I watched ‘Raging Bull’ the other night, though it was more like a test of endurance than a simple pleasure: it is such a claustrophobic, clenched-fist of a film, there is such an air of masochism about it, and it is so dominated by De Niro. The fights are astonishingly filmed, camera tight to his gloves, wheeling about, never leaving the ring, orbiting him, a helplessly drawn satelite.
Thomas Cromwell exerts the same planetary pull over Hilary Mantel’s 650 page Wolf Hall, set in the crucial decades which saw Henry VIII marry Anne Boleyn and declare himself head of the Church of England. The son of a blacksmith, he forces his way into the Tudor Court by a combination of machination, opportunism and sheer determination, eventually finding the favour of the king and becoming one of the most powerful men in England. He is a smooth-tongued political genius with a quick and capacious mind – ruthless and affectionate, calculating and loyal: a man who looks like a murderer.
It is fair to say that Cromwell encompasses the novel: it moves where he moves – indeed its length is in many ways a testament to his stubborn vitality. Stylistically, the writing is restrained, sometimes curt, though Mantel is an expert wielder of a dry aphoristic wit and there are occasional flashes of lyricism. Aptly for a novel about politics, dialogue dominates, though Mantel hardly ever mentions the protagonist by name. Instead, the third person ‘he’ becomes a sort of epithet for Cromwell in the same way it signifies divinity in the Bible – one feels after a while that it ought to be capitalised. It’s a clever – if precarious – device, because consequently the reader is made to feel at one step removed from the character over which the novel obsesses. It could easily become a frustrating or confusing authorial tick but doesn’t, because it embodies Cromwell’s impenetrability and omnipresence in the novel so succintly.
Yet reading Wolf Hall is a strangely illusory experience for such a doorstop of a book. To the author’s credit, it never becomes stodgy or ponderous. This, at least in part, is because it is a historical novel concerned with such familiar events which only describes a fraction of the whole story – Mantel is apparently already writing a sequel. It ends abruptly, almost arbitrarily, four of Henry’s wives yet to have their misfortunes visited upon them, Cromwell having not changed substantially throughout, future events bearing down on the reader but remaining unwritten. Despite its bravura and boldness of imagination, the novel has an inherent flimsiness, an allusiveness: it is an odd thing, after all, to be reading such an immersive fiction of the real life of someone whose name is first learnt in primary school. Wolf Hall is a monument to that man, casting a long shadow, for in a very real sense this history is changed by our reading of it.
*still reading Heart Songs…