Monday, December 1, 2014

Bring Up the Bodies

Hilary Mantel's sequel to the incredible Wolf Hall is called Bring up the Bodies, and it continues the terse and sparse storytelling around Henry VIII's dissolving marriages (the second one, this time). The novel continues to be told in a non-chronological, extremely limited third person, and almost every detail of characterization and tone must be interpolated by the reader, or understood from the reactions of other characters in each scene.

I loved this book.

I love Thomas Cromwell (Mantel's version) more than ever, but of course the portrayal is shamelessly Cromwell-positive: he is even-handed, polite, deferential to women, pro-education (for all!) and anti-magical thinking. He understands systems of finance and government, and understands systems of personal interaction with an incredible finesse, especially given how quiet and withdrawn he is; it is surprising to hear other characters shout at him about his overbearing nature, his ceaseless talking, since the world --- as understood from inside his head --- doesn't really contain him at all; he is a silent blank at the center of the book, and the incredible balancing act of spinning plates and juggling fire and turning lead to gold are taking place around a quiet eye of the storm, an absence which has more weighty presence than the king himself.

I recommend this book, though I enjoyed Wolf Hall more and you should (obviously) start there. I also recommend the audiobook versions, as I read this book (and Wolf Hall) several times each, then also listened to them. Simon Slater's narration of Wolf Hall is particularly effective; he does the accents, he does subtle intonations, he adds a sarcastic but mild depth to the book which really enhances it. (Although, having re-listened and re-read several times, I can say that there are 2 scenes where he mixes up which voice goes with which speaker; this is understandable, since the dialog happens without attribution, and everyone is "him" anyway.) Simon Vance's Bring Up the Bodies is also very good, although his version of Cromwell's inner monologue is a bit more spiteful in tone. Still, both are good.

This book highlights some interesting features of a monarchy; forgive me if, having grown up with no monarch, these are obvious. Firstly, it seems astonishing that we still have monarchs today, and that their personal connections and personalities and day-to-day comportment still influence national politics (e.g. "What kind of King will Charles III be?"), since the monarch is no longer directing the entire government out of their own brain. It also seems frankly incredible that any monarch ever ran a country without being supremely literate, but there I think I am only betraying my own hyper-literate upbringing in a world where the written word is widely used and understood. Huzzah for reading and writing, which enabled you to comprehend this sentence!

Thus endeth my sparse and idiosyncratic review of Bring Up the Bodies.

This post's theme word is calumniate (v tr), "to make false statements about someone maliciously." Is it possible to self-calumniate, like self-incriminating?