Wednesday, May 2, 2012

This is what matters, right?

James Wood, recommending Hilary Mantel's novels about Thomas Cromwell:

When a historical fact is central to a novelistic detail, Mantel uses it in a way so novelistically intelligent that the historical fact seems to have been secretly transposed into a fictional one:

This season young men carry their effects in soft pale leather bags, in imitation of the agents for the Fugger bank, who travel all over Europe and set the fashion. The bags are heart-shaped and so to him it always looks as if they are going wooing, but they swear they are not. Nephew Richard Cromwell sits down and gives the bags a sardonic glance.

Do you know if Mantel has manufactured or borrowed from the record this information about the fashionable Fugger bag? In some sense, it doesn’t matter, because the writer has made a third category of the reality, the plausibly hypothetical. It’s what Aristotle claimed was the difference between the historian and the poet: the former describes what happened, and the latter what might happen.

If you want to know what novelistic intelligence is, you might compare a page or two of Hilary Mantel’s work with worthy historical fiction by contemporary writers such as Peter Ackroyd or Susan Sontag. They are intelligent, but they are not novelistically intelligent. They copy the motions but rarely inhabit the movement of vitality. Mantel knows what to select, how to make her scenes vivid, how to kindle her characters. She seems almost incapable of abstraction or fraudulence; she instinctively grabs for the reachably real. Her two most recent novels concern famous historical events—Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon, his marriage to Anne Boleyn, her execution at the King’s orders, the English split from the Roman Church and the authority of the Pope—but they make the stories fragile again, with everything at suspenseful risk.

In short, this novelist has the maddeningly unteachable gift of being interesting.


David Chute said...

Do you agree?

Tulkinghorn said...

With his estimation of "Wolf Hall"? You bet. (Although I think you need to be James Wood to find it an especially easy read.)

With his notion of 'vitality' as the basis of novelistic intelligence? As described, it's pretty convincing. I especially like his description of what 'vital' is NOT: It is not abstract or fraudulent.

Two of my own touchstones of fiction (repeated to the point of inducing glassy-eyed tedium) -- Nabokov's phrase "the precision of art and the passion of science" and Amis's habit of writing "No he didn't.." in the margins of unconvincing novels -- are directly implicated here.