Monday, November 20, 2006

Ghosts, part 2

I wrote the preceding post when I was only a little way into Hilary Mantel's memoir, Giving Up the Ghost. Finishing it didn't force me to revise my opinion of the book—it continued to be enthralling—but it did force me to revise my opinion of the ghosts and presences that feature in it. When Mantel is nearly eight years old, she tells of seeing . . . something . . . in the backyard:
I am playing near the house, near the back door. Something makes me look up: some shift of the light. My eyes are drawn to a spot beyond the yard, beyond its gate, a spot in the long garden. It is, let us say, some fifty yards away, among coarse grass, weeds, and bracken. I can’t see anything, not exactly see: except the faintest movement, a ripple, a disturbance of the air. I can sense a spiral, a lazy buzzing swirl, like flies; but it is not flies. There is nothing to see. There is nothing to smell. There is nothing to hear. But its motion, its insolent shift, makes my stomach heave. I can sense—at the periphery, the limit of all my senses—the dimensions of the creature. It is as high as a child of two. Its depth is a foot, fifteen inches. The air stirs around it, invisibly. I am cold, and rinsed by nausea. I cannot move. I am shaking; as if pinned to the moment. I cannot wrench my gaze away. I am looking at a space occupied by nothing. It has no edges, no mass, no dimension, no shape except the formless; it moves. I beg it, stay away, stay away. Within the space of a thought it is inside me, and has set up a sick resonance within my bones and in all the cavities of my body.

I pluck my eyes away. It is like plucking them out of my head. Grace runs away from me, runs out of my body like liquid from a corpse.

Mantel never is able to explain the sighting, even to herself, beyond calling it a mistaken glimpse of a pure evil humans are not intended to see, the horror stays with her, is still with her. Her powers of description are so strong—“rinsed by nausea,” “a sick resonance”—that it’s not hard to believe.

By focusing on these poorly understood presences, I’m probably not being fair to Giving Up the Ghost overall—it’s about far more than that. It’s emotional and impressionistic, but it’s also deeply thoughtful and packed with interesting details about life in postwar England, an honest groping for the truth of Mantel’s life and the complicated interplay of illness, sexism, class, and personal choice that have made her who she is. Knowledge of it will infect—and inflect—all her novels, which I now feel compelled to read.

Oh, and a side note: Saturday was the one-year anniversary of this blog. 148 posts. Goodness. Thanks for reading.

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