Wednesday, May 06, 2009

The manly arts, or, James Bond's got nothing on this guy.

Being a short, bookish herbivore, I don't tend to think of myself as embodying many of the more stereotypical manly qualities. I'm far from the first person you'd pick to have at your side in a fight, and should the zombie apocalypse occur on my watch, I would likely be of little help in the more mechanical aspects of rebuilding society (though I suspect I could run a mean quartermaster's office if pressed); when reading one of Richard Stark's Parker novels, I never find myself thinking, "Oh, right--I could totally do that." While I know how to dance with a lady, and I can mix a mean martini, I'm hopeless with a gun, at least so far as hitting a pre-agreed target goes.

Most days, none of that bothers me. I'm fortunate enough to live in a society that allows me the quiet to read, the wherewithal to cook, and the safety not to worry about the rest of it. But then I come across something like this description of Thomas Cromwell, from Hilary Mantel's thus-far excellent new novel Wolf Hall (2009), and, well, can you blame me for feeling inadequate?
It is said he knows by heart the entire New Testament in Latin, and so as a servant of the cardinal is apt---ready with a text if abbots flounder. His speech is low and rapid, his manner assured; he is at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop's palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house, and fix a jury. He will quote you a nice point in the old authors, from Plato to Plautus and back again. He knows new poetry, and can say it in Italian. He works all hours, first up and last to bed. He makes money and he spends it. He will take a bet on anything.
And that's not the half of it, at least so far as rumor would have it:
"Thomas Cromwell?" people say. "That is an ingenious man. Do you know he has the whole of the New Testament by heart?" He is the very man if an argument about God breaks out; he is the very man for telling your tenants twelve good reasons why their rents are fair. He is the man to cut through some legal entanglement that's ensnared you for three generations, or talk you sniffling little daughter into the marriage she swears she will never make. With animals, women, and timid litigants, his manner is gentle and easy; but he makes your creditors weep. He can converse with you about the Caesars or get you Venetian glassware at a very reasonable rate. Nobody can out-talk him, if he wants to talk. Nobody can better keep their head, when markets are falling and weeping men are standing on the street tearing up letters of credit.
Sheesh. Faced with Cromwell, even Edmond Dant├Ęs would feel compelled to up his game.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go make a martini and do some push-ups. Like a million of them. While memorizing Ephesians.

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