Wednesday, October 14, 2009

How Not to Write a Dead Novel

Sarah Hall’s second novel, The Electric Michelangelo, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and that brush of encouragement has carried her though to her fourth work now, How to Paint a Dead Man. At best an uneven book, How to Paint a Dead Man tips its hat to Hall’s well-regarded ability to craft sentences of near-perfect beauty, without really being a novel in the conventional sense.

Four chapters that recur through the book recount the lives of four artists. There are the Italians in the 1960s: Annette Tambroni, a blind florist who once harbored dreams of becoming an artist, and Signor Giorgio, a world-renowned painter of bottles who is dying of cancer. Respectively called “The Divine Vision of Annette Tambroni” and “Translated from the Bottle Journals” Annette’s and Giorgio’s tales are filled not with “life”, but with wistful reminiscences of lived moments and stolen delights.

Annette’s mother, for instance, is intensely protective of her, crafting elaborate fictions to scare Annette into submission, in a bid to protect her from any harm. This lends Annette’s narration a dream-like quality, gently carrying pain within it. Every Sunday, she visits the cemetery where her father is buried and contemplates the long life, still unlived, that she must pass without a template on how to go about it.

Giorgio’s testimony is largely philosophical musings, and while reading it, I sincerely came to question its inclusion in a novel. These are the last cries of a dying artist, one who must accept his lost vitality and emergence into a sort of tragic figure for his admirers. A heavy sadness lingers over this narrative, punctuated by rather abstruse sermons on life and the meaninglessness of it:

“My visitors indulge me. They are charmed by my antiquity and my devotion to this place. Later they walk back to the station along the road, and perhaps halfway they kneel with an ear to the ground. And perhaps they hear their own blood, and then the traffic in the town, and then a deeper rhythm. They get up, and brush the dust from their knees, and they continue walking. If everything seems lost, I tell them, trust the heart.”

Such heavy sentences when the reader has been provided only the slight background of their creator dying of cancer load the book with a seriousness it has not earned. This may have something to do with the time that these two fragments are set in—perhaps Hall just imagined her characters from a pre-consumerist era to deal with pain and loneliness in subtle, gentle ways, and not indulge in unclean behavior of any sort. Whatever the reason, there is a sense of something not being whole in these narratives.

How to Paint a Dead Man comes closer to a novel in the other two strands: of a father-daughter artist duo in contemporary Britain. In “The Fool on the Hill” Peter Caldicutt (who used to write letters to Giorgio as a student) is a noted landscape painter who bases his drawings on real scenes that he harnesses from walks in the countryside. On one such excursion, his leg gets trapped inside a mountain crevice and Peter spends the night waiting for help. This launches a series of memories that carry him through the night, but thankfully, here the force of life and vigor flows through the narrative, and pain and resilience are evoked in life-affirming ways.

The most interesting and also the central fragment, “The Mirror Crisis”, concerns Sue Caldicutt, the young daughter of Peter, who is trying to find success as a photographer. Sue is grappling with the death of her twin Danny in a bicycle accident. Allowing her to grieve over a twin lets Hall develop her penchant for fine sentences with real felicity, since here, the emotion comes across as real:

“You’re not crazy. You must emphasis this point and remind yourself of it. You are not crazy. And you’re not being coy, or difficult. This isn’t about fashionable social detachment, the current trend for woe-is-me, or wanting to be the cool detached outsider. You can’t quite catch sight of yourself as you go about your life, that’s all. Your body doesn’t contain its spirit, just as the mirror has relinquished your portrait. You are elsewhere.”

Narrated in the second person, this is the most effective part of the novel, as Sue starts on a self-destructive affair with the husband of a friend to drown her grief. The writing is raw, frequently sexual, and also—in a novel that once threatened to lose itself in philosophical meanderings—satisfyingly fictional.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

The life and times of Thomas Cromwell

Tudor England has always made for great yarns. The mix of lustiness and unpredictability about the reign of Henry VIII has inspired countless artists to make the period their muse. Over the centuries, plays, novels and paintings have tried to evoke the ineffable spirit of the age. What is it that drives this fascination with the Tudors? Is it an instinct to capture the thirst for power that characterized the period, or is it something deeper — a search for the very roots of modern English life?

Hillary Mantel, who has tackled subjects as diverse as the French Revolution in "A Place of Greater Safety" (1995) to her own dysfunctional past in "Giving Up the Ghost" (2003), is an ideal choice for a project of such breathtaking scale. Henry VIII's was a quicksilver monarchy, underscored by the fact of his six wives in rather quick succession. Henry is routinely portrayed as the lascivious royal who, in his quest to get a male heir, went to war with the pope — a definitive break that led to the separation of the English Church from Rome.

Setting out to capture the nub of this era, Ms. Mantel has done something outstanding — she has achieved a genuine voice for the time. And that voice tells us the life of Thomas Cromwell, the blacksmith's boy who grew up to become Henry's chief minister. Born into humble and violent beginnings (in the book's first scene, a young Thomas is beaten to a pulp by his drunk father), Cromwell came to rule England by proxy, such was his power.

Ms. Mantel shifts her narration back and forth in time, so that we never learn the correct chronology of events, and this may create problems for a reader who is not in the know. Henry divorced his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, because she was unable to give him a male heir. He then married one Anne Boleyn, who was also incapable of fulfilling that particular wish. Henry would go on to marry four more times.

Irrespective of the need to know this background to appreciate "Wolf Hall," the story of Cromwell's rise shimmers in Ms. Mantel's spry, intelligent prose. By the book's second scene, for instance, Cromwell has morphed from the gangly abused youngster to the slick lawyer for Cardinal Wolsey, Henry's confidant who later fell out with him over his failure to get Henry's marriage to Catherine annulled. The relationship between Cromwell and Wolsey is that of hunter and prey. Initially a leonine figure wielding absolute power, Wolsey loses everything, including his life, to Cromwell, who uses the opportunity to endear himself to Henry.

It is in capturing such twists and turns of fate — so common to the Tudors — that Ms. Mantel shines. She leaches out the bones of the story as it is traditionally known, and presents to us a phantasmagoric extravaganza of the characters' plans and ploys, toils and tactics. There is rich dialogue here, removed from its datedness and assigned a very contemporary charge.

Beyond this, however, there is also a certain aim to Ms. Mantel's art. Regardless of the reasons behind the drift, Ms. Mantel is, and makes her reader be, appreciative of the English break from papal authority. England under Henry VIII is grateful for finally having its own church and being allowed to read the Bible in English. And by keeping Cromwell at the center of the drama, Ms. Mantel celebrates the intelligence and generosity of spirit too often denied Cromwell (most notably in Robert Bolt's "A Man For All Seasons").

Such is the vastness of Ms. Mantel's project that there is the fear at some points that she will not be able to pull it off. The novel, after flitting from one mise en scène to the next, abruptly closes on Cromwell planning a trip to Wolf Hall to arrange an alliance between Henry and Jane Seymour, his third wife who will finally yield the dynasty a male heir — Edward VI. Is Ms. Mantel pointing us to a possible sequel?

Be that as it may, the crackling energy of her narration, the eternal spark of her subject, and her assiduous determination to rescue the reputation of Thomas Cromwell — all these make "Wolf Hall" quite perfect an enterprise by itself.

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This review appeared in Washington Times. "Wolf Hall" has been shortlisted for this year's Booker. Read more about the Booker Prize by clicking on the "Booker" tag below this post.