Hilary Mantel and 'Wolf Hall'
This has been my summer of reading Hilary Mantel. I have long loved her writing without thoroughly appreciating the extent of her oeuvre (ie that she got started before I did). A favourite among all novels till now has been her Beyond Black. Showbiz mediums are a staple of British culture even though English Literature might tend to deride such beings. The psychic in Beyond Black, and her brittle sidekick, are wondrously real creations.
Her essays in the London Review of Books are a staple of my life-writing teaching. If you want to learn to write, any Hilary Mantel page has loads to feed you. I like, for example, to show how narrative drive is maintained by varying the openings of sentences from the basic subject + word + object structure, and nobody illustrates this better. I marvel at the wit and precision with which she introduces characters. An example? Ok - here's Anne Boleyn in Wolf Hall. 'When he is admitted she is pacing, hands clasped, and she looks small and tense, as if someone has knitted her and drawn the stitches too tight.' It's a perfect image, and the idea of someone knitting a queen - delicious.
My summer reading started with The Place of Greater Safety, a monumental novel of the French Revolution that saw me through two train rides the length of France and a couple of weeks' writing retreat. This was her first written novel, quite brazenly bold.
My reading's been spurred through Hilary Mantel coming to be a guest at the Philip Larkin Centre here in Hull on December 9th, the crowning of my first events programme. She was my first 'pick', the writer who seems the best that I can present to any audience. The aim is for writers to be 'in conversation' about writing and their career rather than simply pitching their latest book, though looking at the publishers' lists her latest,Wolf Hall, was my best guess at a Booker winner. (For a model short essay, try Hilary Mantel's account of being Booker shortlisted.)
I finished Wolf Hall last night. It is a truly vital recreation of a Tudor world, one you step into and live yourself. Her characters shift, enemies are to be both vilified and admired, heroes to be marvelled at and damned, but Thomas Cromwell sails through triumph and disaster with as much gusto as anyone in fiction. Mantel's dialogue is so fine she's often been tempted in the past to switch novels into playscript mode for a while. None of that here - much is still told through story, but this mammoth novel is under thorough and complete control.
Sometimes the Booker goes to a novel that is an early foothill in a writer's career, even if it is the height. Wolf Hall is a mighty summit. The announcement is tomorrow. Let it win!
Later ... and it DID win! Hooray!
Here's a delightful video of Hilary Mantel reading from, and discussing, Wolf Hall. A taster for anyone caring to come along to Hull University to engage in our Philip Larkin Centre conversation on December 9th!