Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Man is wolf to man

At the risk of destroying my spooky October vibe, I figure I should tell you that my review of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, which won the Booker Prize earlier tonight, went up this afternoon at the Second Pass. It's a brilliant, engrossing, moving novel, the work of a writer in full command of her vast talents and her agile, questing mind.

For a fan of deadly power politics, fiction doesn't get any better than this--the sparring and double-dealing and icily loaded conversations outstrip the best moments in such favorites as Ronan Bennett's Havoc, In Its Third Year and Halldor Laxness's Iceland's Bell, let alone Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons, which Mantel's novel casually backhands.

And Mantel goes one better, her portrait of Cromwell reminding us why we're drawn to political maneuvering in the first place: because to survive in such deadly waters requires that a person command a range of skills that we think of as virtues--empathy, attention to the needs and desires of others, an eye for small personal detail, ease of manner--but then employ them in ways that may in themselves be the farthest thing from virtue. For a person operating in politics ultimately needs the ability to make people do what he wants them to do--and, in the best circumstances, convince them it's what they want to do, too. When that person is a king, failure is not an option, and the breath is always bated:
The king takes a deep ragged breath. He's been shouting. Now--and it's a narrow thing--he decides to laugh. "You advocate prudence. Prudence is a virtue. But there are other virtues that belong to princes."


"Yes. Cost that out."

"It doesn't mean courage in battle."

"Do you read me a lesson?"

"It means fixity of purpose. It means endurance. It means having the strength to live with what constrains you."
That passage reminds me of another aspect of Mantel's novel that I wasn't able to touch on in my review: the historical present tense she employs. Along with her close third-person focus on Cromwell, it works to keep us forever in the present moment, even as we watch Cromwell working out his next several moves; it is wearing, like Cromwell's life, and it is marvelously effective.*

Buy this book and read it. I've not read a better, more powerful novel in a long while. Congratulations to Ms. Mantel on its quality being recognized.

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