Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Problem with Wolf Hall

I mentioned last week that Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall had polarised opinion among my writing acquaintance. Ever the temperate figure, I can see both sides of this. In the end, my reaction was one of disappointment, not because the book was bad, but because it was so nearly good. Inevitably, this is a subjective view: many good judges--and not just the Booker Prize ones--loved it. Sadly I am not among their number.

First the good, though--and there's plenty. The prose is beautiful, capturing at once the alienness and the familiarity of the Tudor period. Every page is rich with sensory description, often illuminating some deeper theme of the novel. The opening chapter, dealing with the abused childhood of the protagonist, Thomas Cromwell, is just about perfect: indeed, it raises expectations the rest of the novel can't fully realise. The decision to write the novel in the present tense, which could seem a gimmick, works well: it gives an immediacy to Cromwell's thoughts more often associated with first-person.

Mantel also excels at the political intrigues of the time. In the early chapter Cardinal Wolsey dominates, before Cromwell's own rise to power. The ascent of the blacksmith's son to be the power behind the throne is fascinating--how could it fail to be? Mantel's Cromwell sometimes seem to me too decent, insufficiently Machiavellian, but it's a welcome corrective to the standard view of him as an unredeemed opportunist.

I enjoyed too her portrayal of Sir Thomas More as a chilly fanatic, as unlikeable on the page as men of principle so often are in life. More and Wolsey for me both rang true. Less successful was Anne Boleyn: a cold and manipulative schemer we've all seen many times before, and heresy though it is to say it, Philippa Gregory nailed the type better in The Other Boleyn Girl. I was also unconvinced by King Henry: too much bonhomie and not enough of the psychotic.

By the end of the book, though, I was desperate to finish it and move on to something else (although the last couple of pages are again beautifully judged). For me there were problems wider than the odd questionable characterisation. The most obvious of these was Mantel's decision to refer to the protagonist as 'he' rather than 'Cromwell' throughout. On almost every page I'd be wondering whether 'he' referred to Cromwell or the last named character: unbelievably distracting, for no real benefit to the reader. I like to think my editor wouldn't have let me get away with it. Here's just one example of literally hundreds.

On the evening before Fisher is to die, he visits More.

But it's not Fisher who visits More, of course: it's Cromwell. It's an affectation, and one whose cumulative effect materially weakens the book.

Even that isn't the worst, though. Who am to tell a Booker Prize-winner how to structure a novel? I'm going to anyway. Wolf Hall operates in an astonishingly narrow register. The tone is unvarying, almost the entire narrative taking place either through conversation or 'his' thoughts. For me, at least, such a long book cries out for tonal variety. When we do see some 'real' action, it makes me wonder why we didn't get more of it. An early scene where the young Cromwell witness the burning of a heretic is moving and dramatic, but the book needed to give the reader this more often. You could take any page at random and see wonderful, effective prose, subtle and nuanced, but lay 650 such pages together and the whole is less than the sum of the parts.

It's not that I don't like 'quiet' books. Ann Weisgarber's recent Orange Prize nominee, The Personal History of Rachel DuPree, has if anything less action: but it's played out at less indulgent length, with much greater economy and, for me, a richer connection with the reader.

Wolf Hall is a hugely ambitious book. It takes one of our best-known stories, adopts some risky narrative devices and gives us, uninterrupted, one character for perhaps 200,000 words. In the end, she doesn't quite pull it off. I'm delighted to see a historical novel win the Booker Prize, but I can think of better examples.
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Ann Weisgarber said...

Tim, thank you for this honest review of Wolf Hall. It's now on the New York Times bestseller list and is getting a huge push everywhere in the States. I haven't read it yet but due to the page count, I'll have to wait until after the holidays. I'll see how confused I get with the "he" factor.

Many thanks for mentioning my novel, Tim. I appreciate it.

Alis said...

Tonal variety - Yes, OK, I think you're right, there wasn't much. But I felt that the intimacy we got with Cromwell's thoughts and conversations made up for it. Similarly, the continual use of 'he' gave a more intimate feel. It was a bit like being inside Cromwell's head for 600 pages and I loved it.

I agree about Rachel du Pree though - fab book which deserved a huge amount more notice.

Tim Stretton said...

Ann - At the very least you will find the narrative strategy interesting; and Alis and the Booker judges can testify, many readers loved it.

Alis - I agree about the intimacy, although I thought the same effect might have been achieved, with fewer downsides, by a straight first-person narrative.

Still hopeful that Rachel DuPree will be a sleeper hit. I think most of the people who visit my blog already know about it, so I'm not really helping the war effort much here!

Frances Garrood said...

Thanks for that, Tim. You really have made my mind up for me. I shall give Wolf Hall a miss.

By the way, talking of writers who just use the personal pronoun without telling you whom they're actually writing about, Gerald Seymour does this all the time. His books are often brilliant, but when a chapter begins "He lay in the long grass, watching the others through his binoculars", and it takes several pages for you to find out who "he" is, it can be exremely confusing.Why do writers do this? It adds nothing to the story, and merely frustrates the (or should I say this) reader.

C. N. Nevets said...


I used to be guilty of that quite frequently in my writing, and I still need to self-check against it. The reasons were two-fold:

1) Increased intimacy within a third-person narrative.
2) Increase air of mystery and supsense by withholding details.

It's somewhat comprable to the technique used in film or television wherein we do not see an entire character, but rather the character's hands, legs, or even all but the face. The idea is to build intrigue and draw the viewer (reader) in - until the big reveal. In film, it's the character's face. In literature, it's the character's name.

What I learned, though, is that this technique in writing is confusing and annoying to most people -- including myself when other authors do it!

Frances Garrood said...

Hi, C N Nevetts (Do you have another name??). I take what you say, but I think the problem with gimmicks - if they can be called that - is that they only work if they pass unnoticed, and merely add to the impact of the text. If the reader has to pause, thinking 'that's odd - I wonder why s/he wrote it like that' - then the effect is spoilt. The same thing can happen with description. If it conjures up an image, and does it well, then it doesn't much matter how it's done. But if it interrupts the flow for the reader, then for me, it hasn't worked. I remember ages ago a well-know author describing the sun 'rising like a broken egg', and that not only made me pause, but also conjured up a very odd picture indeed! I've forgotten the novel, but I'll never forget the broken egg.

Tim Stretton said...

If a narrative trick is so distracting that it pulls you out of the moment, it's almost certainly failed.

In Wolf Hall, many readers clearly didn't have a problem with the "he device". For me, having to read the previous paragraph again every couple of pages to work out which character a pronoun referred to was a needless distraction. In a lesser writer I'd say it reflected a lack of respect for the reader: even with Mantel, I have a hard time seeing it as anything other than a serious misjudgement.

It's more evidence, albeit by omission, of just how involving and flexible a first-person narrative can be.

Frances Garrood said...

Oh - and the other infuriating thing is when writers refuse to use inverted commas for speech. Why? What's the point? It's another device which seems to say "look at me. I'm different" and spoils the flow for the reader.

C. N. Nevets said...

Frances, people usually just call me Nevets. It has a boarding school or military feel that folks seem to enjoy, and it's less of a mouthful than either C.N. or what those initials stand for.

As for the topic, I think the difference between a "literary device" and a "gimmick" is precisely what you both point out: a gimmick (or trick) is distracting and hence counter-productive for a significant portion of readers.

I have not read Wolf Hall yet, and I'm hopeful that Tim's review enables me to do so with less confusion now that I've been forewarned about the "he" gimmick.

Certainly plenty of people have not been confused by it since it's a Bestseller, but if I had laid out the cash for the book that would have incremented its numbers but I would still be annoyed by that part. I don't think a gimmick necessarily destroyes a good book, but I do think it can make it less enjoyable of a book than it might have been.

And, sometimes, I will admit the author may consciously make the decision that that's fine. That's part of being an author.