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A French revolution bloody rare

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About six weeks ago, while sitting in the National Theater's production of Danton's Death, I realized that I needed to read a book about the French Revolution.

That book was A Place of Greater Safety, by Hilary Mantel.  I bought it in the National Theater's gift shop, which I thought was a fair recommendation of its relevance to the theater's repertoire.  The recommendation was well taken: as an overview of the French Revolution, the book was great.  It has fabulous dialogue and sexy characters.  As a novel, however, I'm not sure it holds together.

In fairness, one of the problems is the French Revolution itself.  It went on for way too long.  After its eruption in 1789, it wasn't decisively finished until 1799, when Napoleon asserted himself.  This length of time is exorbitant excess.  Revolutions, to take a page from Gilbert & Sullivan, should be a "short, sharp shock"; even before the Internet, a decade was much too long for a revolution (just ask the Chinese about the Cultural Revolution).  

But another problem is that Hilary Mantel wanted to cover it all - or, at least, all the fun bits.  Her book ends where Georg Büchner finished Danton's Death (that is, obviously enough, with Danton's guillotining); but, whereas Büchner begins his play in 1794, just before Danton's arrest, Mantel begins her book a good deal earlier - with Danton's (and Camille Desmoulin's; and Maximilien Robespierre's) birth(s).

The material is simply too vast.  Mantel sprints through it, giving us only a sketch of everything important.  In place of plot, she has historical events.  In place of character development, she gives her characters superb dialogue and characteristic gestures. 

To break up the grind, Mantel occasionally slips out of third-person omniscient to allow one of the characters to take the helm.  Presumably for similar reasons, Mantel sometimes inserts dialogue in script format.  A theater bill for a play about the French Revolution is reproduced on page 242.  A variety show about the French Revolution, A Place of Safety might be; a novel, it might not be.  (The New York Times book review never printed a truer sentence than when it concluded, "we are left to wonder whether more novel and less history might not better suit [Mantel's] unmistakable talent.")

Mantel would have done well to have followed Büchner's example and culled the French Revolution down to a few months worthy of her focus.  A five novel series about the French Revolution, each book devoted to critical events in the years she covers (and a stand-alone novel in its own right), might have been an appropriate vehicle for her ambition.  A Place of Greater Safety falls short of achieving it.

On the other hand, A Place of Greater Safety is Mantel's first novel.  And when debut authors pen flawed and insanely ambitious first novels, all I can say is, "Well done."
(Image of Elliot Levey and Toby Stephens in the National Theater's production of Danton's Death from The Guardian)


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Wandering through the Tate Modern a little over a month ago, I came across Max Beckmann's painting, "Prunier."  It arrested me because I had a moment of total recognition: "I've felt that way," I thought.

I'm sure I have felt like the people depicted.  I've participated in some fairly shameful decadent consumption.  But my moment of identification wasn't with the "Gobblers," as Beckmann apparently referred to the piece in his diary.  It was with Beckmann himself.

Revulsion at the undisciplined intake of food is a familiar response for me.  Whether Beckmann, like me, was on a first-name basis with such revulsion, I have no idea, but looking at "Prunier," I felt that I - like Beckmann - had had the same artistic response: transforming my horrified disgust into art.  I felt actually that I'd written the same scene that he'd painted. 

Here it is, a passage from my first novel, Portnoy's Daughter, during which two characters converse over a wedding banquet:

A man flops down in the chair next to me, picks up his fork and knife and interrupts my thoughts: "Not eating?"

Lifting my head out of my hands and turning to him, I am astonished to see the Don Juan of the wine cellar.  He freezes, fork mid-way to mouth, chilled abalone in shrimp aspic with lemon-caper aioli and Chanel No. 5 dangling in mid-air like jello.  Then, recovering his equilibrium, he locks eyes with me, uncurls his tongue and licks the abalone, abusing the helpless mollusk until the aspic dissolves and runs down his chin.

I take in his little spectacle coolly, and then say:  "Mr. Fist, I presume?"

He sucks the mollusk into his mouth and chews with his mouth open, smirking with self-satisfaction. 
. . . .
[He p]our[s] himself a glass of wine from the carafe on the table. . . . "May I?" he asks, gesturing at my glass.

"No," I say, covering the glass with my hand and looking at him.

"A woman who values her sobriety won't easily find a man," he quips, draining his glass and pouring himself another.

"Hardly.  The wine is cheap."

"Agreed," he says, after gargling with a mouthful and spitting it onto the ground behind me. 
The parallel between "Prunier" and the foregoing passage of Portnoy's Daughter made me reflective (and possibly a little combative).  In what I don't think is a terribly insightful display caption, the Tate Modern writes of "Prunier":

Beckmann suffered from heart trouble shortly after beginning the painting, so that the contrast between his daily, wartime realities and the sensual pleasure conjured up in the painting may suggest a meditation on mortality.
I don't have any particular insight into Beckmann, but because I feel such strong identification with the painting the Tate Modern's speculative caption strikes me as unlikely.  Excess, not mortality, seems to be under examination, and especially how excess signals decline and tends to violence.  The Tate Modern seemed much more on point when it referred to the "brutality" of the consumption being depicted.

Depiction may be an attempt at control - getting such excess on the canvas, or the page, is an enclosed space under the artist's command.  It may also be a habit: I have a hard time not making characters who are eating repellent.  (So much of accurate description of the mechanics of eating seems to invite unsavory characterization.) 

And it's also no doubt an attempt at understanding and empathy.  The tendency to excess is complicated.  The visceral impulse to gorge is often accompanied by a cerebral stupidity, apathy or arrogance about the consequences of taking in so much of the world; while the revulsion from such behavior often coexists with such impulses and mind-sets.  (Nor does preferring either the gorging, or the revulsion, have predictable results.  As Hilary Mantel made clear in A Place of Greater Safety, Danton was a revolting sensualist libertine, but refined Robespierre had the greater appetite for blood during the Reign of Terror.) 

By the time Beckmann's painting released me to continue my meandering through the collection, I'd come to recognize this tangle of impulses and judgments, additionally, as one of the enduring topics of art.  

(Image of Max Beckmann's "Prunier" from the Tate Collection)

Who loves armed missionaries?

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Nothing in the reviews has made me want to read Tony Blair's memoir, A Journey: My Political Life.  Michiko Kakutani's observation that A Journey "sheds little light" on Blair's core motivations - especially as they relate to involving Britain in America's war in Iraq - finds echoes in other reviews.  Like everyone I know, I'm busy enough that I don't want to spend time on un-illuminating books.

I can't help wondering, though, whether Blair's shallowness is a function of his own reading material.  Kakutani quotes Blair as saying that, by an April 2002 meeting with George W. Bush, Blair

had resolved in [his] own mind that removing Saddam would do the world, and most particularly the Iraqi people, a service.
At the time I read that remark, I was also reading Hilary Mantel's, A Place of Greater Safety, and I felt an uncomfortable frisson of recognition.  An ambitious account of the French Revolution from the time before its inception through the deaths of Georges Jacques Danton and Camille Desmoulins, A Place of Greater Safety details the political conflict preceding France's declaration of war on Austria in 1792.  The pro-war faction was named the Brissotins (for their spokesperson, Jacques-Pierre Brissot); the anti-war side was a sub-set of the Jacobins called the Montagnards, who included Danton and Maximilien Robespierre. 

Here's Hilary Mantel's version of a conversation between Danton and Robespierre regarding the Brissotin war plans:

"They talk," [Danton] said, "of a crusade to bring liberty to Europe.  Of how it's our duty to spread the gospel of fraternity."
"Spread the gospel?  Well, ask yourself - who loves armed missionaries?"
"Who indeed?"
"They speak as if they had the interests of the people at heart, but the end of it will be military dictatorship."
(p. 398.)

Hilary Mantel isn't responsible for the armed forces of the UK, but maybe she should be.  She, at least, has been reading (and writing) her history. 

If Blair had been doing the same, perhaps he wouldn't have supported the American folly in Iraq; or perhaps he would have: but either way he'd be much less likely to justify it as "a service."  Indeed, he'd likely have seen "a service" in describing how he learned from experience that no one loves armed missionaries.

But that service is as sadly lacking as the one Blair claimed to be providing the Iraqi people.
(Image of Jacques-Pierre Brissot from Wikipedia; image of Tony Blair from BBC)
Thomas_Cromwell.pngThe organization of information is a particular passion of mine.  How a society organizes its information determines its culture, its values and the means by which it exercises power.  

For example, as Walter J. Ong explains in his brilliant contribution to human thought, Orality & Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, oral cultures must organize their information so that the important bits are retained and readily accessed in memory (p. 32-77).  Hence, oral cultures emphasize proverbs (as a distillation of wisdom), rhymed and rhythmic verse (easier to remember), and vivid, gory rhetoric that glorifies violence (makes a strong impression on the listener).  The results for culture, values and the exercise of power?  Epic poetry; devaluing critical thinking (too destabilizing to communal wisdom); superstition (a result of a critical thinking vacuum); and non-rational, superstition-, brute force- and violence-heavy means of exercising power.

So I was intrigued to see Joan Acocella explain, in her review of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall in The New Yorker, that the reign of Henry VIII was a period of radical reorganization of information in England.  Citing the historian G.R. Elton, Acocella writes that, under Thomas Cromwell (the protagonist of Wolf Hall), "English political policy, formerly at the whim of the nobles, became the work of specialized bureaucracies. England thereby progressed from the Middle Ages into the modern period."

The need for these bureaucracies arose, of course, because of the proliferation of information.  The greater the quantity of information that needs to be organized, the less likely that an individual mind can manage it with proverbs and epic poems (although both get people pretty far, pace Homer).  

And, sure enough, both these points - the limits of memory, and the proliferation of information - are emphasized in leit motifs in Wolf Hall.  In a sub-sub-plot, Thomas Cromwell tries to obtain a memory device built by Guido Camillo.  The thingamajig is a cabinet with drawers inside of drawers, described as

a theatre on the ancient Vitruvian plan.  But it is not to put on plays. . . . The owner of the theatre . . . stand[s] in the centre of it, and look[s] up.  Around you there is arrayed a system of human knowledge.  Like a library, but as if - can you imagine a library in which each book contains another book, and a smaller book inside that?
(p. 472.)  In a foreshadowing of the fate to befall prodigious memory in a literate future, Cromwell never obtains the device.  (Indeed, Camillo never finishes building it.)

Mantel also makes sly and amusing references to the information "avalanche" burying her sixteenth century characters:

[King Henry VIII] slips into his mouth an aniseed comfit, and snaps down on it.  "Already there are too many books in the world.  There are more every day.  One man cannot hope to read them all."
(p. 472)

When the last treason act was made, no one could circulate their words in a printed book or bill, because printed books were not thought of.  [Thomas Cromwell] feels a moment of jealousy towards the dead, to those who served kings in slower times than these; nowadays the products of some bought or poisoned brain can be disseminated through Europe in a month.
(p. 492)  In a month!?  Cromwell, pity us the Internet!

Historical periods of reorganization of information are particularly rich, since they invariably involve upheavals of culture and power as well.  In such periods, opportunity (as much as ruin) abounds.  Out of the churn, the long shot can win; the lowborn son-of-a-blacksmith can become the adviser to a King and second-most-important in the nation.  

While Cromwell has long been paired with the adjective "Machiavellian," Mantel suggests that his patron saint may not be Niccolo, but Melvil Dewey.  Mantel makes a persuasive case that Cromwell's greatest asset was not his cunning, propensity to manipulate others or hunger for power, but his awareness and understanding of how information was being reorganized and the ramifications of the new order - especially the increasing importance of the financial industry.  Here, for example, is the commoner Cromwell besting the noble Earl of Northumberland in a battle of wills over Anne Boleyn:

How can [Cromwell] explain to [Harry Percy, Earl of Northumberland]?  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 Lisbon, 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.
(p. 378).  Whether Mantel is correct, historically, about Cromwell's gift, the lesson for us is clear.  We are currently living through a historic moment during which information is being radically reorganized.  Digitization of traditionally printed materials, along with decreases in the consumption of printed materials (which face massive competition from television, movies, Internet, and video games), are only two of the monumental shifts in information organization that are impacting our era.  Awareness and understanding of these changes are our keys to leveraging them for profit (personal, political, financial or otherwise).  Short of this consciousness, we'll have to fall back on being Machiavellian to succeed.

(Portrait of Thomas Cromwell, after Hans Holbein the Younger, from The Daily Mail)
Henry_VIII_and_Ann_Bolyn.jpgWhen I admitted in a prior blog post that I felt a teeny-bit let down at the end of Wolf Hall because of the novel's dialogue, I was not telling - I must confess - the whole story.  In fact, the plotting also didn't satisfy, but I wanted to address that issue in a separate post because my plot-wise complaints are not directed at Hilary Mantel.

They are directed at history.

History - like individual lives - doesn't unfold in a neat, plot-ready chunks that move from initial provocation, to thickening, to climax, to smug resolution.  While the role of the historical novelist is to shape history, so that the reader can partake in some semblance of the traditional joys of a plotted tale, history (and I feel confident that no one has made this observation before) isn't silly putty: you can't stretch it around however you like.  If the escapades of Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII don't fit neatly into the traditional three act structure of Western plots, then your historical novel isn't going to have a traditional three act plot.

Hilary Mantel surely excelled herself with her plotting of material.  Stephen Greenblatt, writing in The New York Review of Books, points out that the events she covers, including her choice of ending Wolf Hall in the wake of Thomas More's execution, track Shakespeare's treatment of the same topic.  Mantel has probably received shabbier compliments.

But to my taste - and I admit, I harbor a bias in favor of strong plotting - Wolf Hall's plot didn't build enough momentum to carry me through the 650 pages.  

One problem was that it was weighed down by numerous sub-plots that will presumably be fleshed out in Mantel's upcoming sequel - chief among them being the fates of Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who had a secret wife and daughter.  

Another drawback was that Wolf Hall was weighed down by numerous sub-plots that were resolved within the text, but didn't seem to advance the overall plot.  The in-depth treatment of the Holy Maid, for example, eats up twenty pages, but what do we get?  Additional insight into the character of Thomas Cromwell; a foretaste of the trial awaiting Thomas More; an inkling of what the Inquisition in England looked like; a sense of the insecurity Henry VIII felt about his legitimacy; but how do any of these points advance the plot?  Four hundred and eighty-four pages into the book, I was expecting the plot to be tightening, not loosening its belt and expanding.

But perhaps my expectations are unwarranted.  My guess is that Hilary Mantel covered the Holy Maid episode because it happened.  Because it's history.  And history (to say nothing of Mantel) doesn't give a damn about my plot expectations.

Reading Wolf Hall gave me a new appreciation for the challenges of writing a historical novel, as well as the realization that I am not - contrary to past (unintended) mis-statements - currently writing a historical novel.  The Celebration Husband, my soon-to-be-completed-in-draft-form fourth novel, which is set in East Africa during WWI, is a novel that takes place in the past; it's not a historical novel.  The events described didn't actually happen.  

For the record, the events described in The Celebration Husband conform to a traditional Western plot.  I (not surprisingly) do give a damn about my plot expectations, and the actual historical facts were too scattershot to stick with.  This is why I'm a fiction author: I like silly putty.

(Image of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn from The Mirror)    

With apologies to Hilary Mantel

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Hilary_Mantel.jpgRaising criticisms, however loving or justified, about monumental achievements is embarrassing.  About six months ago, for example, I asked a friend what she thought of Hilary Mantel's novel, Wolf Hall.  I'd just bought the book, but I hadn't yet read it.  "It's me," said my friend, feeling apparently that she had to apologize for not raving passionately about it.  "I'm Tudor-ed out."

Having just finished the novel (no, it didn't take me six months to read; it took me six months to get around to reading it), I feel - like my friend - a teeny bit let down.  And like my friend, I feel like I have to apologize.  Wolf Hall is stunning; it dominated my life for the 48 hours it took me to read it.  The novel every bit earns the adjective "consuming."  Hilary Mantel's writing is so readable, and her organization of this massive tale so masterful, that any non-laudatory comment about Wolf Hall seems ungrateful.  But - call me ungrateful - I was mildly unsatisfied at its end.  If the problem is me, though, it's not because I'm Tudor-ed out.  Like all proper Americans, I lack formal education in history.

One reason for the let-down is undoubtedly the build up.  Wolf Hall won the Booker Prize in 2009.  In The New York Times Book Review, Christopher Benfey calls it "dazzling," while Janet Maslin describes the "book's main characters . . . [as] scorchingly well rendered."  Stephen Greenblatt, writing in The New York Review of Books, sums up Wolf Hall as "a startling achievement, a brilliant historical novel."

But my sense of let-down wasn't merely a function of expectations raised to unfairly vertiginous heights.  Wolf Hall let me down in respect of one reasonable expectation that Stephen Greenblatt elucidates in his NYRB review:

The historical novel . . . . offers the dream of full access, access to what went on behind closed doors, off the record, in private, when no one was listening or recording.  The great realizations of this dream . . . provide a powerful hallucination of presence, the vivid sensation of lived life.  They set the dead in motion and make them speak.
"Historical novels," Greenblatt adds, "generate a sense in the reader best summed up by exclamations like 'Yes, this is the way it must have been.'"

My sense of let-down with Wolf Hall goes exactly to Greenblatt's point: I kept thinking, It couldn't have been this way.

Yes, yes, I have already admitted that I have no formal history education.  How the hell would I know what it must have been like?  A valid objection, I agree.  But the reason I kept getting jolted out of my suspension of disbelief was the dialogue.  Without exception, the dialogue was relentlessly witty.  Too often, dialogue seemed to be either a laugh, a set-up to a laugh, or a set-up to a set-up.  For example, here is Thomas Cromwell speaking to his boss, Cardinal Wolsey:

The servants efface themselves, melting away towards the door.  "What else would you like?" the cardinal says.
"The sun to come out?"
"So late?  You tax my powers."
"Dawn would do."
The cardinal inclines his head to the servants.  "I shall see to this request myself," he says gravely; and gravely they murmur, and withdraw.
(p. 19.)  Here, in another example, is Cromwell speaking with his wife, Liz:

"You're sweeter to look at than the cardinal," he says.
"That's the smallest compliment a woman ever received."
"And I've been working on it all the way from Yorkshire."
(p. 35.)  The only people who so consistently talk that way are in sit-coms.  And even I know that they didn't have sit-coms in the court of Henry VIII.

And, at the risk of appearing really ungrateful, let me elaborate on my complaint by saying, the wit was clearly that of Hilary Mantel; hers is an admirable wit - one that entertains and enchants - but I often felt that the characters were deprived of individual voices.  Is that his sister Kat, his wife Anne or his sister-in-law Johane quipping?  Is that his nephew Richard, his clerk Rafe or his servant Christopher - or for that matter Kat, Anne or Johane - wise-cracking?  To my ear, they all possess the same interchangeable humor.  For instance:

"You'll make the magistrates' bench for sure . . . with your close study of the difference between a corpse and my brother."  (Kat)

"Heaven direct me: boy or hedgehog?" (Liz)
The dialogue is, in fact, tremendously fun to read, and the moments were many when I was smiling or even laughing out loud.  ("Tweet tweet," to those of you who have read the book, left me guffawing.)  

Nonetheless, just as historical characters depicted in movies are always better looking than they'd been in life, the dialogue in Wolf Hall didn't strike me as 16th century speech "the way it must have been.'"  Hilary Mantel may have "set the dead in motion and ma[d]e them speak," but she made them speak like the hippest, sexiest, funniest, most modern, Platonic ideal versions of themselves.

And for that, I'm just a little bit sorry.

(Image of Hilary Mantel from The New York Times)

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This page is an archive of recent entries in the Mantel, Hilary category.

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