Analytics

03/01/2016

ted hughes - the real calling [and the stylist's prayer]


A fox creeps into the brake, coped in the darkest of night, its eyes burning cinders.  A brittle vigilance in its movement.  The rale of its breathing, ‘..a sudden sharp hot stink of fox.’  It was just such a visionary glimpse that afforded Ted Hughes an early emblem of poetic inspiration: the poem as quarry, as a dweller of liminal places easily frighted by the acquisitive probings of the human mind, as something that can be snared only with patience and the apt knowledge of folkways.  ‘The Thought-Fox’ as Introit, as process-poem, as living netsuke.  Not quite correct to describe Hughes as a nature poet tout court: rather, the natural world in his poetry as a metonymy for radical otherness, a complex of energies ever-shifting and elusive, to which the human economy is a matter of pure contingency.  An entry-point to a bailiwick of myth, of ancient topographies that pulse beneath the skin of the poems.  Hughes has noted that it was a bid to reject the heresy of Audenesque abstraction that lent edge to poems such as ‘View of a Pig’, the pared-down directness of line and lexis contributing to the unbroken circuit between the observing mind and the thing observed: ‘Too deadly factual’ - unwilling even to impart a grim dignity to the dead creature, it is simply, inarguably itself.  But if resisting a poet’s instinct to conscript subject-matter as metaphor or symbol was to be one of the governing principles of Movement verse, here Hughes grants that the corpse is reborn into poetry, conjured by the precise placement of language into a new, transformed life.  He instances ‘View of a Pig’, ‘The Bull Moses,’ and ‘Hawk Roosting’ as a metamorphic triad key to his later work - a groping-toward the alchemical re-vision: “So I had found a language - only by locating it in its lifeless (or comatose, anaesthetised) obedience.  Nevertheless, it is a language, in this operational spell, that will spring - like the pig - totally to a new kind of life.”  An aesthetic organicism, conferring a vital bio-energy to words on the page; the development of a poetry as a form of meiosis; and the growth of a poet’s mind is of a piece with the frond-like unfurling of language itself.

So possessed by this imagery was Hughes’s creative imagination that he could speak of it in sacramental terms, quite freely and quite without embarrassment.  Of ‘The Thought-Fox’ he said, “The words have made a body for it and given it somewhere to walk.”  And the red thread of this idea recurs in Hughes’s discussions of his poetry: that shadowy apprehensions - spirit-glyphs, as yet disembodied - often at the very rim of awareness are transubstantiated into language by a controlled violence.  He views a poem in its creaturely aspect.  It is an articulated being of its own, a soft machine of musculature, blood and breath.  (Hughes was fond of comparing the business of composing a poem to fishing.)  Composing a poem is setting lures, springes to catch woodcocks.  Hughes later finessed the creation of those early animal poems into mythic terms; but this was Hughes the systematizer at work, not the raw instinctualist.  It was a stroke contra the anaemic cosmopolitanism of his contemporaries, perhaps.  The gentility principle, of A Alvarez’s formulation.



The Uncrowned of the Rainworld

While, to all appearances naturalistic, Hughes’s is nonetheless a poetry of crisis, an orchestrated psychic response to surviving in the ‘after-glow of collapsed religion’, after a primal violation that could perhaps provisionally be given precise historical coordinates, yet which, in the Hughesian cosmogony, arrived as a fated holocaust.  T.S. Eliot wrote school-masterishly of the ‘dissociation of sensibility’, but Hughes worked this abstract theory into a full-blooded ontology, a master-drama in which we are all caught up, and the resolution of which can only be effected by the poet, the Suffering Servant attending to all the bleak impulses that beset us in the crisis-moment.  Hughes’s reading of Eliot divined the elder poet as one early granted a glimpse of the ‘desacralized world’, who falteringly approached the means of remedy.  (In Eliot’s case his gradual acceptance of Anglo-Catholic redemption theology.)  Hughes engages with Shakespeare at a similar pitch - but on a grander scale.  He saw the suppression of Goddess-worship during the ascendancy of the European Reformation as the critical conflict: a benign, bloodwarm mariolatry, and, beneath this deeper still, the feminine principle, das ewig weibliche, put down by the Puritan denial of the life-force, a catastrophic rout to which Shakespeare bore witness.  Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being is epic in scope, obsessive in its setting-forth of the ‘Mythic Equation’, Hughes in a kind of sacred vehemence kicking against the pricks of the academy.  Read it as a prose-poem - in terms of its monomaniac energy it bears comparison to Lawrence’s book on Hardy, and says as much of Hughes’s preoccupations as Study of Thomas Hardy of Lawrence’s, each detonating the plush pieties of academic discourse, and each gesturing toward a critical philosophy that sprang from their inmost selves.  “[This] fable of his, this very private assembly of [Shakespeare’s] deepest obsessions, reflected perfectly the prevailing psychic conflict of his times in England, the conflict which exploded, eventually, into the Civil War.”

Hughes returns compulsively to the blasted heath of this spiritual cataclysm, a pocked and muddied landscape lit by balefires.  His work is an expeditionary venture, each poem, each collection a sortie into this; attempts to find a language and a style adequate to it.  His readings in anthropology offered one image-system.  Ritual dismemberment of the tribal hero, the better to be reconstituted in a new life.  The Crow poems essay a kind of proto-myth.  As in a Jan Svankmajer animation, orts and gobbets of pulverised meat - trope and syllable, the buckled truss of syntax - stir and twitch on the butcher’s block, self-aware and seeking their like.  They present as urgings toward wholeness after unimaginable personal trauma, a hectic improvisatore voiced as its own Nachtmusik: Crow a ragged, goggle-eyed avatar, apparently deathless, with a demented gaiety that baffles God and who, by a happenstance mysterious even to himself, is thrown into the toho-bohu of Creation.   The Crow suite is composed of riddles and hymns, an anti-liturgical charivari that at once lies blackened on the page and skitters and capers in flickering stop-motion.  Fragmentary and disjunct, it stands as Hughes’s uttermost bid to set bounds on personal tragedy, to cauterise the wound.

It arose from a faith that pain could be countered and given intelligible shape by the exercise of the poetic will.  Hughes was writing when the American ‘confessional’ poets were coming to the fore: the example of Robert Lowell and John Berryman, and, more complicatedly, Sylvia Plath was one that set a premium on the poet’s unregulated candour.  Lowell could write of his manias with the assurance that the reader would understand that such writing was sanctioned by artistic necessity.  (Although his friend Elizabeth Bishop took issue with his adaptation of private correspondence into lyric verse.)  Naked intimacy was taken to be the guarantee of authenticity.  The egotistical sublime dwindled, under the hands of the luminaries of this generation of American poets (perhaps at the prompting to an Emersonian self-reliance), to a species of autobiographical asset-stripping.  Their every experience, no matter how private or embarrassing, was funnelled into their poetry.  (The extraordinary reticence of Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry in stark contrast - she knew the acutest pain, but it only by glimpses appears in her work - by indirection she finds direction out.)  Hughes’s early work fixes its gaze on the phenomenal world; but is collaterally an account of the forging of a style.  Words with material density and a rhetorical flexing to match the elemental hurly-burly of the subject matter.  The personal ‘I’ appears rarely.  Much of it feels like a chastening of language, physically breaking it in: an assertion of mastery.  The line is hard and consonantal, deep-chested mouthings, as if Hughes has sought to return to the linguistic heart’s-root of futhorc, reclaiming its energies.  In Hughes’s mythic economy Shakespeare’s Ariel imprisoned in the cleft oak was a charged symbol of the unrealised poetic self.  As the ‘confessional’ poets with a manic garrulity evacuated their private cruelties and flaws and errancies onto the page, for Hughes - who distinguished the mythic from the realist poet quite sharply - manumission for the self was punishing work, the outcome of which would be always undecided until - triumphantly - it came.  Not the merest self-expression: but a bloody parturition, effected through the use of the most conductive language.

The projected Crow sequence stalled.  Hughes entered a fallow period, engaging in by-work and collaborations, consolidating his interest in the carnivalesque of myth and the occult.  Taking on the curatorship of Sylvia Plath’s poetry and journals made a great claim on his energy at this time.  Casting an eye over the work assembled in Hughes’s Collected Poems, you unmistakably see the gradual thinning of form, with the clotted heft of the stanzas of his early work loosening, deliquescing into something sparer.  The Hopkinsian boar-bristle and toughened pelt of the poems in Lupercal and Wodwo has given place to a stringier, almost pictographic miniaturism.  The verse is phrasal, yet undiscursive.  The words themselves darkly intimate worlds of implication beyond their spare sketchings.  Hughes’s lyric voice utters itself simply, ascetically in this new mode.  Yet there are contending forces at work.  Over against this denuded sparsity is the rough music of the style of Gaudete: an unclassifiable narrative poem, its linguistic brilliance giving colour and gnarled zest to a Totentanz of decayed Anglicanism and orgiastic sex.  And yet the epilogue to this work is a series of opaque gemlike lyrics: koans scratched on a pane of glass.  Jonathan Bate argues in his recent biography of Hughes that the trajectory of his poetry is towards personal statement, achingly circumspect but urgent - an unending negotiation between the impulse towards privacy and the need for self-description.  Hughes arrived at the fittest medium for this only with the publication of Birthday Letters, Bate goes on to suggest.  Hughes would release poems over time without drawing attention to their significance, like sky lanterns punctually set aloft.  (A number of pieces from Birthday Letters and Capriccios found their way into the New Selected Poems of 1997; no one noticed.)  The poems of Remains of Elmet span the divide, to some degree, between the symbolic and the personal.  A cold pastoral evoking the lost history of a community, they are veined with glims of personal history, as in ‘Heptonstall Cemetery’:  “And Thomas and Walter and Edith/Are living feathers//Esther and Sylvia/Living feathers//Where all the horizons lift wings/A family of dark swans//And go beating low through storm-silver/Toward the Atlantic.”  Extinct religion, the malignancy of northern weather, irruptions of the cosmic into the quotidian.  Remains of Elmet assonates an Ordnance Survey of local myth, the traces-in-outline of millenarian apocalypticism and a kind of flat-capped family romance.  Bate is probably correct in asserting that Hughes could only touch on the most painful things glancingly, with a stealthy obliquity that might be lost on any but a reader aware of the facts of biography.  Details that sit within a poem unobtrusively, like tramp signs, meaningful only to initiates.  (Hughes understood the mystical potency of this.)  ‘Football at Slack’ depicts the players as vehicles of a rain-slicked Duende, in a state of blissful defiance against the lowering oppression of the skies.  And it’s evidence of human endurance that Hughes most powerfully seizes on.  “Gradually,” he writes of the Calder Valley in the prose note appended to a later edition, “it dawned on you that you were living among the survivors, in the remains.”



Crankish Souls

Hughes’s literary criticism was divinatory, cousin-german to the obscurest forms of priestcraft: the critic as Talmudist.  Most exceptionally in his study of Shakespeare’s mythic orchestrations; but also in briefer pieces.  ‘The Snake in the Oak’ applies much the same exegetic tools to Coleridge, specifically his three great visionary poems, ‘Kubla Khan’, ‘The Ancient Mariner’ and ‘Christabel’.  Hughes takes it that a poet’s life and work can yield riches of meaning with a coherence that becomes apparent only by interpretative scrutiny of a peculiarly intense kind.  This is the critic not simply has explicator or collator, offering glosses on the texts.  One might conclude that it necessitated the activation of a particular kit of mental implements, and with it, a language sufficiently robust to bear it.  And Hughes’s prose itself bears all the marks of an unyielding obsessiveness; as though he weren’t simply setting forth an argument, patiently and with courteous care, but effecting a physical extraction.  There is a kind of dead-fall gracelessness to the prose, as though the matter in hand were too serious for the distractions of elegance.  (T.S. Eliot’s critical writing has the chrome exactitude of academic philosophy, determinedly unsensuous, the precisianism of a Josiah Royce.)  Hughes’s language urges on us its artisanal solidity, as though to be loose, impressionistic, airborne would be to undercut the hoped-for grandeur of his themes - but it is hospitable too to strange detours, to an intellectual promiscuity that threatens to scuttle it.

‘The Snake in the Oak’ is a 100-page treatise first published in the prose collection Winter Pollen, emerging from Hughes’s oft-stated conviction that a poet’s work springs from a single impulse, that it is itself reducible to a diagrammatic form or a Tinguely-esque theoretical contraption, with movable parts, something whose essential features can be lain bare.  This Hughes undertook in extenso in Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, but rehearsed also in his studies of Plath, Eliot, Emily Dickinson and Coleridge.  Poetry conceived in this light stands as the expression of a psychic struggle, the core agony of which often begins in the poet’s early life in a devastating annunciation of the Calling.  Usually at the prompting of some crisis of self-division, with the poetic vocation as a lengthy triage in which the materials for healing are assembled and tested.  Hughes - in a knight’s move of odd brilliance - connects Coleridge’s rediscovery of prosodic laws put to rout by historical disruption (what he described as a ‘new principle’, but which in fact was the ‘native mode of verse rhythm’ eclipsed for 150 years) to the performance of his own (Coleridge’s) private psychomachia.  Time and again one pauses over the crankishness of Hughes’s arguments.  Near the end of his life, Hughes wrote a letter to the critic John Carey, sent with a Magic Eye picture cut from a magazine: in such ‘riddle pictures’, he explained, “..there is only one hidden image in each, no alternatives, none to be unearthed by ingenuity - simply that complete, single, implanted thing..”  And so with the MRI ideogram of his critical studies of Shakespeare and Coleridge, the mind must make a sharp focal adjustment to ‘see’ the ghosted outline of the unifying theme.  Academics gibbed at the unscholarly, speculative, almost aggressively odd tack adopted by Hughes - as well they might.  Stick to the historical record, and there is little that would substantiate Hughes’s claim that Shakespeare had any acquaintance with, say, Elizabethan Occult Neo-Platonism.  Close reading of a Shakespearean text can truffle evidence of any lunatic theory, the verbal humus is so rich.  By a similar token, it’s perfectly possible to find hints and guesses of some species of inner strife in the work and life of Coleridge.  The Notebooks are an invita Minerva to off-centre psycho-social interpretations of his work.  Coleridge Agonistes, for sure.  Richard Holmes’s two-volume biography amply, soberly tells the tale of Coleridge’s vacillations and flights, the radical lack of will and domestic derelictions.  Hughes makes much of throwaway entries in the Notebooks; yet they’re given a distinctively Hughesian burnish.  The last-ditch recuperation of the buried self.  Poetry as shriving.  As shamanic rite.  Coleridge, too, is riven by the Wound, by the deepest irreconcilables - and Hughes has a diviner’s sense of this in a poet.  Coleridge’s ‘Unleavened Self’ - the prima materia from which his gift comes - and his ‘Christian Self’ - dedicating his life and work to the glory of God: and the pendent drama that ensues.  (Hughes’s interest in and translation of Greek tragic drama may have fed into his later characterisation of his star poets’ inner conflict, as something accessible to critical inquiry, as mappable.)

It’s quite possible to set down this essay, once read, and feel you’re no closer to Coleridge - the heart’s heat of his poetry - than before you started.  Hughes ‘often writes with heavy feet,’ as Michael Hofmann has it, in his otherwise laudatory review of the Collected Poems: “The antithesis of speed.  Weight.  Method.  Force.  Brute or main.  Instruction.  Like someone writing a computer program.”  This strikes me as a just appraisal of Hughes’s prose, too.  A style that contrives to be at once inflamed with monomania’s hunger for exactitude and unaccountably flat-footed.  The charmless refusal to charm of the professional pamphleteer.  Financial exigencies traditionally force the poet into the commission of prose-work, and Hughes often expressed his dislike for the medium - indeed, remarking that his labours on the Shakespeare work hastened his death.  The sheer plod of prose composition, the self-denying ordinance that refuses those intuitive leaps that so enliven poetry, the pregnant ellipses and elisions that, in prose, have to be patiently worked-through, lest the weak sides of an argument be exposed.  (One might adduce Auden’s useful explicatory opposition, in The Sea and the Mirror, between the Prospero the weary dominie and Ariel the sky-hued fetch.)  Hughes allows himself, briefly, as by a kind of inattention, the odd fling of festal colour - as, when he writes of the presence of Norse mythology in ‘Kubla Khan’ as “..an echo-chamber of harmonies, a scoring for contrabasso, or a shifting gloomy fluorescence in a tapestry that was already rich enough..” - but the writing is principally pli selon pli of prose argument, logical connections steadily broken down, without salt or savour.

Jonathan Bates’s biography of Ted Hughes brings to the fore an aspect of the poet’s career that mightn’t otherwise have been given due emphasis.  Over time, Hughes seems to have been beset by a squandermania that saw him engaged in projects that never bore fruit, that fell still-born from the press or were felt, ultimately, to be marred by professional compromise.  Hughes undoubtedly felt himself to have strayed far from the essential purpose of his art.  ‘The Snake in the Oak’ places under consideration the catastrophe of Coleridge’s deviation from his ‘Unleavened Self’, the path whereby the young visionary poet and radical dwindled to ‘a logomanic moralist withering every other leaf and sprout within reach.’  The heft of the Collected Poems hardly suggests an expense of spirit to no end.  But many of his imaginative forays were end-stopped unsatisfactorily.  Bates’s thesis was that, only when Hughes finally acceded to the elegiac mode, gave himself over fully to it, rather than turning endlessly to the trumpery of the ‘myth-kitty’, did his true voice find its natural pitch.  As within Coleridge the Christian apologist strove for primacy with the ‘whole man’ - the Unitarian stump-orator thundering his bloodless kerygmatics with the Great God Pan incarnate  - so too within Hughes did the poet of mythic violence contend with the still small voice of personal witness.

27/07/2013

song of lights

Clive James – The Divine Comedy

W.H. Auden, in New York Letter (1940), appointed Dante the first of his cultural judiciary:

                                              So, when my name is called, I face,
                                              Presiding coldly on my case,
                                              That lean hard-bitten pioneer
                                              Who spoiled a temporal career
                                              And to the supernatural brought
                                              His passion, senses, will and thought,
                                              By Amor Rationalis led
                                              Through the three kingdoms of the dead,
                                              In concrete details saw the whole
                                              Environment that keeps the soul,
                                              And grasped in its complexity
                                              The Catholic ecology,
                                              Described the savage fauna he
                                              In Malebolge's fissure found,
                                              And fringe of blessed flora round
                                              A juster nucleus than Rome,
                                              Where love had its creative home.

Gravity and grace are the chief properties any translator would dearly wish to bring to the business of 'Englishing' Dante's great theological orrery of a poem. For while The Divine Comedy spans the dark backward and abysm of revealed time it possesses such resources of lyric intensity it can persuade us still that it is an account of a living act of (literal and moral) witness. Auden, intellectual gadfly as he was, much endorsed the theory of Christian redemption, finding consolation and intellectual subtlety in High Church ritualism, and the virtual cathedral of Thomist thought. Auden was a man in search of the Great Good Place – the City of God by any other name – so this shouldn't comes as any great surprise. The architecture of the Comedy might be forbidding to today's reader (the dead letter of doctrinal dispute hangs heavily over the work); but the predicament of the soul adrift – the drama of the lost - still can touch us. And how could it not? We're urgently pressed, too much of the time, to little effect, into negotiating the world and its cruelty. Dante, then, as spiritual navigator, his poem a throttling skyhook carrying him from the Pit to the starry heights.

In 'Conversation about Dante' the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam has given us an extraordinary critical tango with Dante, probably unsurpassed, certainly unorthodox:

If the halls of the Hermitage were suddenly to go mad, if the paintings of all the schools and great masters were suddenly to break loose from their nails, and merge with one another, intermingle and fill the air of the rooms with a Futurist roar and an agitated frenzy of color, we would then have something resembling Dante's Commedia.

T.S. Eliot claimed – hedging, somewhat - that a profound response to the poetry could just about precede any interest in the theology – the heavy stuff could come later. (The scholarly Dantean might still argue the merit of acquainting yourself with the background matter.) And Clive James would make much the same insistence: the language itself is the clew to the labyrinth, the poetry the existential dividend – the saving grace. Dante's Italian – even to the non-specialist – clearly gains from an extraordinary fluidity, and many of its special effects depend on qualities inherent in the language; and so out of reach of even the most ingenious translator. Fulsomely endowed in rhyme, the Italian vernacular permits a hummingbird-wing meshing and unmeshing of sound and meaning: even a glance at a line of the verse will tip off the alert reader that the most adroit translation necessarily, unwillingly subjects itself to a self-denying ordinance. So a decision faces the translator of the Comedy from the outset. Terza rima contributes to the velocity of the poetry but, with the odd distinguished exception, isn't much served by the genius of the English language, say. It manages to attain a forward thrust while casting an eye backwards. Each tercet holds within itself the stem-cell of the lead-rhyme in the next, generating the feeling that the verse-movement is also ascension. (Dorothy L Sayer's version fairly mangles the English while trying to preserve the formal physique of the Italian.) Narrative – one thing after another, a step at a time – fuses with exaltation – the soul's slow rise.

Clive James opts for something different, a technical choice that alters the tonalities and movement of the verse altogether. He plumps for rhyming quatrains, and what he loses in swift unencumbered elegance he gains in a kind of moral heft, a stateliness; James's is a Comedy meant to be taken as a reminder of the poem's cultural durability, that its currency and vitality are constants yet.

The Divine Comedy is the precursor of the whole of modern history,” James writes, “and I hope this translation conveys enough of its model to show that [Dante] forecast the whole story in a single song: a song of lights.” The blood-boltered troughs of Hell are visionary glimpses of Treblinka and Kolyma, of the killing fields. The luminous geometry of the Paradiso, however, is a shot at pure aesthesis, the bodily self discarded in a perfection of music and light: trasumanar, indeed. Most recent translations of Dante have stuck to the Inferno, perhaps for its slaughterhouse melodrama, its raw physicality, its grounding in the world of political violence – more straightforwardly relevant to our modern sensibility. (Rolling news that stays news.) James's bid to muster his energies in rendering the three cantiche as a whole is a bold one, a worthy one, honouring Dante's intent. Eliot observed in writing of Dante: “The experience of a poem is the experience both of a moment and of a lifetime. It is very much like our intenser experiences of other human beings.”

23/04/2013

critic, interrupted

James Wood – The Fun Stuff

Ex cathedra pronouncements on the state of literature are gratingly at odds with the democratic spirit of modern Western culture. An Arnold or a Leavis would find themselves on the back foot, in a climate in which the Canon has been disparaged and dismantled by the academic soixante-huitards, and to contend for the intrinsic elitism of art is to confess to one's political bias. A fuzzy left-liberal consensus has made the expression of value-judgements somehow, at best, suspect; a matter of reactionary tendencies and ill-concealed disdain for the popular accessibility of the arts, creeping unbidden into neutral debate. As if to argue that some works will inevitably be better than others amounts to a self-betrayal, letting slip clues to a High Toryism of the spirit. (No coincidence that this wholesale enfranchisement of literary culture has portended the non-appearance of another Lionel Trilling, say.)

James Wood emerged as precisely the kind of heir-presumptive to F.R. Leavis at precisely the moment when the distrust of the critic-as-aesthete had become so rooted in cultural discourse, that he seemed almost wilfully retrograde. Marxisant scholars like Raymond Williams and politically engaged savants of the sort best exemplified by Edward Said had among them contrived to make any discussion of culture that wasn't au fond political appear faintly absurd. Criticism was to be a perilous negotiation with power structures, a demarche in the extra-literary sphere. Whereas 'traditional' criticism - hidebound, reactionary - was reduced to a mazurka of mendacities. Said, for one, could elucidate the rhetorical and narratological strategies of Conrad as deftly as Lionel Trilling; but this was in the service of a broader political vision. A critical reading uninflected by some form of political emergency was fluff. Moralism of the Leavisian stripe - involved in an examination of what constituted a good life well-lived - yielded to a more expansive theory of literature, founded on principles drawn from the radicalism of the sixties, progressive, disaggregrative, angry.

A refusal of this fundamental orientation seemed perverse, ideologically unsound. But James Wood wrote out of the rejected mode. The Broken Estate, his first collection of essays, was written under the sign not of political activism, but was theological in its complexion. Its seriousness gestured not towards a horizon of revolutionary violence - or even Comtean social melioration - but towards an idea of literary fiction as the disjecta membra of a universe from which God had been summarily evicted.

That fiction at its highest pitch could reinstate the meaningfulness and purposiveness of the human enterprise - when such an earnest had been forsaken with the death of God - was the ground-bass to Wood's critical arias. His concept of Realism was given point by a curiously secular faith: there was something 'miraculous' in the capacity of a writer to convey intelligibly the hazards of experience, in the artful contrivance of recognitions. The novel could plausibly tack between antinomies - and gently teased the reader into a state of 'belief' that rehearsed or shadowed the belief of the religious adherent. Its manoeuvres were those that drew on the same psychic attitudes adopted by the believer. Fiction - because it doesn't commit us to the doctrinaire, can say 'Yes, but..', can aid us in spanning contrary experiences of life (meaning modulated with meaninglessness) - is the preeminent art-form: a complex fugue of granite and rainbow. Wood read, in The Broken Estate, through the mesh of a reluctant agnosticism - like a phantom limb, the religious impulse is still obscurely preserved in us; we still turn heliotropically to a vanished source of light. There could be no doubt that Wood wished to be taken au serieux - these essays are gristly with earnestness. They invited us into the cathedral hush, the contemplative stillness that serious art requires of us. In The Broken Estate much of Wood's energies are given over to illustrating, as with Virginia Woolf, that the "novel acts religiously but performs sceptically." (This from the Introduction to the collection: possibly a post hoc rationalisation - as, arguably, the succeeding essays don't quite fulfil it.)

Contra the po-mo theorists and practitioners, for Wood it remains an article of faith that the novel can lead us back to reality. We've grown so accustomed to the conventions of the novel - plot and character chief among them - that we need to be reminded that something essentially uncanny is at work when we offer ourselves to the virtual staging-ground of the novel. The attentive reader moves silently through a tenement of occupied rooms, a spectral guest, in a kind of espionage; the novelist having brokered this delicate relation between the woman reading and those peopling the work. 'Ensouling shadows', Hilary Mantel called it somewhere. And when fiction too obviously displays its pneumatics - as in the immaculately crafted but sterile work of Ian McEwan - James Wood will flag up the failure of the effect. The novelist, 'that free servant of life', must steal a march on the hardening of literary form into convention, as Wood reminds us in How Fiction Works, must be latitudinarian in her use of the familiar toys of the craft, and always be primed to swerve away into 'lifeness'.



Wood's militancy - a severity that occasionally calls to mind Leavis - has drawn fire from various quarters. His negative manifesto 'Hysterical Realism' strafed the literary practice of a group of writers for whom energy and a hurtling headlong Tiggerishness was the prize; and Wood found this all so much indiscipline, self-indulgence, a scouting of the responsibilities of the art. Rather, patience and considered judgement must invest the novelist's endeavours, a steady authoritative attending to the sometimes near-illegible signatures of motive and action. Wood was coming to seem Master of the Rolls, inhabiting the pages of the tonier literary magazines: as Salman Rushdie sniped from his memoir Joseph Anton, Wood was a Procrustes, mutilating the novels he criticised the better for them to fit his preconceptions of what the form should be.

Both The Broken Estate and its successor The Irresponsible Self were assemblies of book reviews published elsewhere. Few reviewers carry sufficient heft - in terms of the unity of their concerns or stylistically - to justify such consecration: most are vaguely in hock to publishers' PR machinery, and the copy itself is a spumante of critical cliches. One hopes that Wood has a book-length critical study in him; but his collections are distinguished by a binding coherence and common interpretative emphases, marbling these pieces with what we might gingerly term a metaphysical patina. Characterisation in the novel bears a decided share in this, for Wood. Those moments in fiction when a character suddenly slithers from under the net of authorial control, when the representation of self to the self locks into brilliant focus; agency depicted as richly and fluidly as we ourselves experience it; and an Emma Woodhouse emerges as a self-reflective being, in all her contrariety - those moments are the dividend of cleaving to literary realism. Wood identifies Shakespeare as the great innovator here, casting aside the stiff brocade of stage-rhetoric and permitting his personae the full dignity of self-awareness; such that we meet them as autonomous selves, by turns opaque and translucent, clean-edged and blurred, governed by discernible motives and bafflingly motiveless. The realist novel took instruction from Shakespeare, grasping that within its scope should come the portrayal of persons as ragged hives of impulses. The 'irresponsibility' that Wood talks about - prompted by his reading of Coleridge's reading of Shakespeare - announces itself in the 'drift' of a literary character into her own kind of self-appropriation: not as the mannequin of the novelist, nor as a cipher of the novel's overt concerns; but as an entity imbued with something close to awareness - crucially, though, to which the reader is privy. Technically, the most effective device for this eavesdropping is free indirect style, in which the character's perceptions and the stipple of thought are rendered, so lightly as not to mar the image. It permits a moment of unflawed communion with the character, possibly one whose strangeness might be rebarbative. Here the ethical implications of Wood's critical stance are at their most emphatic. In the literary parlour game of briefly "inhabiting the wilderness of another's soul", we're tutored in the often taxing business of empathy. We must give the otherness of others its due, however it may unsettle our own self-regard.

Other readers of his new collection The Fun Stuff have detected a slackening or lowering of pressure. But the title of the book - which may have given rise to this supposition - is more a wistful acknowledgement of Wood's own limitations; more about what he cannot do, and where he cannot go, than programme notes for the book at large. "For me, this playing [Keith Moon's exuberant drumming] is like an ideal sentence of prose, a sentence I have always wanted to write and never quite had the confidence to: a long, passionate onrush, formally controlled and joyously messy, propulsive but digressively self-interrupted, attired but dishevelled, careful and lawless, right and wrong." To be less buttoned-up, less diffident, and to attempt something riskier, creatively: but the musician in his ecstasy of self-forgetting remains for Wood the figure from a daydream. The critical beadle is back on duty in these essays, not quite so unforgiving, but with his accustomed sharpness of eye and the glinting panache of his prose. Odd that Wood should write of lacking confidence, when he can collar Cormac McCarthy for a tricksy dalliance with theodicy that never quite comes off, never convinces. Or can mildly chide Alan Hollinghurst for slipping into the register of a cheap novelette. Indeed, the essay on Keith Moon that opens the book – where you might take it as a keynote to the rest – seems not, in fact, to orient the reader toward the themes of the remainder at all.

24/02/2013

pentimento

Sifting his thoughts, idly, as if he had all the time in the world. The uninsistent English rain spattered the window. Dove-grey light disclosed a woman stepping briskly over the pavement, holding up an umbrella as freely and naturally as if it were her own hand that had bloomed, fingers lengthening to spokes, the webbing swelled to a fat dome held above her cropped head. Elementalist. The private garden on the other side of this residential road – bounded by a speared wrought-iron fence – was brilliant, bejewelled in its greenery, shining in the fresh wet. The woman crossed over, lightly, as on tiptoe. She carried her head high, with unemphatic elegance. The rain intensified a touch, and he could hear it through the glass, like cloth tearing.

She sidestepped a slow-crawling car, made the other side, continued. The sun was shy behind a grey swagged cloud. Larissa moved pantherishly, commandingly, it seemed to him – something flamed in the pit of his belly as he watched her approach. He realised his coffee cup he still held was empty, and placed it on the whatnot.

His whole week had been funnelling down to this moment. The succession of days were only a kind of vestibule, and waiting seemed the dominant activity, even if he'd been doing things. Even if his body had, filling up space, moving through rooms, among people. Meetings at vast deal tables under the gaze of ancient magnates hung on the oak panelling. Hurried discussions in stairwells. Lunches in pubs. And now, with Thomas Tallis issuing from the sound system in this Bayswater flat, everything else just fell away. A week of irrelevance. Absence as a hook in the viscera. Larissa drew parallel to his ground floor window, striding by, shot a brief wave at him in passing. Then she was at the door.

“You haven't been waiting all morning for me?”

He shrugged, smiling. Spem in alium flowed out of its material envelope and resolved into silence. He stood looking at her, as if her every feature hadn't been imprinted on his mind, giving a bias and tilt to his thoughts. She wore a light summer jacket and pencil skirt, her erect slenderness making the ensemble neat and practical. She had always this quizzing air, of being on the point of asking a question from which universes of meaning would rush. The slight cleft chin delicately pushed forward, the nimble provisionality of her attention. She folded up her umbrella and lay it against his desk.

“You've got me for an hour,” she said, and he could only nod idiotically. Unfussy, smartly shedding her jacket, Larissa crossed the floor, the carpet with its worn nap and wine stains; sliding by the work-table with its coppice of papers and books. She was before him, and straightening the open collar of his shirt. His breath came levelly, unfaltering, yet his heart swelled with delight.

The sunlight in its generosity lent highlights to her temple, her cheek, her jawline – her left eye caught and held it, the iris glowing green. Her boyishness – that gamine slightness mildly undercut by the discreet never-neutral contours of her hips and breasts – made all the keener the charm and charge of her physical presence in this musty room. He should offer her something, a coffee. But he really should drop to his knees and praise her. But he stood there, simply. She waited for him to speak. Reality split and branched, and multiple shards of possibility sprayed outwards from this still centre. A refuse collection truck nosed along the road outside; the brutish and uncontainable thrum of its machinery filling its sheer tonnage transmitted itself to the room. He felt the flicks and dabs of her appraising gaze on his face – he never could bear such close examination, but it was an intelligent scrutiny tendered in simple honesty, and he allowed it, when with anyone else he'd have turned his face away. The image thrown back by a mirror always appalled him. The haggard, care-worn face – that time had gouged and pitted - thus presented seemed not to be his, more the rude carven mask of a witch doctor, features a primitive daub, scabbed, cracked, awful! He wanted to – but could not – tell her how great was the gift of his not turning away, an intimate benison that resisted speech. (But wasn't the obligation in the circumstances to tell everything?) The faintest allusion of a smile browsed her lips. He marvelled at the steadiness of her gaze. In the card-shuffle of those seconds, he was the young man of twenty-five years ago – the blithe seducer, assured that to want was to have. Did she have an inkling, that she had this restorative power? Or was that the ultimate surety of her charisma, being unaware?

A London hour. Pigeons capered on the low garden wall, scruffy loiterers. The vast unending slipstream of urban life pressed invisibly against the glass.




She said, “Let's have something a bit more appropriate.” - and bent to where the sound system crouched. Brittle clatter of CD cases. Ruminative humming and muttering. The pricked bubble of an 'Oh!' And the soundless This! declaring she'd made her choice. Larissa popped the disc into the player, raised herself in a touching knock-kneed way and turned to him once more. She flattened her skirt with deft hands, brightly challenging his immobility with a broad smile that enhanced that naiad quality of hers. “Now,” she said, “we've got to get you to loosen up!” Those hands were cool and dry in his. Willow wands. The music came from the speaker like an animal emerging from a brake, quiet, a dainty tremor at first. Waltz time. (Even as she moved to embrace him, Larissa was widening the floor space with the toe of her court shoe – her natural economy of grace.) These preliminaries gave him the time to reflect a little – not 'think' as such, but a wordless medley of impressions and unformed notions, held in suspension yet gently drifting – on the conspiracies of chance that had brought them together. An autumn day, the livery of reds and browns and yellows edging the urban streets, sodden yet somehow grand, as the year gathered the last days within itself – dashes through the rain from one doorway to another – Coldplay on a taxi radio – a stray dog, its fur daggled and dripping, with such a candid sorrow in its shining eyes that he had to let it in... (She shook his hand when they met, he remembered – and it still had that lightness.) Our minds seek to engineer these fables of consequence, where seeming randomness is retrofitted to serve our deeper instinctual need for a narrative line, for alembicated meaning. That life should feel plotted in a shapely way, is a universal prepossession: we need it to be so. He mourned for lost time, sitting alone, a paperback neglected on his knee, gazing out. Hours, days, weeks, irrecoverably gone – and they'd barely touched on his awareness; their value known only afterwards. He understood why people craved .. what was the term? .. 'peak experiences', happenings as blazonry. And, in these terminal days, Larissa brought with her the promise that the memory of these hours would be impressed deeply in his mind. A dancer resetting time with her movements, the fullness of it could make you weep...

“Tread on my toes,” Larissa was saying, “and you lose points.”

“I'll try my best not to,” he said with a twisted grin that closed his eyes. Said with a grainy tongue. “I found a shop dummy in a skip the other day. Almost – almost – picked it up and took it home. As a practice partner.” She chucked him under the chin.

“Would've been just as good as me.”

“Rubbish.”

Revolving slowly on the spot, their bodies as close as lovers' but girdled by that chaste compact that understands that nothing more is intended, nothing more will result from this physical nearness, than the bodily expression of sexless pleasure. And he did tread on her toes from time to time – she'd yip with mock distress, and he'd apologise and pause. His clumsiness had become vaguely ritualised, and her adoption of the tutor's role – with its happy blend of hope and exasperation – suited her queerly – as did her unemphatic acceptance of power between them. He turned at her prompting like an ancient, barnacled sea vessel, with Larissa as the gently urgent wind.

These moments are their own guarantee.

The room had darkened as the afternoon wore on. Indeed, the light had lost that charmed translucence of earlier, a bleakening that vaguely plucked at his gut, as if to remind him that the hour would end and she'd leave. Still he made his ungainly revolutions within the pivot of their standing. And her bright boyish face pressed its encouragements on him.
Music fused them bodily and made an improvised grace. Larissa beamed at him when, for a few magical moments, their accord was perfected, and it felt like dancing. Corseted by his clumsiness as he passed through the workaday world, now he issued a snub to gravity. It was good, it was right – it lengthened his bones and turned his skull into an origami cube, aerated. But the worm was in the bud. Larissa's face had taken on an pixellated indistinctness, though it was never so close to his. Earlier he could see each eyelash, and the gold flecking in her iris. Now her eyes were watercolour daubs, runny and grey-black. Her mouth smeared by a thumb. Her face – formerly a dainty heart-shape – fattened and rippled, the chin like a pendulous ooze of melted tallow... Frosty creepers stole up his spine. The space behind her head became a Gerhard Richter frieze, horizons of undetailed colour. “How … more … turning … able?” - She spoke as from the depths of the sea.

Poliakoff released her, letting his hands drop like hung game to his sides. His chest felt cased in tacky soap, and he could feel his pulse ticking in his neck. She was there, whole, a sweet signature of puzzlement on her face. He stepped back from her, shaking his head. “Too.. too much..” - words as wood shavings, dry, curling to the floor. She recoiled in those brittle seconds, from the pain on his face. From the howl that was ribboning then ballooning from his mouth.

16/06/2012

decline and fall

Martin Amis – Lionel Asbo

Is Martin Amis a prose stylist too heavily mortgaged to his own style? It occurs to you, reading his new novel Lionel Asbo, that the trade-mark melopeia of his language really isn't equal to the celebrutality of modern England, its grotty decadence Рtoo mannered, too prone to devolving on itself lyric finesse; well-tooled, when so much that it wants to describe is shabby, rough-edged and maladroit. Dickens could ascend to the High Style when the fit was on him, but his style was, au fond, born of low-slung journalese, siphoning its energies from the vernacular. Amis Рreaching for a Dickensian amplitude and gusto Рseems instinctively to revert to a miniaturist precision, a delicacy of registrement, that is almost, yes, Austenesque. And somehow wanly apolitical. The lovely mellowness of his previous novel The Pregnant Widow owed itself in large part to the four-ply style, a pitch and poise in the line, balance in each perfectly chased sentence. What a state-of-England novel needs Рand Lionel Asbo doesn't have, regrettably Рis a kind of in-built preparedness to destroy itself, a cannibal language, self-consuming, rabid as society is rabid. A rhetorical stave like this one might or might not be an effective bit of writing, but it's unassigned écritureРwhere is 'the world of the manifest', as Amis calls it?:

In Diston – in Diston everything hated everything else, and everything else, in return, hated everything back. Everything soft hated everything hard, and vice versa, cold fought heat, heat fought cold, everything honked and yelled and swore at everything, and all was weightless, and all hated weight.

British culture in the main is an anti-poem, a consumerist Cloaca Maxima, an unholy orgy of money-grubbing, vulgarity and bottomless hypocrisy. The literary – capital 'L', as Amis would understand it, as a value-system among other things – has been all but extinguished. Every novel must be its own valediction. No more Dunciads. Now get out of that.

10/06/2012

whisper music


Craig Raine – T.S. Eliot

There were hints and mutterings of his prejudices; but with Anthony Julius's T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism and Literary Form, the charge was set forth aggressively. Eliot's sovereign standing had gone unchallenged for a generation or two, his pronunciamenti acquiring the weight of orthodoxy in the literary world. His poetry of negation spoke to a shared spiritual rudderlessness, as he searched painfully for meaning in a desacralised universe: Eliot, ..”a poet of apocalypse, of the last days and the renovation, the destruction of the earthly city as a chastisement of human presumption, but also of empire.”
      So Frank Kermode, in his Sense of an Ending. “He had his demonic host, too,” Kermode adds; “the word 'Jew' remained in lower case through all the editions of the poems until the last of his lifetime, the seventy-fifth birthday edition of 1963.” Julius levelled against Eliot the gravest of accusations. Insisting that the anti-Semitic insults weren't merely blemishes on the poetry, but actually somehow nourished it, he argued that Eliot's work was enhanced by malignity: hatred was its lymph. The boldness of Julius's position still might give us pause. But it convinces only insofar as we accept anti-Semitism as something more than just a regrettable psychic kink. Julius wants to impress on us that in Eliot it was programmatic. (James Wood described Julius's study as “..an unstable book about an unstable subject; reading it is like watching a maniac trying to calm a hysteric.”)

 
Over a decade later the intensity of the controversy has waned, and it's a nice question as to how damaged by it Eliot's reputation finally was. As the poetry of Philip Larkin can no longer be read quite innocently – the same covey of critical shrikes as have set upon Eliot saw to that - so are we obliged to make certain readerly concessions, greater or lesser, as we examine Eliot's work. Craig Raine has defended Eliot from the kick-off, holding that the documentary evidence for his anti-Semitism is inconclusive, that his poetics militate against mere self-expression, and that we cannot uncomplicatedly infer the personal from the subtle play of the poetry's language – which, after all, works with involutes of word, tone and image that require careful parsing.
      Reading the poems as encoded autobiography is fraught with difficulties, anyway – especially with so continent a man as Eliot appears to have been. Hints and guesses are all we have to go on, if we follow that tack. Raine detects in the body of work a theme which does lend itself to critical scrutiny, however. (The alleged anti-Semitism is reserved for an appendix.) He traces 'the figure in the carpet', the unifying strain of thought that pulses faintly through the poetry, a poetry haunted by the 'failure to live', vital spirits throttled and the seedless diversion of emotional energy: more prosaically, “the cautious circumspection of our sluggish hearts.” From the strange √©tudes of the earlier work to the visionary hymnody of 'Ash Wednesday' to the chamber music of Four Quartets, via the penumbral jazz of Sweeney Agonistes, Eliot contends with the inertial drag of matter, the grotesquerie of the body and the wager on transcendence – all refracted through an obscure personal vision, and Raine's account is by no means the full picture.
      Matthew Arnold's poem 'The Buried Life' is the crib-sheet by means of which Eliot grasped this elusive theme. But Raine asserts rather than argues for its importance to Eliot. The poem itself is an reflection on spiritual blockage and the impossibility of true intimate contact: “And long we try in vain to speak and act/Our hidden self, and what we say and do/Is eloquent, is well – but 'tis not true!” - to which Eliot's answering cry redounds: “It is impossible to say just what I mean!” 'The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock' is a poem 'about' a soul hamstrung by convention, by caution; and its goading awareness that life, for others perhaps, is yet brightly unconstrained – something fuller, richer in reserve for others. (It evokes, as Hugh Kenner has it, “..a nervous system snubbed by the Absolute without committing [itself] as to whether that Absolute is the moral rigour of an implacable Creator or the systemized social discomfort of a Boston tea-party.”) Raine's key insight, the 'animating idea', is that this psychic deadening haunts the oeuvre. “In the early poetry,” he says, “the idea is animated by all of Eliot's young man's savagery, all his militant hatred of sentimentality, all his aggressive insistence on what we really feel – how unpleasant that can be, and frequently how meagre.” True, we find in Eliot's work a whispering gallery of unmoored selves, all more or less unfinished and subject to a variety of suppressions. But it's a flimsy, trivial notion of Raine's, creating the illusion of some mystery brought to light while doing nothing of the sort. With equal justice could you claim that the buried life was Larkin's master-theme. There is more to Eliot than this.
      'Unpleasantness' is something Raine responds to with a wry delicatesse. He warms in Eliot to the poet's willingness to acknowledge the ill-favoured and the damaged – the conventionally unpoetic: the quatrain poems are doodles of disgust, and 'Hysteria' registers the speaker's fear and loathing of female sexuality with a stiff-necked deadpan: “I decided that if the shaking of her breasts could be stopped, some of the fragments of the afternoon might be collected, and I concentrated my attention with careful subtlety to this end.” (If the critic seeks a common thread uniting the poetry, he might do worse than examine the instances in Eliot's work of such rejection of our creaturely selves, mired as we are in the gnarl of imperfect matter.)
      But a close reading by Raine is really a crabwise apology for his own practice as a poet. His criticism - interpretative frottage, really - gloats over the verbal detail in Eliot's poetry, skimping on a dimension which places it in a very particular socio-historical 'spot of time'. (Tom Paulin, by contrast, has suggested that 'The Waste Land' is a 'Keynesian epic', shaped in part by Eliot's engagement with J.M. Keynes's Economic Consequences of the Peace; and Eliot was a writer “..impelled by the currents and extremities of the social moment, pushed and pulled by history.” The 'corporate raider of English poetry', as Paulin has it, “...also expresses despair and anger, courage and idealism in what is really the greatest poem of the First World War.”) The peculiarity of its address, its unforgettable cadencing, the micro-transactions at the level of the line between the seedy actual and the exalted: all this somehow contributes to the enduring mystery of Eliot's poetry, and why it should still affect us.

27/05/2012

overlord of the spaces and the silences


 
Hilary Mantel – Bring up the Bodies

One of Mantel's minor characters, the courtier Thomas Wriothesley voices what we may take to be an epitome of this novel and its predecessor Wolf Hall:

All our labours, our sophistry, all our learning both acquired or pretended; the stratagems of state, the lawyers' decrees, the churchmen's curses, and the grave resolutions of judges, sacred and secular: all and each can be defeated by a woman's body, can they not? God should have made their bellies transparent, and saved us the hope and fear. But perhaps what grows in there has to grow in the dark.

Mantel's Cromwell novels depict an extraordinary moment in English history – when the birth of the nation-state was bound up with the fortunes of two women, one discarded and damned, the other bearing in her belly the hopes of the succession. Katherine, the queen that was, is under house arrest, sequestered in a moated grange; Queen Anne, having given birth to the Princess Elizabeth, awaits the arrival of a male heir – while King Henry and his stewards contrive finally to assert the sovereignty of England, effecting the decisive break with Rome, and forging the modern nation almost by a kind of inadvertence. Indeed, if there is a subtext to these novels humming beneath their narratives of courtly intrigue, it's that of the advent of the Modern, a political settlement recognisable to us today:

But chivalry's day is over. One day soon moss will grow in the tilt yard. The days of the moneylender have arrived, and the days of the swaggering privateer; banker sits down with banker, and kings are their waiting boys.

Thomas Cromwell is the ultimate arriviste: a blacksmith's son, a roaring boy from Putney, schooled in the violence of the underclass; all of which left him formidably resourceful, proof against the buffets of circumstance. He emerges in these novels as peculiarly 'modern' – in the matter of his political realism, his pragmatism and his tactician's genius. But Mantel purposely departs from the conventional portrait of Cromwell as the ruthless enforcer, and by means of the free indirect style, ushers the reader into the moment-by-moment of his conscious awareness. You're Cromwell's secret sharer in these pages. Placed among the contending voices of the privy counsellors, the court hirelings and ladies-in-waiting, Cromwell can instantly assay the charge of implication in any given encounter. He misses scarcely anything, is perhaps almost a novelist in the Jamesian sense – one on whom nothing is lost. Mantel shows us his household at Austin Friars, full of devoted retainers and promising young wards, Italian merchants and fugitive scholars. (He can recall the position of the pieces in a chess game abandoned years ago.) Yet he was capable of hounding Thomas More to death; and would do yet worse to those men unfortunate enough to have been snared in Queen Anne's adulteries.


Bring Up the Bodies follows on immediately from the close of Wolf Hall. (The first sentence comes with a strange visionary flourish - “His children are falling from the sky.” - enacting the doubleness with which we are to view much of what occurs later, both at the stylistic level and on the plane of plot and character: a stark surreality that, very briefly afterwards, accords nicely with the novel's covenanted realism.) Mantel brilliantly evokes the fevered conveyancing of information among the principal actors – all are spies in this 'dripping web of court patronage', where a throwaway remark can later carry huge significance. The royal entourage is a brocaded cavalcade of mannered politicking and whispers behind-doors. Intelligencers all, the various figures who haunt the king's presence are each engaged in a decorous negotium. Cromwell, 'the overlord of spaces and the silences', is alert to the vulnerability of truth to corruption, and comes to use it to his advantage:

What is the nature of the border between truth and lies? It is permeable and blurred because it is planted thick with rumour, confabulation, misunderstandings and twisted tales. Truth can break the gates down, truth can howl in the street; unless truth is pleasing, personable and easy to like, she is condemned to stay whimpering at the back door.

Mantel explores the idea that law-court truth and imaginative truth are irreconcilably at odds. The chancery-truth of the diplomatists and the lawyers is a chill abstract of 'the poet's truth' exemplified by Thomas Wyatt, whom Cromwell admires as his antitype: “A statute is written to entrap meaning, a poem to escape it.” As the novel progresses Mantel enlarges this theme – suggesting why Cromwell spared Wyatt from the king's wrath. The novel's language shivers exquisitely between a disciplined plain style (the historic present is used quite disarmingly to effect the palpable immediacy of the unfolding action) and subtle dabs of lyricism. Mantel has contrived a style at once lightsome and precise – the innovation of Wolf Hall was in the rendering of progression d'effet with economy and vital movement. The prose is charged with a fleet effervescence that makes it compulsive without showiness, richly appointed but not clagged with 'local colour'. Not the language of historical fiction as we've come to know it, with its clumsy heritage ventriloquism; but a pliable instrument that permits Mantel to eavesdrop on Cromwell's inner life. Bring Up the Bodies is a fine novel, with its dramatic torque and cold-eyed meditation on power – and Mantel's Cromwell one of the most arresting central characters in recent fiction.

12/05/2012

homo homini lupus - i


Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall (2009) was signally more than just a venture into historical fiction by one of our most gifted novelists – it was a piece of elegant necromancy. Peopled by vitally shifting dramatis personae, it triumphed in at once giving us a shrewd image of its central figure, Thomas Cromwell, and at the same time hedging that image with a corona of indeterminacy and volatility that made good the 'lifeness' that the critic James Wood prizes in the very best novels. Mantel's Cromwell is an electrifying figure, and she confers on him the dignity of a fully-realised human being: “He is the inconsolable Master Cromwell: the unknowable, the inconstruable, the probably indefeasible Master Cromwell.” He deploys his statecraft with genius, yet frets that he may have the face of a murderer. He is directly complicit in engineering the execution of Sir Thomas More, yet jibs at the unflattering portrait Hans Holbein has made of him.


The suppleness of Mantel's prose ensures that she never sacrifices the reader's patience by depositing gobbets of historical detail at your feet, like a truffle hound. Henry VIII's bid to disentangle himself from his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, the bitter contention with the Papacy, and, latterly, the unavailing efforts of Cromwell to have More swear an oath of recantation and accede to the Act of Supremacy – all this was dynamically, thrillingly portrayed. Yet Cromwell's domestic life was rendered with a sweetness and compassion, an almost eerie acuity. It's in according Cromwell the ultimate privacies – he seems fully ensouled, dense with mystery, in all his power and vulnerability – that Mantel has performed the rarest of feats. Like the spiritualist Alison in her Beyond Black, she conjures the dead, bodies forth phantoms..