Saturday, January 16, 2010


What have I been reading? Hmmm...

Galen Beckett, The Magicians and Mrs. Quent (very enjoyable, but not as good as Ellen Kushner - and the Austen pastiche works better than the Bronte pastiche).

Michael Crichton, Next (verging on satire rather than suspense, but quite readable - not his best, but then again Crichton could write a halfway decent novel in his sleep).

Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall. I liked it very much indeed, though I was struggling in the back of my mind as I read to articulate why it is that I do not in the end find Mantel to be in the very top rank of novelists. In a way she's too much of a thinker rather than a writer - it makes her novels attractive to me, but the prose itself does not stand out on the grounds of style, it's more a question of striking ideas.

(I read A Place of Greater Safety in 1993, on the recommendation of Simon Schama, and it certainly prompted me to read all of her other books, though many of them are depressing enough that they can't be called favorites - I do think that I would rate Beyond Black slightly above Wolf Hall, but then Wolf Hall is by far the more enjoyable read due to its subject matter.)

I love historical novels, I grew up reading Robert Graves and Mary Renault and Gore Vidal - and I also read Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time at an impressionable age. In other words, when I was ten or eleven Tudor history was on my short list of particular obsessions - I had a poster of that famous portrait of Richard III on the wall of my bedroom, and pored over biographies of Thomas More and so forth. I really, really like what Mantel's done here - the language is fresh (I was skeptical about the choice to write in the present tense, but it works, and she's got an unorthodox but appealing way of using the pronoun "he" as a way of centering the book almost completely inside Thomas Cromwell's head). The characters and the history are immensely appealingly dealt with, and the sheer scope of Mantel's novelistic imagination is perhaps the most impressive thing of all.

My one criticism is that when one turns to sentences and paragraphs, they are much less striking than the overall picture or the intellectual or psychological insights - the book is studded with paragraphs that have a sort of "meta-" or philosophical status, Cromwell is a person of insights, but they are too banal in their phrasing to be worth quoting on stylistic grounds. Which I think is a shortcoming - but it is certainly one of the best novels I've read for quite some time. She has developed a system of notation that is original and highly effective, but it is very much a creation of artifice - as opposed to Peter Temple, say, whose sentences make me feel as though he has actually discovered an almost completely foreign and yet strangely inevitable system for the transcription of reality that truly rocks me off my foundations...

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