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He is reading the book, but he finds that he has no idea what is transpiring, despite the fact that he really feels he knows his Tudor history. Who is he? Antecedents are passé. Bliss is it in this dawn to be alive.

Was that sentence, just now, anachronistic? Time to change pronouns. She knows not the answer. What was the question again? But why is he talking about something that already happened in the present tense? Does she know perhaps? He suspects not. Oh, yes, everyone hates Thomas More. What’s that?

TitleWolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel [Hint: Click the link for something you should read.]

Completed: February 19, 2012 (#13)

Recommendation: Never has a book put this reviewer so in mind of Averroës’ great classic of Arabic philosophy: The Incoherence of the Incoherence. Grammarians be warned!

One would have thought that no writer could be so preoccupied with post-modern stylistic conventions as to drain the color from Tudor England and the Court of Henry VIII. Mrs. Mantel disabuses them of his notion through its magisterial mustering of their mother tongue. Yes–you read that correctly. Or did he?

They retort (see below for antecedent): “See here, you philistine, the narrative is just so much more real and engaging when it’s all done in the present tense. Don’t you see how Mrs. Mantel truly inhabits her characters? Her style is just so….so….trangressive. Yes, that’s the word we’re looking for! Surely those who confer the Man Booker Prize for Fiction (that’s us, see supra at ‘they’) are better equipped to judge Mrs. Mantel’s work than you, you cretin?”

Indeed, just as the bien pensants of the Nobel Committee are uniquely equipped to discern the quiet dignity with which the likes of Le Duc Tho and Yasser Arafat trod the path of peace.

Yes, Mrs. Mantel’s grand retort to Strunk & White is pearls before this swine. The poetry of Wolf Hall eludes this benighted denizen of a more prosaic age when mystifying the reader was not a novelist’s primary objective:

But Patch—Master Sexton—is not up to the job. The cardinal seems weakened; he seems to feel the weight of his flesh hanging on his bones. He, Cromwell, slides from his saddle, nods to three of the stouter servants. ‘Master Patch, hold Christopher’s head.’ When Patch pretends not to know that Christopher is the mule, and puts a headlock on the man next to him, he says, oh, for Jesus’ sake, Sexton, get out of the way, or I’ll stuff you in a sack and drown you. The man who’s nearly had his head pulled off stands up, rubs his neck; says, thanks, Master Cromwell, and hobbles forward to hold the bridle. He, Cromwell, with two others, hauls the cardinal into the saddle. The cardinal looks shamefaced. ‘Thank you, Tom.’ He laughs shakily. ‘That’s you told, Patch.’

And that is one of Mrs. Mantel’s more lucid passages, inasmuch as she (or more likely her saintly copy editor) slipped in a couple of appositive “Cromwells” to help orient the reader!

Ever heard (or used) the cliché about the book so good you couldn’t put it down? Ever wonder if the photographic negative of such a book existed–i.e., the book so bad you couldn’t pick it up? Wonder no more.

What was I to do? Pretend as though I hadn’t read the book at all and move on? Skip liberally over the middle 500 pages to pick it up for the climax in the last 100 pages? Delude faithful readers of A Superfluous Man into believing that I had conquered this Everest when in fact I had quit in the foothills?

After several dozen pages, once it was reasonably clear (through a glass darkly) that “he” referred to Thomas Cromwell and that the novel’s plot revolved around Cromwell’s rise to the chancellorship, this reviewer struck a bargain with himself:

“For the benefit of my devoted fans, I will read on until either Anne Boleyn or Sir/Saint Thomas More is excuted. Then I’ll move on to greener pastures. Surely a biographical novel on Thomas Cromwell–who was also executed by the King–will end with the his death. Thus, it must be the case that in another 200 pages or so More will get to go down with a dignified ‘the king’s faithful servant, but God’s first’ and Boleyn will get to utter her line about her ‘little neck.’ And really, how could anyone screw up such intrinsically dramatic scenes?”

More fool I. More only dies (off-stage, no less) on the penultimate page! And not even a hint of Cromwell’s death!

In exchange for his naive assumption that Mrs. Mantel might follow the most basic narrative conventions in retelling this much-told tale of the birth of Protestant England (or, rather, the death of Catholic England), the reviewer was treated to several hundred pages of obfuscatory pejoratives lobbed at the saintly More.

You may remember him thus, in the words of Robert Whittington:

More is a man of an angel’s wit and singular learning. I know not his fellow. For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness and affability? And, as time requireth, a man of marvelous mirth and pastimes, and sometime of as sad gravity. A man for all seasons.

Received wisdom lauds Sir Thomas More as the Antigone of our Anglophone culture–a man of great conscience and circumspection, dutifully serving God and Country, latterly an ecumenical favorite of Catholics and Protestants alike.

In Wolf Hall, we “learn” that More was dogmatic…

He never sees More—a star in another firmament, who acknowledges him with a grim nod—without wanting to ask him, what’s wrong with you? Or what’s wrong with me? Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more.

…vulgar…

More, in his pamphlets against Luther, calls the German shit. He says that his mouth is like the world’s anus. You would not think that such words would proceed from Thomas More, but they do. No one has rendered the Latin tongue more obscene.

…pedantically dictatorial…

Tyndale says, now abideth faith, hope and love, even these three; but the greatest of these is love. Thomas More thinks it is a wicked mistranslation. He insists on ‘charity.’ He would chain you up, for a mistranslation. He would, for a difference in your Greek, kill you.

…ungallant to the ladies of his family…

At her name she turns her head. ‘That expression of painful surprise is not native to her,’ More says. ‘It is produced by scraping back her hair and driving in great ivory pins, to the peril of her skull. She believes her forehead is too low. It is, of course. Alice, Alice,’ he says, ‘remind me why I married you.’ ‘To keep house, Father,’ Meg says in a low voice. ‘Yes, yes,’ More says. ‘A glance at Alice frees me from stain of concupiscence.’

…and even a stingy host:

More takes no wine, though he serves it to his guests. There are several dishes, which all taste the same—flesh of some sort, with a gritty sauce like Thames mud—and then junkets, and a cheese which he says one of his daughters has made—one of his daughters, wards, stepdaughters, one of the women of whom the house is full.

And when we at long last receive “his” (i.e., Cromwell’s) verdict on the Great Man’s impending martyrdom, the Reader may be forgiven for committing the critical faux pas of conflating Mrs. Mantel’s own views with those of her protagonist:

Well, I tell you, he says to himself. Bargain all you like. Consign yourself to the hangman if you must. The people don’t give a fourpenny f**k.

Well, I paid $9.99 for this tripe, which is a damned sight more than four pennies…can you guess how much A Superfluous Man cares about the planned sequels?