“The Light of the World”: Nicola Griffith, Hild

hildI found Hild shelved in the Fantasy and Science Fiction section at Bookmark, which means I almost didn’t realize they had it in stock, as I don’t usually browse that section. (I was poking around in case they had John Crowley’s Little, Big, which Tom had got me interested in.) I can see why the staff had put it there: the front cover blurb compares it to The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones. But it isn’t fantasy: it’s historical fiction, if based, Griffith says in her Author’s Note, on a particularly scanty record: “We have no idea what [Hild] looked like, what she was good at, whether she married or had children.” “But clearly,” Griffith goes on, “she was extraordinary,” and that’s certainly true of the protagonist Griffith has created from the sparse materials available.

Maybe, though, considering Hild “fantasy” is not altogether a category mistake. “I made it up,” Griffith says about her story, while explaining that it is also deeply researched: “I learnt what I could of the late sixth and early seventh centuries: ethnography, archaeology, poetry, numismatics, jewellery, textiles, languages, food production, weapons, and more. And then I re-created that world . . . ” — that is, she engaged in “worldbuilding,” which is a fundamental (perhaps the fundamental?) task of the fantasy or science fiction author. Of course, her world is built out of real pieces, but it’s an artificial construction nonetheless. I suppose this could be said of any historical fiction, or any fiction at all, so maybe I’m trying to blur a line that’s already indistinct. But there’s something about Hild — the strangeness of its world, but also  of Griffith’s evocation of it — that makes it haunting and uncanny, as if we are not so much in an earlier version of our own world but in an alternative version.

It’s mostly Hild herself who’s responsible for that sense that we’re looking through, rather than at, the world: she is the king’s “seer,” the “light of the world,” and thus it is her job, her destiny, her “wyrd” or fate, to perceive the world differently than others. She is constantly seeking patterns, in nature and in the shifting relationships of the court and the kingdom. Her powers of perception set her apart: she is admired, revered, and feared. Her gifts are not necessarily supernatural, though: her “visions” are the results of long thought and sharp intelligence, and sometimes they are also simply predictions shaped to suit what her listeners (especially the King) want most to hear or do. Signs and omens must be interpreted, and that too requires political savvy and deft diplomacy more than any preternatural insight. Hild’s status as the King’s “light” defines her from birth and shapes both how she is treated and how she must behave: it is a burden, a responsibility, a terrible risk and a great liberation, because it exempts her from the ordinary constraints of a woman’s life.

Hild is an extraordinary character: strong, charismatic, intelligent, intensely physical, remarkably whole and convincing. One of the most interesting aspects of her characterization is the novel’s certainty about her woman’s body: it’s a central fact of her life and Griffith makes that clear without apology, voyeurism, or special pleading. I can’t think, for instance, of another novel in which starting to menstruate is a plot point in quite the way it is here — incorporated with perfect naturalness into the ongoing story of the heroine’s physical and psychological maturation, experienced as an initiation into an alliance of other women, associated with independence from authority rather than readiness for male sexual attention. That’s not to say that sexuality isn’t also an important part of Hild’s story, but though there is a love story of sorts running through the novel, her desires are hers, physical feelings she can satisfy on her own, or with women: they are not (or not just) ties that bind her emotionally to a man, and they certainly do not define her ambitions or determine the arc of her story.

The shape of that story is only partially revealed by the end of Hild. (Griffith is working on the sequel now, but I almost wish she’d waited and published one epic novel, as Hild so obviously stops rather than concludes.) Hild eventually becomes Saint Hilda of Whitby, but she isn’t there when we leave her this time. What we have seen to this point, though, is her development from an uncanny child into a fierce woman. The overall trajectory of Hild is all upward in that way: not just Hild herself, but the world she lives in is taking on a different form over the novel. The most important change is the rise of Christianity, which is gradually replacing the old forms of worship which Hild, as a seer, initially represents and serves. The transition is an uneven and not entirely welcome one. For one thing, people are reluctant to give up their old beliefs, and the representatives of the new God are not altogether persuasive. The God they represent, too, is very different from the old gods, who were more personal and more fun. “They don’t like jokes,” says one of Hild’s women about the Christians; “I don’t think their god does either.” And the new God is demanding in unfamiliar ways, insisting on obedience and reverence, and preoccupied with the unfamiliar notion of original sin. He’s also “squeamish,” inexplicably hostile to women’s bodies: “No blood in the church. No woman with her monthly bleeding. It makes no sense,” says Hild’s friend.

Will this new God diminish or invalidate Hild’s power, as a seer or as a woman? Will He punish her, perhaps, for the evils she has committed as a warrior or a prophet of other gods? Hild approaches her own baptism with trepidation, but then feels renewed courage:

She breathed deep. She was Anglisc. She would not burn. She would endure and hold true to her oath. An oath, a bond. A truth, a guide, a promise. To three gods in one. To the pattern. For even gods were part of the pattern, even three-part gods. The pattern was in everything. Of everything. Over everything. . . .

Her heart beat with it, her tears fell with it, her spirit soared with it. Here, now, they were building a great pattern, she could feel it, and she would trace its shape one day: that was her wyrd, and fate goes as ever it must. Today she was swearing to it, swearing here, with her people.

I wondered (given that she becomes a Christian saint) whether Hild’s baptism would stand as an epiphanic moment of faith — as a revelation. While the language and the mood here is uplifted, though, the strongest sense is one of continuity: “she was still herself,” the scene concludes. Christianity never seems to be the one right way: it’s just another way, and one that is as prone as the old ways to express the will, greed, and ambition of its adherents rather than any divine plan. Hild’s strength continues to be herself — her limbs, trained for fighting, and her mind, astute and endlessly observing.

The other thing that’s rising in the world of the novel is literacy. This is tied to Christianity, in that it’s the priests who are usually the most ‘lettered’ of the characters. But Hild quickly perceives the value of writing as a way of maintaining networks across distances. Her ability to read and write is valuable to her politically, as her success and survival as a seer depends on good and abundant information. But it means most to her personally, as the typical fate of women is to be sent far from home and family in their roles as “peaceweavers,” cementing alliances as wives then securing kingdoms with their heirs. Hild realizes that if she could write, for instance, to her married sister Hereswith, Hereswith “wouldn’t be lost to her”: for someone in Hild’s anomalous and therefore lonely position, letters would be a lifeline, bringing her news and also preserving her own private identity while living among those to whom she is “the maid who killed, the maid who felt nothing. The maid with no mother or sister or friend.”

kinghereafterThe novelist Griffith most reminds me of is Dorothy Dunnett. She luxuriates in tactile details the way Dunnett does, for one thing, as in this description of a waterfront marketplace:

Rhenish glass: cups and bowls and flasks. Wheel-thrown pottery, painted in every colour and pattern. Cloth. Swords — swords for sale — and armor. Jewels, with stones Hild had never seen, including great square diamonds, as grey as a Blodmonath sky. Perfume in tiny stoppered jars, and next to them even smaller jars — one the size of Hild’s fingernail — sealed with wax: poison. . . . A six-stringed lyre inlaid with walnut and copper, and the beaver-skin bag to go with it. A set of four nested silver bowls from Byzantium, chased and engraved with lettering that Fursey, peering over her shoulder, said was Greek. But Hild barely heard him: Somewhere a man was calling in a peculiar cadence, and he sounded almost Anglisc. Almost. Instead of the rounded thump of Anglisc, these oddly shaped words rolled just a little wrong. Not apples, she thought. Pears. Heavy at the bottom, longer on the top.

The extraordinary complexity of the created world is also reminiscent of Dunnett — the intricate family trees, the tangled web of alliances, the unfamiliarity of the names and vocabulary, and thus the associated down side of such authorial mastery: our (or at any rate, my) difficulty keeping track of who’s who, of who’s doing what to whom and why. Like King Hereafter, for example, Hild is full of passages that perplex rather than clarify the action:

As the weather improved, messages began to come in from all over the isle. Two, from Rheged and from Alt Clut, said the same thing: Eochaid Buide of the Dál Riate was sending an army to aid the Cenél Cruithen against Fiachnae mach Demmáin of the Dál Fiatach, and chief among the Dál Riatan war band were the Idings — though the man from Rheged thought two, Oswald and Osric, called the Burnt, while the messenger from Alt Clut thought three, Oswald, Osric the Burnt, and young Osbald.

Or how about this one;

The murdered Eorpwald had been the godson of Edwin. Sigebert was of a different Christian lineage. he had spent his time across the narrow sea at the Frankish court of Clothar, and now Dagobert. If Sigebert was bringing threescore men, they would be Dagobert’s. If he won with their help, he would be obliged to align himself with the Franks. What would that mean for Edwin? Where was Dagobert in relation to the growing alliances of the middle country and the west — Penda and Cadwallon — and the men of the north: Idings, Picts, Scots of Dál Riata, Alt Clut, perhaps Rheghed?

Where was Dagobert, indeed? It helped a bit when I found a partial guide to pronunciation in the back of the book, and a glossary, and there’s a family tree too, but my experience reading Dunnett helped the most, particularly my conclusion that I don’t need to keep up with all the details to stay interested. Both authors are good enough story tellers that the necessary drama rises above the morass of confusing specifics. If I didn’t always know exactly why Hild was fighting someone in particular, it was enough to know that she had her reasons: the heat and blood of the battle was no less intense because I had to suspend, not disbelief, but my desire for perfect comprehension. The absolutely key characters — her mother Breguswith, her best friend, sparring partner, half-brother, and eventual husband Cian, or her “gemaecce” (“female partner”) Begu, for instance — are wholly distinct, and above it all is always Hild herself, “the pattern-making mind of the world.”

“The Melody in the Heart of the Universe”: Rose Tremain, Music & Silence

I have heard the melody in the heart of the universe and then lost it.

tremainLike Restoration, Rose Tremain’s Music & Silence confounds clichéd expectations about historical fiction. In its own way it has an epic sweep, but there’s nothing of the heroic saga about it. It’s drama under a blanket, a story of kings and queens and true love muffled by darkness and uncertainty. It has the extremity of fairy tales: Kirsten Munk, for instance, consort to King Christian and thus “Almost Queen” of Denmark, is a temperamentally oversized creature of voracious, noisy demands: her first-person portions of the narrative would be wholly comical if they weren’t also so sad, and if she weren’t also so destructive in her relentlessly selfish desires. Kirsten has a near counterpart in Magdalena, the wicked stepmother who forces  the Cinderella-like heroine Emilia out of the family and then, insatiably needy, seduces her step-sons.

In contrast to their hot, vociferous passions, there’s Emilia, quiet, grave, nurturing — and otherworldly, drawn, nearly out of life itself, to her dead mother’s memory. And there’s the beautiful Countess O’Fingal, beautiful, loving, but trapped by her husband’s tragedy, which is like an evil curse disguised as a blessing:

Johnnie O’Fingal had dreamed that he could compose music. In this miraculous reverie, he had gone down to the hall, where resided a pair of virginals . . . and had sat down in front of them and taken up a piece of my father’s cream paper and a newly cut quill. In frantic haste, he had ruled the lines of the treble and bass clef, and begun immediately upon a complicated musical notation, corresponding to sounds and harmonies that flowed effortlessly from his mind onto the page. And when he began to play the music he had written it was a lament of such grace and beauty that he did not think he had ever heard in his life anything to match it.

Urged by his wife to recapture the music of his dreams, he declares prophetically, “what we can achieve in our dreams seldom corresponds to what we are veritably capable of.” He does try, playing “a melody of strange and haunting sweetness,” but goes mad in grief and despair when he is never able to complete it. His desperate quest (and its painfully ironic ending) echoes that of King Christian, who has all the music he desires but is unable to bring order and prosperity to his kingdom, or to find lasting love and comfort for himself.

Yoking their stories together is the figure of Peter Claire, a lutenist so beautiful Christian calls him his angel. It seems as if Peter’s music should be the salvation both other men seek — throughout the novel music is at once the greatest mystery and the greatest joy anyone experiences. Christian tells Peter about a conversation he had with the great musician John Dowland:

He said that man spends days and nights and years of his life asking the question “How may I be brought to the divine?”, yet all musicians instinctively know the answer: they are brought to the divine through their music – for this is its sole purpose. Its sole purpose! What do you say to that, Mr Claire?

But though Peter cherishes the “rich and faultless harmony” he and the rest of King Christian’s orchestra create from their strange subterranean quarters — the King has contrived it so that the sound is carried up into the castle for the pleasure but also mystification of his guests, who cannot detect its source — his own “transcendent state of happiness” comes from his love for Emilia. The novel is in part the story of their romance, fragile, insubstantial, thwarted by Kirsten’s greed and Christian’s need. The interplay of these characters is much more complex than simple antagonism, though: Peter and Emilia are hampered by their kindness and empathy as much as by any external constraints. The price of goodness, in their world, is as likely to be loss as reward.

There are other characters and story-lines in the novel; I found their interweaving equal parts engaging and annoying, as the result is somewhat fragmented but also invites us — as literary juxtapositions always do  — to think about connections and comparisons, themes and variations. It isn’t entirely obvious to me what unifies the different elements. In the end I wonder if it’s primarily a mood or an attitude that we’re supposed to take away from our reading — a sense of what the world might be like rather than a coherent idea about what it is or should be like. The atmosphere of the book is slightly surreal, and the tone walks a fine line between being poetic and being portentous, or even pretentious. Tremain’s language falls into rhythmic cadences that shift us from the prosaic to the visionary:

Now, Emilia lies in her old bed in her old room and listens to the old familiar crying of the wind.

By her bed is the clock she found in the forest, with time stopped at ten minutes past seven.

She does not know why Magdalena was locked in the attic.

She does not know why Ingmar was sent to Copenhagen.

She cannot predict what world Marcus will enter now.

What she does know is that time itself has performed a loop and returned her to the one place she thought she had left for ever. It has stopped here and will not let her go. . . . She will grow old in the house of her childhood, without her mother, without her father’s love. She will die here and one of her brothers will bury her in the shadow of the church, and the strawberry plants, which creep further and wider each year, gobbling up the land, even to the church door, will one day cover everything that remains of her, including her name, Emilia.

 I wouldn’t want to read a lot of books written this way, or any at all written this way without the other qualities Tremain brings to it: intensely tactile historical specificity, for one thing, and an unswerving commitment to the flawed humanity of even her most grotesque characters. If Music & Silence is a fairy tale in style, I think it is, paradoxically, still a realist novel in spirit. If it has a message for us about music and silence, also, it is not that they are opposites but that (like imagination and reality) they are somehow inextricably linked, two aspects of the same attempt to express something important about life. This is something the characters are always experiencing, one way or another — that the actual sounds they can make do not quite convey the ideas and feelings they have, that their longings and loves and fears and hatreds shape their lives but are hard to give shape to in sound:

As they part, both men reflect on all that might have been said in this recent conversation and yet was not said; and this knowledge of what so often exists in the silences between words both haunts them and makes them marvel at the teasing complexity of all human discourse.

“On some book my name will be written”: Dorothy Dunnett, King Hereafter

kinghereafter

“What kings may follow me I do not know, and I do not care. When my day is ended, it is ended. But . . . on some book my name will be written.” — Thorfinn

“All hail, Macbeth, that shall be King hereafter!” – Shakespeare, Macbeth I.iii.50

The first 250-300 pages of King Hereafter are pretty hard going. Here’s why:

‘Eachmarcach is not a young man, and he has been King of Dublin on and off now for seventeen years. What will happen to our interests in Ireland and Man if Dublin falls into unfriendly hands has been something I have been giving a lot of thought to. On the other hand, Diarmaid is fighting-mad and has been ever since he claimed Meath. He wants to make Turlough Ua Brian King of Munster, and the present incumbent is giving him trouble. He may recruit Harold and his men to help him attack Munster instead.’

 ‘He may recruit Harold and his brother and get them killed, which would be best of all,’ said Prior Tuathal with un-Christian firmness. ‘For, while King Edward wouldn’t mind a west-coast alliance excluding the Godwin family, Harold wouldn’t like it at all, if he ever came back from exile. After all, it was to prevent such an alliance between the Welsh and the Mercians and the Cumbrians, presumably, that the Kings of England farmed out Cumbria in the first place. They couldn’t hold it. Cumbria was self-supporting and too far from Wessex to benefit from Wessex protection. Now it’s different.’

Actually, I lied: in the way that this little excerpt suggests, the entire book — all 700+ pages of it — is hard going, and in fact my sample comes from nearly 500 pages in. But by that point the ceaseless cascade of names and details and the bewildering welter of political maneuverings have stopped seeming like interpretive problems and become simply the habitus of the novel. Confused? Adrift? Surprised? Vulnerable? Constantly struggling to keep track and keep up? Welcome to the 11th century, and to the region that would one day become the United Kingdom but which in the time of King Hereafter was neither united nor, mostly, one kingdom. It’s as much as our characters can do to keep abreast of the constantly changing landscape of allegiances and threats: one reason the protagonist, Thorfinn, is such a dominant figure is that he manages the flow of information, and thus the shaping and reshaping of possible outcomes, better than anyone else. Well, better than almost anyone else — or he’d meet a different end.

King Hereafter tells the story of “the historical Macbeth.” I put that in scare-quotes because Dunnett’s identification of Thorfinn Sigurdsson, or Thorfinn the Great (or Mighty), with Macbeth is debatable. (Dunnett has a bit to say about her research and conclusions here.) I’ll just accept Dunnett’s theory, since it’s the novel that interests me and not the (almost certainly unrecoverable) facts. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t possibly recapitulate all the intricacies of the plot, but its main outlines are pretty simple, and (sort of) recognizable if you know Shakespeare’s play: with the support of his wife, Thorfinn overcomes rivals and enemies (including Duncan) and becomes Earl of Orkney and Caithness and King of Alba, only to be overcome eventually himself by yet more rivals and enemies (including Duncan’s son Malcolm). Thorfinn is nothing like Shakespeare’s Macbeth, though: his rise to power is not an exercise in ruthless (if conflicted) self-aggrandizement but a response to political and military necessities (win or die). More important, it is at once a test and a proof of his character: blessed, or cursed, with a great capacity for leadership, Thorfinn sees the possibility of forging a nation that can build on the combined strengths of its disparate parts, rather than persist in endless cycles of destructive rivalries:

He spoke in Gaelic, with which every man was familiar, for uniformity was the theme of the meeting.

Uniformity of justice, with the same rules enforced by the King’s authority through the King’s agents everywhere from Fife to the Hebrides.

Uniformity of worship, so that men might be baptised and buried and shriven on the same terms in the same way . . . and have ready to hand a source of aid for the poor and the sick and the traveller . . .

Uniformity in the way land and rights and property were held and changed hands . . .

Uniformity of aims and ideals, so that no region should plan independently of its neighbour, but each should look towards the rest, as brother to brother, and to the King as a father. So, as in Alba of old, men had brought their token of earth to the Moot Hill of Scone to signify unity, so each region would bring its own excellence and bind it into the country that was neither Alba nor Orkney, but men had begun to call Scotia.

That nation-building can be difficult to distinguish from self-aggrandizement, especially in the heat of the moment, is one of Dunnett’s recurring interests — at any rate, it’s certainly something the Lymond books explore, especially The Ringed Castle. A similar problem emerges at the personal level: what distinguishes an inspired leader from an egomaniac or a charlatan? Like Lymond, Thorfinn has the knack of inspiring loyalty in others, often motivating them to extraordinary feats of courage and self-sacrifice (and, occasionally, self-destruction) in his service. “No one who really knew him,” his wife reflects, “would ever let him down.” With great charisma, Dunnett always emphasizes, comes great responsibility.

Thorfinn has a less tormented relationship with his leadership role than Lymond with his, though, proceeding through the journey from Viking overlord to sovereign of a modernizing European country with no paroxysms of doubt or conscience. His growth in reach and vision seems part and parcel of the changes in the world around him, which is also leaving behind its Viking past of raids and barter and pagan gods. Thorfinn himself still feels the pull of the old ways, as we see especially through his ongoing struggle to accept in his heart the Christian faith which is the spiritual scaffold of the new nation. He gets strength and clarity from time spent in his own territories of Orkney, and is never more completely at peace with himself than when at sea. But he recognizes and never shirks the burden he has taken on with “this tortuous business of ruling.” He accepts it all, even knowing that it means his death:

‘What else were you born for?’

‘Why not happiness, like other men?’ Thorfinn said.

‘You have that,’ said his foster-father. ‘But if you try to trap it, it will change. Why do you resist? It is your right.’

‘I resist because it is no use resisting,’ Thorfinn said. ‘Do you not think that is unfair? I shall be King because I was King; and I shall die because I did die; and did I remember them, I could even tell what are the three ways it might befall me.’

The three ways are foretold in a prophesy that, again, is recognizable to us from Macbeth, and here too they work themselves into reality: Birnam Wood does, for instance, come to Dunsinane. There are no witches, though: it’s Thorfinn’s other-worldly step-son Lulach who sees and “tells you what has already happened, through many eyes.”

Groa, Lulach’s mother and Thorfinn’s wife, is also nothing like Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth. Though she is secondary to Thorfinn in power and historical significance, she is (another common element in Dunnett’s novels) every bit his equal and partner as his wife and as a character. The development of their relationship was my favourite aspect of the novel. The beginning is inauspicious: he kills her husband and then marries her himself to secure his lands and victory. That’s no more than what’s expected, however, by them and by those around them. What’s unexpected is that gradually their rough pragmatic union changes into something more tender and profound, based on both intellectual and sexual reciprocity. Thorfinn calls it “soul-friendship”: it’s not demonstrative, and it is even dangerous, creating potential weakness where they both need to be resolute and fearless, but through everything, “steady and constant, the river ran as ever below,” bringing them comfort.”He knew no one like her,” Thorfinn thinks as the prophesied end draws near; “there had never been anyone like her.” Our knowledge that their marriage has been more than a war-forged necessity makes both her situation and her strength at the novel’s conclusion all the more dramatic.

There is much else to savor in King Hereafter: the battle scenes, for instance, which are tautly gripping and vivid with sound and color. There’s a sea battle in the first part in particular that had me completely caught up in the action. An array of memorable characters bring drama and interest in many different registers, from the glitter of Thorfinn’s beautiful, feral cousin Rognvald to the cunning and strength of Lady Godiva and England’s Queen Emma. If the names and genealogies and politics are sometimes mentally clogging, the scenic descriptions provide the perfect antidote — winter in Orkney, for instance, with

the winds that dragged through land and sea like a scraping-board and flung the green waves and the white against the storm-breach at Skaill until the heathland was salt a mile inland and the night sky was cuffed with pale breakers.

Or on the shores of Caithness, “where the biggest headland of all stood dark red against the afternoon sky,” and

a man or a woman could lean on the wind as into the bosom of God and look upon the whole sunlit world of green grass and blue sea, from the land’s edge that lay towards Norway to the smudged snow-capped peak of Ben Loyal, far to the west. . .

Thorfinn’s travels take him across the sea to Norway and Sweden and even as far as Rome:

Terracotta and white in the sunlight, the slim columns stood; the reeled arcades, the thumbnail arches, the delicate boxes of brick, cross-pleated with stairway and portico. The triangles of pyramid and pediment. The assiduous tooth-comb of the aqueducts, bringing the rivers riding on triumphal arches. The domes; the campanile stalks; the tablets of fluted clay tile or chalked bronze with their feet in drifting blue smoke from the other, invisible roofs of reed and of wood.

There’s a wonderfully tactile quality to Dunnett’s prose, a lavishness, a profusion of specificity. Like A. S. Byatt or Hilary Mantel, Dunnett isn’t afraid of showing her work, and King Hereafter is thick with research. It never has the dreaded “info-dump” effect, though: also like those other great historical novelists, Dunnett understands how to make history palpable through her people.

Facing his defeat and death, Thorfinn wonders if he will be forgotten. His friend Sulien insists that “whatever Lulach may say, men will look back and see a king who strove to build for his people.” This is not the story we now know most readily about Macbeth, but Dunnett offers something monumental to stand beside Shakespeare’s very different story, a book in which, as her Macbeth envisions, his name is written, and in something other than blood.

Rose Tremain, Restoration

restoration

I really enjoyed Rose Tremain’s Restoration, which an excellent friend promptly posted to me when I needed a bit of cheering up. (Everyone should have a friend like that!) Not that Restoration is very cheerful, but a good novel is always a tonic, isn’t it? And Restoration is awfully good. Like Wolf Hall, it’s a historical novel that is less about history than about character — which is not to say that these aren’t books steeped in research and full of marvelously tactile historical details, but that the detail never seems decorative (or pedantic) because it is so integral to the lives into which we enter. In both novels, also, those lives are not just individual characters but embody the character of their age.

Restoration‘s structuring idea is right there in its title, which is both the familiar name of the era during which the novel is set (the restoration of the Stuart monarchy under Charles II) and the encapsulated story of its protagonist, Robert Merivel. Merivel’s personal flourishing, fall, and reinvention represent (on Tremain’s telling) the larger struggles of an age marked by both gaudy materialism and earnest moral striving (embodied in Restoration by Merivel’s Quaker friend Pearce). The vacuousness of a life with no aim but luxury, and with no occupation but idle amateurism, brings Merivel little substantial happiness — and no reconciliation between his literal heart and his true heart, a dichotomy literalized for us early on when, as a student, Merivel has the opportunity to hold a living heart in his hand:

My hand entered the cavity. I opened my fingers and, with the same care I had applied, as a boy, to the stealing of eggs from birds’ nests, took hold of the heart, Still, the man showed no sign of pain. Fractionally, I tightened my grip. The beat remained strong and regular. I was about to withdraw my hand when the stranger said: ‘Are you touching the organ, Sir?’

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘don’t you feel the pressure of my fingers?’

‘No. I feel nothing at all.’ . . .

Ergo, the organ we call the human heart and which is defined, in our human consciousness, as the seat – or even deified as the throne – of all powerful emotion, from unbearable sorrow to ecstatic love, is in itself utterly without feeling.

A selfish lout — a buffoon, even — for most of the early action of the novel, Merivel is brought low only to be restored — not to riches but to human dignity.

It’s not a euphoric redemption story, however, but something more difficult and uneasy: Merivel’s progress is halting, his character imperfect, his actions often despicable. Merivel says it best himself: “I am erratic, immoderate, greedy, boastful and sad.”

Rembrandt_van_Rijn_-_Self-Portrait_-_Google_Art_Project

His account of his own life hides none of these unattractive characteristics: aptly for the period, it’s a ‘warts and all‘ portrait. Tremain neatly incorporates this theme into the novel itself through the painter Finn, who begins by training Merivel in artistic idealization and ends a successful painter of “merchants, barristers, schoolmasters, drapers, cabinet-makers, clerks.” Finn’s new method is actually Merivel’s idea: “do not paint me as a rich man, dressed up in satin or with a sea battle going on behind my head; paint me as I am, in my old wig and in my shirtsleeves and in this simple room.” This idea, which “had only that second entered [his] mind,” is a sign of how far Merivel has come from his earlier ostentatious luxury and preening self-indulgence.

Merivel’s medical training is his one truly useful skill. He tries to dissociate himself from it because it interferes with his pleasures – on his wedding night, for instance (a vexed occasion anyway, as his new wife is the king’s mistress and the marriage designed to be a sham) he is overcome with horror during a musical performance:

I stare at Sir Joshua’s face, looking down towards his viola, and, layer by layer, in my anatomist’s sadness, I peel back skin and muscle and nerve and tendons, until I can see only the white bone of his skull, the empty sockets of the eyes . . .

All my anatomical studies seem to have brought me to a great sadness. When a man plays a viola da gamba, I want to share in his joy, not see his skull. For where will such visions end? . . . Such a perpetual and visible awareness of mortality would, I am certain, bring me to despair in a very short time. . . .

I must avoid, then, coming to despair and madness. I must try to forget anatomy. Forget it utterly.

But though he doesn’t understand this for some time, it’s precisely this attempt to forget what is real that sends Merivel close to madness and despair: close in both senses, as he ends up, at his lowest ebb, assisting Pearce and a group of other Friends at a hospital for the insane, and also ends up himself on the verge of what might be madness — seeing things and hearing sounds that aren’t really there, lost in “a colossal epidemic of dreaming.”

Tremain is too wise to make medicine a simple cure for Merivel: he does not, for instance, discover a miraculous cure for the plague and rise up heroically sure in his vocation — instead he ends up peddling what he himself considers a quack remedy for it. He doesn’t save anybody with a brilliant surgery — instead, he sits by largely helpless while two people very close to him die. There’s no inspirational turning point or epiphany. But his experiences strip away the pretense in his life as surely as they strip away his excess body fat:

I had grown most peculiarly thin. The waist of the breeches was too large for me by more than two inches, so that the wretched things would not stay up, and, when I put the coat on my back, it hung out from my body like a cape. . . .

For the whole of my life I had never been thin. . . . Now, all the flesh was falling away and every bone in me being slowly unsheathed and made visible.

“I began,” he concludes, “to consider the possibility that I was dying.” This moment seems to me to bring us back to his horror at the viola player’s skull: in acknowledging his own mortality, Merivel is finally ready to begin living a life in which his body and his spirit work together. And so he returns to the home he once prized (and over-decorated) so greedily and is given a chance to start again.

A. S. Byatt, The Children’s Book

The Children’s Book has a tremendous solidity to it, a kind of fearless pedantry that I think a reader is bound to find either fascinating and reassuring or tedious, even burdensome–or both, I suppose, at different points in the novel. Mostly, I liked the novel a lot, though I can’t say I loved it because it is an oddly passionless book, resolutely unsentimental. I don’t hold that against Byatt: in fact, I  respect her for it. She doesn’t pander to readerly prejudices. Instead, she rewards the persistent reader with her own accumulated knowledge and insight, and with the emotional aftershocks that follow a cerebral, rather than visceral, commitment. One is surprised, or I guess I should just say that I was surprised, at how involved I was, by the end, with her people. The Children’s Book is a panoramic historical novel, a ‘sweeping’ family saga, that reads not at all like those blurb tags might lead us to expect. In this respect, I’m reminded of Wolf Hall, which is not at all what typically passes for historical fiction. But where Wolf Hall is magnificent in its intensely idiosyncratic, sideways approach to history–history as and through character–The Children’s Room insists on the chronicler’s detachment, as well as the cataloguer’s combination of breadth and specificity–it’s history as information management.

For me, then, a big part of the reading experience was the learning experience: all kinds of things I had never given any sustained thought to, from puppetry to pottery, as well as abstractions I had never thoroughly personified, including anarchism and Fabianism (thus revealing myself not much of a scholar of the fin-de-siècle, I realize) were both explained and dramatized. There are passages of deliberate exposition that make really no concession to the fiction they support:

Backwards and forwards, both. The Edwardians knw they came after something. The sempiternal Queen was gone, in all her manifestations, from the squat and tiny widow swathed in black crape and jet beads, to the gold-encrusted, bedizened, crowned idol who was brought out at durbars and jubilees. The little pursed mouth was silent for ever. Her long-dead mate, who had most seriously cared for the lives of working-men and for the wholesome and beautiful and proliferating arts and crafts, persisted beside her in the name of the unfinished Museum, full of gold, silver, ceramics, bricks and building dust. The new King was an elderly womaniser, genial and unhealthy, interested in oiling the wheels of diplomacy with personal good sense, in racehorses, in the daily shooting of thousands upon thousands of bright birds and panting, scrambling, running things, in the woodlands and moors of Britain, in the forests and mountains of Germany, Belgium, Denmark, and Russia. It was a new time, not a young time. Skittishly, it cast off the moral anguish and human responsibility of the Victorian sages Lytton Strachey was preparing to mock. The rich acquired motor cars and telephones, chauffeurs and switchboard operators. The poor were a menacing phantom, to be helped charitably, or exterminated expeditiously. The land, in places, was running with honey, cream, fruit fools, beer, champagne.

This particular section actually runs almost 10 pages, proliferating context, with no reference to the novel’s characters until we rejoin them–or more accurately, until the narrator picks up their threads again, tying them back in. Though I can imagine being bored or annoyed by Byatt’s strategies, for the most part I was simply too interested to be impatient.

I did get impatient, sometimes, at the attention lavished on the puppet shows. I understand–or at any rate I assume–that they are integral to the novel’s thematic development in various ways, and that they provide opportunities to deepen character development by adding associations (some literal, some suggestive or allegorical) to what we know about them. I didn’t always get it, though (for instance, I felt rather a dunce about the whole Tom Underground fiasco), and I turn out not to be as interested in special effects in theatrical productions as I am in pots (and thus I reiterate my earlier wish that the novel were illustrated–perhaps the V&A could put out a special edition? or, indeed, here’s a book that might be fabulously developed as a hypertext,  or as an etext, complete with animations of the puppetry and interactive maps of the trenches of WWI).

But I don’t want to undersell the power The Children’s Book had over me by its final chapters. It’s a testament to Byatt’s skill and creative depth that she can generate such a large cast of characters, divide her narrative attention among them so dispassionately, and yet make them all distinct enough that any loss is a blow. In my earlier post I mentioned that I felt the war bearing down on them all. It came later than I expected, but its effect was all the more devastating for concluding the novel (more or less) as well as so many of the stories we have followed for so long. The ruthless quality that’s always there in Byatt’s prose finds its moral purpose in this section; I found myself thinking of Yeats’s criticism of the war poets and their emphasis (as he saw it) on “passive suffering” as well as the more general problem that has come up a few times in my Brit Lit survey class about the aestheticization of violence. Here are a couple of excerpts from the trenches (I’ll blank out the names of the specific characters, out of deference to those who haven’t read the novel yet):

**** went into the shelter, to fetch cigarettes. There was a singing howl, and a shell exploded in the trench. A splinter of it took off most of ****’s head. **** took one look, and vomited. Men came running, stretcher-bearers, men with a blanket to cover up what they could, men with buckets and mops to cleanse the dugout. . . . Two days later **** stood up, in his newfangled tin hat, which like most of the men he wore at odd angles, on the back of his head, like a halo. He was not the first, or the last, to be killed by the very skilful German sniper behind the stump of the ruined tree.

—-

They were told to advance. The German shelling was precise. Hundreds of men died behind their own front line, or struggled back to the medical post. **** got out of the trench in one piece and so did Corporal Crowe. They started to walk forwards towards the black stumps of a wood on the skyline. There was noise. Not only shells and bullets, whistling and exploding, but men screaming. They stumbled over the dead and wounded, over men, and pieces of men, and were reduced to crawling, so mashed and messed was the earth and the flesh mashed into it. After a brief time **** felt a thump, and found his tunic damp, and then soaked, with his blood. He tried to crawl on, and could not, and other men crawled past him and sprawled in the mud. He bled. He lay still. He knew in the abstract that stomach wounds were nasty. His head churned. He wished he had not had the rum. He wished he would die quickly. He did not. Men crawled round and over him and he came in and out of consciousness. He noticed when there were no more men, and he noticed nightfall, unless the dark was death. It was not. But he was dead by the time he was found by the stretcher-bearers, so they took his identity-tag, and looked in his bloody pockets for letters of photos…

In the first example, there’s simply no time to recover from the first death before the second one, which is two days but not even two paragraphs later. I thought for a moment, reading about the German sniper, that Byatt was going to indulge in the melodramatic ironies available to a novelist with protagonists on both sides of the conflict. I should have known better. The tone of these passages, also, never changes from the bluntly descriptive, but notice how the perspective shifts in the second example, from “their” joint mission to the pair of walking men, then to our particular man, until his consciousness cannot sustain the story and he is overtaken by the stretcher-bearers. Byatt’s persistent prose can seem artless in its steady march from one statement to the next, but over and over I found that a little close attention showed the steady, experienced hand shaping the clay into a capacious yet subtle and detailed form.

Hilary Mantel, A Place of Greater Safety

George 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.

Many 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.

It’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.