Booker Prize 2012: Hilary Mantel

How fitting that a writer best known (now) for historical fiction made history? My piece on Mantel’s double Booker in today’s DNA (I’m happy to report that the headline is, ahem, incorrect only in the website. The newspaper carried the sensible version). There’s nothing disappointing about Bring Up The Bodies winning because it is a brilliant book. Structure, pace, language, characterisation, tension, research — it has everything. The one twinge of disappointment for me came from the Booker judges choosing to pick an already famous and bestselling author, rather than someone lesser-known. I probably wouldn’t have felt this twinge if I didn’t love Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists as much as I did. But for all my fondness for it, I can’t deny that Bring Up The Bodies is tighter and better structured than The Garden of Evening Mists. So I guess the mightier book did win. Anyway, here’s my bit on this year’s Booker.

Double Booker for her Mantel

When Sir Peter Stothard, chairman of the judges, announced Hilary Mantel was this year’s Man Booker Prize winner, no one should have been surprised. Mantel has been the favourite ever since the Booker shortlist was released last month. In spite of this, it took a moment for the announcement to sink in because Mantel hadn’t just proved the bookies right; she’d made history.

After Peter Carey and JM Coetzee, Mantel is the third person to have won two Booker prizes. She is the first woman and the first Briton to win the double. She won her first Booker prize in 2009, for her twelfth book, Wolf Hall, which was the first instalment of a trilogy on the Tudor statesman, Thomas Cromwell. Bring Up The Bodies is the second part and Tuesday night’s win makes this the first sequel to win the prize. Stothard described Mantel as “the greatest English prose writer” of our times. Mantel’s reacted to the win with a quip: “You wait 20 years for a Booker Prize and two come along at once.”

This year’s Booker Prize shortlist was praised for the emphasis placed on craft, which was a stark contrast to last year’s selection that selected books for their “readability”. In the prelude to the announcement, Stothard said that the original idea behind the Booker was not to create bestsellers but to applaud high quality storytelling in prose. His words may have sparked a flame of hope in the hearts of the independent publishers of shortlisted novels — The Lighthouse and Swimming Home — but ultimately, the panel of judges ended up selecting the book that, in terms of sales figures, has proven to be the most readable. As of now, Bring Up The Bodies has sold 1,08,342 copies in UK, which is more than what the other 11 novels longlisted for this year’s prize have sold altogether. The success of Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies must be particularly satisfying for Mantel because initially, she had trouble finding publishers for Tudor-era trilogy. Usually, fiction set in that era chooses well-known characters like Henry VIII as heroes, but Mantel picked Thomas Cromwell, a shadowy historical figure.

Wolf Hall introduced readers to Cromwell and in Bring Up The Bodies, he’s the man who brings Anne Boleyn down. The last of the trilogy is titled Mirror And Light and will continue Cromwell’s story till his execution in 1540. Upon receiving the Booker Prize, Mantel said, “I assure you I have no expectations that I will be standing here again. But I regard this as an act of faith and vote of confidence.” What’s the bet that once Mirror and Light comes out, we’ll all be hoping for a hat trick?

Memory Lane: Hilary Mantel

I’ll put up the links to what’s in The Mag a little bit later, but I found this while rifling through my inbox so thought I’d put up the easier post first. Hilary Mantel fans, enjoy!

So three years ago, when The Tudors was turning our brains into potatoes with its version of Henry VIII’s England (what can I say? So not a fan) and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall came to save the day, I’d interviewed Mantel for Time Out Mumbai. I can’t find the link to my article in the Time Out website She was a very generous interviewee, which meant I was only able to use excerpts of her replies.  Here’s the unedited interview.

‘Who’s interested in what’s easy?’

DP: You’ve written short stories, memoirs and novels. Is there something in particular that made you interested in tackling historical fiction? Did you enjoy the research process?

HILARY MANTEL: Looking back, I think that writing my memoir was a kind of training ground for future novels, and something that was good for me as a writer. There are people who insist that almost all your memories of childhood are later reconstructions,but what I found when writing my memoir was that my childhood rose before me as an utter sensory wraparound, so that I was able to inhabit my past, and my work was to simply describe it. When you write fiction, the object is to achieve that on behalf of a character that you’ve invented or a person who is dead. I don’t think I’ve ever managed to do it as successfully, in fiction, as I have in Wolf Hall.

What I also found when writing Giving Up the Ghost was that whilst I could capture the entirety of my childhood experiences, I often couldn’t tell the reader why things happened, or how the event I was describing linked to another, and I think I carried this discovery into Wolf Hall. When Cromwell remembers an incident from his childhood – for example, he recalls plunging the head of another boy into a butt of water – he has no idea why he did it, and I knew from my own experience that these gaps and holes are part of the texture of memory. In this book I was determined to reproduce a life from the inside. I thought, ‘Let us try to see a man in his full complexity. Even if there are bits that he himself doesn’t understand and can’t add up, let me still include them.

The Tudors are the great national soap opera; their story has been worked over so extensively that we see it as having a kind of inevitable, predetermined quality about it, so I needed to find a way of telling the story that would create an immediacy of viewpoint and cancel out the preconceptions we were brought up with. In writing the opening scene, of the boy being beaten up by his father, I was simply launched into the present tense. And I stayed with it because it was a way for me to capture the soundtrack inside Cromwell’s head – the immediacy of his experience. Also, though we may know how it all ends, Henry and his court didn’t. They didn’t know that the War of the Roses had ended; because the Tudor claim was weak, they dreaded that civil war might break out again. Henry didn’t know he would have six wives – even when he married number five, he couldn’t have known it. The present tense forbids hindsight and propels us forward through this world, making it new, just as it was, in every unfolding moment, for the players.

DP: Of all the characters in Henry VIII’s England, why Thomas Cromwell?

HM: I first came across him when I was a child learning history in a Catholic school. I grew up with the sainted Thomas More looking down from stained-glass windows. As I am a contrarian, it made me ask whether there was more to Cromwell’s story than just his opposition to More, and I carried that question with me. When I began writing, I registered him in my mind as a potential subject. This would have been in the 1970s, before I’d finished my first novel. There seemed to be a lot of blanks in his story, and it wasn’t easy to find out anything about him, but it’s in those gaps that the novelist goes to work.

When I began writing Wolf Hall, it was the arc of Cromwell’s story, the transformation from blacksmith’s son to Earl of Essex, that fascinated me. I wondered, ‘How is that done?’ You’ve got to try to answer that question – it’s the very kind of question that novels are for. But what made me sure that I could work with him, so to speak, was a letter he wrote to a friend in the 1520s, when he was an MP. It is a huge rhetorical description of the course of Parliament and all the business it dealt with, which finishes with a simple, and totally deflationary,line. I paraphrase: ‘And at the end of it, absolutely nothing changed.’ The wry humour in that letter showed me there was a personality that I could write about.

I started out more or less accepting the estimate of him as a villain, but I thought he must be an interesting one. His astonishing rise in the world fascinated me. As I read his letters and better understood his mind, I saw that he had a radical vision of English society and yet he was also somebody who hammered every detail into place. In his adroitness of mind and the completeness of imagination he stands head and shoulders above his contemporaries.

Another thing that drew me was Cromwell’s will, which he wrote towards the end of the 1520s. When you’ve seen somebody’s life so minutely taken apart,when you know who’s going to get his books and who’s going to get his second-best gelding, and you know the names of the people in his household,you become part of that life. You see his daily existence and routine and his whole system of orienting to the world. Seeing the will was like being able to go into Cromwell’s house and take photographs.

DP: The Tudors have received a fair amount of attention, particularly because of the films and television series its inspired. How do you feel about these glamourised versions?

HM: These stories have an archetypical force. A lot of retellings of Tudor history aren’t really about Tudor history at all. They’re about sex and violence and the war between men and women. The story of the Tudors is just a veneer and I think they’ve been used as an excuse for a lot of cheap popular romantic fiction. It used to be a way of writing about sex when you weren’t allowed to, and now it’s a way of writing about the destructiveness of families, and the rivalry between women.

I wanted to actually engage with Thomas Cromwell, whose story isn’t very much told. I wanted to get away from the feminist slant on it. I don’t see any reason why—just because I’m a woman writer—I have to confine myself to writing about Anne Boleyn. No reason I shouldn’t take on Thomas Cromwell. He’s a man at the center of everything, and yet in most fiction and drama he’s pushed into the wings, and he stands there, wrapped in his black cloak, hissing and plotting. I wanted to bring him center stage and put the spotlight on him. So I thought it was legitimate to have another go, even though the story has been told so often, because a different angle makes the whole picture different.

DP: There’s been talk in some British newspapers of introducing more historical fiction in school syllabi since the success of Wolf Hall. What do you think is the importance of historical fiction? Do you think the blurring of the boundary between history and fiction is problematic?

HM: It’s always a tension. When historians read your book they think, “Why did she leave out such and such?’’ and when literary critics read it they think, “Why did she bother to put it in?’’ You just keep your eye on the general reader, who is you by proxy. The novelist has a responsibility to adhere to the facts as closely as possible, and if they are inconvenient, that’s where the art comes in. You must work with intractable facts and find the dramatic shape inside them.

When I started writing fiction, I began with historical fiction. I’ve written a big book called “A Place of Greater Safety” which is about the French Revolution. It wasn’t published first, but it was where I started, so working with facts and data is natural to me. What I had to learn to do is to invent things. I really became a novelist in the course of writing “A Place of Greater Safety.” I try to stick with the facts until the facts run out. I don’t try to improve on the facts.

You can see from the television drama “The Tudors.” Every time they take one decision that’s contrary to the way things really happened, there’s a cascade of consequences, and in the end, the story becomes complete nonsense. Perhaps you’ve left out a vital character, or you’ve given someone a different name because you don’t trust the viewer’s or the reader’s intelligence. The most crass example was that Henry VIII had two sisters, and they decided to roll them into one, but once you take that kind of decision it ripples through everything you’re going to write thereafter.

DP: I believe you’re working on a sequel to Wolf Hall. Does Thomas Cromwell remain the hero?

HM: I’m longing to be back in the thick of the action. Partly it’s because I want to know what’s going to happen next. When I write, there are often times when I go into a scene not quite sure what I think, knowing that the problem I have to solve revolves around one question, ‘How did this happen?’ And by the end of the scene I have an answer, because it’s happened on the page. So I am looking forward to getting back to those puzzles in the new book.

Also, I’ve been so heartened by the way in which Wolf Hall has been received. There’s always the danger with historical fiction that it may fall short as both literature and history. I knew when I took on this project that it was going to be a very difficult thing to do. But, ha! Who’s interested in what’s easy?

What I have got at the moment is a huge box of notes.

The Booker Shortlist

The shortlist for the Man Booker prize is out and it includes Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (which I loved) and Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil (which I wrote about here, sorta). The piece below was came out yesterday.

Thayil’s Narcopolis in Booker Shortlist

The Man Booker Prize’s love affair with debut novels by Indian authors continues.

On Tuesday, in London, the six novels shortlisted for the £50,000 prize were named and Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis is one of them. Thayil, 53, is the seventh Indian author to be selected in a Booker shortlist since the prize was instituted in 1969 for the best original, full-length novel in English by an author from one of the Commonwealth countries or the Republic of Ireland.

The other five in the shortlist this year are Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel, Umbrella by Will Self, The Lighthouse by Alison Moore, Swimming Home by Deborah Levy and The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twang Eng. Sir Peter Stothard, the editor of a prestigious literary magazine and the chair of the Booker panel, said of the shortlist, “We loved the shock of language shown in so many different ways and were exhilarated by the vigour and vividly defined values in the six books.”

Unlike last year when the emphasis was on what the judges termed “readability” and critics interpreted as populist, this year’s selection has been praised for applauding works that are more experimental and radical. Had the criterion for this year’s Booker shortlist been stories that zip along, Narcopolis would probably not have made the cut.

Thayil’s novel, which was rejected by a number of Indian publishers before being picked up by Faber and Faber, is an intoxicating and unromantic meander through time and gloomy opium dens in a grimy, dark part of Mumbai. The critical response was divided with some accusing Thayil of self-indulgence and others praising the novel for its poetic quality.

In the past, Thayil has published and edited a number of collections of poetry. He is also a performance poet and musician. Thayil has a reputation for attracting controversy. Most recently, he was among the writers who read extracts from The Satanic Verses at this year’s Jaipur Literature Festival to protest Salman Rushdie’s absence. Rushdie cancelled plans of attending the event when he received death threats.

The Booker prize, however, considers “texts not reputations”, according to Sir Peter. While it was a surprise entry into the longlist, the gambling company Ladbrokes had backed Narcopolis being included in the shortlist. In the race for the ultimate prize, however, the novel is very much the dark horse. At present, Bringing Up the Bodies and Umbrella are the frontrunners. The odds being against Narcopolis doesn’t bother Thayil. When asked how it felt to know Narcopolis had been selected for the shortlist, Thayil told DNA, “It was a strong longlist this year. I’m absolutely delighted.”

The Man Booker prize winner will be announced on October 16, in London.

The Mag This Week

In today’s Books page:

My review of Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up The Bodies, which is the sequel to Wolf Hall and in the longlist for this year’s Booker prize.

Also, Pramod K. Nayar reviewed The Wind Through The Keyhole by Stephen King and Karishma Attari found similarities between Farahad Zama’s Mrs. Ali’s Road To Happiness and Jane Austen.

Queen Sacrifice

It’s near the end of the novel that the title phrase, “bring up the bodies”, is finally used. It’s the order sent to the Tower of London when it’s time for those incarcerated in the Tower to be presented for trial. There’s a morbidity to the sentence, as though those on trial have already relegated to the status of corpses even as they make their way to court. In case of Anne Boleyn and the men labelled as her lovers, this was true. The executioner’s axe hovered over their necks from the moment Thomas Cromwell chose them to be sacrificial lambs in Henry VIII’s quest for marital bliss.

Wolf Hall ended with Henry and Anne poised for happily ever after, but as anyone even vaguely acquainted with Tudor history knows, this accord was not to last. Bring Up The Bodies begins in September 1535 and ends in the summer of 1536. More than 400 pages are spent recounting descriptions of what Cromwell sees, from his papers to the costumes donned for Christmas festivities and his reminiscences about a drunk knight he met decades ago in a pub in Europe. His conversations, whether with the cook or an imperial ambassador, are presented in detail. This could make for dreary reading but the pace of Bring Up The Bodies never slips and not a single paragraph meanders from the central concern, which is the collapse of Henry and Anne’s marriage. Cromwell is a masterful chess player, using the people around him like pawns. His precision, like the way he wields Jane Seymour and her family to bring down the Boleyns and hasten the collapse of the royal marriage, is chilling.

Historical fiction is a challenging genre because it demands a story from the past be told in a way that suits the sensibilities of present-day readers. It must appear authentic without seeming dated, well-researched but not dry.Bring Up The Bodies ticks all these boxes. Add to this Mantel’s elegant language, Ann Boleyn who is one of the most controversial women in British history and Mantel’s Cromwell, and you have historical fiction that crackles from the very first page. The contest between Anne and Cromwell is not a fair one — his spies far outnumber hers and are loyal to him while hers prey upon her insecurities and perch upon her shoulder anxiously, hyper alert to shifts in power. Plus, he has the king’s backing. However, perhaps the ultimate victory is Anne’s. At one point, Cromwell thinks, while talking to Anne, “If needs be, I can separate you from history.” The fact, however, is that Anne proved to be unforgettable, despite Cromwell’s stratagems.

As far as Mantel is concerned, while Cromwell may be the one who effectively builds the foundations upon which Anne’s execution takes place, Anne’s beheading is Henry’s cross to carry. The king behaves petulantly, eager for a new toy now that the Anne is no longer shiny and pleasing after having given birth to a girl and suffered miscarriages. So eager that he asks Cromwell to deliver to Jane Seymour a miniature, jewelled Bible as a token of his affections soon after Anne is taken to the Tower of London.

When Jane — a delicate and tragic creature who is pushed and prodded by power brokers — unwraps her gift, she sees it has the initials H and A on the cover; under the A, the K is still visible.
Henry’s adolescent carelessness seems all the more pronounced because of Cromwell’s extremely measured conduct. As secretary to the king and a commoner who has risen to a powerful position in a relatively short period of time, Cromwell has many aristocratic enemies. He focuses his attention upon keeping Henry happy and if this requires removing Anne, Cromwell will do so. If he can also get rid of a few of the courtiers who have insulted him as part of this project, Cromwell is not one to let such opportunities pass. His heroic stature, however, comes not from being an able servant of the crown but from his genuine commitment to bringing change to England, finding able men from unimpressive backgrounds and attacking exploitative systems like the corrupt clergy. Knowing the history and being aware of the fate that awaits Cromwell in the final part of Mantel’s trilogy, it’s impossible to not feel a sense of painful disappointment as Mantel draws her portrait of this extraordinary and mysterious man whose ability to remain in the background and yet manipulate events is nothing short of a superpower.

While the order “bring up the bodies” pushes the living towards the dead, Hilary Mantel’s novel exhumes Tudor England from the grave of history and infuses life into its most powerful players. Mantel succeeds in not just neutralising the Curse of Part Two, but writing a sequel that is more accomplished than the first. Wolf Hall evoked Tudor England brilliantly andBring Up The Bodies succeeds both as a follow-up but also as an independent novel. Plotted precisely and written with extraordinary elegance, Bring Up the Bodies deserves every superlative in the dictionary.