Friday, February 19, 2010

Wolf Hall

In most circles, it's become unnecessary to recommend Wolf Hall: I even think it's becoming a mainstay of that ninth circle of hell called the 'book group'. Since this little community is fonder of heartier stuff, you may have thought to pass it by, but you shouldn't.....

Christopher Hitchens, when he's not being otherwise provocative, is a splendid book critic, and writes perceptively about Wolf Hall here. (He even, as the village atheist, notes something that I didn't know -- that "hocus pocus" is an irreligious alteration of "hoc est corpus") I love this:

Three portraits by Hans Holbein have for generations dictated the imagery of the epoch. The first shows King Henry VIII in all his swollen arrogance and finery. The second gives us Sir Thomas More, the ascetic scholar who seems willing to lay his life on a matter of principle. The third captures King Henry’s enforcer Sir Thomas Cromwell, a sallow and saturnine fellow calloused by the exercise of worldly power. The genius of Mantel’s prose lies in her reworking of this aesthetic: look again at His Majesty and see if you do not detect something spoiled, effeminate, and insecure. Now scrutinize the face of More and notice the frigid, snobbish fanaticism that holds his dignity in place. As for Cromwell, this may be the visage of a ruthless bureaucrat, but it is the look of a man who has learned the hard way that books must be balanced, accounts settled, and zeal held firmly in check. By the end of the contest, there will be the beginnings of a serious country called England, which can debate temporal and spiritual affairs in its own language and which will vanquish Spain and give birth to Shakespeare and Marlowe and Milton.

On the other hand, if you're the kind of guy who only reads the good stuff, I can offer this from Adam Roberts, which cracked me up: of the most impressive things about Mantel's book is precisely its worldbuilding: the creation of an immersive, believable 16th-century England. This is a core skill of SF and fantasy writers. If Mantel had tossed in a dragon or two, she'd have been a shoo-in for the British Fantasy Award. Now that's an award she could have been proud to win.

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