Hilary Mantel and Elizabeth Strout

There was a moment, a few weeks back, when I was listening to four audio books (not simultaneously, obvs): Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel, Autumn by Ali Smith, Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout and They Came To Baghdad by Agatha Christie. And I thought to myself, wow, what a line-up. Does it get any better than this?

Alas, Autumn has fallen by the wayside. I love Ali Smith so I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the novel. What I suspect is that her style doesn’t translate well to audio – so few styles do. I love her whimsicality on the page, but it doesn’t come across so well when you’re listening. I must get hold of the book. And the Agatha Christie was a delight, but you probably don’t need me to tell you anything about it. You will either love Agatha or not, as the case may be, but if you love her, it’s a really fun and clever outing on her part.

Which leaves me with two novels to talk about here, one of which I expect lots and lots of people have read, the other of which I expect lots and lots of people are intending to read. And what fine novels they both were.

Bring Up The Bodies will scarcely require a summary. The second of Hilary Mantel’s Tudor novels, we’re following Thomas Cromwell through the wreckage of Henry’s love life. Cromwell is mostly definitely Henry’s right-hand man, but this is rather like being the enforcer for the Godfather. Cromwell accepts this, in fact, he almost welcomes it. But you do sense that this is at least in part because he knows that a fall from grace at this stage will mean death; so doing Henry’s bidding, however crazy or daft it might be, is a no-brainer nevertheless. And it’s hardly as if Cromwell needed the mental focus that would ensure.

When the novel begins, Henry is falling in love with Jane Seymour. She’s described as quiet, whey-faced, retiring, prudish, submissive. All the things, in other words, that Anne Boleyn is not – and this is not a coincidence. But Anne is in the early stages of pregnancy and so her position on the throne is relatively safe. Jane Seymour’s brothers and her father are in no doubt about the upswing in their fortunes that Henry’s infatuation might bring them. Jane is primped ready to meet the king’s needs while Anne is with child. But this never happens. Anne loses the child and, already out of love with her, torn by the desire for a male heir and by the desire for Jane, Henry starts to whine. He decides that this abrupt u-turn in his feelings can only be accounted for if Anne actually bewitched him into loving her in the first place.

Honestly, men! It’s bad enough they come up with this nonsense, but to see a long, inevitable chain of events unspooling from this ridiculous notion that will lead to Anne’s death is quite another matter. If ever a reader were in any doubt as to why power should be controlled by law and divided by as many people as possible, this is the book to clarify the reasons.

Ironically enough, Anne’s execution is facilitated by the death of the first queen, Katherine. While Katherine was alive, Henry had a reason to stick to his guns over Anne, out of stubborn contrariness if nothing else. But when she dies, then Henry starts to feel how lovely it would be if he and the Pope were on better terms again. Anne was an interloper, she put Henry in disfavour with the Catholic church, she has caused him problems without producing the required male child. Oh poor Anne; as spiky, egotistic and loveless a character as she is in Mantel’s version (and Mantel is brilliant in her portrayal), the sheer mendacity and corruption of the case that is brought against her is enough for outrage on her behalf.

Oh and lots of other things happen too: Cromwell is gearing up for his assault on the monasteries, an indication, I felt, of the general overreaching that is creeping into his management of the king’s affairs. Henry is often described as a big baby, and Cromwell, in that case, becomes his over-indulgent mother, giving him everything he really ought not to have. But in doing so, in the ever swifter dynamic of tending to the king’s needs with no hesitation and the experience of power it brings, he is starting to lose sight of the integrity he might once have possessed. If this book had been a movie, a sequel to Wolf Hall and a precursor of the final conclusion to Cromwell’s life, it would probably have been a mess of storylines without satisfying resolution. The kind of in-fill number that you are cynically made to watch if you want to follow the entire story. But in Mantel’s hands it’s all kinds of wonderful. Sharp, insightful, dramatic, gripping and exceptionally written. I expect you’ve heard other people say that, too.

Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout is also a sequel of sorts to her huge hit, My Name Is Lucy Barton. In it, Strout returns to Lucy Barton’s home town of Amgash, Illinois, and tells the stories of a number of characters who received only brief mentions in the first novel. Do you remember all the local histories Lucy’s mother tells her about, all those failed or difficult marriages that she recounts while Lucy is in her hospital bed? Well, along with Lucy’s siblings, those lives now take centre stage.

It doesn’t really matter if you haven’t read the first novel, because the real beauty of this novel – comprised in a series of interconnecting stories – is how the dots are all joined up between the people who feature within it. There was a moment in every story, a gorgeous AHA! moment, when I realised who it was we were reading about, which of the characters who had made a short appearance or been referred to in an earlier story. As in Lucy Barton, it’s a way in which the structure of gossip is used so cleverly and given such unexpected depth. It’s a gossipy small town situation that we always find ourselves in, and if you feel inclined to find that insignificant in any way, there’s plenty of times when you’ll say: Oh, so that’s what happened to so-and-so! And you’ll realise that gossip is storytelling at its most compelling.

What Elizabeth Strout also does with supreme narrative efficiency is draw us into lives of quiet anguish and the unexpected compensations they contain. Strout’s characters suffer: they have trauma in their past, and poverty, and deep, abiding sadness. But these sorrows are balanced by the genuine rewards that sometimes enter their lives – and Strout knows exactly what a real, honest reward looks like. Patty Nicely, a counsellor at the local high school, is bruised by an encounter with an ugly-mouthed teenager, who lets it be known that Patty’s worst secrets are common knowledge. But Patty finds her equilibrium when she summons the strength to understand the young woman and actively help her. How does she find it? Well, in between these two moments, she reads the latest book by Lucy Barton, a warts-and-all memoir of her childhood, and it delivers the grace of insight. ‘The book had understood her’, Strout writes in one of her devastatingly simple sentences. And I wonder how many people feel understood now in their ordinary sadness by Strout’s luminous writing.

There are so many wonderful stories in this narrative that it’s tempting to go on too long about them. My favourite was probably the one about the artist who comes to town for a week’s conference and is lodged with a couple who seem very respectable on the surface. Until the guest goes to bed and the hosts go upstairs to watch her do this on the webcam they have planted in her room. And I did love the story where Lucy briefly returns (as part of her book tour) to Amgash and a reunion with the brother and sister she hasn’t seen in seventeen years. It goes as well and as dreadfully as you might expect.

It’s funny when I think back on Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer-prize-winning Olive Kitteridge and remember that I really didn’t like it. It was one of the very few books back at that time in my life that I didn’t finish. I’m not sure which one of us has changed. But I feel that Strout’s writing has more emotional balance to it now, and that it makes all the difference. Boy, does she know how to do anguish! And she can take you to places that are almost too painful to tolerate – such ordinary humiliations, such unspeakable losses. In Anything Is Possible, though, the title holds a clue. People can be so reliably surprising; life can be so unexpectedly, ironically generous. These are the touches of grace that we live for, and which Strout captures so beautifully on the page.

New at Numéro Cinq

Way back in January I had a properly wonderful experience. I went to the studios of two very talented women: the painter, Miranda Boulton, and the poet, Kaddy Benyon, and spoke with them about their creativity.

The results were fascinating. Two amazing artists with two perspectives on creativity that could hardly be more different. We spoke about fear and anxiety, about process and productivity, about inspiration past and present, and about the roads their careers had taken them down.

The interviews are now up at Numéro Cinq and I think they’re both reassuring and encouraging for anyone who wants to live a creative life or simply explore their own relationship to art.

Storytelling and Compassion

One of the many wonderful things about books is that they give us a safe space in which to encounter difficult and frightening thoughts. The structure of a book, with its perceptive narrative voice and its promise of an ending, guarantees us at least one of the four great anti-anxieties: meaning, wisdom, truth and resolution. Whatever darkness the story brings, these four are the light.

How much darkness we can take, how much light we need is, I think, a very personal ratio. When I was younger, I had a lot more capacity for difficult and demanding novels. I had more stamina for reading about suffering. These days I can endure a great deal less. I’m sure this is in part because I am increasingly interested in what it means to be compassionate in the world. I’ve been reading a book lately that defines compassion as a two-part process. The first part is to look squarely at the pain, but the second, and equally important, is to think how suffering can be eased. This is not to say that bad events and the pain that accompanies them can be avoided. Alas, no. But what it does mean is that whatever pain we – or others – endure, the important part is to seek to minimize the extra and sometimes unnecessary suffering that clusters around it. The news, for instance, only thrusts the pain of the world in front of us – it has nothing to say about what can be done about it – and so it is essentially unkind. But literature is quite different. A well-told story is constantly helping the reader to stay clear-sighted and engaged while conflict takes place, so that we can think about it without being overwhelmed.

These thoughts have been running around my mind lately, after listening to two quite dark tales. The first, Chris Cleave’s Everyone Brave Is Forgiven, was very rapidly dubbed the ‘harrowing book’. Set in World War Two, it follows the fortunes of three young friends – Mary, who skies down to her finishing school the moment she hears war declared and packs her bags, hoping for adventure; Tom, who is in charge of education in a capital soon to be deserted by evacuation; and Alastair, Tom’s friend who has been working at the Tate as an art restorer, but who signs up immediately.

Mary is set to work as a teacher – not at all the sort of adventure she was longing for – and finds it surprisingly fulfilling. In particular, she forms a bond with Zachary, a dyslexic child (though no one understands this in 1939) whose father works in the Black-and-White Minstrels show in the West End. When Zachary returns from the country, having learned that rural prejudice is more dangerous than German bombing, Mary ends up in charge of a class of rejects. Children with learning difficulties or behavioural difficulties for whom the beauty pageant of evacuation has been a disaster. She also begins a love affair with Tom, who cannot help but admire her daring, courageous intentions, even while deploring the trouble she causes by them. People tend to have this mixed reaction to Mary – her well-born, well-bred mother, and her best friend, Hilda, being other examples. There is a long-held tradition of Mary pinching Hilda’s men, and so when the friends go for a double date during Alastair’s leave, the tradition raises its head in especially dangerous ways.

So far, I’ve made this book sound quite appealing, I hope, and mostly about love and friendship. But the majority of the narrative is concerned with the experiences of these characters during the Blitz and – in Alastair’s case – in Malta during its lengthy siege. And oh my lord, Cleave does not hold back with the horror of wartime. In fact, it is fair to say that the characters now undergo a series of traumas that will leave them broken and spent. I found long sections of this book very hard to listen to, and quite often I put my fingers in my ears and sang la la la la a lot. I only listened to a certain amount of it each night, so as to get to sleep. And then, when the horror never abated but seemed to be piled on and on, relentlessly, I found myself starting to laugh because I just couldn’t stay in that engaged place. Sometimes more is just too much.

Why did I stick with it? Well, essentially because of the quality of Chris Cleave’s prose. Here I owe the man an apology, because I seem to have contracted a prejudice about him. I thought he wrote just sensational stuff, all about making an audacious impact. And whilst this is sort of true, he can really, really write. He also keeps the characters’ interactions light. I’m not sure that everyone in wartime was this witty, but it’s nice to think so. There’s a real British spirit operating here (Brits really do whine during good times and then discover a sense of humour in awful crises), with the characters quipping away at one another, refusing to show they are rattled by means of deadpan humour. When a group of men are clinging to a too-small life raft off the coast of Gibraltar, the talk is all of the fish and chips they’ll have when they reach Brighton. The dialogue is very good, sharp and smart and pithy. Does it make up for all the characters go through? No, not really. It’s a bit like glitzy nail varnish on a corpse. But the ending is very gently hopeful, and the story is apparently based on the experiences of Cleave’s grandparents during the war (this bit was missed out of the audio book – shame!) and so you do believe there was the possibility of a happy ending eventually.

The second book I listened to was Salley Vickers’ Cousins. This was a very different beast – still beautifully written, but in a more straightforward way, less consciously literary. It was also very much informed by Vickers’ previous job as a psychotherapist, something that always thrills me in novels as I love a properly astute psychological framework in a story.

This novel begins with teenage Hetta being woken in the night by her parents. They have just received a phone call that changes everything: Hetta’s older brother, Wil, was climbing the tower of King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, where he is a student, when he fell. The family make a stricken dash through the night from Northumberland to Cambridge, fearing that Wil may die before they arrive. In fact, what happens to him is worse than that.

What happens next in the story is, essentially, the slow, gradual retelling of a long family saga. We have to understand Wil’s fall as the culmination of all sorts of family tensions and secrets which Hetta is determined to uncover. In the immediate present, the fall seems to be linked to a forbidden relationship between Wil and his cousin, Cele, a young woman who has been much neglected by her mother, and who has sought refuge while growing up in Hetta’s family. Brought up almost as brother and sister, Wil and Cele have been a great deal more to one another than that. And this turns out to be a repetition of an earlier family root. Hetta’s grandparents were also first cousins, but they managed to marry – though not without an indiscretion of Hetta’s grandfather which produces a child, Nat. Nat’s mother is killed during the Blitz, and so Hetta’s grandmother brings him up as if he were her own. In fact, she feels closer to Nat, more loving of him than she does of her other children – Belle, Cele’s selfish mother, and Beetle, Hetta’s timid and sensitive father. Then tragedy strikes Nat, and a long string of family consequences ensue.

This is a novel of two parts. The majority of the narrative is concerned with retelling family history, and it switches between the hands of Hetta, her grandmother, and Belle. But the latter stages are quite different, a courtroom drama of sorts, and I found the change of pace and direction a little disorientating. However, there is much emotional resonance in these events, as it feels as if the unpunished, unseen ‘crimes’ of family life finally reach a sort of fruition in an actual court of law. And what happens here, how the crisis is dealt with by the family, is an outright attempt to make amends for all that has gone before.

Cousins is not a smooth book. The start is rather slow, the end is rather surprising, but I enjoyed it very much. Salley Vickers has a gentle hand with tragedy, allowing the narrative to touch it and then move away. Funnily enough, this was the book that brought me to tears on a couple of occasions, which goes to show that you do not have to put the reader’s heart through the wringer to be assured of creating an effect. In fact, I often think it is kindness and simplicity that are really tear-inducing. And maybe that’s because we weep when we encounter compassion, since we are so sorely in need of it.

 

Artful

 

So long as that woman from the Rijksmuseum

in painted quiet and concentration

keeps pouring milk day after day

from the pitcher to the bowl

the World hasn’t earned

the world’s end.

Wislawa Szymborska (trans. by Cavanagh and Baranczak)

 

Of all the riches in Ali Smith’s book, Artful, this is perhaps the one that spoke to me most insistently while I was reading. We are living in difficult times and teetering on the brink of worse ones, and it is perhaps only art that has the authority and the kindness with which to remind us that it was ever so. And also to provide an antidote to all that is toxic in the present day. The Roman historian Sallust (again, thank you, Ali) said ‘these things never happened, but are always’, and if he could say that a millennium or so ago, and the World hasn’t yet earned the world’s end, well, maybe there’s hope. See, this is the paradox of reading a book that is purely, unashamedly, in fact joyfully, literary and apparently about nothing to do with the present moment at all. Art always has something relevant to say.

Artful is the compilation of four lectures Ali Smith gave at St Anne’s College, Oxford in January and February, 2012: On Time, On Form, On Edge and On Offer And On Reflection. It is not – as some reviewers seem to think – the novel that Ali subsequently made out of the lectures, but the lectures themselves ‘pretty much as they were delivered’. They are, in fact, the most original form of art criticism that I’ve ever read, being a combination of fiction and critique rolled into one big, generous, sometimes overwhelming gift of narrative.

There is a story, then, that weaves all the material together. Our narrator has been grieving for a lost partner for over a year when, in the hope of breaking the deadlock, s/he plucks a book down from the shelf at random and it happens to be Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. Thus encouraged to move a chair, which in the narrator’s opinion has long needed moving, in order to get better light, s/he begins the book, and begins to think about the book, and at that point something extraordinary happens: the ghost of the lost partner appears in the doorway, dirty and torn, covered in bits of rubble and having some trouble with words, but back. However, this is not a ghost like all the others. The first thing the partner does is to sit down in front of the television (‘You came back from the dead to watch tv? I said’), and then empties a cup of tea on the floor. Before long the ghost is being quite the nuisance, stealing things and breaking things and smelling so badly that all the neighbours ring up to complain about the drains.

Interspersed with the story of the revenant are passages of literary criticism which turn out to be the lectures that the lost partner was writing in the months before dying. These lectures bring together snippets of lots and lots of wonderful works – old and new, poetry and prose, the references range from Shakespeare and Gilgamesh and Woolf and Graham Greene to Hitchcock and Saramago and Beyonce (yes, you read that right). And they are used to look at all the rich and varied ways that time and form create, sustain and renew art, and that borderlines and edges, gifts and promises and reflections all thrill and confound and enlighten us. There is, oddly enough, a hurrying quality to the literary passages, as if there’s scarcely time enough for the writer to shower us with the abundance of artful gorgeousness that s/he longs to collate together here. Sometimes the ideas come so thick and fast that you just don’t have time to make sense of them all, or to get what each little passage means. To get the best out of this book, don’t quibble. Just open up your reading arms and gather in as much as you possibly can. It’s like Ali Smith has become Ali Baba and for the time of reading, this incredible cave of literary treasure is open to you. So hurry, take all that speaks to you, knowing you can come back for more. ‘We’d never expect to understand a piece of music on one listen, but we tend to believe we’ve read a book after reading it just once,’ Ali Smith writes.

Books need time to dawn on us, it takes time to understand what makes them, structurally, in thematic resonance, in afterthought, and always in correspondence with the books which came before them…. Great books are adaptable… You can’t step into the same story twice – or maybe it’s that stories, books, art can’t step into the same person twice, maybe it’s that they allow for our mutability, are ready for us at all times, and maybe it’s this adaptability, regardless of time, that makes them art, because real art (as opposed to more transient art, which is real too, just for less time) will hold us at all our different ages like it held all the people before us and will hold all the people after us, in an elasticity and with a generosity that allow for all our comings and going. Because come then go we will, and in that order.’

So perhaps you can see that the ongoing story of the ghost is a brilliant way of reflecting on the reflections on art. The ghost is the creation of the narrative – which is its own time out of time, and which has the elasticity to make anything happen that it chooses. The ghost is also a liminal element, which is to say something that hovers on the borderline between life and death, which makes us, precisely, aware of that very borderline and as such presents a hypnotic notion to our imaginations. And the ghost returns in stories in order to make the people in them reflect on their lives; this is what ghosts have, after all, a very special gift of enlightenment that can’t be given any other way.

But perhaps most of all, what we understand by the end of this poignant, beautiful and demanding little book is that art is always recompense for loss. It crystallises the lost moment, the lost experience, the lost society, the lost age. It gives us in imagination what we do not have before us in reality. And it comforts us and sustains us with the truth, told in a way that we can bear, given in a form that nourishes us. ‘All the time I read this book, I felt it was feeding me.’ (Katherine Mansfield on D. H. Lawrence’s novel, Aaron’s Rod) If you ever feel like you are losing faith in the world and in the humans who live in it, then pick up Artful. Or indeed any of Ali Smith’s works, which I love because her writing is always full of joy. But Artful will remind you why art is so necessary and so vital, today and always.