Monday, November 24, 2014

Wolf Hall

Hilary Mantel's fictional take on the life of Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall, is a novel unlike any other I have ever read. It is told in a limited third person, and intersperses the normal progression of events in the timeline with jumps backwards and forwards, sometimes Cromwell's memories resonating with a current scene, sometimes... no clear connection, just a jump in time. Certain phrases or emotions or thoughts echo across the book, in a way which is eerie and also entrancing. And an incredible show of authorial finesse and expertise. I stand in awe of Mantel, and I am in the queue to borrow her other works from the library.

Wolf Hall perfectly captures the feeling of living life in the first person. This is difficult to explain, but let's take it as granted that I, and probably also you the reader, are living a life in the first person, by which I mean that your viewpoint is limited to your actual viewpoint, you only hear what your body's ears can hear, you only see what your body's eyes can see, you only imagine what your brain can imagine, you only go where your body goes. Your experience of life is intimately personal, and intimately first-personal. I am always "I" to myself.

Mantel's limited third-person is a precisely wielded scalpel which removes all of the extraneous details cluttering up usual novels --- the descriptions of scenery, or clothes, or weather. What is left is very much like a diary, personal notes meant only for the first-person: simply the most important details. And often Cromwell's lines and actions are left out, undescribed (because of course the first-person experience has no need to describe its owns actions), and so only his interlocutors speak. Only they move, only they react, only they have clothes and emotions. This makes Cromwell come across as cold and reserved, although sometimes his interlocutors' speech makes it clear he has told a joke, or made a threatening gesture, or moved his face in some way that conveyed information. But we the readers must piece this together, we are not told.

This perfectly captures the feeling of being a first-person mover and shaker in a story --- simply making decisions, saying words, doing things that go unremarked... and somehow it is always surprising to hear how others have assembled them into the description of a character. Cromwell is occasionally described back to himself, and the likeness is always surprising and never the same. To some people he appears cruel, to others, kind; to some people he appears haughty and powerful, to others humble, lovable, human. His attributes run the full gamut of descriptors, and the book somehow manages to sketch his character in absences, by delineating his outlines and the reactions he invokes. It's an incredible piece of writing.

As a side note, I realize that this is a fictionalized account of history. At some points it is clear that Mantel's Cromwell is recast in a particularly friendly light, given modern politics. He actively works against violence and abuse; he treats women as equals of men; he opposes serfdom and values people for their intelligence and merit, not their pedigrees. He is unerringly loyal and clever. All these things make him a hero figure, make me love him even more than I did for his beautiful portrayal by James Frain in The Tudors. But they're probably not historically accurate. But still, I love this version of Thomas Cromwell.

This post's theme word is yob, "a rude, rowdy youth." Mantel's Cromwell grows from a yob to the most powerful politician in England.

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