BRING UP THE BODIES by Hilary Mantel

Tutoring young people for the SAT and ACT gives me the opportunity to come across a random assortment of strange literary excerpts.  They come from classic novels, obscure essays, dry textbooks, etc. and can range in period from the early 19th century to the last ten years.  As an instinctive lover of order and structure, my heart often aches when forced to look at this scattered selection of writings good, bad, and indifferent.  I also have an intrinsic distaste for the utilitarian nature of the questions connected to these passages.  Often, when I am forcing some bright student not to think about the meaning of what s/he is reading but focus on the tests’ mundane questions, I am haunted by the thought the they could be learning so much more of value by approaching the passages the “wrong” way.  Alas, I wish to keep my job.  Still, I must confess that the very randomness of the selections can lead to some enjoyable discoveries.  One of the more recent ones helped me figure out the way to approach this extraordinary novel.  

The passage in question turned out to be the opening of a 1903 children’s book by British author Ernest Thompson Seton, with the (appallingly racist) title Two Little Savages.  The book concerns the adventures of a young boy who loves animals and the wilderness.  Seton describes the boy’s father as a man “easy with the world and stern with his family.”  The father forbids his son’s passions for reasons having little justification beyond the sense that fathers are supposed to antagonize their children.  The picture of a man who shows kindness to strangers and cruelty to the ones he (supposedly) loves is, sadly, intimately familiar to me.  I know I am far from alone in that regard.  Even people who have been spared this are probably at least acquainted with some of these revolting individuals.  It might be a person, fired with indignant passion for the meek and the helpless, who cannot stop ranting about the unjust cruelties of the world, but then turns to a partner of decades and, with a cold smile on the face, declares indifference to everything but how much money the partner can bring in.  It might be another, who is known to friends and coworkers as gentle and kind but, alone with their child, openly wishes they could replace their offspring with someone else, then sharply asks why the child is crying.  Or it could be yet another, a person who leads boycotts of tyrants, who fiercely commands everyone to make a difference in the world, then, with their friends, mocks and mimics people with medical conditions, making sport of their anxieties and handicaps.  These, obviously, are only examples I have seen among private citizens.  In public life, there have been numerous scandals involving those who see no reason to follow their moral dictates in their own homes.  This kind of hypocrisy is familiar and despicable.  However, there is another kind, one that understandably seems to get much less attention.  It is the reverse of the first and, I believe, it is the major theme of Bring Up The Bodies.  

In my review of Mantel’s Wolf Hall, to which this book is a sequel, I argued that the author used a familiar historical event to catch readers out of the lazy acceptance of victors’ versions of history.  In this book, Mantel subtly turns against Thomas Cromwell, her protagonist and the prime beneficiary of her thematic strategy in the first book.  This is a remarkable literary strategy and it succeeds because Cromwell perfectly illustrates the theme Mantel is pursuing here.  Put simply, that theme is the uselessness of being only privately good.  In Cromwell, we have a man who is almost the perfect flip of the people I described earlier.  He is a loving father, even when exasperated by his son.  He treats his servants like human beings, occasionally even deferring to them when he feels they know better.  He looks after his extended family, a “family” which he generously allows to constantly expand.  When it comes to political rivals, he is usually eager to look past differences and make a personal connection.  His affectionate friendship with his official enemy, Eustache Chapuys, ambassador from the Holy Roman Empire (an absorbing figure and one who has rarely gotten the attention Mantel justly gives him), provides this very dark novel with some of its lightest and most charming moments.  In short, Cromwell is what most people would describe as a good person. 

Unfortunately, he is a “good” man whose day job is amorally and ruthlessly manipulating others.  Mantel already depicted some of this in Wolf Hall.  In that novel however, Cromwell was an engaging anti-hero, no worse than any of the snakes around him and considerably better than most.  In this novel, Cromwell remains great fun to spend time with.  He also continues to feel like someone we in the modern world might be able to communicate with, unlike many of his contemporaries. 

Something drastic has changed in the sequel, however.  In the earlier novel, we watched Cromwell rise to the top, dislodging the powers that be to try and create a new world.  Here, he is at the top and, to stay there, he undertakes a project that has no greater good as its goal.  King Henry VIII has tired of Anne Boleyn.  He wants to get rid of her and it’s Cromwell’s job to come up with justification.  He does this without much hesitation, calmly constructing an adultery charge he knows full well is false.  While it may be hard (albeit not impossible) to dredge up much sympathy for the calculating and vindictive Anne Boleyn herself, watching Cromwell brutally destroy innocent lives, some caught up just because they are conveniently placed, is sickening.  I used the word “amoral” earlier.  There were times in Bring Up The Bodies when I felt that Cromwell was outright immoral.  

That should hardly be surprising considering the master he serves.  Mantel’s depiction of Henry VIII darkens considerably in this book.  My imagination might have been getting the better of me but I felt he almost came off as a kind of serial killer.  Even if that’s going overboard, any remaining traces of the colorful figure from various historical pageants are harshly wiped away.  The real thing Mantel places before us is not pretty.  Twisted and sadistic, Henry draws everyone around him into his bloody fantasies, forcing his favored servants like Cromwell to turn them into realities.  

That last point could easily lead to a rebuttal of my thesis that Mantel turns on Cromwell.  If Cromwell is in the service of a monster like Henry, how can he be expected to do anything other than carry out the king’s terrible wishes if he wants to stay alive?  There is much to be said for this point of view and I probably subscribed to it for much of the time I spent reading this book.  It was only the Seton quote that broke open my mind and illuminated that unease I was feeling.  Even if we accept that serving Henry meant complicity in evil, there’s still the matter of serving Henry in the first place.  Cromwell might have wanted to do good things with his power, but his power came through Henry.  In the end, that tainted the power and everything it might have been able to do by tying them inextricably to untenable actions.  While a figure like Cromwell might be more personally appealing than someone who is kind in public but cruel in private, in the end he is just as hypocritical, just as useless.  Mantel seems to be telling us that, if we truly believe in attempting to walk a moral path, we can’t quarantine that path in public or in private.  If we are callous and cruel to those in our own lives, we hardly have a right to preach to the world about its sins.  If we care for those we love and tell the world to go burn, turning our backs on the agony of strangers, we cannot expect the world to show us, or those few we cherish, any mercy.  We have to try to walk the moral path everywhere.  That will of course involve all the inconsistencies, all the lapses, and all the outright failures that being human means.  But we must try if we want any hope.  

In a mysterious way, Mantel’s theme gives some measure of vindication to Sir Thomas More, Cromwell’s enemy, and ultimately victim, in Wolf Hall.  “Vindication” is probably too strong a word for an intolerant fanatic like More.  Still, his cruelty came from genuine belief.  That doesn’t excuse it but it makes him somewhat pathetic.  What are we to make of Cromwell, who did what he did with his eyes wide open?  In my review of the earlier novel, I worried a little that the portrait of More was somewhat unbalanced in its attack.  That quibble melted away as I read how Mantel handled More in this book.  He does not appear, being dead, but he remains on Cromwell’s mind.  His attempts to explain to himself why what happened to More was More’s own fault have some truth to them.  However, Cromwell’s convenient removal of himself from the story of his rival’s downfall (he describes feeling like More simply vanished one day) is chilling.  Cromwell knows what he has become.  To endure however, he needs to create more forgiving narratives.  More’s reputation certainly deserved every knock Mantel gave it but, in Bring Up The Bodies, she masterfully re-muddies the waters of this fascinating and disturbing historical figure.

The back cover of this book gives the impression that it is thrilling, a kind of titanic struggle.  That is an acceptable marketing strategy but it sells Mantel’s artistry short.  Throughout much of the narrative, I felt more of a sense of grim inevitability.  The alliance of Cromwell, the political upstart and religious reformer, with the conservative and Catholic faction at Henry’s court, while masterful on Cromwell’s part, was bound to happen if he wanted to bring down the Boleyns.  It was also, as Cromwell probably knew, lethal to him in the long run.  That is one of the saddest aspects of this novel.  Cromwell is aware, every day, that he will likely end up where everyone else does, that his achievements are doomed, that he is damned.  He could walk away but he has decided that choice is beyond him.  His love for his friend, the poet Sir Thomas Wyatt, is shown to be motivated by more than their relationship.  Wyatt is one of the few people Cromwell sees as unsullied by the horrors of Henry’s court.  This makes him almost frantic to protect Wyatt, lest the last trace of Cromwell’s own humanity fall with the poet.  It is telling however, that it doesn’t occur to Cromwell to follow Wyatt.  Despite his knowledge of his path’s likely consequences, Cromwell sticks to it.  This makes Bring Up The Bodies into something far more than a historical novel.  It is a genuine tragedy and a frightening moral parable, as ruthless in its jolting clarity as Cromwell’s checkmating schemes.  As good a summing up as any is the last line of Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit (translated from the French by Stuart Gilbert), the only depiction of hell I’ve ever found at all convincing: “Well, well, let’s get on with it…”                              

The Cup of the Ptolemies, Part 5: THE HOWLING by Gary Brandner

As anyone who has ever loaned me a book knows, I have a lousy habit of letting things I want to read pile up.  A long time ago, probably when I was in my early years of high school, a used copy this 1977 novel found its way into my house.  I honestly cannot remember who bought it or why.  Since I usually remember buying books, one of my parents probably did it, knowing of my interest in horror.  I had heard of Joe Dante’s 1981 film but I had no idea that it had a literary source.  In fact, since the copy of Brandner’s novel I had was a movie tie-in edition, I briefly thought it was a novelization of the film.  However, the cover clarified that the film was based on the novel and I became seriously interested.  Then my lousy habit kicked in and the book sat unread by me for well over a decade.

Let me clarify that my copy of The Howling went unread but certainly not forgotten.  Over those many years, despite my fondness for Gremlins and Innerspace, I deliberately avoided watching Dante’s film because of that battered, yellowing paperback.  I used to have an ironclad rule about reading the book a movie was based on before seeing the movie.  While I’ve relaxed somewhat, that is still my default position.  Now, if anyone ever wants me to WATCH The Howling, I can finally say yes.  At last, I have READ The Howling!

And it’s good!  The Howling is certainly no masterpiece but it’s a fast-paced, entertaining beach read sort of novel.  Apparently, the film is only a loose adaptation of Brandner’s work.  The film reportedly displays Joe Dante’s trademark quirky humor and there is precious little humor in the novel.  It is rather a completely straightforward, frequently savage chiller.  Brandner opens with a dark, disturbing prologue set in 1500s Bulgaria.  This is probably one of the best written parts of the novel and I was sorry it was so brief.  The primary plot begins with the brutal rape of a young, pregnant California woman named Karyn Beatty.  This section is appropriately harsh but Brandner admirably avoided gratuitousness.  Of grim historical interest is the description of the police’s sensitivity as “their new, more sympathetic procedures for rape victims.”  Karyn suffers a miscarriage and, after her physical recovery, she and her husband Roy decide to take an extended vacation.  They rent a house in the secluded village of Drago and…well, I don’t want to spoil anything but werewolves are involved!

I would classify The Howling as part of the “everything is normal till the creepy stuff starts” school of horror.  From my internet readings, I get the impression that some fans of the genre don’t like this school.  It is capable of being a bit pedestrian but it can also be quite effective in the right hands.  Ira Levin was able to turn this style into a deliciously dark comedy in his masterful novel Rosemary’s Baby.  Brandner doesn’t get anywhere near those heights but he was a capable wordsmith.  Karyn, the protagonist, is an excellently drawn heroine, neither damsel in distress nor superhero.  She is an intelligent, resourceful woman, but also someone dealing with events that would overwhelm almost anyone.  Her reactions to traumatic events, supernatural and otherwise, are completely identifiable.  She neither morphs into an avenging angel nor collapses into helplessness.  Considering the denigration/idealization female characters often suffer from male authors, all of this is very refreshing.  Otherwise, the characterizations are mostly minimal but believable.  While he spends most of the book as a fairly one-dimensional figure, Roy develops in some tantalizing directions near the end.  Another character, a surprisingly (for the late 70s) complex and positive lesbian, could have been the subject of her own story!  It was unfortunate Brandner didn’t spend more time on her.

Actually, Brandner would hardly have had time to dwell on even the most fascinating character.  One of the real virtues of this novel is its energy.  It drives you along with a rather breathtaking force.  Luckily, this helps one avoid noticing Brandner’s occasionally clunky prose and risible plot twists.  There’s nothing TOO ridiculous (California werewolves!) but, if you were really paying attention, you might start to sneer.  Brandner was a skillful enough writer to know his strengths and how to deflect attention from his weaknesses.  That skill made The Howling an exciting horror novel, modest and even quaint from a literary viewpoint, but great fun all the same.

 


 

The Cup of the Ptolemies, Part 4: SLEEPEASY by T. M. Wright

Having been born in 1981, I was too young to indulge in the late 1970s to mid 1990s boom in paperback original horror novels.  That statement sounds odd, you think?  Well, while I’ve long passed myself off as a literary type, as a young person I was somewhat faux literary.  Oh, there were books I read and loved, to be sure.  And I’ve had a deep reverence for literature since I was a child that is completely genuine.  However, until I was in college, I eyed page counts with silent fear and shame.  Since a number of paperback original horror novels were, in my view, quite long, they remained largely out of my orbit.  I have memories of being entranced by their zany, often ridiculous covers.  I even bought a couple and plowed through one called Howl-O-Ween by Gary L. Holleman.  It was an ok werewolf story, but I was annoyed because it didn’t have much to do with Halloween.  Unfortunately, by that time the boom was ending and I was becoming progressively more pretentious.

Naturally, now that I’m (somewhat) less pretentious, I’m bitter and resentful that I missed this fun and schlocky period in horror fiction.  Luckily, a good number of horror novels from that time, paperback original and otherwise, are still easy to find at used bookstores.  I’ve acquired quite a few.  After dithering a bit about where to start, I chose this ghost story by T. M. Wright, who apparently made the ghost story something of a specialty.  I was drawn to Sleepeasy because the plot description on the back suggested a merger of the ghost story with the hard boiled detective novel, and because a blurb from legendary horror author Ramsey Campbell described Mr. Wright as practicing “quiet horror.”  I am a big film noir fan and, as anyone trapped with me during a discussion of cinema knows, I think my beloved horror genre too often abandons its artful gothic roots in favor of simplistic shocks and needless gore.  The brief synopsis of Sleepeasy and the comments about Wright’s style made this book sound right up my alley.

Well, I finished the book a week or so ago and…well…  What’s to be said?  Well…  Hmmm!  First off, the novel opens with the death of the protagonist.  That was very clever!  Then…well…  I’m seriously trying to avoid the old “nothing happens” complaint but, VERY little happens.  There!  I ALMOST avoided it!  While researching Wright, I came across a comment on a blog post about his work.  The commenter had read, or started reading, several of Wright’s novels and used the phrase “there’s no ‘there’ there,” or something very much like that.  Honestly, nothing I can say here will top that in describing this book.  There were several fascinating possibilities.  There were a number of potentially interesting characters.  There were some moments of tantalizing suggestion.  There were passages that started to become evocative.  Yet Wright seemed oddly determined to have none of it come together.  He sets several things in motion and just lets them trundle along.  If he was aiming for suggestions of the elliptical or the surreal, it didn’t take.  It didn’t even come close.

There are some positives.  Wright has a nice, dry sense of humor.  One character, a tough police detective, was very likable and I looked forward to his sections.  Those were also the only parts of the book to even approach delivering on the promise of a hard boiled atmosphere.  Sadly, even these good points are badly underused.  Would I give T. M. Wright another chance?  Sure.  Strange Seed and A Manhattan Ghost Story seem to have solid reputations.  Maybe this one just wasn’t his best work.  Truth be told, it wasn’t unpleasant or anything like that.  It even had its moments.  It just never really came together.  That’s hardly the worst thing one can say about a book.  So I’d try another Wright novel.  But I’m in no hurry.  None whatsoever.

THE LEPER OF SAINT GILES by Ellis Peters

At the start of my review of Peters’ The Virgin in the Ice, I wrote that it was my first Brother Cadfael mystery but I doubted that it would be my last.  The Leper of Saint Giles is my second Cadfael book and I can say for sure that it will not be my last.  Everything I praised in the last book is also present in this one so I don’t feel the need to go over those aspects again.  The differences are intriguing in a number of ways.

On the whole, I would say The Leper of Saint Giles is superior to The Virgin in the Ice.  It feels more focused and unified.  This is especially true when it comes to the mystery and detection aspects.  In this book, the puzzle is rock solid and carefully worked out.  While I admit I’m not too sharp when it comes to figuring out mysteries, I was genuinely startled by the big revelation.  The Virgin in the Ice switched genres after a certain point and became an adventure.  Peters threw in a grand conclusion to wrap up the mystery and it was all very well done, but she didn’t seem particularly interested in that part of her story, at least not by the end.  That didn’t really damage my enjoyment of the book.  Peters was clearly a virtuoso with prose and her style was more than capable of getting readers to ignore plot weaknesses.  Still, it is an extra pleasure to read Peters’ masterful prose anchored to a more carefully wrought story.

I notice that in my review of The Virgin in the Ice, I briefly wished Cadfael himself had been more present in the book since he was such an appealing character.  Well, I didn’t get my wish in this one!  However, I think that was actually a good thing.  I recall reading about some fictional detectives who were not really the protagonists in their own books.  That always confused me but I think I understand this aesthetic approach now.  Cadfael is really a supporting character in The Leper of Saint Giles.  He figures out the mystery but the story is not about him.  This allows him to function almost as a kind of audience surrogate and this successfully magnifies the human drama of the plot.  On the subject of likable characters, one of this book’s few flaws is the absence of the charming Hugh Beringar, Cadfael’s primary police contact.  In one short passage, Cadfael regrets that Beringar is unavailable.  He wasn’t the only one!

With a mystery, I’m especially reluctant to reveal plot details.  I’m going to hold to that but I want to mention certain aspects of the finale.  There are discoveries that, while no more unbelievable than something in your average summer blockbuster film, are squarely in the realm of melodrama.  Nothing wrong with that, in my opinion.  If Ellis Peters had been an average author, the melodrama would have been entertaining and forgettable.  Peters was a remarkable author, however.  She skillfully used reticence and an incredible instinct for proper emphasis to turn effective melodrama into something approaching tragedy.  Instead of just enjoying a fun read, I found myself meditating on issues of pride, sacrifice, and waste.  This ability to combine entertaining plot hijinks with weighty themes, uniting them with stylish prose and easing readers just looking for a good time into something a bit more serious without alienating them, is a rare and valuable one.  Young writers would do well to try and learn it from Peters.

THE WOMAN OF ANDROS by Thornton Wilder

Curiously, the character in this novel who keeps coming back to me the most barely appears in the narrative.  In ancient Roman comedy, one of the many stock characters was the Leno, a slave dealer.  In this novel, the Leno appears near the climax to purchase several individuals who are deeply in debt.  He really isn’t described enough to even be called a character.  He is merely incidental, a part of life.  And yet that is what makes him so memorable.  That and the fact that one of the few things Wilder tells use about him is that he is smiling.

Ever since I first encountered Thornton Wilder’s novels in high school, his work has been significant to me due its lyrical beauty and lack of preoccupation with sexuality.  Both aspects, while striking major chords with me, tend to bring Wilder critical scorn and the indifference of those readers who accuse him of not dealing with “real life,” a phrase which really means “my life.”  In a review of Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey, I suggested that not focusing on sexuality might enable an author to zero in more sharply on other themes.  This novel of Wilder’s, his third, is a perfect example of that.  The themes covered in The Woman of Andros are startlingly numerous for a work that does not even reach two hundred pages.  However, they do unite in a somewhat intangible way.  Before delving into that, I think it crucial to establish something that astonished me as I finished reading.  The Woman of Andros is a Christian novel.

By this, I do not mean that Wilder has any proselytizing agenda here.  He is also rather pointedly uninterested in slandering any other religious beliefs and there is certainly no sectarianism to be found; the Christianity present is quite broad.  In fact, apart from two brief statements that establish the novel as taking place shortly before Christ’s birth, there are not even any references to the Christian religion.  Yet The Woman of Andros is Christian, through and through.  Building on a comedy by the Roman dramatist Terence (who had derived his plot from a now lost play by the Greek writer Menander), Wilder uses a quiet, simple story to dramatize the transcendent impact of Christian doctrine on human relations.  The fact that not one of the characters is a Christian makes Wilder’s ultimate message sophisticated but deeply problematic.

The Woman of Andros takes place on the fictional Greek island of Brynos.  Pamphilus, son of the well off merchant Simo, has fallen under the spell of the Andrian courtesan Chrysis, much to the dismay of his father.  Chrysis has become popular with many of the island’s young men.  In addition to her professional activities, Chrysis beguiles the youth of Brynos with philosophical discourses and recitations from classical poetry and drama.  She also supports several friends who have fallen on hard times, many of whom live with her.  These individuals, broke, sick, physically disabled, mentally ill, are seen as useless by the islanders.  All of Chrysis’s unconventional behavior scandalizes the respectable people of Brynos.  As Pamphilus becomes closer to Chrysis and her circle, he finds himself falling in love with her younger sister Glycerium, further upsetting Simo.

Again, there is a great deal going on in this little book.  In trying to come up with a thematic summary, the best I can do is discuss the commodification of human beings.  Throughout The Woman of Andros, I got the distinct feeling that Wilder was offering us a choice.  Option one: we can insist on viewing each other as having a value above and beyond the functional/monetary.  If we do this, we must at least attempt to respect the intrinsic dignity of every person.  Option two: we can accept that, in our brutal world, we are ultimately only worthwhile as long as we can provide something heavy on the scales.  If we can’t do that, we might as well become goods ourselves.  That’s where the Leno comes in.  He is not a villain.  He simply cannot conceive of any man or woman having value beyond their usefulness.  He chose option two.  Anyone who picks option two, while they may not be a Leno themselves, ultimately accepts the Leno’s business as legitimate.

Of course, going with option one is anything but easy.  If we try not to dismiss others when they become troublesome, we have to deal with their failures, their immaturity, their nonsense, their ingratitude.  And they have to deal with ours.  In the novel, Chrysis’s dependents, while privately adoring her, are outwardly ungrateful.  None of Wilder’s characters who choose option one gain any obvious joy or peace from it.  In fact, their previously settled worlds are thrown into confusion and heartbreak.  However, none seem to regret it.  Wilder tries to tell us that, for all its clarity, life with option two lacks the magic and illumination of love.  It also robs anyone who picks it of the moral right to claim protection when they themselves (or someone they care for) ends up as merchandise on the Leno’s ship.

I am with Wilder on all of this.  My problem arises with his fusing option one with Christianity.  Perhaps “Christianity” should be swapped out for “religion.”  One of Wilder’s most moving characterizations in this novel is a young priest of Apollo.  This man devotes himself to a life of compassion and mercy and, while silently relied on by the islanders, is thought of as something of an oddball.  Wilder was obviously no fanatic.  He sees anyone, even pagans, as capable of the inner glow of option one.  Yet Wilder’s novel gently but firmly implies that the child born in Bethlehem offers humanity the best hope of maintaining a life free from commodification.  I cannot follow him there.  While the priest of Apollo shows Wilder’s faith to be nuanced, The Woman of Andros still contains the notion that the cruel ancient world needed to be redeemed by the healing power of Christ.  Aside from its misunderstanding of pre-Christian culture and religion, this view ignores the fact that the coming of Christianity hardly ushered in an era of peace and love.  Even the softer idea offered by Wilder’s characterization of the priest of Apollo, that humanity needs some form of religious belief to helpfully codify option one, doesn’t work for me.  I have known many sincere people of various religious beliefs.  While plenty follow option one, quite a few follow option two.  They seem to justify this by pointing to their mere belief as proof of their decency.  Thus believing, they are free to mock people in pain, laugh at the misfortunes of others, relish their material success, and dismiss the pleas of those whom life has placed beneath them.  It has always seemed to me that they worship a remarkably indulgent deity.

While the last section may hint at my private beliefs, I can say that I am also intimately acquainted with many secular-minded people, several of whom are politically left-wing.  Some of these people have a passionate disdain for religion and frequently proclaim their sympathy for the downtrodden.  Yet many of these same people, when faced with tests of compassion and mercy among their own families and friends, are content to sneer and demand to know what that person can offer them.  Still, many secularists I know do the exact opposite and follow option one through thick and thin.

As someone who agrees with Wilder that option one is essential to attaining full humanity, I am confused and frightened by this novel and how it squares (and doesn’t square) with what I’ve seen of the world.  Can option one be turned into a convenient system for all to follow?  If there is no clear set of rules to, will option one always be elusive while option two stands stark and clear?  Wilder seems to anticipate this with Chrysis’s prayer, eventually adopted by Pamphilus: “I praise all living, the bright and the dark.”  Of course, this statement, like option one, leaves more questions than answers and insists on being its own reward.  For many, this will always be impossible.  Fair enough, I suppose.  Just as long as those devotees of option two remember that the grinning Leno is never too far from shore.

 

 

 

PRINCE OTTO by Robert Louis Stevenson

In this review, I feel the desire to draw something of a line under a rather odd fascination.  “Something” of a line because I always like to leave doors open.  Still, it is time to move on somewhat.  To explain how I got here, I have to explain a little bit of how my mind works.  Feel free to ignore me but I guarantee I do at least think I have a point.

Back in 2011, during one of my frequent binges on Golden Age of Hollywood trivia, I read a film described as a “Ruritanian romance.”  I’d seen the term before but had never followed up on it.  For some reason, my curiosity was peaked this time.  I found out that the Ruritanian romance was a genre, originating in Victorian fiction, that concerned swashbuckling adventure and intrigue at the court of a small, imaginary monarchy.  When this form of fiction first emerged, it did not seem particularly fantastic.  There were many small, independent kingdoms and principalities in central and southern Europe.  The name of the genre came from Anthony Hope’s bestselling novel The Prisoner of Zenda which took place in the Kingdom of Ruritania.  I knew I HAD to read that book.  This is where things get a little hard to understand.

While many might find the above information mildly interesting, I found myself practically obsessed.  At that time, I was just finishing Arthur Machen’s Victorian horror classic, The Three Impostors.  While I already knew and admired some of Machen’s work, that particular novel was one of the most important reading experiences of my life.  For weeks, when I wasn’t working, eating, sleeping, or socializing, I was reading The Three Impostors.  Every day, as soon as I could, I pulled it out and read it, my heart racing with joy.  For the first time in years, I dreaded finishing a book.  If you want a fuller picture of why, I refer you to my review of that amazing, unclassifiable work elsewhere on this blog.  Part of what enthralled me about Machen’s novel was his ability to conjure up an entire world and force the reader right into the middle of it till nothing else really mattered.  When I finally did finish The Three Impostors, I began a futile search for a similar book that would take me to another fabulously weird, Victorian-flavored realm of the imagination.  Ruritanian romances ACTUALLY created fantasy nations!  Surely I’d found my next love!  Well…

As the curious can see from my review of The Prisoner of Zenda on this blog, I found that novel an entertaining, extremely well-plotted adventure story, nothing more.  However, I was not ready to give up on the Ruritanian romance genre.  I tried one of George Barr McCutcheon’s Graustark novels that I’d stumbled across but couldn’t really get into it and never finished.  Next, I remembered reading that, while Anthony Hope wrote the archetypal Ruritanian romance, the genre actually existed before him.  The earliest recorded Ruritanian romance was Prince Otto by the renowned Robert Louis Stevenson.  Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is one of my favorite books and Stevenson, as I’d recently discovered, was a profound influence on none other than Arthur Machen!  My heart was palpitating and that’s actually understating my excitement.  Prince Otto is in the public domain and I could have read it instantly online but, in my opinion, there are certain non-negotiable attributes when it comes to reading an obscure Victorian novel properly.  Print, preferably of the crumbling and musty variety, is one of them.  I had to wait.  My frustration was finally expelled, of course, at the world’s greatest bookstore, the Bruised Apple of Peekskill, NY.  I finally had Prince Otto!  So what of it?

To begin with, Stevenson’s novel is a far more satisfying read than Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda.  It tells the story of the (invented) Principality of Grunewald, a German-speaking mini-state and its clueless ruler, Otto Johann Friedrich.  While Otto faces plenty of court intrigue, Stevenson’s focus is not on the politics of the Prince’s realm but on the development of his character as he gropes for a form of redemption.  This makes Prince Otto feel like something of a parable.  The external events, while diverting, matter less than the way Otto reacts to them.  As such, the sturm und drang of the plot often fades into the background in a rather strange but beguiling way.  You’ll never read a more laid back description of a palace being stormed by revolutionaries!  Stevenson’s characterization is also a tremendous asset in this book.  Otto should be unbearable but I quickly came to love him, if not quite root for him.  His wife, Princess Seraphina, is hard to warm up to at first but comes together beautifully near the end.  There are several engaging side characters including Otto’s brutally honest but loyal friend, the court librarian and a sharp-tongued but kindhearted English tourist.  Another major plus is that, unlike Ruritania in Hope’s novel, Grunewald feels like a distinct society and a place that the reader can really visualize.  This is aided by some lovely descriptive writing in the early and late chapters of the book.

Unfortunately, there are plenty of good reasons why Prince Otto is largely forgotten.  According to some comments of Stevenson’s I read, he couldn’t quite figure out what this novel’s tone was supposed to be.  That comes through in some very damaging ways.  Occasionally, the tone coalesces around sentimental humor or gentle sadness and everything snaps into place.  However, more often than not, Stevenson jumps around uncomfortably and tries to smother everything in endless dialogue.  For an author who did description and interior monologue so well, it’s remarkable how often Stevenson resorts to tedious chatter in Prince Otto.  According to a note at the beginning of my copy, this novel started life as a play.  I wonder if Stevenson was trying to salvage lines from that abandoned project.  If so, he should have let them go.  As a result of these problems, even when the story is succeeding, the effect is badly muffled and our attention is pulled away from where it should be.  The finale starts out quietly moving but runs into yet another block of annoying chitchat.  Still, Stevenson redeems himself in an epilogue with dryly funny references to contemporary authors Victor Hugo and Algernon Charles Swinburne.

In the end, Prince Otto is a fascinating minor work by a major author.  Was it my dream come true?  Hardly.  Did it sour me on Ruritanian romance?  No, but I am starting to realize that my fascination with this curious genre was really about my longing for a repeat of the magic of The Three Impostors.  That’s just not going to happen and I’m ready to move on.  Although, if I happen to find a copy of The Mad King by Edgar Rice Burroughs, I might return.  But I’m not really looking…too carefully.

OLD GODS FOR NEW by Mike Algera

The opening lines of the title poem in this wonderfully moving collection were what made me want to read the whole book.  I was not remotely disappointed.  Here is a sample of what hooked me:

At a sidewalk sale

you will meet a dealer

he will tell you

he has monuments of old gods

for sale, “Pick a God,

and worship however you please.”

From fifty cents to a dollar

Testimonial to Myth

Renaissance to Pop Culture

he will tell you

the Fertility Goddess is for display only.

“She gave birth the material world

you know…a raw beef

cooking in a dream oven.  And guess what…

the dream came true.” 

What captured my attention was something that Mr. Algera achieves in several of his poems.  He maintains a calm, almost otherworldly tone when dealing with fraught and sometimes explosive issues.  It is not that the poems are detached or unemotional.  On the contrary, I’m not ashamed to say that I found myself shedding more than one tear while reading Old Gods for New.  Despite this, Mr. Algera demonstrates serious artistry and consideration over even the most personal poems in his book.  He never comes off as merely reactive but puts what are, for most of us, linguistically crippling feelings through the purifications of verse and makes us examine them in totally new ways.  As far as I’m concerned, this is a large part of what being a poet is all about.

Something else I noticed in these opening lines was their subtle but very powerful musicality.  That is something that has grown quite rare in poetry today.  While I don’t think that’s always a bad thing, it is exciting to see a poet use lyricism in such a fresh manner.  Intriguingly, some of the most musical poems in the book are short and almost haiku-like.  One of my favorites, “Every Person has a Price” can be quoted in its entirety:

Every person has a talent

Every person has a price

I can’t afford to marry your brilliance

so I must spend my bitterness

making most of my time

worth while

I would strongly recommend reading this over a few times.  I did and found myself going over some old emotional ground.  While my aesthetic recommendation is undiminished, I would add the small caveat that reading this poem on New Year’s Eve might not be the best idea if you are given to introspection.

The only real problem with Old Gods for New is not in the poetry itself.  Instead, I found myself exhausted at times by the variety of the poems.  When I was done, I actually thought “There were two, maybe even three books in there!”  A poem that demonstrates a wonderfully bittersweet humor like “Look, It’s Better This Way” feels like it’s from a totally different planet than the startlingly ambitious “Strange Medicine” or the heartfelt “On My Mother at Age Seventy.”  It might be interesting to see Mr. Algera prepare smaller collections, more tightly organized by style and/or theme.

Overall however, every poem in the book is more than worth reading.  While they are dramatically different from each other, the three poems I mentioned in the last paragraph are absolutely superb.  Mr. Algera’s versatility is as remarkable as his basic poetic talent.  I recall reading Allen Ginsberg praise a book by Gregory Corso, describing it as “a box of crazy toys.”  That quote came into my mind when I finished Mr. Algera’s book.  Many of his poems give the kind of joy that toys can bring.  However, I wouldn’t describe these toys as crazy.  Rather, they are sometimes sad, frequently provocative in the best sense of the word, and always incredibly wise.

WITTGENSTEIN’S POKER: THE STORY OF A TEN-MINUTE ARGUMENT BETWEEN TWO GREAT PHILOSOPHERS by David Edmonds and John Eidinow

Shortly after this book was published in 2001, I recall a philosophically inclined friend gently mocking the title.  The suggestion was that there seemed to be a number of books then appearing that used the Somebody famous’ Unlikely Object/Possession formula in an effort to attract readers.  My friend made no judgement on the books themselves.  He just found the titles somewhat hokey.  I heartily agreed.  In fact, I still agree.  The title of Wittgenstein’s Poker is hokey.  The book, however, is anything but.

In crystal-clear prose, journalists Edmonds and Eidinow attempt to tell the story of a legendary (in philosophical circles at least) verbal altercation between the major philosophers Karl Popper and Ludwig Wittgenstein.  As with most legends, the authors discover much is in dispute.  We do know for sure that Popper was a guest that evening of the Moral Science Club at Cambridge University.  We know that Popper had long been furiously opposed to the controversial ideas of Wittgenstein, who taught at Cambridge and was chair of the MSC.  For the most part, we know who else was present at the meeting, including the philosophical giant Bertrand Russell.  We know that the meeting got unpleasant rather quickly due to the subjects being discussed.  Finally, we know that Wittgenstein (who left the meeting early) was holding a poker from the fireplace and that, at some point, Popper made a VERY witty comment about said poker.  Beyond these facts, accounts differ.  Cleverly, Edmonds and Eidinow don’t spend much of the book overly concerned with the details of exactly what happened at what time.  They are primarily interested in the why.  The poker story is mostly (but not entirely) a way to examine and explain these two brilliant men and their respective philosophies.

A large section of the book paints a vivid picture of pre_World War I Vienna, capital of the multi-ethnic Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Since both Popper and Wittgenstein were born and raised in this diverse and fraught society, an understanding of the Empire’s cultural conflicts is central to understanding both men.  Edmonds and Eidinow do a wonderful job describing the cauldron of remarkable people and ideas that was Vienna.  Their analysis of the Empire’s calculated and conditional racial and religious cosmopolitanism is particularly keen, especially in relation to the conflicting attitudes towards Jews.  Popper and Wittgenstein were both from assimilated Jewish families.  Neither ever believed in or practiced Judaism but they both had the bewildering experience of being seen as something they never really felt they were.  Of course, while Popper’s family was well off, Wittgenstein’s was one of the richest in Vienna.  When Nazi Germany took over Austria, the Wittgensteins were able to bribe their way to safety.  Popper, his family’s wealth depleted by the Great Depression, had a much more frightening experience before he finally made his way out of the Third Reich’s clutches.

This is just one of the many ways in which Popper and Wittgenstein were both startlingly close and dramatically different, in background, experience, and even personality.  Edmonds and Eidinow frequently start the two out in a similar place only to show them wrenching apart before long.  Nowhere is their similar yet not situation sharper than in their relationships with the person Edmonds and Eidinow dub “the third man” in this debate, Bertrand Russell.  Russell had been Wittgenstein’s mentor and close friend.  However, they had become ideological enemies by the time of the poker debate.  Popper revered Russell, almost to the point of idolatry, and Russell had come to admire Popper and view him as a valuable ally.  Yet Russell remained personally entangled with Wittgenstein in a way he never was with Popper.  Wittgenstein, despite the bitter feud with his old teacher, reserved for Russell a degree of respect he showed almost no one else.  He was barely aware of Popper.  One of the most poignant aspects of this book is its description of the curious triangle that existed between these three great thinkers.  Russell and Wittgenstein stand before us, miserably but resignedly locked arm in arm.  Popper flits around Russell, liked and respected by his hero but always on the outside looking in, never as important to Russell as Wittgenstein.  This triangle makes it all the more intriguing that Popper and Wittgenstein met only once, the night of the poker incident.

While Popper, Wittgenstein, and Russell are the three primary figures in the book, the authors provide us with several other insightful sketches of individuals connected to the big three.  The philosophy dons of Cambridge each get a charming, occasionally hilarious, write-up.  We also get brief but telling looks at various friends, family members, students, colleagues, and rivals.  There are numerous riveting tidbits, above all the goosebump-raising coincidental links Popper and Wittgenstein both had to Adolf Hitler.

All of this would make for an engaging work of biography and history, and this book is that.  Yet it is to the authors’ credit that it is much more as well.  After leading us on with important but fairly straightforward information, Edmonds and Eidinow start giving us a sense of the philosophical issues Popper and Wittgenstein (and Russell) fought over.  First, they just introduce bits and pieces and we read along.  Eventually however, we are confronted with a full-blown discussion of some very difficult concepts.  For once, I felt like I was able to follow these ideas on my own.  This is a testament to the authors’ narrative clarity and skill.  I learned a great deal from this book.  I had long been aware of Russell’s significance and, thanks to a wonderful college seminar, I even understood some of his ideas.  However, this book makes clearer to me the sea change in philosophy he helped cause, namely the move away from Hegelian idealism towards a more analytical and scientific approach.  Likewise, I knew Wittgenstein was seen as a radical thinker concerned with language.  Now I have a much better grasp of his belief that there are no philosophical problems, only linguistic puzzles.  Russell and Popper believed this idea was unscientific trickery that threatened the very foundations of philosophical inquiry.  These are big issues.  They continue to be of the utmost importance, in philosophy and other academic fields as well as in the way we approach the world and its crises.  I understand them better now and I’m quite grateful to Edmonds and Eidinow for that.

So is the poker just a book-selling gimmick?  Does it really have anything to do with this book’s deeply serious goals?  Mostly, I think it’s a smart, entertaining gimmick.  Still, the image of Wittgenstein jerking the poker around, trying to forbid discussion and Popper’s use of (gasp!) humor could be seen as decent metaphors for what they believed in and the conflict between them.  Edmonds and Eidinow wisely avoid taking sides.  Indeed, their last chapter is titled “All Shall Have Prizes.”  I admit that I find Popper, concerned with the here and now, physically unremarkable, willing to be less famous if he could get closer to rational truths, tremendously appealing.  His ideas about debate and freedom are not sexy.  At first glance, they seem obvious.  They are however, I think, more vital and threatened than most of us are usually willing to realize.  Popper was never going to become the center of a cult focusing on what he insisted were the correct things to focus on.  By contrast, Wittgenstein held his followers enraptured and his name is as famous as any modern philosopher’s is likely to be.  Despite his problematic (to understate it dramatically) character, I found him not unappealing.  He was a remarkable man but I think it is quite telling that, as Edmonds and Eidinow explain, he turns up in films and literature while many of his radical ideas have been quietly abandoned by a great number of philosophers.

There are some flaws in the book.  While none of them are major, they are surprising and troubling.  First off, there are two strange inaccuracies.  At one point, Edmonds and Eidinow state that Hitler was born in Linz, Austria.  While he grew up there and considered it his home town, he was actually born in Braunau am Inn, Austria.  In a reference to the younger Hitler, the authors describe him as having “waved the red, black, and gold flag of the Reich.”  The German Reich of Hitler’s youth used a red, white, and black tricolor.  The flag Edmonds and Eidinow refer to had liberal associations and would much later become the flag of Germany during the democratic Weimar Republic.  It is also the flag of modern Germany.  A young German nationalist like Hitler, wanting to express solidarity with the imperial Germany of the Kaisers, would have had nothing to do with the red, black, and gold flag.  These are small points but they suggest a sloppiness that is hard to swallow considering how well-researched Wittgenstein’s Poker is otherwise.

Other flaws are more confusing than troubling.  In one of the later chapters, Edmonds and Eidinow drop their straightforward approach and try to put us inside our protagonists’ heads shortly before the debate.  The chapter, “Poker Plus,” is beautifully written.  However, a reference to Wittgenstein doing something “in memory of Francis” had me scrambling around, worried that I’d forgotten a key player.  I had to turn to Google to find out it was Francis Skinner, Wittgenstein’s close friend and possible lover.  Skinner is mentioned elsewhere in the book but not in such a way that would make him identifiable in that odd reference.  Elsewhere in that chapter, Edmonds and Eidinow quote Popper disdainfully linking Russell’s former collaborator Alfred North Whitehead to Wittgenstein and his acolyte John Wisdom.  The connection is not explained.  I cannot think of any good reasons for leaving readers in the dark on these matters.  Luckily, these flaws are swept away by the many virtues.  Writing clearly and well about such weighty topics is far from easy and books like this are invaluable.

While they are mostly neutral throughout the book, in the final chapter, Edmonds and Eidinow make two interesting assertions that demand serious consideration.  One relates to the reputation of Popper and his ideas in solidly democratic nations.  The authors write: “Many of the political ideas which in 1946 seemed so radical and were so important have become received wisdom.  The attacks on authoritarianism, dogma, and historical inevitability, the stress on tolerance, transparency, and debate, the embracing of trial-and-error, the distrust of certainty and the espousal of humility–these today are beyond challenge and so beyond debate.”  This is obviously said in earnest and there are elements of truth in it.  However, I think Edmonds and Eidinow underestimate the value of Popper’s insights.  Today, as we deal with forms of intolerance and closed-mindedness that are different from the ones Popper knew but just as destructive and insidious, Popper’s quest for an open society might need to be recalibrated, but it is still urgently relevant.  The other assertion is about why a clash like the poker incident is unlikely to happen again anytime soon: “Perhaps…there is currently so much specialization, and so many movements and fissures within higher education, that the important questions have been lost.”  To that, I can only say a sad “Amen!”

WOLF HALL by Hilary Mantel

Arguments over what to admire in literature often boil down to a conflict between the establishment/monumental approach and the transgressive/radical approach.  The former emphasizes texts that, for all their complexity and probing, would be thought appropriate to teach to young people in school.  While these works might well embrace a degree of ambiguity, they are ultimately seen as constructing a monument that a (fairly decent) establishment could embrace, point to, and strive towards.  The latter is the kind of material that, while possibly admired on an aesthetic level, would not usually be seen on a high school syllabus and might even be prohibited from being on one.  These works use radical and often disturbing techniques to transgress against the very foundations of society.

The above description is extremely reductive and frequently inaccurate.  Even when these categories seem apparent, the flow of time frequently renders them laughable.  Works banned by or frowned upon by the authorities are read by prominent politicians during speeches, often within mere decades.  I remember seeing a photograph on the website of my graduate school’s English department.  It showed students in class, all reading Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems.  I wonder how many professors at that very university would have allowed that book in their classrooms in 1956.  And what of writing never considered true literature in its day?  At various times, dramatists were seen as popular authors, unworthy of even gaining entry to a literary debate.  The same would later be said of novelists.  When ideas changed, how do we establish the establishment or transgressive status of say, William Shakespeare or Jane Austen?  While many would be happy to go right ahead and declare such authors one thing or the other, such pronouncements strike me as somewhat anachronistic.

However, while an establishment/transgressive divide in literature is overly simplistic, there is no denying its pull and its occasional usefulness.  It’s just a fact of life that certain kinds of literature tend to fall more easily into one category or another.  One very rarely alarms parents or outrages teachers by reading an historical novel.  I point this out as someone who has always loved historical dramas on stage and screen and, more recently, has come to enjoy several historical novels.  Despite this, I’ve long been aware, and am even more so now, that the historical genre is frequently a conservative one.  The reconstruction of the past is generally about big events, famous names, and dramatic situations.  I want to emphasize I don’t consider this to be an inherent aesthetic flaw.  Profundity can be achieved in all sorts of ways.  We have plenty to learn from many approaches to art.  It just seems that the historical genre is not usually what one describes as “cutting edge” or “radical.”  My knowledge of the historical novel is still limited so I’m positive there are numerous exceptions.  In fact, what I’m describing may be more of an attitude on the part of readers.  Such an attitude does seem to be fairly widespread, however.  I know more than a few people whose eclectic tastes in literature stop cold if the piece takes place in the past.

When I was first reading Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, I found a part of myself comparing it unfavorably with other historical novels I’d read, especially The Dream of Scipio by Iain Pears.  Wolf Hall was much tougher sledding even though Pears’ book could hardly be called light reading.  Mantel’s novel just seemed really tough to absorb.  However, I felt myself propelled forward and, before I long, I realized that toughness was a goal of Mantel’s and an aspect that puts this book in a dramatically different category from the average historical novel.  While I have no objections to the more standard approach in historical novels (I still love and recommend The Dream of Scipio) I do believe that Wolf Hall is a number of rungs above them.

Mantel’s plot is nothing complicated or unusual.  Wolf Hall is yet another retelling of the (in my opinion) always fascinating story of King Henry VIII of England’s attempts to end his first marriage and secure a legitimate son as his heir.  All the familiar events are touched upon, including the breach with the Roman Catholic Church and the tempestuous love affair with Anne Boleyn.  I’m not going to lie or mince words.  I absolutely love this stuff and would lap it up from almost any author or in almost any format.  Mantel, however, manages to do something I would have been sure was impossible till I was almost finished with her novel.  She makes nearly all previous fictionalized versions of this story appear feeble and washed out.  By the time I was done with Wolf Hall, the performances of most actors and the writing of most authors had faded away.  Most of the historical figures presented in this book are now, to me, basically the people she presented them as.  I’ve only ever had this experience before with the figures in Shakespeare’s two primary Roman tragedies, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra.

What does Mantel do to achieve this feat?  That is where the book’s radicalism comes in.  While there is little plot material unfamiliar to anyone who has heard this story before, Mantel delivers something very fresh in terms of point of view.  Wolf Hall is written entirely from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s much reviled enforcer and henchman, usually presented in other works as the essence of Machiavellian conniving and amorality.  Actually, saying the book is written from his point of view is an understatement.  Throughout this novel, we basically inhabit Cromwell, seeing what he sees, knowing what he knows, and learning as he learns.  As such, since Mantel starts out with his early life, the first parts of the book often have a feeling of restricted vision.  Our awareness of the world grows as Cromwell’s does but it never becomes totally clear.  Even a man as sharp as Cromwell could never know or understand everything that was going on around him.  None of us ever can.  Mantel leans heavily and wonderfully on James Joyce for her narrative techniques.  Wolf Hall is never difficult to read in the late Joyce way, however.  Rather it resembles the Joyce of Dubliners in its narrative clarity but keen evocation of the muddled inner lives of human beings.  Instead of falling into traditional novelistic narrative tricks, Mantel creates a portrait of life not as it really turns out to be, but of life as it really feels as it is happening.

Due to this approach, anyone looking for historical pageantry should look elsewhere.  While Wolf Hall has no shortage of drama, it is the drama of real life and ideas, not situations.  All the historical figures, while intriguing, are properly cut down to size.  Nowhere is this more noticeable than in Mantel’s portrait of Henry VIII, one of the most famous people in history.  In his first appearance in this book, Henry comes off as a kind of sloppy boss, unable to multitask but unwilling to admit it.  As we learn more about him, we get a look at a chilling but surprisingly mundane figure.  Henry is a man without even rudimentary self-reflection.  His empathy skills, while not non-existent, are basically hung on the shelf when he finds them inconvenient to his pursuit of personal pleasure.  Such people are not at all unusual.  We meet them everyday.  Some of us have to live with them for periods of our lives.  What makes Henry notable, and terrifying, is that he is the near absolute ruler of a nation.  Mantel’s depiction of Henry is a great example of her ability in this book to remind us that history is lived by people.  Those people may be remarkable but they probably become far more so in retrospect than they ever were in life.

Any historical fiction is going to involve a degree of speculation.  I’ve often gotten in debates with people about the nature and number of liberties anyone dramatizing the historical record should take.  I still firmly hold to my belief that artists should be cautious when they approach history.  These events actually occurred and these people actually lived.  We will be in their position before long.  Also, what happened in the past continues to play a major role in what we do now and what we will do in the future.  A respect for history and how people take it is of vital importance.  Throughout Wolf Hall, Mantel is scrupulously historical.  When she has to speculate, she does so briefly and plausibly.  One charming result of this is that several important figures who, for whatever reason, rarely figure in Tudor dramas emerge more fully here.  Those familiar with the actual historical events should enjoy seeing people like Thomas Audley and Thomas Wriothesley given their proper due.  Another delightful by-product of Mantel’s historical accuracy is that we are spared the tedious revelation that this or that prominent figure was gay, despite there being no evidence whatsoever to suggest this.  As a gay man, I don’t find this device offensive but it is unbelievably boring.  It strikes me that such plot twists in historical fiction are primarily about titillating ignorant straight audiences who continue to be shocked, shocked by the idea that homosexuality wasn’t invented in 1969.

Some of this might make Wolf Hall sound like a dull history lesson.  I understand how the description might give that impression but I can’t begin to explain how wrong that assumption would be.  Mantel’s goal is not simply to recite the events as they happened.  She manages to achieve something extraordinarily difficult.  Her novel takes few liberties with the historical facts but, by refusing to fool around with what we know, she critiques our very way of approaching history.  For instance, take the infamous figure of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Henry VIII’s influential favorite and, for the early part of Henry’s reign, the actual ruler of England.  By the time Wolsey dies in Wolf Hall, you’ll be asking yourself why the word “infamous” is so frequently associated with him.  It’s not that Mantel portrays him sympathetically.  In the whole book, it’s difficult to find what would usually be called an authorial voice.  Instead, Mantel just presents him as he really was and, slowly, makes us realize we might just have been had.  Wolsey ultimately lost in real life.  Also, he was perceived to be physically unattractive and was certainly hated by a great many people.  As such, the story tended not to be his.  Hence, the figure of the evil cardinal.  Was it true?  Wolsey was hardly a babe in the woods but, when you look at the facts, why would he be considered evil?  More importantly, why are we so comfortable accepting that idea when it doesn’t really hold up?

This questioning of how we perceive history, and why we perceive it the way we do, is embodied by Cromwell, Mantel’s protagonist.  It is also embodied in Cromwell’s conflict with Thomas More, famous philosopher and saint of the Catholic Church.  More has usually been seen as the hero in their struggle, Cromwell as the arch-villain.  I’ve long known the version of More in Robert Bolt’s wonderful play A Man For All Seasons (and its magnificent original film adaptation) was missing crucial pieces.  More was a fanatical Catholic and his involvement in brutal religious persecution, while not unique at the time, hardly qualifies him as a hero to the modern world.  Despite my foreknowledge, Mantel’s depiction of these two men made me more aware than ever of how much we are all influenced by what people say about themselves and what others say about them later on.  Once again, it’s not that Cromwell comes off as ANY kind of angel when we look at the true story (and Mantel’s novelization of it).  He was indeed brutal and accepted many of the common beliefs of his day.  Mantel depicts him as saddened when people are publicly disembowelled or burned at the stake.  What she tellingly does NOT show is Cromwell questioning the necessity of these revolting practices.  Despite this, when you examine the true (or at least truer) Cromwell presented in Wolf Hall, it’s hard not to see him as a man who would embrace today’s world much more willingly than Thomas More.

Some readers might have noticed I did not say that Mantel shows us the positive side of More, even as she whittles away at his posthumous glorification.  That is the one area where, possibly, Wolf Hall fails.  “Fails” is probably too strong a term.  It’s better to say that Mantel comes close to falling into the trap that she so artfully exposes others as gleefully stepping into.  While there are a few moments where we see More’s appealing qualities and brilliance, they are quickly eclipsed by a figure it’s probably safe to say Mantel finds deeply irritating.  In and of itself, this would not be a flaw.  However, when juxtaposed with the depiction of Cromwell, this starts to feel a little bit like old-fashioned English anti-Catholicism.  The Protestant victory hardly ushered in an era of pluralism and tolerance.  There were times when I thought Mantel did not adequately emphasize that the tragedy of More was not that a great thinker fell for Roman Catholicism, but that he fell for cruelty and dogmatism.  Mantel might well counter that her book depicts a period when Catholics had the upper hand.  There is already a sequel to Wolf Hall and a third book will take us right to the end of Cromwell’s life.  Perhaps these books will further complicate the portrait of Cromwell.  Whatever questions I have about Mantel’s interpretation of certain events, I can say I am dying to read, learn from, and be jolted by the sequels to what is an undeniably great work of art.

The Cup of the Ptolemies, Part 3: Freezing the Soul, or A Review of THE MONK by Matthew Lewis

My title for this review comes from an essay by Ann Radcliffe titled “On the Supernatural in Poetry.”  Radcliffe, one of the most prominent gothic novelists, was concerned about where she saw the form going.  Whereas the “terror” Radcliffe used in her novels “expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life,” Radcliffe believed the “horror” she was seeing in newer gothic works at the time “contracts, freezes, and nearly annihilates them.”  It is generally believed that Radcliffe’s criticism was aimed primarily at Matthew Lewis’ tremendously successful and controversial novel The Monk.  While I could be mistaken, it seems that Radcliffe’s comments mark the first designation of horror as a distinct genre, growing out of the gothicism of the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth centuries.  In some ways then, The Monk, with its not explained-away-in the end supernatural elements and brazen use of grisliness could be considered the true start of horror fiction, as opposed to the proto-horror works that preceded it.  How unsurprising, given what would come in the future, that the first major reference to horror as its own genre should be a disapproving one!

It does not appear that Matthew Lewis saw himself as branching off and starting something new.  Lewis was simply trying to write a novel in the style of the gothic craze then sweeping England.  He even expressed profound admiration for one of Radcliffe’s novels.  However, there is no doubt that readers of the day perceived Lewis as having done something quite different.  In fact, many were not pleased with that difference.  While The Monk was a major literary hit, Lewis faced accusations of blasphemy and immorality.  He did have his defenders.  In her introduction to the Oxford edition of the book I read, scholar Emma McEvoy quotes a contemporary of Lewis in the journal The Monthly Mirror who said The Monk was “well-calculated to support the cause of virtue” through its exposure of the hypocritical monk Ambrosio’s overconfidence in his decency.  Intriguingly however, McEvoy, who elsewhere makes several fine points, flicks this defense aside, describing it as “ludicrous.”  I was startled since, after reading The Monk, I had pretty much the same thoughts as that writer in The Monthly Mirror!  Clearly, McEvoy perceived Lewis as doing something VERY new, just as many people at the time did.  She didn’t disapprove but she agreed with the fundamental perception of difference.  While I do agree with this perception of difference, I think it has been somewhat exaggerated.

Before returning to that, I should talk a little about The Monk itself.  First off, it made me want to read more gothic fiction, by Radcliffe and others.  It also made me sad that Lewis himself wrote no further fiction.  Had he done so, The Monk would have been juvenalia since Lewis wrote it when he was only nineteen!  So is it safe to say I liked The Monk as a novel?  Well, let’s say I liked some of the novels in it.  It is almost impossible to call this a single book.  I’ve read novels with sprawling plots before but this creates a whole new definition of ‘loose’ in my mind.  Everything is tied together in the end but, far more than once while reading, I wondered if that was even possible.  If you quantified literal ‘stage time,’ several major characters are really barely present in the narrative.  They do cast longer shadows but the small number of actual appearances is rather jolting.  I’m actually a big advocate of anti-naturalism and playfulness in literature so I’m all for authors going where their imaginations take them, without regard for taste or artificial rules.  Still, The Monk sets new records for the sheer number of things it is.  At various times it was a ghost story, a social comedy, an attack on religious extremism (Lewis’ then conventional anti-Catholicism can become offensive), a boys’ adventure story, a twisted family saga, a syrupy love story, a dramatized form of literary criticism, and a psychological study of criminality.  Lewis writes all of these with skill so I always enjoyed reading the book.  However, even a good writer like Lewis could hardly have hoped to make all of this feel truly unified.  Even as I enjoyed one strand, I often found myself mourning the radically different strand that had just ended.  It was also hard to keep things, especially characters, straight.  After a while, for the sake of my sanity, I just started to take several sections as basically independent.

The glowing exception to this was in everything dealing directly with the evil Ambrosio, the monk of the title.  This character is one of the finest villains I’ve ever read in any novel, horror or otherwise.  Lewis’ sketch of Ambrosio’s character flaws, flaws that will lead him to commit almost unspeakable crimes, is absolutely masterful.  As good as everything else is, whenever Lewis focuses on Ambrosio, The Monk approaches real pantheon status.  I could write a whole separate piece just on the numerous complex aspects of this fascinating character.  The fact that Lewis manages to keep such a despicable figure somewhat pitiful is the true sign of a potentially master novelist.  Again, it is a real shame that Lewis didn’t write any further novels.  It is striking (if hardly surprising) how much more vital Ambrosio and, to a slightly lesser extent, his partner in crime Matilda, are than most of the virtuous characters.  The exceptions to this are the loyal servant Theodore and some of the comic side figures.  Otherwise, the good people, while their adventures are entertaining, come off as cookie cutter figures.  Despite this, the section detailing the sufferings of Agnes is one of the most harrowing things I have ever read.  That sounds like hyperbole but it’s not.  Seriously, if you read this book prepare yourself for that.  It will ruin your day if you have any compassion anywhere in your heart.

That brings me back to my original focus.  By the end of The Monk, cruelty and fanaticism have been exposed and kindness and moderation praised as true virtue and richly rewarded.  While the villains are more fun to read about, there is no suggestion I could find that we should favor them or what they do.  They are riveting but hardly sexy or appealing.  So what were all the angry pointing fingers about?  And where does the modern notion that The Monk is somehow transgressive come from?  Perhaps it’s understandable that, when a work of art goes somewhere uncomfortable or unsettling, insecure people will attack it as wicked.  However, I wonder if those of us who pride ourselves on being more sophisticated fall for the same trick in a subtler way.  Maybe horror’s function in freezing the soul is only dangerous to the kind of false and hollow ‘virtue’ practiced by Ambrosio.  True virtue can be horrified but never conquered.