises no defenses. All around him, men and women die horribly by sword or poison, starvation or torture, while Claudius lives on. He survives even the reign of his brilliantly psychotic nephew Caligula, who believes himself to have apotheosized into a God and amuses himself by, among other things, appearing as Venus “in a long gauzy silk robe with face painted, a red wig, padded bosom and high-heeled slippers,” or by organizing a brothel in the Palace at which his sisters Agrippinilla and Lesbia prostitute themselves. Caligula’s sister Drusilla, whom he loves as his wife, has died by this time – “I am certain in my own mind that Caligula killed her,” Claudius remarks, “but I have no proof” – but perhaps the most infamous scene in the remarkable BBC adaptation, in which Caligula (memorably played by John Hurt) aborts and devours her child by him, is not in Graves’s novel, unless I somehow missed it! The delightfully bizarre story of Caligula’s great battle with Neptune, however, and his victor’s bounty of sea shells, is here in full.

There’s nothing heroic about Claudius’s survival: he stands by helpless and dismayed as those he loved were banished, betrayed, and murdered; when he does interfere or help, he evades punishment only because he is considered too pathetic to be held responsible; he panders to those in power, particularly Caligula. Yet what is a man of some basic decency to do in a world so thoroughly corrupt? What Graves doesn’t do that I think another kind of historical novelist might have done is engage this moral problem directly, making it an explicit theme rather than a lurking practical question. Doing so would have required making Claudius a philosopher rather than a chronicler, though, and Claudius (and / or Graves) is a historian above all.

Summer Reading Update: Some Hits, More Misses

I’m up to six books in my quest to reach thirty this summer. I can’t say I’m off to a very good start. Of these, two were awful, two mediocre, and two were very good. I’ll quickly survey them all here, but I plan to give the best two their own proper posts.

The two awful ones were Robert B. Parker’s The Judas Goat and Anne Easter Smith’s A Rose for the Crown. The Parker was a real and unpleasant surprise. I wrote recently about my long-standing fondness for this series and mentioned my interest in rereading some of the earlier ones. I don’t think I had ever read The Judas Goat before. If it had been the first time I ever met Spenser, our beautiful friendship would never have developed: I’m morally certain I would not have read another one in the series. I didn’t like the writing style, which seemed arch and insincere; I didn’t like Spenser, who seemed similarly arch and insincere, gratuitously violent, and also (to my surprise) sexist. To be sure, there are shades of the moral scrupulosity that I associate with him, but not enough. Most of all, I didn’t like Hawk–or, more accurately, I didn’t like the way Hawk is characterized here or the way he and Spenser interact. You can see a glimmer of the wry astute humor that infuses their zippy repartee in the later books, but I had the feeling that Parker hadn’t figured out how to do that yet. Plus Hawk kept on calling Spenser “babe,” which I found affected and annoying. The plot was not bad, and it is rare and therefore interesting to have Spenser abroad, but it was only loyalty that kept me reading to the end.

A Rose for the Crown was awful in different ways: it’s historical fiction of the thinnest variety, with tedious faux-antique dialogue, laborious exposition, and lots of forced emotion. I turned every page but by about half-way through I was skimming because I couldn’t bear to put in the effort to read every word. I figure I can count it as “read” for my summer tally because I also skimmed Reay Tannahill’s The Seventh Son, which was equally dreadful. Between them, calculating generously, you have something approximating the substance of a whole book. Honestly, I try to be open-minded in my reading, but I can’t understand the popularity of books of this type: who could not find the transparency of their efforts to be dramatic and affecting, not to mention the alternation between ploddingly pedestrian prose and a kind of loosely imagined old-fashioned idiom kind of insulting after a while? Compare something like The Children’s Book or Wolf Hall–or Waverley or The Heart of Midlothian or Romola: historical fiction can be so much more, and need not neglect originality of style or thought in order to tell a compelling story and animate our imaginings of the past. But I suppose they are no different from other fiction that has no aspiration to ideas, much less to art.

Maisie Dobbs is in the “mediocre” category. Perhaps it was a mistake to read it at a time when I have been reading a lot of much better writing about Britain during the wars. I would call it “Vera Brittain Lite, with a smattering of Dorothy Sayers (but absent her intellectual range).” How’s that for a cumbersome tag line? There’s nothing wrong with Winspear’s careful evocation of either WWI or its social and psychological after-effects, except that she is not a particularly good stylist (a lot of the novel seemed to be, again, striving after effects, rather than earning them) and so many of the notes she plays are so obvious if you already know anything about the context. Maisie is a reasonably interesting character, and reasonably well-drawn: one structural aspect of the book that surprised me was the amount of time spent going back over Maisie’s childhood and development. I wondered, in fact, if Winspear really wanted to write a “real” novel about someone growing up with these kinds of “Upstairs-Downstairs” issues, but thought it would be easier, either to write or to market, if this story were packaged as part of a detective novel. The detective plot is almost peripheral, and as the specific problem under investigation comes into focus, we are left sort of outside it, not knowing the steps Maisie has taken, for instance, to uncover it. I thought it was interesting that the case did connect the ostensible crime to the more complicated question of war and the damage it does–but there are far more original and compelling literary explorations of this (Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, for instance). Maisie’s intense relationship with Maurice was not made compelling to me; it felt formulaic, perhaps because it reminded me too much of Cordelia’s relationship with Bernie in An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (which is a much better, more surprising, more literary mystery). So for me the book was just OK, but it had enough interesting aspects that I’m willing to read at least one more in the series, to see if they get better. I just hope Winspear got better editing later on. The book opens with a dangling modifier, for crying out loud (how does an editor at a major publishing house not flag and fix this?),  it is full of clichés (“Maisie felt a strong stab of emotion”), and it seems overwritten, as if the author doesn’t think we’ll get it, or if we do, that we won’t feel what she is anxious for us to feel (“a threat to the family of the woman she held most dear, the woman who had helped her achieve accomplishments that might otherwise have remained an unrealized dream”; “a feeling of anticipation and joy welled up inside her as she realized how very lonely it had been working without Maurice”; etc.).

Finally, also mediocre was Marjorie Harris’s Thrifty: Living the Frugal Life with Style. I picked this up from the library because a friend recommended it to me enthusiastically, and I can see why she enjoyed the chatty style and the lifestyle advice, which is sensible and pleasantly concerned to differentiate “frugal” from “cheap.” Being thrifty, Harris argues, is about deciding what you really need, as opposed to what you merely want, and then focusing your efforts and controlling your finances so that these are the things you have. When I tell you that her list of “must-haves” is “delicious organic food, decent wine and candles,” you’ll understand that this is not in fact a book about things you really need in that you could not physically survive without them. That’s fine: we all understand that the real necessities include a roof over our heads, food on the table (organic or not), and so forth. Although there is some discussion in this book about how to understand and stretch your resources to make sure you can have these basics, it’s really more of an argument against foolish consumerism among those who have enough wealth to spend foolishly but might repent–by squandering it and ending up in debt, for instance. I like the idea of identifying priorities and being wary of the immediate but impermanent gratification of purchases that have no lasting value (not economic, again, as this is not really her focus, but value as in making your life better in the ways you really want it to be good). My own list would not include candles, but books, certainly, and music. So her advice for the “frugal fashionista” or the “frugal foodie” was not of much interest, but the general discussion of thrift was, as well as the repeated emphasis on putting your time and money where your heart is–including room for things you love and cherish for their beauty or other special qualities, for example, provided you do not do so at the expense of actual necessities. So far, fine, but the book is not really very well written (“she immediately turned [the fabric] into a suit for my brother and dresses for my baby sister and I” [emphasis ADDED]????–again, how is it that an editor did not flag and fix this?–and there’s trouble with modifiers again, here, too), it gets pretty repetitive, and some of the examples of “thrift” go a little too far towards justified self-indulgence. Great retro cover, though.

What a relief it was to turn to Testament of a Generation: The Journalism of Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby, and to discover the gently painful delights of Jane Gardam’s Old Filth–about both of which, more later.

Catching Up: Bookish Miscellany, with a Special Note on Loins

I haven’t done a lot of focused reading in the past week or so–I blame (but very much welcomed!) my visiting parents, for diverting me with conversation. I also blame my daughter, who celebrated her 10th birthday on the weekend–an occasion involving much festivity but also, in advance, much planning, bustling, and shopping. Not that we did anything particularly fancy for it (not like last year’s bouncy castle, which really was quite a big deal). This year we had a “pajama day” party, with pillows and “stuffies” and movies, all very cozy. Of course, it would turn out to be the one beautiful sunny day in about a month! But everyone seemed to enjoy curling up to watch, and then we had games (‘freeze dance’ is a ritual favorite with this crowd) and pizza and ice cream sundaes with all the peanut-free toppings I could think of (Maddie’s very allergic).

I have been gathering books to read, though, and puttering through some of them, especially various books (fiction and non-fiction) about Richard III, as I think through what my essay will be about. I haven’t kept up with Ricardian novels since about 1985, and it turns out there have been quite a few, so I’ve been searching them out at the library and taking a look. At this point I’m not inclined to pay much attention to these “new” ones in my essay because they seem, well, awful. I suppose they aren’t, really. What they are is pedestrian and unconvincing. That said, I’ve been wondering: are the old books I cherish, including the two I just reread (The Broken Sword and The White Boar) really any better, or do I just read them through sentimental eyes? I think they are better. For one thing, by and large they avoid tedious attempts to make the characters sound medieval by having them speak in stilted, artificially antique dialogue–like this, from the page that happens to be open in front of me: “Ay, young Richard has proved a good student of arms. I do hear he wields a fierce sword.” You do hear that, do you? 15th-century speakers would have sounded perfectly idiomatic to themselves: I think that (for any but the most ingenious and talented writers) the smartest choice is to make them sound perfectly idiomatic to us, and to let the strangeness of their world-view come through in some other way. An old-fashioned oath or two is fine, and certainly allusions to period details of clothing, food, ritual, whatever. But stay away from ” ‘Tis unnatural in the eyes of God what they are doing” or “Certes, ’tis hard to explain.” Rather than creating an air of authenticity, this kind of labored stuff distances us–or me, at least–from the characters whose immediacy is crucial to our imaginative engagement with the novel. And for crying out loud, leave their loins out of it: across just a few pages of my current example, Anne Easter Smith’s A Rose for the Crown, we get “his exposed loins telling the tale,” “Kate’s loins all but melted into her shaky knees,” and “she experienced the familiar flutter in her heart and stomach that affected her loins.” Our heroine Kate has yet to get passionate with Richard of Gloucester, but I have a familiar flutter of my own that says loins will once more be involved, though maybe this time they’ll keep quiet and stay above the knees. I am hopeful that Jean Plaidy’s The Reluctant Queen will be better. I read and reread Plaidy’s novels as a teenager and have often regretted having discarded most of my collection over the course of many moves. This particular one is unknown to me, though: it is a late one, early 1990s, I think. (One of the unexpected convergences of my thesis research was discovering that the reason Agnes Strickland’s 1840s series Lives of the Queens of England seemed so familiar to me was that Strickland was one of Plaidy’s main sources.) I also dug up Sandra Worth’s The King’s Daughter and took Philippa Gregory’s The White Queen as I roamed the library, as both are at least peripherally about Richard and the Princes in the Tower.

One book I did get through, because I was writing it up for the summer reading feature we’re preparing at Open Letters and I couldn’t resist refreshing my memory, is Pauline Gedge’s The Eagle and the Raven. This is another old favorite, and again it raises the question of how far sentiment affects my judgment. I think I could find passages in The Eagle and the Raven that are as banal and cliched as any in A Rose for the Crown–but overall, I really do think it is fiction of a different order, richer, more challenging, more imaginatively rich. I can’t be quite sure, though, because about half way through it I developed an unnerving tendency to start weeping over every loss or betrayal in the plot, which means over most of the second part of the book. I can certainly be this kind of emotional reader (I’m a Victorianist, remember–I always cry at the end of A Tale of Two Cities too), but I wondered if it was really the tragic failures of the ancient Britons in their struggle against the Roman Empire that made me cry this time: I was full of memories, because of my parents’ visit, and emotionally stirred from reflecting on Maddie’s first completed decade, and The Eagle and the Raven is one of the books that made a great impression on me in my younger years, so that reading it was never just about the book but always about some volatile combination of who I was, who I am now, where I am now (literally and figuratively), and so on. How could I possibly assess its literary quality in these circumstances? And, I suppose, why would I really want to? I loved rereading it, so much that I think I may soon reread Gedge’s first novel, Child of the Morning, about Hatshepsut, Egypt’s only woman pharaoh–another old-time favorite.

Among the other books I have collected for my TBR pile recently is Testament of a Generation, the collected journalism of Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby: I ordered “a lovely copy” through Abebooks (actually, from Silver Tree Books in Malvern, in the UK), and it finally arrived once the postal dispute was concluded (I won’t say “settled,” since it wasn’t, not properly). I’m more interested in reading this than in reading any more about Brittain and Holtby just yet, but I’ve also got Testament of Experience waiting. My mother and I had a nice browse at the Jade *W* downtown, too, and while she took home about 5 more books about Virginia Woolf to add to her impressive collection as well as their copy of Ursula Nordstrom’s Dear Genius (which I really hope she enjoys–I rather urged it on her!), I took Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows and This Real Night from their well-hidden Virago section.

First up for some sustained attention, though–which will have to be tomorrow–is Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale for the Slaves of Golconda. It is worrisome to me that I read this barely a month ago (mistakenly thinking that was our deadline) and can barely recall it now!  But I’m sure it will all come back to me, especially since I see I made some helpful little notes in the back of my copy.

And that’s a start on getting back to blogging. I was actually starting to feel quite fretful about not having written anything here for so long, not because I felt guilty but because I felt sort of pent up, even with nothing in particular to write about.

 

 

Recent Reading, Briefly: Mantel, Goldstein, Darwin

I’m in the midst of marking exams, so there’s not a lot of mental energy left for serious reading–or writing. But I have read a few things in the not-s0-recent past that haven’t been properly written up, so here are some brief notes, at least:

Hilary Mantel, Eight Months on Gazzah Street. This is another good one, quite different from Wolf Hall and A Place of Greater Safety but also showcasing Mantel’s ability to shape terse but evocative scenes. The NYRB ‘blurb’ on the cover describes her as “the blackest of black comedians” but I didn’t find this work funny at all, probably because the lurking horrors in it are all too real (as shown in Mantel’s recent autobiographical essay about her experiences living in Saudi Arabia–experiences on which Eight Months on Gazzah Street is based). The story reminded me not so much of The Turn of the Screw as of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” paranoia and incipient madness brought on by the claustrophobia of living as a woman under particular historical and social circumstances.

Rebecca Goldstein, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God. Like DorothyW at Of Books and Bicycles, I didn’t finish this one–at least, I haven’t yet. I was really looking forward to it, having liked what I heard about Goldstein’s biography of Spinoza (which I am still interested in reading) and having heard good reports of it from my husband–who is an analytic philosopher specializing in the epistemology of religious belief, so perhaps I should have taken into account that he would have a higher tolerance than I did for a book that seemed all too analytic, including about its own humour. An atheist myself, I had (have) plenty of genuine interest in the conception of the book, but when by two thirds of the way through I still found myself totally unengaged with the characters and put off by the academic satire, which is a risky genre for any novelist (warning: making fun of boring pedants by too close imitation risks making a boring pedant of you!) I just put it aside in favor of other things, and so far I haven’t gone back. When David Masson proposed that it would be best for the novel if our novelists were also philosophers, I don’t think this is the result he had in mind…but of course it’s perfectly possible that the failing is my own, that like Peter Wimsey, I haven’t the “philosophical mind.” (FWIW, my philosopher husband didn’t get very far in Wolf Hall, which I found thoroughly riveting…I do think that different habits of mind are cultivated by different disciplines, which is one reason “interdisciplinarity,” though an ever-popular buzz-word in the humanities, often seems so unsatisfactory in practice.)

Emma Darwin, A Secret Alchemy. I had to read this, to keep up an almost life-long interest in “Ricardiana.” It was OK. It’s one of those hybrid books splicing a contemporary plot (this time about an academic historian, Una, researching Elizabeth Woodville, wife of Edward IV and mother of the Princes in the Tower, and her brother Anthony) with a historical one (about Elizabeth and Anthony, which turns out to be the historical fiction Una writes after deciding she can’t be satisfied with a ‘straight’ historical one). I think the ‘alchemy’ of the title is meant to refer to the creation of fiction (or life) from the imperfect historical record, though I’m not altogether sure. Darwin is a pretty good writer in the contemporary part, though I couldn’t figure out a thematic relationship between its story and characters and the historical one that obsesses Una. In the historical part, she falls victim to the tedious habit of trying to convince us we’re in the past by using stilted language, as if everybody in the Olden Days had a poker up, well, you know. Perhaps I’m idiosyncratic in this reaction, but prose with no contractions isn’t, to me, convincingly ‘historicized.’ I much prefer Mantel’s technique of letting her characters speak robustly, colloquially, even at the risk of anachronism in the specifics. Both stories managed to be poignant at times, about love and loss, but so far I’m not convinced (after reading two of her novels now) that Darwin has the rare combination of acquirement and genius necessary to write truly compelling historical fiction.

Imaginative Power: Hilary Mantel, A Place of Greater Safety

safetyGeorge Eliot considered the writing of historical fiction “a task which can only be justified by the rarest concurrence of acquirement with genius,” requiring “a form of imaginative power [which] must always be among the very rarest, because it demands as much accurate and minute knowledge as creative vigour.” Novels of “the modern antique school have a ponderous, a leaden kind of fatuity,” she complained, “under which we groan.” The extraordinary difficulty of the genre is testified to by her own attempt “to reanimate the past” in Romola, the only one of her novels set back more than a couple of generations. She began writing Romola as a young woman and ended it an old one, she said herself, and having worked through the novel recently in my graduate seminar, I know that the effort it demands can make it feel as if it is having the same effect on its readers. To be sure, Romola does have its thrilling moments, and it certainly demonstrates both “accurate and minute knowledge” and “creative vigour”–just not always at the same time, or always in harmony with each other. And there’s the whole “cheese to the macaroni” moment…but I digress from my main point, which is that really good historical fiction is really hard to write, and thus really rare to read.

This brings me, of course, to Hilary Mantel. Like so many others, I admired Wolf Hall a great deal, not least because it was so unlike what I have come to expect of run-of-the-mill contemporary historical fiction. Unsentimental in its approach, economical in its prose, uncannily sideways in its perspective, Wolf Hall evoked the ‘difference’ of the past without condescending to us with faux antiquities or excessive explanation. Its momentum was achieved by Mantel’s gift for the evocative moment or detail, and by her tacit confidence that her reading audience could handle complexity without handholding. Rather than yoking her narrative to one of the reliable moneymakers of the period, she chose a man of  some principle but also much ambition, who not only loves and hates but befriends, alienates, and outmaneuvers. Then she had the courage to portray him as neither the hero nor the attendant lord, but as a man at work and at home, a man being, simply, himself–or, rather, never simply himself but always intensely himself, and thus, in many specific ways, not Everyman, and not us. Mantel’s Cromwell is (in the spirit of, say, Scott’s Fergus MacIvor) a man of his time, shaped and motivated by currents of ideas, by situations, by contexts and opportunities, by values and beliefs, that are not universal. The slight but persistent sense of disorientation created by the odd point of view Mantel adopts for the novel, putting us at Cromwell’s shoulder, in his mind but not of it, helps to keep us at an appropriate distance from that other time towards which we can, after all, only reach out imaginatively but never truly enter. But by not providing elaborate passages of exposition, Mantel also allows us to take that other place for granted, as a reality we can, provisionally, inhabit. We aren’t told about historical trends or events–the shift, for instance, from sacred to secular power–but we are there as they are happening. It’s a risky strategy, a difficult balance: not enough information, after all, and we’d just be confused, but too much information and we might disengage.; not enough excitement or pathos, and we might cease caring, but tip into histrionics and the book’s literary integrity would be compromised. The critical and popular success of Wolf Hall (and sucha long book, too, as so many readers seem compelled to remark!) speaks to Mantel’s achievement.

place-safetyMany of the same qualities and techniques are evident in Mantel’s earlier novel A Place of Greater Safety, particularly the lack of sentimentality and the sharpness of the writing, which is at once prolix and poignant, even uncomfortable–if, as I recently suggested, reading Ian McEwan’s prose is like getting acupuncture to your brain, I found reading A Place of Greater Safety akin to walking barefoot across a stretch of gravel towards a graveyard: you aren’t particularly enjoying the experience, but it has its own vividness and particularity, and there’s a morbid fascination in the direction you know you’re headed. (I seem to be finding my reading especially, if only metaphorically, tactile lately.) A Place of Greater Safety also, like Wolf Hall, builds momentum gradually by developing our relationship, with not just one complicated protagonist this time, but with three, the revolutionary triumverate of Georges-Jacques Danton, Camille Desmoulins, and Maximilien Robespierre. Again, there are neither heroes nor villains in this crowd, though each has his heroic, as well as his villainous, moments. (Desmoulins, beautiful, erratic, alternately effervescent and enervated, and writing, always writing, seemed to me a particularly brilliant characterization.) And just as Wolf Hall only incidentally informs its readers about the causes and contexts of the Reformation, A Place of Greater Safety eschews the potential pedagogical role of the historical novel. At the end of its 750 pages I really didn’t feel much better informed about the events or even the political and philosophical stakes of the French Revolution than I was already. Here again, Mantel adopts a slantwise approach: not altogether personal, not just the ‘human story’ of the men and women who lived it, but not abstract, theoretical, or fully contextualized either. Here’s a rare but characteristic ‘explanatory’ passage, terse and ominously proleptic:

Bread is the main thing to understand: the staple of speculation, the food for all theories about what happens next. Fifteen years from now, on the day the Bastille falls, the price of bread in Paris will be at its highest in sixty years. Twenty years from now (when it is all over), a woman of the capital will say: ‘Under Robespierre, blood flowed, but the people had bread. Perhaps in order to have bread, it is necessary to spill a little blood.’

There’s as little exposition here as in Wolf Hall, and the overall impression is one of a great deal going on that wasn’t well understood by, and certainly wasn’t under the control of, even the major participants. But Mantel only very rarely steps in to explain to us what they can’t know, or even, most of the time, what they do know: we get fragments of debates, pamphlets, laws, and contexts, in a kind of swirl of partial information and misinformation. I found this effect frustrating at times: I wanted to know just what the Girondins or the Cordelier Club stood for, what (if anything) was accomplished at and by the Tennis Court Oath or the storming of the Bastille. But it isn’t really a book about that. Though her people are intensely political, the novel is primarily personal, more so than Wolf Hall, with more emphasis on relationships, but without the sentimental premise that, for instance, home is the ‘place of greater safety’–or, if it is so, or if it feels so, that safety is temporary, or illusory. It’s a novel, then about the personal side of politics, or about political personalities, and above all it emphasizes the ways politics, especially revolutionary politics, are ultimately antithetical to personal loyalties. Principles have consequences to which even cherished friendships may ultimately need to be sacrificed. “From now on,” Louis Suleau tells Desmoulins, “personal loyalty will count for very little in people’s lives,” and we feel the inexorable truth of this statement as the Revolutionaries turn, eventually, on each other.

wolf-hallIt’s tribute to Mantel’s peculiar gifts and strategies as a storyteller that she assembles an even less attractive crew here than in Wolf Hall and yet what matters is not how appealing they are but how compelling they are, and how intensely themselves, so that by the final chapter, as the Revolution devours its children, I didn’t care who they were, really, only that they were going to die, after my having known them for so long. Mantel manages their end (known from the novel’s beginning because, after all, it is history) without any of the tumbril sentimentality the inevitable Dickens comparisons on the jacket blurb might lead us to anticipate. None of the characters comes across as heroic or noble, but they have such great vitality (even Robespierre, with his tedious incorruptibility), that their deaths felt like great losses–losses, quite simply, of life, of the energy and lust for life, for words, and for action, that characterized them all. Again, a sample of her terse, epigrammatic style:

There is a point beyond which–convention and imagination dictate–we cannot go; perhaps it’s here, when the carts decant onto the scaffold their freight, now living and breathing flesh, soon to be dead meat. Danton imagines that, as the greatest of the condemned, he will be left until last, with Camille beside him. He thinks less of eternity then of how to keep his friend’s body and soul together for the fifteen minutes before the National Razor separates them.

But of course it is not like that. Why should it be as you imagine?

And the famous final flourish:

He watches each death, until he is tutored to his own.

‘Hey, Sanson?’

‘Citizen Danton?’

‘Show my head to the people. It’s worth the trouble.’

In that predictable Dickens allusion, the Library Journal says he “did it first in A Tale of Two Cities.” But Dickens got his information from an earlier and far, far better, far more revolutionary, account of the Revolution: Thomas Carlyle’s 1837 The French Revolution. There’s no overt reference to Carlyle in A Place of Greater Safety, but I feel Mantel must have read it and learned from it that the only way to approach the reality of that wild, idealistic, turbulent, violent period was through story-telling that itself embraces confusion. Her book is far more orderly than Carlyle’s, of course: you couldn’t write The French Revolution today, I think, and indeed it was rightly felt and understood to be extraordinary in its own time. Just to give a sense of how crazy and yet compelling it is, here’s Carlyle’s version of Danton’s execution:

Danton carried a high look in the Death-cart. Not so Camille: it is but one week, and all is so topsyturvied; angel Wife left weeping; love, riches, Revolutionary fame, left all at the Prison-gate; carnivorous Rabble now howling round. Palpable and yet incredible; like a madman’s dream! Camille struggles and writhes; his shoulders shuffle the loose coat off them, which hangs knotted, the hands tied: ‘Calm, my friend’, said Danton; ‘heed not that vile canaille (laissez la cette vile canaille).’ At the foot of the Scaffold, Danton was heard to ejaculate: ‘O my Wife, my well-beloved. I shall never see thee more then!’–but, interrupting himself: ‘Danton, no weakness!’ He said to Herault-Sechelles stepping forward to embrace him: ‘Our heads will meet there‘, in the Headsman’s sack. His last words were to Samson the Headsman himself: ‘Thou wilt show my head to the people; it is worth showing.’

So passes, like a gigantic mass, of valour, ostentation, fury, affection, and wild revolutionary force and manhood, this Danton, to his unknown home. He was of Arcis-sur-Aube; born of ‘good farmer people’ there. He had many sins; but one worst sin he had not, that of Cant. No hollow Formalist, deceptive and self-deceptive, ghastly to the natural sense, was this; but a very Man: with all his dross he was a Man; fiery-real, from the great fire-bosom of Nature herself.

This is history as philosophy and prophecy, which is not Mantel’s history. Her theory of the revolution, as far as she offers one, is economic (“the price of bread”). But she too feels, or at least conveys, the urgency of understanding that whatever it means, if anything, history is lived (as Carlyle said in another context) “not by state-papers and abstractions of men” but by “very” men.

Weekend Miscellany & Recent Reading

Weekend Miscellany: some things that have caught my eye in recent Internet ramblings:

Joseph Epstein reviews Gertrude Himmelfarb’s new book, The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot (via). I agree with Open Letters‘s Sam Sacks that Epstein’s generalizations about the Victorians are tired (“The Victorians had a comprehensive and confident view of human nature”… ), though I think Epstein may to be trying to convey what the Bloomsbury-ites thought of them, rather than what he himself takes to be the case, as he moves on to praise the progress we have made from such Bloomsbury-inspired stereotypes. Sacks suggests that “when Epstein moves on to discussing George Eliot, he does fine”; I’d say there too, though, Epstein could do better. It’s tedious, for one thing, that he leads with a discussion of her appearance, complete with Henry James’s infamous insults (imagine a sentence along the lines of “A short, homely man with bulbous eyes, Charles Dickens nonetheless charmed audiences with his impassioned readings…”–why do so many people feel it necessry and appropriate to lead off with comments on her looks?). What can he mean by his remark, after noting that George Eliot was not a supporter of female suffrage (she was not much of a supporter of universal male suffrage either, it’s worth keeping in mind), that “George Eliot’s feminism was of a superior kind”? Superior to what? It sounds as if he might mean she wasn’t one of those shrill political types. He refers to Eliot as a “Zionist,” but as the work of Nancy Henry and others shows, it is tricky to use that term as if it applied in her moment as it came to later on.

George Eliot goes on Oprah: I’ve often thought Oprah should take on Middlemarchfor her Book Club, but its emphasis on failed ambition and entangled idealism would rather undermine her show’s relentless emphasis on overcoming obstacles and triumphing over “this petty medium.” As I always figure that the more people who read it the better, I’ll be interested (in sort of a “bystander at an accident” way) to see if this producer and those who read along find the expeience rewarding.

At ReadySteadyBlog, Mark Thwaite asks his readers to name “academics who manage to retain their rigour, but speak beyond the academy, if only to a quite self-selecting and small audience.” As he asks, “who is doing it for you?” I think in principle any academic could “speak beyond the academy” if you follow Mark’s lead in looking to academic books for insights on literary figures or topics of special interest; academics who write deliberately for a non-academic audience would be a much smaller group.

Reviews are piling up of Sarah Waters’s new novel, TheLittle Stranger. I don’t need to read any of them to know I want to read the novel, but this piece by Waters herself on the novel’s background and relationship to Josephine Tey’s classic The Franchise Affair really whetted my appetite for it. (via)

N+1 takes a couple more shots at bloggers (“Bloggers on the whole write carelessly, their ideas are commonplace, they curry favor with readers and one another, and their popularity is no index of their worthiness.”) even while admitting that there can be a “special eloquence” in the “speech-like qualities” of on-line writing (though that eloquence doesn’t really count, it turns out, as “the same discovery is made by bloggers and texters and chatters in a minor and disposable way all the time”). With 76 million blogs ongoing (or whatever the current estimate is), any claims about what they are like “on the whole” must be a difficult thing to ascertain. I wonder how many blogs the author read to come up with this generalization.

Recent Reading

Two of the books I finished recently are so dissimilar in tone and style–indeed, in almost every way–that it comes as a surprise to me to discover, on reflection, that I think they are pursuing a very similar idea. The books are Nawal El Saadawi‘s Woman at Point Zero, first published in 1973, and Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac, which won the Booker prize in 1984. El Saadawi’s novel is the fictional equivalent of repeated slaps in the face, if such startling, painful moments could also somehow be imagined as poetic. Brookner’s novel, in contrast, is subtle, patiently nuanced, and faintly sardonic. How can I say that the blunt first-person narrative of an Egyptian prostitute on death row for murder and a cool first-person account of a British romance novelist vacationing in Switzerland after leaving her fiance at the altar have anything in common? Perhaps the connection is a tenuous one, but both books seem to be fundamentally about the relationship a woman has with herself, and how that relationship is compromised and challenged by the sexual politics–the distribution of power, including physical and economic but also social and cultural power–of her world. Both bring these compromises and challenges into focus by emphasizing their protagonists’ struggles to discover their own identities and maintain their integrity, even when (especially when) that means disregarding how they are looked at by others.

El Sadaawi’s protagonist, Firdaus, fails: her courageous attempts to reinvent herself, to believe in herself and the possibility of her own economic, moral, and sexual freedom, are repeatedly–relentlessly, shatteringly–defeated. The cyclical structure of the novel, in which the same language (assuming the translation is accurate) is repeated for different incidents as if to prove no real progress has been made, that the core crisis remains literally identical, gives a formal pattern to this defeat. It would be an understatement to call this an angry book: to borrow from Matthew Arnold, it is full of “hunger, rebellion, and rage.” It is an activist book, a book designed to smack you out of your complacency. It is interesting to compare it, as I inevitably did, with Ahdaf Souef’s novels, which seem to speak from another world entirely. The timing makes some difference, though I wonder how much: is Firdaus’s experience impossible two decades, three decades, later? Today? How much of the difference between Soueif’s confident, ambitious women and El Sadaawi’s Firdaus is economic or class-based? The novel has been described as fable-like; it may also be that it is meant to transcend its time and place, to speak very fundamentally to the subjection of women, or of the roots and effects of all oppression.

Brookner’s protagonist ends her novel with no triumphant resolution but with a questing sense of possibilities. She has rejected two relationships that promise her social security, protection from the slights and indignities she faces daily and fears will overtake her as she ages: now she must discover what it is like to live on her own terms. To be sure, her situation is dramatically more secure than Firdaus’s, though in both cases money is seen to be key to both security and autonomy (“money is what you make when you grow up,” she tells a less independent companion). She faces no physical violence, no overt discrimination–but nonetheless she has difficulty imagining happiness for herself without love.

Hotel du Lac is the first Brookner novel I’ve read. I enjoyed the language a lot: it was descriptive but restrained. It opens with shades of grey that become thematically apt too, for the repressions that limit its protagonist’s expressiveness. I liked the “vast grey lake, spreading like an anaesthetic towards the invisible further shore”–that image of anaesthetic is proleptic of the life Edith might have. The novel surprised me repeatedly, not with big shocks or twists, but just by not being or saying quite what I expected. It felt like an Edwardian novel; I kept picturing its characters dressed like those in The Enchanted April (they use words like “smocks”–do people say that anymore?). But then someone said something about deconstruction and signifiers and I was reminded of its more contemporary moment. I wonder if the historical ambiguity created by its tone was deliberate, or if I just missed some basic clue as to when exactly its action takes place.

I’ve also recently read Emma Darwin‘s The Mathematics of Love, a novel which weaves together a historical with a modern plot. I thought both parts of the novel were individually well done, though the more contemporary (late 70s, so not really contemporary) part was more compelling. The 19th-century part was written in a more formal style, but that seems like an unnecessary artifice. Perhaps one reason Sarah Waters’s neo-Victorian novels read so well is that although she seeks out 19th-century slang and provides plenty of allusions and contextual details, she does not try to sound “Victorian” (which to so many seems to mean “stuffy”). I didn’t think Darwin brought the two stories together effectively: the interest of her 20th-century protagonist, Anna, in her 19th-century protagonist, Stephen, was never well-motivated. I liked the way she used photography as a device for evoking the strangely palimpsestic character of historical sites and stories, caught in time, leaving impressions that may be sharp or blurred, suggestive or specific, visible or even tangible to successive generations of viewers. The battlefield reminiscences are vivid, and the aftershocks of war provide another common element between the two plots, as do the various love stories that ask us to consider why we love who we do, what love is, and how we suffer for love. Just because I also read it recently, Emma Donoghue’s The Sealed Letter is the inevitable comparison for this book: with Donoghue’s novel, I couldn’t see what it was about beyond the story it told, while with Darwin’s, I felt it was about a number of things but not integrating them in a fully satisfying way. But I liked it enough that I might try her second novel, A Secret Alchemy–also because it has been a long time since I read any Richard III-related novels.