Review: April Bernard on Hilary Mantel
In this small book—but no book by Hilary Mantel can be said to be small, so:
In this new collection of seven brief, yet very deep, stories, the author revisits scenes and tales from her haunted childhood. It is a wondrous book, funny and moving, even better in many ways than her earlier autobiographical work, Giving Up the Ghost (2003).
Before she became, by publishing standards, a phenomenon, with the Wolf Hall trilogy (Wolf Hall, 2009; Bring Up the Bodies, 2012; The Mirror and the Light, 2020), Hilary Mantel was already widely admired as one of the most clever and provoking of contemporary British writers. If you hadn’t read the terrifying Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, about an English woman living in culturally-enforced isolation in Saudi Arabia, or the domestic comic-horror novel Every Day is Mother’s Day, or any of her half-dozen other fine novels, you might have seen some of her trenchant pieces, mostly in The London Review of Books, on film, literature, and cultural puzzles such as Madonna and the British royal family. (Some of these have been collected, most recently, in a volume I highly recommend, called Mantel Pieces.) The novel A Place of Greater Safety, published in 1992 after nearly twenty years of research, is a lively, yet staggeringly detailed and massive, account of the French Revolution from the point of view of three of its revolutionary figures, and won the Sunday Express Book of the Year Prize. (Her many other prizes include the Booker, which she has famously won twice, for Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies.)
In the title story of Learning to Talk, the narrator labors to acquire the correct “received English” pronunciation that will enable her to take an oral examination for a school certificate—and, everyone hopes, escape from the provincial poverty and lower-class status of her semi-rural northern English background. She is sixteen and must take the exam; her rain boots having been deemed inappropriate by her elocution teacher, Miss Webster, she must wear her teacher’s shoes instead.
They were court shoes, of fake crocodile; they had ferocious points in front, and three-and-a-half-inch spike heels. They were, I suppose, the footwear of a retired actress, but I did not grasp the poignancy of the moment. I put my feet into them, and staggered a few paces, clutching at the backs of chairs. Why did I agree to it? I never, in those years, thought in the short term. I had fallen into a habit of acquiescence; I believed that, in the long term, I should make everyone else look a fool.
Mantel has the blood of Wodehouse and Spark running in her veins; the scene that unfolds is high comedy laced with pathos and a dark sneer. The extra thing—the thing you can find nowhere else that I know—is her ruthless accounting of herself: “I believed, in the long term, I should make everyone else look a fool.” By no means does the author of that sentence think she has.
The mesmerizing “Curved is the Line of Beauty,” sits in an earlier sensibility, of a six-year-old taken on a family visit where she, and the little girl who befriends her, get terrifyingly lost in the acres of a demolition car lot.
I am lost, she said. We are, we are, lost. I am afraid to say.
What came next I cannot, you understand, describe in clock-time. I have never been lost since, not utterly lost, without the sanctuary of sense; without the reasonable hope that I will and can and deserve to be saved. But for that next buried hour, which seemed like a day, and a day with fading light, we ran like rabbits: pile to pile, scrap to scrap, the wrecks towering, as we went deeper, for twenty feet above our heads.
Apparently Mantel is, in life, something of a klutz—when writing about herself, she alludes to her clumsiness with everyday household objects and tasks; more seriously, she also writes about a lifetime suffering with, and managing, disabling illness. In her fiction and essays, meanwhile, she has consistently shown herself to be a deft, even magician-like, mechanic of storytelling. Whenever I have had occasion to discuss Mantel’s Wolf Hall with other writers, we marvel at the dense weave of story-lines, the seamless movement between verb tenses, the looming of history’s Big Picture never lost as the minute details of life are lived. Others have compared her work to Tolstoy’s; I would also point to Trollope’s Palliser novels, which steer the ordinary (ignorant) reader through labyrinthine Parliamentary debates from the nineteenth century. Yet Trollope composed fiction only loosely based on actual events; and Tolstoy, too, by inventing characters and setting them in historical circumstances, had the fiction writer’s freedom to simplify. In her historical novels, Mantel relies on facts, and on real people; the fiction she allows herself is always tethered to her own ethical interpretation, as an historian, of what she has been able to discover. Thus, to elaborate on the matter of skill—Mantel executes the magic act with both hands tied behind her back.
If all this were all merely impressive, it might feel a bit like watching Meryl Steep act. The performance may be very beautiful, funny, entertaining—and yet one cannot forget that it is a performance. To cite another actor of that generation by contrast, Helen Mirren has a level of skill that transcends our awareness of watching someone at work. Mantel is the Mirren of fiction: obviously, she is present, but she allows you to forget her, to be swept away, and so truly to inhabit the story.
Here we wonder at the individual—the performer—that a writer can be. Mantel’s single greatest asset is voice—that is to say, her voices, their clarity, toughness, and persuasive honesty. What makes the Wolf Hall books work, through all the complications of plot and detail and discovery, is her impersonation of its central character Thomas Cromwell’s voice, the voice in his head, without actually resorting to first person. Instead, she manages a close third-person narration that virtually never leaves Cromwell’s side while also conveying the elaborate sweep of kings and churches, money and wars and sex and power. Cromwell is almost always just “he” (unless he is pondering, and worrying about, his dangerous boss, Henry VIII, in which case he is “he”)—and Mantel, very much like Cromwell’s own ghost from the future, rides along, following his steps and listening to his thoughts. The impression created is that Cromwell is talking to himself and letting us listen in. (One of the flaws of the otherwise fine BBC series based on Wolf Hall, with the splendid Mark Rylance as Cromwell, is that we are too often looking at his face—a great face, that says much, to be sure—when we need instead to be looking through his eyes.)
The decision to anchor tales of the sixteenth-century Tudor court in the single, slightly to-one-side, almost-but-not-quite first person of Cromwell was Mantel’s most brilliant, decisive move—and made the rest of the intricate, dense world of those novels possible. The “voice” is not not from the past, nor indeed is it from the present; but it seems persuasively timeless, and truthful, as the soul itself might be said to speak. Cromwell is filled with doubts that suffuse his planning and his careful watching, of others and of himself; he longs to be ethical, but also to protect those he loves, and to survive; and he shows us what he must do, how he performs his tricks. In the public imagination and in most historical accounts, Cromwell has long worn the label of villain; Mantel, who did her research and reached her own conclusions, shows us a different kind of man—democratic, anti-tyrannical, open-minded. His ambivalence, and his uncertainty, as he runs the world of Henry VIII both for and against the power of the king, is a portrait of the modern human mind struggling to be born.
A comparably shadowed, double sensibility—the self impersonating the self, as it follows the truths that may, or may not, be said—is also what makes Mantel’s accounts of her own life so affecting. Often in these new stories she pauses to remind us that her memory may be faulty, that there are things that cannot quite be explained.
The story of my own childhood is a complicated sentence that I am always trying to finish, to finish and put behind me. It resists finishing, and partly this is because words are not enough … We are taught to be chary of early memories … Though my early memories are patchy, they are not, or not entirely, a confabulation …
As with her Cromwell, her “I” warily perceives the malevolent world and—as a helpless young person—hopes only to survive.
Mercy was a theory that I had not seen in operation. I had only seen how those who wielded power extracted maximum advantage from every situation. The politics of the playground and the classroom are as instructive as those of the parade ground and the Senate. I understood that, as Thucydides would later tell me, “the strong exact what they can, and the weak yield what they must.”
Hauntings—the visitations of ghosts and devils in the absence, sadly, of any hope of a benevolent god—appear not in the form of metaphors, or not only in the form of metaphors, but of actualities, as the impressionable imagination of a young girl matures into an adult sensibility that will not disavow the supernatural. One of the stories here, “Third Floor Rising,” describes the narrator’s first job, at the department store where her mother also works. The store, vast and menacing, is a place where clothes disappear, doors slam themselves, and disembodied screams are heard. When the narrator revisits the place years later, the “imagined” hauntings are not dispelled with time but are confirmed, by new reports: “I realized that, in those years, everything had been far worse than it seemed at the time.”
I’ve come to love the stubbornness of a brilliant scholar and artist who, at least in this one respect, disdains rationality. Mantel, raised Catholic, became an apostate while quite young; but she doggedly shares the English Catholic intellectual tradition of belief—if not in heaven, then certainly in that other place.
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