Posts Tagged ‘Wolf Hall’

Bring up the Bodies plunges us once again into the absorbing life and times of Thomas Cromwell, here in the year 1535-6, as he seeks to oust Anne Boleyn and replace her with Henry VIII’s next squeeze, Jane Seymour.  For the most part the sequel is every bit as dazzling as the Booker-winning Wolf Hall.  The characterisation is incredible, the description of setting vivid.  The dialogue exhibits the same delicious humour of its predecessor.  The pacing is perfect.  You really feel as if you’re in the cut and thrust of Tudor England.

Commencing where Wolf Hall left off, Henry and his court are enjoying summer at Wolf Hall, home of the Seymour family.  Timid and plain Jane is known to Henry already, but it is here that he sees her in a new light.  Cromwell begins to manoeuvre things to suit the whims of the monarch.

Times are tense.  Henry needs a male heir.  His bastard son, Harry Duke of Richmond, is no good.  The old families are plotting.  Cromwell is busy organising Henry’s affairs as well as those of his own.  He is a great moderniser, something that Mantel discussed in her recent Sydney Writers’ Festival appearance (see my muse on the session here).  He brings a bill to Parliament “to give employment to men without work, to get them waged and out mending the roads, making the harbours, building walls against the Emperor or any other opportunist.”  To do this he suggests levying an income tax on the rich.  Henry himself goes to Parliament to argue for the bill but it is defeated.

In contrast, modernising the old monasteries might be what businessmen refer to as ‘low hanging fruit’.  He thinks:

… if the king had the monks’ land, not just a little but the whole of it, he would be three times the man he is now.  … His son Gregory says to him, ‘Sir, they say that if the Abbot of Glastonbury went to bed with the Abbess of Shaftesbury, their offspring would be the richest landowner in England.’ 

‘Very likely,’ he says, ‘though have you seen the Abbess of Shaftesbury?’ 

How droll!

Anne is pregnant and hoping to bear a boy that would secure her position.  While pregnant she is not to be touched by Henry.  So he asks Jane Seymour to be his “good mistress”. … Cromwell thinks:

There is a difference between a mistress and a good mistress: does Jane know that?  The first implies concubinage.  The second, something less immediate: an exchange of tokens, a chaste and languorous admiration, a prolonged courtship … though it can’t be very prolonged, of course, or Anne will have given birth and Jane will have missed her chance.

It’s Jane Rochford, George Boleyn’s suffering wife, who brings Cromwell news he can use against Anne: love letters are being sent to her from the hand of Harry Norris.  Cromwell sees an opportunity to right an old wrong.  In Wolf Hall, four courtiers ridiculed his mentor, Cardinal Wolsey, in a play.  Cromwell is single-minded in his pursuit of them.  Conversely, he protects his friends, like Thomas Wyatt, who is also suspected of being a lover of Anne.

Poor Anne, she really doesn’t see the trouble she’s in, even when she knows Cromwell is talking to the Seymours.  She advises him:

‘Make terms with me before my child is born.  Even if it is a girl I will have another.  Henry will never abandon me.  … Since my coronation there is a new England.  It cannot subsist without me.’ 

Not so, madam, he thinks. If need be, I can separate you from history.

The machinations are a joy to behold.  No wonder Mantel, when asked at SWF, admitted that she likes Thomas Cromwell ‘very much’.  He had an ability to get himself out of situations that was incredible, she said.

Maybe, but Henry falls from his horse in a jousting competition and is knocked unconscious.  For two hours he is prone.  Everyone believes him dead.  Cromwell is summoned.  Arguments begin over the future of the monarchy, of the country itself.  History teeters on a knife-edge, so too Cromwell’s future.  This is one of those moments where the use of present tense works a treat.  We see the calculations as they occur; we hear the arguments; we witness Cromwell’s inner deliberations and upset that he didn’t prepare for this.  Take Henry away and he is finished.  The Duke of Norfolk snarls at him, telling him: “By God, I’ve got you now… By God, before the day is over your head will be spiked.”  Henry recovers.  Cromwell breathes again.

There are some sublime passages that follow this event.  When Cromwell’s chief clerk Rafe Sadler, who was brought up like a son, is promoted into the king’s privy chamber, there’s one on the art of being a high courtier, at the end of which, Cromwell thinks:

You can be merry with the king, you can share a joke with him.  But as Thomas More used to say, it’s like sporting with a tamed lion.  You tousle its mane and pull its ears, but all the time you’re thinking, those claws, those claws, those claws.

There’s another passage on a dream he has at which he sits down to a feast with all the old families at which the “Boleyns are laid at his hand to be carved”.

There are wonderful exchanges with the Emperor’s ambassador, Eustache Chapuys.  In one of these Cromwell foresees his end when Chapuys says to him: ‘You fear that [Henry] will turn on you.’  Cromwell replies: ‘He will, I suppose.  One day.’

And how’s this for delicious dialogue when Edward Seymour seeks an interview with Cromwell.  Anne has miscarried, opening the door for Jane Seymour.  Cromwell tells him about the plan to seek an annulment, though he doesn’t know on what grounds yet.  Edward says:

‘The Boleyns if they go down will take us with them.  I have heard of serpents that, though they are dying, exude poison through their skins.’

‘Did you ever pick up a snake?’ he asks.  ‘I did once, in Italy.’  He holds out his palms.  ‘I am unmarked.’

It’s beautiful characterisation, perfect for the slippery Cromwell.  Slippery and ruthless.  When, as part of his orchestration of Anne’s downfall, he exacts his revenge on the four courtiers, plus another man who wrote a ballad of their exploits, he tells Rafe:

Once you have exhausted the process of negotiation and compromise, once you have fixed on the destruction of an enemy, that destruction must be swift and it must be perfect.  Before you even glance in his direction, you should have his name on a warrant, the ports blocked, his wife and friends bought, his heir under your protection, his money in your strong room and his dog running to your whistle.  Before he wakes in the morning, you should have the axe in your hand.

True to form, Cromwell brings down Anne and her accused lovers with merciless efficiency.  Those claws of Henry’s could be his own.

For all its brilliance, there are a couple of off-key moments.  The first ten pages are ‘bumpy’.  The narrative voice struggles for traction.  Part of the reason is that we have a bit of re-hashing of who Thomas Cromwell is.  Another part of the reason lies, I think, in the use of the pronoun ‘we’.  It serves to distance the reader when it is trying to give us a role in the proceedings, undermining the closeness of Cromwell’s point of view that is one of the mainstays of both books.  I’d love to hear if anyone else experiences the same reaction.  I know one reader who did.

The second issue is ‘future-hopping’ in present tense.  In her SWF session Mantel commented that she saw the opening scene of Wolf Hall ‘cinematically’, so it seemed natural to use present tense.  It allowed her, she said, to show momentous instants in history as they were happening, to highlight how things might have gone one way or another, how things might have been different.  For me, this aspect of both novels is a huge success.  But: can you ‘jump’ into the future if everything is happening in the present?  Surely it’s a logical impossibility.  For example, there’s this bit of foreshadowing: “The young man gives him a glassy look.  It will be some years before he understands why.”  Some years?  How can he know this?  This is the author ‘speaking’.  If it were past tense, okay.  But in present tense it seems illogical.  Or is it just me?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

One other thing is the narrative gymnastics Mantel has been forced to engage in after some readers found the use of the pronoun ‘he’ in Wolf Hall to be confusing.  The result is things like this:

‘And what did the lady say?’ he asks; he, Cromwell. 

Fortunately this is as bad as it gets, but it’s clumsy, which is a shame as the approach in Wolf Hall worked well.  Mantel discussed this issue in her SWF interview as well, explaining how difficult a thing it is to balance the desires of different sets of readers.  I don’t envy her.

The story is too engrossing to care about small ripples like these.  Bring up the Bodies is every bit as entertaining and wonderfully imagined as Wolf Hall.  It’s tighter and in some  ways and more riveting.  The risk inherent in everything Cromwell does pulsates on the page.  A joy.

Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel


Fouth Estate

407 pages

ISBN: 9780007353583

Source: the local municipal library


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Thomas Cromwell is back – in Mantel’s new book, Bring Up the Bodies, the sequel to the hugely successful Wolf Hall (see my review).  In Bring Up the Bodies, we find Henry VIII ‘seeing’ Jane Seymour for the first time.  Of course, he knew her from her life about the court, but this was the time he saw in her something else.  Cromwell, the master strategist and tactician, has to work out what this means, for Henry, for Anne Boleyn, for himself, for England.

There is no personal record of Cromwell’s life, perhaps because he erased it as he went, perhaps because he was determined to live in the shadows.  But as an author, Mantel was able to read between the lines.  His private life was like ‘the dark side of the moon’ – we know it’s there but we can’t see it.  This is ‘where the novelist operates’, in the world that the historian cannot.  Cathcart quoted  historian Simon Schama who had said he often arrives into a scene only to find his subject disappearing around a corner.  When asked whether she was following Cromwell around the corner, she replied: ‘I’m already around it’!

She spoke about other sources, such as his relationship with Thomas More.  More’s death was not a victory for Cromwell.  More wrote a record of all their conversations, sent to family members from The Tower to be keep safe, and these provide an accurate picture of the relationship and the sort of man Cromwell was.  More thought of Cromwell as a ‘tender friend’, a relationship that is often thought of in a different light.

Mantel described the great modernising that Cromwell undertook, the innovation in public management, such as his introduction of the Births, Deaths and Marriages register, the taking of the bible out of scholar’s hands and putting it into the church, as well as the failed attempt to introduce a job creation scheme which would be funded by income tax.  It is in this sense, the time when England begins to become a nation.  When asked whether she liked him, she grinned and said, ‘Yes, I like him very much.’  Even at his worst.  She marvels at how he gets into situations and is ‘chortling’ as he then slips out of them.  He used ‘empathy as a weapon’, not just a shield.

When asked about how it was that she could bridge the five hundred year gap and get inside the minds of her characters, she said that the past is both strange and familiar.  It was strange in that there ‘were no atheists in those days – everyone was keeping a tally of their sins to judge whether they were destined for heaven or the other place’.  In a very funny line, she said that in those days it was an apt question as to whether the pope was catholic!  There was a sense that if you said or did the wrong thing then that was it – your life was over, which added poignancy to every moment.  On the other hand, the desires of people were the same as ours, their manoeuvrings similar to the ones we see today.  The other thing she made note of which was interesting, was the fact that Wolf Hall had been translated into 30 languages; someone in Korea is making the same cultural leap to read the book, so it’s something that us humans do naturally to some degree.

Mantel expanded on her point about those key moments when she discussed the use of present tense.  She saw scenes unrolling like a film, and wanted to show the possible turning points in conversations as they occurred, those moments in which history could have been different if something else had been said or decided.  In Bring Up the Bodies, one such moment is when Henry is knocked unconscious in a joust.  He was out cold for some time, perhaps two hours.  Cromwell is summoned and on his way to the prone body of the king he is playing in his mind all the ramifications, of who the next monarch might be, of how to engineer outcomes.  When he arrives, the moment is played out in a debate over the future of England.  Anne Boleyn is told the news that the king is dead (another moment) and blames this news for the subsequent miscarriage of a possible heir.

There was an interesting discussion about the use of the pronoun ‘he’ in Wolf Hall.  ‘He’ is always Cromwell unless Mantel notifies the reader otherwise.  Most readers, myself included, ‘got’ this in the first couple of paragraphs, but there was confusion in the minds of some readers.  The reason for the choice was her ultra close third person.  Because we see everything through his eyes, she found it hard to have him as narrator refer to himself in the third person.  In Bring Up the Bodies, she makes more use of ‘he, Cromwell’, to reduce confusion, but she noted that now some readers have said that the ‘Cromwell’ addition isn’t necessary – so you can’t please everyone.

In describing her writing process, Mantel said she writes in a ‘collage’, writing out different parts of the story, before taking a step back and seeing what she has and what the structure should be.

Has the winning the Booker Prize for Wolf Hall changed her?  ‘Less than you’d think’ was her reply.  She has increased confidence as a writer, but she still has to face the blank screen at the start of each day and those same insecurities are there – ‘you’re only as good as your next sentence’.  Stephen Romei, in another SWF2012 session ‘But is it a Good Read?’, pointed to both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies as being archetypes of great literature.  I’m very much looking forward to reading Bring Up the Bodies to experience what will surely be another cracking read, so I can test and savour all those beautiful ‘next sentences’…

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I am late arriving to Hilary Mantel’s fabulous, Booker-winning Wolf Hall, which tells the rise (and rise) of Thomas Cromwell, from the lowly son of a blacksmith to the highest of courtiers to the Tudor King, Henry VIII, drawn against the backdrop of the annulment of Henry’s first marriage to Queen Katherine and the coronation of Anne Boleyn and the schism in the church it creates.  I don’t intend to spend time outlining the story; there’s enough of that elsewhere.  What I want to muse on is Mantel’s characterisation of Cromwell, the master power-broker.

In most novels we find a protagonist who wants something and we follow them as they set about to get it.  Their desire is clear to us, and though in the best of stories they might get what they ‘need’ rather than what they ‘want’, their want is outlined from the off.  (We get to see their need as the story develops.)  What Mantel does in the close-third-person, present-tense re-creation of Cromwell is very interesting.  For much of the novel, his desire is hidden, unstated, slippery.  After travelling abroad, learning languages, banking, the art of relationships, he finds himself returning toLondon to take up the business of a lawyer.  Here he serves the infamous Cardinal Wolsey very well (as well as maintaining his own business affairs), and we see his loyalty and cunning, but, there is no overt desire stated.  It is only much later, after Wolsey’s death, when Cromwell is rising up the ranks in Henry’s court (much to the dismay of all the high-born councillors), that he begins to ask for some things.  But even then it is more a case of Henry thrusting positions and honours upon him without him asking for them.

This lack of inner awareness is wonderful characterisation.  Cromwell’s as slippery as aThameseel.  Henry’s old friends wonder who he is and how he got to where he is, [p394]:

Brandon grunts.  ‘We all are [guided by Cromwell].  We must be.  You do everything, Cromwell.  You are everything now.  We say, how did it happen?  We ask ourselves … but by the steaming blood of Christ we have no bloody answer.’ 

In a way, Cromwell can’t answer them, for he is spellbound by himself as well.  Late in the book he thinks, [p577]:

I shall not indulge More, …or his family, in any illusion that they understand me.  How could that be, when my workings are hidden from myself? 

Alice More, wife of Thomas, is under no illusion as to his abilities, telling him, [p605]:

‘My husband used to say, lock Cromwell in a deep dungeon in the morning, and when you come back that night he’ll be sitting on a plush cushion eating larks’ tongues, and all the gaolers will owe him money.’

The construct of a man who acts on instinct rather than pre-planning is reinforced time and time again.  What could be a better way of constructing Cromwell’s rise than to do it in this way?  It’s brilliant.

The depiction of the courtiers’ cut and thrust is sublime.  The dialogue is delicious, the humour ripe.  There’s one instance, after Cromwell discusses a carpet which he is wondering whether should be put on the wall or the floor.  Says Stephen Gardiner to Cromwell:

‘We all know that money sticks to your hands.’ 

Like the aphids to More’s roses.  ‘No,’ [Cromwell] sighs.  ‘It passes through them, alas.  You know, Stephen, how I love luxury.  Show me a carpet, and I’ll walk on it.’ 

Then there’s the moment when Cromwell comes to court to see Henry and is refused entry thus, [p422]:

‘The king cannot see you this monring.  He and Lady Anne are composing some music for the harp.’

Rafe catches his eye and they walk away.  ‘Let us hope in time they have a little song to show for it.’  

Cromwell is a master at reading people’s faces and body language.  The way he knows that Henry has (finally) bedded Anne is a joy.  (I’ll leave it for you to discover how.)

Research is woven into the prose effortlessly.  Take for instance this passage, where it builds upon the picture of Cromwell’s commercial prowess as he ingratiates himself to a Welsh merchant so he could marry his daughter: [p41]:

“Latterly, Wykys had grown tired, let the business slide.  He was still sending broadcloth to the north German market, when – in his opinion, with wool so long in the fleece these days, and good broadcloth so hard to weave – he ought to be getting into kerseys, lighter cloth like that, exporting through Antwerp to Italy.” 

There are some beautifully lyrical sections, including many of the early chapter ends.  Take, for instance, this end to the first chapter: [p16]:

“He will remember his first sight of the open sea: a grey wrinkled vastness, like the residue of a dream.” 

It seems remiss to just look at Cromwell’s characterisation, for all the characters are so deftly drawn.  Wolesy is a marvellous creation, so too Anne and Mary Boleyn.

Cromwell works very hard, and as the new positions of trust are added onto all the old ones, he increasingly wants for a day off.  Anne Boleyn’s coronation sees him organise everything, even the weather.  And then there’s the business of Thomas More and all the recalcitrant papists running aboutEngland.  The want of a day off ties in nicely with the book’s end.

I might have come late to Mantel’s marvellous Tudor world, but I won’t be as tardy when Bring up the Bodies, the sequel to Wolf Hall, is released next month.

Hilary Mantel is ‘appearing’ (via video-link) at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, talking about Bring up the Bodies.  See here for details.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel


Fouth Estate

650 pages

ISBN: 9780007230204

Source: the bookshelf rainbow

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What is the price of progress?

It seems the better the book, the slower I read!  This is counterintuitive perhaps, but I like to slow down and really—for want of a better description—gorge on beautiful writing.  I finished Just Relations a few days back but have been so flat out with other things (and other books!) I haven’t had time to write a review.

Just Relations is in many ways a product of its time.  Published in 1982, and winner of the Miles Franklin that year, it is a longish book.  In this regard it reminds me of books published around that time such as Midnight’s Children (1981) by Salman Rushdie, and Illywhacker by Peter Carey (a little later, 1985)—and I mean this in terms of length as well as style and quality.  Great books transcend the time they are written in and are always worth going back to.

(Of course in ‘those’ days, there was no internet!  What did people do with their spare time?  They read, (or went to primary school in my case!).  Today, we are in a very interesting time in publishing with everyone’s short attention spans and the rise of e-books.  Perhaps one of the most interesting questions is what it all means for the length of the book.  I’ve heard it said many a time that publishers will not consider publishing manuscripts over 120,000 words, unless the author is established.  But are books such as Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel reversing this trend, or is this a mere speed-bump on the road to shorter and shorter novels?  I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.  I could also pass comment about the changes in literary awards here, particularly with regard to books that win the Miles Franklin, but I shall desist!)

For lovers of quirky Australian tales with elements of magic realism that are beautifully written, Just Relations will not disappoint.  The by-line of the book is “A tiny, remote Australian community unites to thwart progress.”  It is a good summary of the town of Whitey’s Fall which is built up a strange mountain of gold that looms over the town and its old folk who gather silently in the Mountain Hotel, (the pub), to muse over their ‘religion’ of ‘Remembering’.

The opening scene will tell you much about the flavour of the story.  Into the town arrives Vivien Lang, a young English woman who enters the general store run by the ancient Mrs Brinsmead and presents her with a letter of introduction.  Felicity Brinsmead is old, like most Whitey Fallers and carries with her grotesque sack of hair and a terrible secret.  Vivien is a relation of one of the townsfolk (now living in England), and she is here to claim her relative’s property.  Mrs Brinsmead is excited by the arrival of so young a person in so old a town, and promises herself to introduce the woman to ‘Remembering’.  In the meantime the shopkeeper is having a conversation with the shop itself, who is a very miserable indeed(!)

After Viven’s exit, Billy Swan walks into the shop and asks for half a dozen sticks of gelignite.  This raises a few eyebrows.  The town was built years ago on the gold found in the mountain, and here is someone asking for explosives.  Has he found more gold?  Or has he found the gold but wants to not extract it but to blow it apart so that the town can remain the quiet backwater it is and not be over-run by every Tom, Dick and Harry on the back of the next gold-rush?  Mrs Brinsmead can’t find either gelignite or dynamite.  (It turns out that the ‘Fido’ she constantly calls out to is not the invisible dog that everyone thinks she is (madly) calling after, but her son, who she and her brother keep imprisoned in their house—not wanting to let him be known to the other townsfolk for he represents undeniable progress.  It’s Fido who has hoarded all the explosives.  But for what purpose?)

Billy leaves empty-handed and angry.  He soon meets Vivien and a relationship blossoms between them after they witness the death in a car crash of Mrs Ping who drives off the Mountain road.  And this is just the first one hundred pages or so!

It is impossible to summarise the cast of odd characters that Hall has assembled here.  They are as strange and quirky as the town.  The story is full of comedy, farce, tragedy, and wonderfully unbridled imagination.  There are many harrowing events; it seems Hall has a penchant for the grotesque things that people inflict upon themselves—or situations they wander into without warning.  Mrs Ping’s death is one example.  As is her husband “The Narcissist’s” razor-blade self-harm.

The town has steadfastly ignored the claims—and letters—of the outside world.  Things come to a head when Progress—represented by the new highway being built right through the town—threatens their very way of life.  (This made me think of a question asked of Peter Carey in London at a reading I attended when he was promoting True History of the Kelly Gang.  When asked whether he thought it terrible that the new freeway that skirted Glenrowan meant that people passed by without knowing the town and its history, he replied that ‘no, the people who want to know will take the turn-off’.  This is not quite what the townsfolk of Whitey’s Fall face, indeed quite the opposite, but they are both facets of the same ‘Progress’.)

What with the approach of the highway, what will the explosives in Whitey’s Fall be used for now?  The highway roadworks uncover the gold, but only the townsolf notice.  There is a lot of humour throughout the novel.  In this section we see Senator Halloran attempt to rally support for the road.  He says of the development that is cutting up the land: “Ecology is a web.  This road will make you part of it.”  How very droll!

No wonder Just Relations won the Miles Franklin Award, an award Hall has won twice, and been short-listed a further four times.  That’s a total of six short-listed novels out of the eleven he has written.  (He has also written numerous poetry volumes, non-fiction, and edited several poetry anthologies.)

Strangely, I haven’t read a lot of Hall’s work.  I heard him talk at the Sydney Writers’ Festival (2010) where he read from his just published memoir, Popeye Never Told You.  In that reading he described a German bombing raid in WWII.  The prose was sparse, haunting—and perfect for the subject.

In Just Relations, the prose is both lustrous and weighty, a combination that may seem impossible, but Hall achieves it.  I wonder how much the likes of Winton with all his ‘muscularity’ learnt from him?  Whatever the answer, he is, on the face of this book alone, a worthy teacher.

It might not reach the great heights of the works by Rushdie and Carey noted above, and here and there is perhaps a little indulgent—reflective of the time perhaps.  But its imagination is no less exciting.  It exhibits an intriguing range of narrative styles and voices.  It turns out the price of progress can be quite high, yet it also brings love and the promise of a new generation.

Just Relations kept me company for a while, and what good company it was!

Just Relations by Rodney Hall


ISBN: 0 14 00.6974 7          [clearly an old ISBN format!]

502 pages

Source: The Local Municipal Library

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The two-page preface to The History of the Siege of Lisbon (1989) outlines José Saramago’s contention that “history and fiction are constantly overlapping” – something that is quite topical with novels such as Wolf Hall spurring a recent swathe of historical fiction. But this is not a historical novel like Mantel’s Booker Prize winner, but rather a story ‘inserted into history.’  Its fictional siblings therefore include speculative ‘alternate histories’, such as Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (2004).  However, Roth takes a point in US history, (where he has FDR defeated by Charles Lindbergh in the 1940 Presidential election), and goes off on a tangent, writing a totally new history, whereas Saramago alters how a particular historical event occurs and who is involved, but there is no splintering off into some altered path of history which leads to an altered present.

The novel is constructed with two story arcs, one of which is historical, and the other in the present.  There are the events set in the twelfth century including our protagonist Raimundo Silva’s alternate history of the siege of Lisbon, and there is the life of Raimundo in the twentieth century.  It raises questions over how accurate the historical record can be and whether we can ever truly know the emotions or thoughts of characters whose history we interpret many years later.  How accurate can we be about History?

Saramago won the Nobel Prize in 1998.  This is the third book of his I’ve read.  The Stone Raft, in which the Iberian peninsula breaks off from Europe and floats around the Atlantic(!), and The Gospel According to Jesus Christ are the other two I’ve read.  The later is also an alternative history in the same vein as the Siege of Lisbon.  Both are excellent reads and are highly recommended.

In much of Saramago’s work, characters regularly have trouble connecting with others, and his novels regularly feature the theme of urban dislocation.  They also regularly feature magic realist elements.  The theme of historical accuracy and the framework of magic realism – right up my street! – so I was looking forward to another fine read from the Nobel Prize winning author.

Reading Saramago has its challenges.  He only uses commas and periods.  There is no other punctuation.  So, no question marks, exclamation marks, or dialogue quotation marks.  Dialogue is subsumed within the prose, marked only by a commencing capital letter and conversations are strung along with commas being the only separator between characters’ words.  His view is that the prose itself should make it clear as to who is speaking and also whether there is a question or exclamation involved.  One thus has to concentrate to keep up with things.  Close reading is a must.

This means that we get great slabs of prose, made only larger by his penchant for interminably long sentences and paragraphs, full of what I would call ‘narrative deviations’ in which the narrator goes off on some tangent to explore an idea or make a witty aside.  For example: (p63):

a traditional Portuguese meal of fried fish and rice with tomato sauce and salad, and with any luck, the tender leaves of a lettuce heart, where, something not many people know, nestles the incomparable freshness of the morning, the dew and mist, which are one and the same, but warrant repetition for the simple pleasure of writing both words and savouring the sound.

… It’s lovely writing, with lovely images, but there’s just too much meandering.  It is in some way reminiscent of Garcia Marquez’s excellent (and challenging) The Autumn of the Patriarch, (see my review), and provides a stark contrast to the pyrotechnics of a Dave Eggers or Jonathan Safran Foer for example.

Yet for all the promise of the story’s idea and the sometimes beautiful writing, for some reason only the modern arc of Raimundo’s life worked well for me.  Raimundo is a proof-reader and one day we see him insert a ‘not’ into a historical text entitled The History of the Siege of Lisbon – on purpose!  The deliberate mistake is only noticed after the book has been printed, but not before it is distributed.  The publisher’s decide to insert an errata notice rather than republish.  They also bring in a new woman, Maria Sara, to oversee all of the firm’s proof-readers’ work.  Needless to say, the meeting between Raimundo and his new boss is a tense affair!

After the meeting, Raimundo’s mind is filled with questions over the brusque nature of the woman.  Sometime later, he realises he has feelings for her.  Maria tells him that he should write the fictional history of the siege of Lisbon, one in which the crusaders decline to help the Portuguese evict the Moors from the fortified city.  After some silent rubbishing of this task, Raimundo finds himself drawn further and further into the lives of both Moor and Christian.  The fact that he himself lives in the fortified section of the city’s walls adds further intrigue – he can see battles and events from the distant past as if they are happening.  These historical scenes didn’t really capture my imagination.  Sometimes Saramago’s interminably long sentences with all their ‘nods’ and ‘winks’ and witty asides bored me.  It was all too ponderous.  So we have a wonderful premise for a story, but a structural problem with the dual arcs, one of which lacks bight.

It is only when the relationship between Raimundo and Maria Sara takes off that things move along nicely.  Here there are some wonderful moments, where an older single man falls in love with a woman fifteen-odd years his junior, who, we learn, liked him from their first meeting.

This is one of Saramago’s books that is one the 1,001, Must Read list.  I will certainly read other books by him, but just felt part of this novel didn’t work as well as it might have, which is a shame because the theme of the intersection between history and fiction is wonderful, one that is always worth exploring.

The History of the Siege of Lisbon by José Saramago

The Harvill Press, London

ISBN: 9781860467226

312 pages

Source: Personal Bookshelf Rainbow

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