Monday, September 28, 2009

"The moment is fleeting. But insight cannot be taken back. You cannot return to the moment you were in before," or, More from Wolf Hall

I haven't much time tonight, but as I'm still utterly wrapped up in re-reading Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, I feel it's my duty to share some more notable passages.

I wrote briefly back in May about how Mantel's prose in this novel rewards close attention; while the book's primary glory is its delineation of ruthless power politics--and of how one might retain one's honor, and one's sense of self, while navigating such deadly shoals--one of its frequent incidental pleasures is the descriptive richness with which Mantel invests the late medieval world of Cromwell and More and their king.

There is the pre-Enlightenment world of mystery and ritual, the calendar that forever whirls round, season to season, feast day to fast day:
This year, there has been no summer plague. Londoners give thanks on their knees. On St John's Eve, the bonfires burn all night. At dawn, white lilies are carried in from the fields. The city daughters with shivering fingers weave them into drooping wreaths, to pin on the city's gates, and on city doors.
Then there's the frightening sounds of the pitch-black nighttime city, in which a smart man with resources does not venture out alone, but relies instead on link-men with torches, and sidekicks with strong right arms:
The damp streets are deserted; the mist is creeping from the river. The stars are stifled in damp and cloud. Over the city lies the sweet, rotting odour of yesterday's unrecollected sins. . . . Someone is screaming, down by the quays. The boatmen are singing. There is a faint, faraway splashing; perhaps they are drowning someone.
And then there are the scents, some of them designed to cover up the decay and dirt of that unwashed world, others employed to complete an impression of sumptuous abundance, endless splendor--such as those that emerge from the wardrobe of Cardinal Wolsey when, stripped of royal favor, he must surrender his vestments to the king's men:
The copes were sewn in gold and silver thread, with patterns of golden stars, with birds, fishes, harts, lions, angels, flowers and Catherine wheels. When they were repacked and nailed into their traveling chests, the king's men delved into the boxes that held the albs and cottas, each folded, by an expert touch, into fine pleats. Passed hand to hand, weightless as resting angels, they glowed softly in the light; loose one, a man said, let us see the quality of it. Fingers tugged at the linen bands; here, let me, George Cavedish said. Freed, the cloth drifted against the air, dazzling white, fine as a moth's wing. When the lids of the vestments chests were raised there was the smell of cedar and spices, sombre, distant, desert-dry. But the floating angels had been packed away in lavender; London rain washed against the glass, and the scent of summer flooded the dim afternoon.
As chill Chicago rain washes against the glass, and a procession of newly fallen leaves rattles down the alley, announcing autumn's arrival, what I wouldn't give for one last flood of mid-summer scents.

Instead, I'll sink yet again into Mantel's recreated world of late medieval England, to dream in its cadences and wake with its worries.

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