Sunday, 28 March 2010
First of all, you have to have time to read Wolf Hall. Big, fat chunks of time. I have been working to the point of exhaustion these last few weeks, and without a solid two hours every day to devote to the book, I just couldn't get into it. Fifteen minutes on a train here, ten minutes before I turn the light out there, just won't cut it with this monster. I found myself bored and frustrated with the book. But - there's that 'but' again - that's not to say that if you do have the time needed to really get into it, it's not brilliant. A rare Saturday morning free to lie around and drink coffee and do nothing else but read this weekend, proved that.
There are some wonderful humorous moments that I wasn't expecting, some great witticisms on the part of both Cromwell and others, which add a very human dimension to this well-worn tale. It undoubtedly forces a new look at Cromwell, an historical figure whose reputation precedes him always, and which perhaps might be reconsidered in the light of Mantel's thorough research. And it is a good novel, and interesting - the title, for example, is very clever. Wolf Hall itself plays no role in the book, yet is the very final sentence. It is as though we and the characters are always pushing forward, toward something, toward this place and the events it holds, as though Wolf Hall itself is a great towering representation of fate, that sits like a predator waiting for us to finally arrive... for it is the family seat of the Seymours, whose youngest daughter Jane will be Anne Boleyn's successor. And it is at Wolf Hall, one presumes, that the story will be taken up in the sequel currently underway. And of course, I shall read the sequel eagerly. Eagerly...but...
Monday, 15 March 2010
Tuesday, 9 March 2010
Bright Star is beautiful in its claustrophobia - despite many outdoor scenes, there is still the feeling that the whole story takes place, if not in a single house, then in a snowdome, Hampstead with a glass case over it. It is not the story of Keats - it is the story of his relationship with Fanny Brawne, and they are stiflingly central to the film. All other characters are incidental, although Paul Schneider's Charles Brown is exceptional. As soon as Keats leaves for Italy, even though several months pass before his death, his absence is notable. Fanny is left forlornly under glass in London, and John has gone beyond the dome; we know he will never return to her.
The film seems to have accurately gauged the relationship; I have always had the impression that Fanny was the bolder of the two, the stronger, and this certainly comes across in the film. Indeed sometimes, Ben Whishaw's whispering little Keats seems to all but fade into the background. I wanted to - thought, even, that I would - fall completely in love with this Keats, but I didn't, and I think it is for that reason. He simply isn't enough of a presence.
The script is well done - this description of what it is to read a poem is wonderful:
"A poem needs understanding through the senses. The point of diving in a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore, but to be IN the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water. You do not 'work the lake out'. It is an experience beyond thought. Poetry soothes, and emboldens the soul to accept mystery."There are some beautiful readings of Keats' poetry and letters, and some devastatingly gorgeous set pieces, just as one would expect from Jane Campion. It hasn't touched my heart as much as I anticipated, but nevertheless, I think tonight I shall lie on the rug in front of the fire, and by candlelight read The Eve of St Agnes aloud...
Sunday, 7 March 2010
"That's like Suffolk; to think the letter of the law is some kind of luxury. He whispers to the cardinal again..."
That "He" refers to Cromwell, even though the last named male was Suffolk. I've read whole pages, only to realise that though I thought I was reading about one character, I was actually reading about Cromwell, and I have to re-read it replacing the image in my head with the correct one.
This vexation aside, I am enjoying it. The constant use of the pronoun, combined with the present tense, gives a genuine sensation of being inside Cromwell's head. It is set out almost as a play, with scenes, which is very appropriate, as I think we tend to see the whole Tudor era as some sort of theatrical performance anyway. It reminds me in tone of Christopher Rush's Will, crossed with - I hate to say it, but I can't hide from the truth - The Other Boleyn Girl.
And though it's absolutely no fault of Hilary Mantel's, I find it terribly frustrating that my image of Henry VIII is no longer of a paunchy, fine-calved red-head, but of Jonathan Rhys-Meyers. And I didn't even watch The Tudors!
 The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber
Watch your step. Keep your wits about you; you will need them. This city I am bringing you to is vast and intricate, and you have not been here before. You may imagine, from other stories you've read, that you know it well, but those stories flattered you, welcoming you as a friend, treating you as if you belonged. The truth is that you are an alien from another time and place altogether.
Direct address works so well here, as our un-named guide pulls us through the back alleys of Victorian London. She flits before us, explaining the streets, the houses, the characters, before plonking us headlong in the middle of the story. I could eat this book.
 Angel by Elizabeth Taylor
"'into the vast vacuity of the empyrean,'" Miss Dawson read. "And can you tell me what 'empyrean' means?"
"It means," Angel said. Her tongue moistened her lips. She glanced out of the classroom window at the sky beyond the bare trees. "It means 'the highest heavens'."
"Yes, the sky," Miss Dawson said suspiciously. She handed the exercise book to Angel, feeling baffled. The girl had a great reputation as a liar and when this strange essay had been handed in - "A Storm at Sea" - Miss Dawson had gone through it in a state of alarm, fearful lest she had read it before or ought to have read it before. She had spent an agitated evening scanning Pater and Ruskin and others. Though disdaining such ornamental prose, such crescendoes and alliterations, before she would say that the piece was vulgarly over-written, she hoped to find out who had written it.
So begins the tale of one of the most unlikeable heroines in literature. For which very reason, I adore her. She did write the essay, and the teacher's reaction to it is incredibly interesting, even - perhaps especially - today, when there are so many novels being published; how many times have we read something and been unable to decide if we don't like it because it is intellectually over our heads, or if it is, in fact, just overwrought tosh? That the teacher cannot tell if this essay is awful, or Ruskin, says so much...
 Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem
Context is everything. Dress me up and see. I'm a carnival barker, and auctioneer, a downtown performance artist, a speaker in tongues, a senator drunk on filibuster. I've got Tourette's. My mouth won't quit, though mostly I whisper or subvocalize like I'm reading aloud, my Adam's apple bobbing, jaw muscle beating like a miniature heart under my cheek, the noise suppressed, the words escaping silently, mere ghosts of themselves, husks empty of breath and tone...words rush out of the cornucopia of my brain to course over the surface of the world, tickling reality like fingers on piano keys. Caressing, nudging...Then when it comes, the urge to shout in the church, the nursery, the crowded movie house. It's an itch at first. Inconsequential. But that itch is soon a torrent behind a straining dam. Noah's flood. That itch is my whole life. Here it comes now. Cover your ears. Build an ark.
"Eat me!" I scream.
Lionel, believe it or not, is a private detective. And this is a very clever novel. The beat and pace builds and subsides with Lionel's attacks (tics as much as words) and the descriptions of how Tourette's feels from the inside are extraordinary. Lethem uses words not just as a way of furthering narrative, but also as characters, and even simply as noises. This is an unusual choice for me, but it's one I recommend investing in.
Friday, 5 March 2010
From Nancy Mitford to Hilary Mantel - is it really so odd? My paperback - and therefore transportable, hence readable - copy arrived yesterday. I am disappointed to find it is written in present tense; I'm really rather averse to novels in the present tense. However, Wolf Hall has had such consistent praise that I am willing to overlook this fact and dive straight in. I cannot believe that I will prefer it to - or even like it as much as - The Children's Book, its Booker counterpart in volume if nothing else, but to enjoy it even half as much I shall consider a triumph. I may be gone some time...