The Year in Novels So Far; Plus, Hilary Mantel!

Though it’s only May, I’ve already read enough novels I love to fill up most of my top 10 list for 2012—including Bring Up the Bodies

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(Lev Grossman writes about books here on Wednesdays. Subscribe to his RSS feed.)

John Green, The Fault in Our Stars. Edward St. Aubyn, At Last. Elizabeth Hand, Available Dark. Mark Leyner, The Sugar Frosted Nutsack. Hari Kunzru, Gods without Men. Laurent Binet, HHhH. Sadie Jones, The Uninvited Guests.

Now that I’ve gone on the record bitching about how there aren’t enough great novels in one  year to make a top 10 list, I’m in the awkward position of having to admit that even though it’s only May, I’ve already read enough novels I love to fill up most of my list for 2012. If I cheated by delving into the future I could even add three more — Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, Alan Furst’s Mission to Paris and Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, which aren’t out yet but I’ve read advance copies. Then I could knock off for the rest of the year.

Except that now — dammit! — I’ve already gone and read yet another good book, a great book, even: Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies. I’m actually going to have to narrow it down this year. And I haven’t even gotten to Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue yet, or the new Zadie Smith, or Tom Wolfe, or Victor Lavalle.

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Not that I’m the first person to point out the greatness of Hilary Mantel. (In fact, as my editor was not slow to point out, when I told her what this column was about, has already reviewed Bring Up the Bodies. D’oh.) Pretty much everybody has come out in favor of this book, which is actually a bit odd considering how mightily it labors to be repellent and controversial, starting with its hero, Thomas Cromwell: a bloody, profane, borderline amoral 16th-century fixer who tortures his enemies. Cromwell is so cynical that he reads Machiavelli’s The Prince and shrugs, thinking, “perhaps he could improve on it.”

Oh, you see token attempts at resistance among the critics, but only token. The Independent gently admonishes Mantel for taking the rough edges off history — for not rubbing our noses in the period’s homophobia, for example, or in the sheer foreign-ness of its profound religious faith. (The review is worth quoting: “Mantel is an extraordinary novelist, a remarkable stylist, and rather a commonplace historian: a careful 2.1 and not a daring First.”) But none of that bothers me. I’m probably one of the few readers of this book who’s so ignorant of 16-century English history that I’m actually surprised by the plot twists in Bring Up the Bodies. Mantel is free to have her way with me.

And have it she does. The rush of Bring Up the Bodies comes on even faster than that of Wolf Hall ­­— there’s none of what Holden Caulfield would have called the “David Copperfield crap”, no childhood traumas and formative life lessons. We begin in the thick of it, with Anne Boleyn in the hot seat recently vacated by Catherine of Aragon (I hope everyone appreciates how hard it was for me, a hardened fantasy fan, to not type “Aragorn” just then). Cromwell, as a low-born person with no title and no fortune holding a position — secretary to the King — that comes with no formal salary, must manage everything by means of manipulation. He has no power of his own. Everything relies on his ability to read the field more clearly than anybody else, and to keep control of himself while everybody around him is losing their shit. “I never forget myself,” he tells the Spanish ambassador, and us, and himself. “What I do, I mean to do.”

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As does Mantel herself. Not for her the postmodern equivocations of Laurent Binet in HHhH, who every time he types a sentence about the past, recoils at his own novelistic violation of the truth. (As James Wood points out in the New Yorker, Binet appears to cast himself as a post-modernist, but he has a very un-post-modern reverence for the Truth, capital T: “he is suspicious of fiction, but not suspicious enough of the fictionality of the historical record.” It’s a palpable hit.) Mantel’s Cromwell would shoulder Binet aside, cursing, and have him go muck out a stable or translate something into Welsh, and leave the serious business of reality to those with the nerve to handle it. Mantel is gloriously specific as to the what, where and how of her history, and she doesn’t apologize for it:

They ride up-country towards Katherine without banner or display, a tight knot of armed men. It is a clear day and bitter cold. The brown tussocky land shows through layers of hard frost, and herons flap from frozen pools. Clouds stack and shift on the horizon, slate-grey and a mild deceptive rose; leading them from early afternoon is a slivered moon as mean as a clipped coin.

She leaves the caveats where they belong, in the post-novel Author’s Note.

You can get a sense from that passage how magnificently physical Cromwell’s world is. Like T.H. White in The Once and Future King, Mantel flouts the unwritten rule that when you write about the past you have to do it like you’re describing a painting of something, rather than the thing itself. And hers isn’t just the standard grittiness novelists use to signify that we are in the late-Middle Ages/early-Renaissance, either; in fact Mantel largely dispenses with the stock footage of horses pissing and men farting and chomping big haunches of meat. The physicality of Cromwell’s world is an expression of his character: he’s not a dreamer, he can’t afford to gather wool or traffick in abstractions. He’s in the business of forcing thought into action, incarnating desire in the form of objects and events. He’s a great one for catalogs — for example, this list of the assets of a monastery he’s considering looting:

Vestments of red turkey satin and white lawn, wrought with beasts in gold. Two altar cloths of white Bruges satin, with drops like spots of blood, made of red velvet. And the contents of the kitchen: weights, tongs and fire forks, flesh hooks.

You feel sorry for him that he was born too soon for spreadsheets.

Only rarely does anybody, even Mantel herself, catch Cromwell off guard, but it does happen. It has to: the point of novels is to show us people when they’re being who they are, rather than who they want to be or seem to be. Occasionally something reminds Cromwell of his wife and two daughters, who died of illness before the book begins, and when it does, he’s gone (the dead are a useful hedge for Mantel — when she needs to keep us loyal to her hero, when he sails too close to the wind, she shows him him missing his lost daughters, and our sympathies are instantly recaptured). Cromwell also engages in unguarded conversations with the dead: Thomas More, whose downfall Cromwell arranged, and his old master Cardinal Wolsey. Even Cromwell has to sleep, and in those tiny moments when his eye wanders from the ball, Mantel makes wonderful things happen — as here, after a day of hunting when the king lost his hat:

Before he sleeps [Cromwell] thinks of the king’s hat on a midnight tree, roosting like a bird from paradise.

It’s a notable fact that both Mantel and George R.R. Martin are succeeding in the same season. The parallels are evident, starting from the fact that A Song of Ice and Fire (to use the name of the book series, rather than that of the TV show) was inspired by the Wars of the Roses, which ended by setting Henry VII, father of Cromwell’s master, on the throne. Indeed, Henry VIII could be the model for Robert Baratheon: a big, bluff, buff, jolly baby, who loves everyone and everything right up until his desires are thwarted, at which point he shoves them aside. Both authors feed our need to feel like we’re on the inside, like we’re seeing into the halls of power, seeing the muck underneath the pretty exterior. It’s a measure of how alienated we are from our own centers of power, and of how lied to we feel, that we need these particular fictions, that badly, right now.

(Mantel even inadvertently offers Martin a viable future book title: “What happens after this,” Cromwell thinks, “will be no more than a dead parade with banners, a contest of corpses.” A Contest of Corpses — it has a nice ring to it.)

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Unlike A Song of Ice and Fire, Bring Up the Bodies isn’t fantasy — but it is a fantasy, with solid genre-fiction bones underneath its wonderfully written, magnificently imagined flesh. Cromwell bears a distant but distinct family resemblance to that loved and loathed figure from fan fiction, the Mary Sue (or if you like, for guys, the Marty Stew): repellent though he is, underneath it all Cromwell is the person everyone likes to believe they really are. He’s a self-made man, who came up from nothing by dint of his own hard labor. Even though every man’s hand is against him, and the rules are skewed in everybody else’s favor, he prevails again and again. He does bad things, true — but only because the world has left him no other choice. Everyone around him is blind, to each other and to their own emotions, and only Cromwell sees the truth. Nothing is hidden from him — he can see into everything and everyone around him. He’s got X-ray vision: he’s like a superhero that way.

Or, for that matter, he’s like a novelist.