Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Language Play of the Week

Every now and then I read something - a phrase, a turn of thought, and I think, "wow, Writer Dude, you just nailed that". OK, I realize that my last sentence wasn't exactly an example of the kind of effective writing I'm talking about, but you get my point. Here's the fourth in what is thus far proving to be a highly intermittent feature in Mad Padre.

Hilary Mantel as Holbein might have painted her. Very clever, New Yorker, very clever.

I am indebted to James Wood for his 7 May review of Hilary Mantel's second novel on Henry VIII's servant and chancellor, Thomas Cromwell. I like historical novels, but I had to wince in agreement with Wood that this genre is "not exactly jammed with greatness". He argues that what makes Mantel stand out is that she "seems to have written a very good modern novel, then changed all her fictional names to English historical figures of the fifteen-twenties and thirties."

Here's the passage that earns Mad Padre's Language Play of the Week. Here Thomas Cromwell is thinking about his son, Gregory, from Mantel's first novel in the series, Wolf Hall.

"He smiles. What he says about Gregory is, at least he isn’t like I was, when I was his age; and when people say, what were you like? he says, oh, I used to stick knives in people. Gregory would never do that; so he doesn’t mind—or minds less than people think—if he doesn’t really get to grips with declensions and conjugations. When people tell him what Gregory has failed to do, he says, “He’s busy growing.” He understands his need to sleep; he never got much sleep himself, with Walter stamping around, and after he ran away he was always on the ship or on the road, and then he found himself in an army. The thing people don’t understand about an army is its great, unpunctuated wastes of inaction: you have to scavenge for food, you are camped out somewhere with a rising water level because your mad capitaine says so, you are shifted abruptly in the middle of the night into some indefensible position, so you never really sleep, your equipment is defective, the gunners keep causing small unwanted explosions, the crossbowmen are either drunk or praying, the arrows are ordered up but not here yet, and your whole mind is occupied by a seething anxiety that things are going to go badly because il principe, or whatever little worshipfulness is in charge today, is not very good at the basic business of thinking."

Wood notes that the passage works because it uses present tense (which overcomes the "long ago and far away" feel of the standard historical novel as well as "a free indirect style to establish Cromwell’s likable bluntness". I agree, and I love how that "free indirect style" veers away from Cromwell's son to his own experience as a soldier, and how Mantel captures brilliantly in a few, darkly comic sentences, what authors have been saying about war for ages, that it is stupid and chaotic, usually because it is run by stupid people. Update the language and it could be about any war up to the present.

Don't think, gentle reader, that I took James Wood's word for how good Mantel is. I grabbed Wolf Hall and devoured it over the long weekend. I now have the second novel, Bring Up The Bodies, which takes the story from the fall of Anne Boleyn to Henry's third marriage to Jane Seymour.

Because I am so fond of Mantel, let me give you another passage, like the fellow on your street who drives his car with the music cranked and the windows open because he wants you to love the Black Keys as much as he does. Except I'm quieter. This passage is from a conversation Cromwell is sent to have with a troublesome English lord, the Earl of Northumberland, who needs to walk back rumours he has spread about his love for Anne Boleyn, before she has become the queen. Like the first passage, it captures the foolish, archaic world of medieval warfare with the world of commerce that has shaped Cromwell.

"He will not. He respects all ancient titles. All ancient rights."

"Then let's say I will. Let's say I will rip your life apart. Me and my banker friends."

How can he explain to him? The world is not run from where he thinks. Not from his border fortresses, not even from Whitehall. The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence, from places he has never imagined; from Lisbone, from where the ships with sails of silk drift west and are burned up in the sun. Not from castle walls, but from counting houses, not by the call of the bugle but by the click of the abacus, not by the grate and click of the mechanism of the gun but by the scrape of the pen on the page of the promissory note that pays for the gun and the gunsmith and the powder and shot.

"I picture you without money and title," he says. "I picture you in a hovel, wearing homespun, and bringing home a rabbit for the pot. I picture your lawful wife Anne Boleyn skinning and jointing you this rabbit. I wish you every happiness."

That passage works because, as Wood says, it is really about the modern world, about globalization and the power of finance which seems to be the only power that matters today. It works because of its internal lyricism ("the ships with sails of silk") and the contrast with Cromwell's blunt threat at the end, and it works because it supports the novel's overall characterisation of Cromwell as a pragmatic, modern man who understands the world, even if he does not control it. It's lovely.

Do yourself a favour and get to know Mantel. If you ever watched The Tudors on TV and felt dirty afterwards, you'll feel better.

Read more http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2012/05/07/120507crbo_books_wood#ixzz1vdNPTOCq

4 comments:

Conrad Kinch said...

Diction in historical novels is a tough nut for an author to crack. Writing entirely within the useage of the time is difficult because it can lack emotional punch and clarity for a contemporary reader - at the same time language is the only tool available to the author and he must use it in order to be successful.

I've always treasured the clear, but distinctively 18th century English of Patrick O'Brian because it vividly evokes the world it describes. Rider Haggards use of the language of the KJV for Zulu always struck me as a very astute piece of work.

I'll add Mantel to the "to be read" pile.

Joshua said...

Now I'm really tempted to pick this series up and read it myself. It sounds very good.

I love historical fiction because done properly, it leaves you with a better understanding of both the past and the present. To the "to read" pile Mantel goes!

styler said...

As enjoyable (or not) reading historical fiction is, the problem this reader has with it is: how biographical is it? Does this reader come away with a better understanding of the long dead person and their place upon the stage of life or of the author's skill in creating a character for his or her plot?

mad padre said...

@ Conrad: My dear Kinch: a good point about language. I would agree with you that O'Brian is one of the gold standards of historical fiction, in part because he forces you to inhabit the world of the 18th century, including its diction, so that, for example, the congratulatory phrase "Give you joy of it" becomes natural to the reader. I still use that phrase, sometimes, and it perplexes those who have not read O'Brian. However, that is a rare thing in a writer to pull off. Most historical writers, I find, merely salt their works with occasional period words and phrases. In the second example I gave from Mantel, if she had substituted the period world "coney" for "rabbit", I think that would have been unnecesary and even distracting.

@Joshua: Thanks so much for your comment and for visiting Mad Padre. I hope you will visit again. I had a quick peek at your blog and liked what I saw, I shall be back.

@ Steve: I like your point that historical fiction has an obligation to verisimilitude. Obviously the author will have to do a substantial amount of invention as to what a character thinks, says in private, but it has to be broadly in keeping with the public record of their lives, although biographers and historicans can fiercely differ with one another about who a person was. Mantel had a limited amount of sources to work with in reconstructing Cromwell, and clearly she uses him to some extend as a cipher for modernity, as opposed to Thomas More, but my own take is that she is broadly true to our understanding of the Tudor era. Kay just finished the Gabaldon novels, and reading over her shoulder (looking in vain for the racy bits), I came away thinking that they have nothing to say about Jacobite Scotland.

Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.

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