Sunday, 28 March 2010

Wolf Hall (3)

I am torn between "meh" and loving this book. "Meh" because I didn't realise it would follow so closely the Katherine-Henry-Anne story yet again - this really has been done to death now, surely? - and loving it because...well, it is just so absorbingly written. And Mantel is right: Cromwell is an intriguing character, and one ripe to hang this story on; and she brings him utterly to life; and perhaps I did learn a lot about the machinations that go on behind the scenes of law-making, but... there's just such a 'but' with this book.

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

Lowry seascapes

Mills, clogs, whippets... the classic Lowry abounds aplenty at Manchester's Lowry Centre, which has, as one would expect, a definitive and insightful collection of the great man's paintings. It was only this weekend, though, that I was reminded of the spare simplicity and haunting hollowness of his seascapes, which previously rocked my world in Glasgow. There is something utterly absorbing about the white nothingness of the pictures, and I find myself sucked into them far more than I am into his Where's Wally-esque northern working scenes.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Bright Star

I never got to see it in the cinema, but guess what Auntie Amazon delivered today?

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

Wolf Hall (2)

Two days in. Is it - could it be? - living up to the hype? Well, I'll begin by allaying fears that my adoration of The Children's Book may have been shaken; it hasn't, not one bit. AS Byatt was robbed of the Booker, and I stand by that view. That does not, however, mean that Wolf Hall doesn't deserve its many accolades. It is everything you have heard it is - it is unputdownable, the ultimate, "oh, I'll just read the next little bit" book. I'm over my dislike of the present tense; it's so well worked that it feels right, the correct way for this story to be told. But there is another problem, and it's a peculiar one; not one I've ever come across before. It almost feels like an experiment, and I'm not sure that the results are positive. Let me explain: unless he is being addressed by another character, Cromwell's name is never used. The story is told in third person, thereby making use of the omniscient narrator, yet this narrator only ever calls Cromwell "he". The problem arises when another male character is also referred to by the pronoun - you reach a point where you simply can't tell if the "he" you are reading about is Cromwell or the last named male. Here is a short yet simple example:

"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 Diary of Miss Idilia

True story or literary hoax? It's in the memoir section in Britain's now-only book chain, and nothing on the cover indicates it to be fiction. Yet, flicking through it, I couldn't help but feel it looked far too literary to be the genuine diary of a seventeen year old girl. By which I mean no disrespect toward seventeen year old girls, or, indeed, their diaries. Being the suspicious sort, I did a little research, but am none the wiser - in fact, all I've really learned is that a lot of other people share my doubts. Now call me macabre, but I am only interested in this if it is the bona fide article; anyone have insider information on this puzzle?

Three Great Beginnings

In writing about Carson McCullers last week, I was reminded how immediately she can draw the reader into her books, and this got me to thinking about other great beginnings. Here, in no particular order, are three I love:

[1] 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.

[2] 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...

[3] 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

Wolf Hall (1)

And so it begins...

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...

Wigs On The Green

It is never really necessary to give a long or detailed review of a Nancy Mitford; you know you either like her or you don't. As I have explained previously, I have been particularly interested in this novel because, like the guy you cannot have because he's with your best friend, it has been teasingly unavailable for so long a time.

Was it worth the wait? As I say, you're either on board with Nancy or you're not, and as I've also said, I most certainly am. Wigs on the Green is as barbed as we would expect, although I agree entirely with Nancy's assessment that Eugenia, the character based on Unity, is in no way offensive to her inspiration. Of course Eugenia is ridiculed; she is a Fascist, and as Laura Thompson states in her wonderful biography of Nancy, Life in a Cold Climate, "the point is that the war against Fascism was necessary and Fascism, in Nancy's opinion, was not." Eugenia is a Boadicea figure, an Amazonian Britannia, and impressive indeed as such. And Unity, apparently, was exactly this in real life. The book seems to me to be a fond tribute and a gentle dig rather than a cruel satire, and is entirely befitting the political climate in which it was written. The Mosley figure, however, upon incurring Diana's wrath, Nancy did entirely cut from the book - he is mentioned, but never appears.

Wigs on the Green does not have the pacey wit of The Pursuit of Love, but equally it is not as narratively frantic as Pigeon Pie. It is biting: an artist character introduced as a "surrealiste" suffers a response from the wonderfully named Jasper Aspect "that he had once written a play which took place inside Jean Cocteau's stomach. 'Unfortunately I sold the film rights,' he added, 'otherwise you could have had them. The film was put on in Paris and many people had to leave the Jockey Club and stop being Roman Catholics because of it. I was pleased.'" The re-publication of Wigs on the Green also uncovers one of Nancy's cleverest satires - Peersmont, the asylum for lunatic peers, "built on the exact plans of the House of Lords, so that the boys should feel at home." A visit to this "bin" reveals a Duke who considers that "Socialists put a perfectly exaggerated value on human life...what on earth does it matter if a few people are killed, we're not at war, are we? We don't need 'em for cannon fodder." Nancy can stick the knife into her own kind with a lipstick coated smile. She also has a fair go at the institute of marriage, which she describes as "a great bore - chap's waistcoats lying about in one's bedroom, and so on." In fact, little is left out of the line of Nancy's witty fire.

This is another beautiful period piece, of a time and place, and by a class of person, very much rooted in the 'then'. For me, Nancy displays more brevity than Wodehouse, but does not come close to her great friend Evelyn Waugh, whose Decline and Fall is possibly the funniest satire of the era. And froth it may be, but life is all the sweeter for a bit of meringue.

Monday, 1 March 2010

William - An Englishman

Although I will offer brief criticism of this short novel, I feel I must make it clear from the outset that this is one of the most powerful fictional stories of war I have read, and is a unique and masterful work. William - An Englishman is both a love letter to the ordinary man, and a gently sarcastic criticism of him. It is also a tirade, a furious, heartbreaking account of the futility, not just of war, but of life itself, and of war when it becomes one's life.

The style of Persephone Book No.1 is a little hard to get into; an omniscient narrator tells us what to think about William Tully rather than letting us form our own opinions by listening to his conversation or assessing his actions. Indeed, there is very little dialogue at all by which we may see a man's mind at work. As a result, the first section of the book - it falls into three distinct parts - is almost Brechtian in its didacticism; it forces one to stand back and observe the foolishness of a certain breed of political activist, a type whom I recognise as still very much in existence today. This 'type' is more concerned with the thrill of rebellion, the joy of swimming against the flow, than they are with reaching the goal toward which they aim. And it is this aspect of William and his new wife Griselda that Cicely Hamilton sends up, as their all-consuming battles for pacifist, socialist and women's rights excludes their awareness of the growing threat of war, to their own fatal cost.

Written in France "in a tent within sound of guns and shells" (The Persephone Catalogue), William - An Englishman is one of the few novels of WWI to have been composed whilst the trenches were still full, active and bloody. It is clear that the author knew well of what she wrote - the detail in her descriptions of mangled bodies and the machinery that ripped them apart is distinctly un-feminine, a comment that would have been, I am sure, taken as the compliment it is meant. Hamilton did indeed work in a Hospital at the Front, and her horror at what she saw, and anger toward the idealistic Edwardian mind that allowed it to happen is evident.

By Chapter 4, one is entirely invested in William and Griselda. We are frustrated at their naivety; honeymooning away from the world in a cottage in the Belgian countryside, they mistake the distant rattle of gunfire for far-off thunder, and our dread begins to mount. With increasing dramatic irony, we urge them to look at the evidence before them and to see it for what it is. When they return from a walk in the hills to find their caretaker and her family fled, leaving only a handwritten note in a language they do not understand and can make nothing of, our own hindsight bids us shake them into awareness. Awareness does finally come, but at enormous cost. Their childish tantrums - a peculiarly English behaviour perhaps referencing the title - in the face of captivity by German troops tears at the reader's heart.

This is not one of Persephone's twee titles, and sits almost uncomfortably next to Misses Pettigrew and Buncle. It sits instead with Testament of Youth, as a tract on life ruined as much through the destruction of ideals and principles as by physical loss. Yet even in Testament of Youth, the men killed are heroes, decorated for bravery; Cicely Hamilton shows us men dying ingloriously, unmedalled, barely mourned, and forgotten.

She must also be one of the few writers of that lost generation with courage enough to address a largely unmentioned casualty of war; the female prisoner. The Edwardian gift for euphemism in fact adds to the horror of women at the mercy of "licentious soldiery"; the term itself, with 'soldier' at its core, almost accepts that rape is a consequence of war.

On one level, Hamilton appears to understand the appeal of active service, and presents many and diverse reasons for it. There are occasional shades of patriotism, even of Rupert Brooke's "corner of a foreign field": upon capture, William has a "vague, unreasoning, natural longing for home...It mattered not that the England he longed for was small, suburban, crowded and noisily pretentious; he craved for it in the face of death...He knew now that it was dreadful to die away from her."

William - An Englishman is far from being a cosy Sunday afternoon read. Instead, and more worthily, it is essential literature of the type that reminds us; it reminds us of what happened, of how it happened, that it should not happen, and that we must never forget those to whom it happened, no matter how insignificant and small their part may seem to have been.