Sunday, November 3, 2013

Wolf Hall: Hungry Again Half An Hour Later

Well, I took a little detour and read Wolf Hall.  I can't see what the fuss is all about. Its no better, and perhaps worse, than many another historical novel and I'm a big fan of historical novels in general. In fact I just finished reading the entire McCollough series "Masters of Rome" so its not that I am not into the genre.  I can't really complain--I ate what was on my plate and will eat a second helping. But ultimately I didn't find Mantel's Cromwell believable emotionally or intellectually.  Here is a man who has made an enormous leap between classes, bridged worlds which were (as she tells us over and over) kept apart and yet he is represented as moving through his own experience of this divide only...stutteringly.  She writes him as a man who is almost outside his own experience and his own time, able to look at it sardonically, manipulatively, cynically and exploitatively.  He tells us about his own experiences and all of his experiences are self conscious and under his control. There are no other voices but reported voices or people telling Cromwell how they think about Cromwell.  But when it comes to the real experience of a real person--someone who killed, cried, believed, worried about the afterlife, sinned (as he would have seen it), atoned (as he could), and who presided over the dissolution of one religious community and the birth of the next--who arranged for the judicial murder of personal acquaintances...well, he's simply not believable.  Its not that I don't believe in Cromwell, or that there isn't a massively important story to be told through Cromwell's life. Its that I don't believe in this Cromwell. He's never inside his own life, never acts from passion, never lets us see him sweat, doesn't believe the things people around him patently believed.  The person Mantel imagines is just too much a literary conceit.  And in a lot of ways he's not nearly as interesting a literary conceit as he should be given the many set pieces she offers us in which he could and should consider the implications of royalty, divinity, fallibility, terror, torture, murder, treason, and death.  In short, I suppose, she's no Umberto Eco.

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