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LISTEN TO – The Reith Lectures – Hilary Mantel

Just sat in the car for ten minutes to the last moments of the forth of Hilary Mantel’s Reith Lectures on BBC Radio 4 – I didn’t want to lose a word, while relocating! Don’t know how I’ve missed the previous three – clearly I’m very successfully sleep walking through life right now – but really looking forward to a catch up!

Mandatory Credit: Photo by SUTTON-HIBBERT/REX (424360ae)
HILARY MANTEL
THE EDINBURGH INTERNATIONAL BOOK FESTIVAL, EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND, BRITAIN – AUG 2003

Now, I don’t always ‘get’ Hilary Mantel, but after a rough start with Wolf Hall (see HERE and HERE) but had a much happier time with its follow up ‘Bring up the Bodies’. However, she is always an unusual and spirited speaker and I very much enjoyed listening to how she viewed her world as an author (and NOT a historian!).

For your convenience, links to the 4 parts that have currently aired are below.

From the BBC website:

Over this series of five lectures, Dame Hilary discusses the role that history plays in our culture. How can we understand the past, she asks, and how can we convey its nature today? Above all, she believes, we must all try to respect the past amid all its strangeness and complexity.

This series is chaired by Sue Lawley. The producer is Jim Frank.

Part 1 – The Day Is for the Living

Art can bring the dead back to life, argues the best-selling novelist Hilary Mantel, starting with the story of her own great-grandmother. “We sense the dead have a vital force still,” she says. “They have something to tell us, something we need to understand. Using fiction and drama, we try to gain that understanding.” She describes how and why she began to write fiction about the past, and how her view of her trade has evolved. We cannot hear or see the past, she says, but “we can listen and look”.

Click here to have a listen on the BBC website 

Part 2 – The Iron Maiden

How do we construct our pictures of the past, including both truth and myth, asks best-selling author Hilary Mantel. Where do we get our evidence? She warns of two familiar errors: either romanticising thepast, or seeing it as a gory horror-show. It is tempting, but often condescending, to seek modern parallels for historical events. “Are we looking into the past, or looking into a mirror?” she asks. “Dead strangers…did not live and die so we could draw lessons from them.” Above all, she says, we must all try to respect the past amid all its strangeness and complexity.

Click here to have a listen on the BBC website 

Part 3 – Silence Grips the Town

The story of how an obsessive relationship with history killed the young Polish writer Stanislawa Przybyszewska, told by best-selling author, Hilary Mantel. The brilliant Przybyszewska wrote gargantuan plays and novels about the French Revolution, in particular about the revolutionary leader Robespierre. She lived in self-willed poverty and isolation and died unknown in 1934. But her work, so painfully achieved, did survive her. Was her sacrifice worthwhile? “She embodied the past until her body ceased to be,” Dame Hilary says. “Multiple causes of death were recorded, but actually she died of Robespierre.”

Click here to have a listen on the BBC website 

Part 4 – Can These Bones Live?

Hilary Mantel analyses how historical fiction can make the past come to life. She says her task is to take history out of the archive and relocate it in a body. “It’s the novelist’s job: to put the reader in the moment, even if the moment is 500 years ago.” She takes apart the practical job of “resurrection”, and the process that gets historical fiction on to the page. “The historian will always wonder why you left certain things out, while the literary critic will wonder why you left them in,” she says. How then does she try and get the balance right?

Click here to have a listen on the BBC website 

Part 5 – Adaptation

Hilary Mantel on how fiction changes when adapted for stage or screen. Each medium, she says, draws a different potential from the original. She argues that fiction, if written well, doesn’t betray history, butenhances it. When fiction is turned into theatre, or into a film or TV, the same applies – as long as we understand that adaptation is not a secondary process or a set of grudging compromises, but an act of creation in itself. And this matters. “Without art, what have you to inform you about the past?” she asks. “What lies beyond is the unedited flicker of closed-circuit TV.”

This episode hasn’t yet aired.

Check out the trailer for the excellent BBC series Wolf Hall – based on the first of Hilary Mantel’s Tudor trilogy.

Wolf Hall – a book in progress review

As I fell instantly in love with the Tudor setting while reading C.J. Sansom’s Shardlake series ( Dissolution, Dark Fire, Sovereign, Revelation and, as yet unread, Heartstone),  I requested, and received, this tome from my local ever friendly BookElf.

Although I had never read any of Hilary Mantal before, her previous works – most notably Fludd and her short stories Learning to Talk – had been lauded by various friends and relatives. I knew nothing about Wolf Hall, save two facts. The first was that it had been the 2009 Man Booker Prize winner, and the second was that the plot focused on the life on Thomas Cromwell.
Well, I say focused, but BookElf was spot on when she noted on twitter that the author seemed to have found the means to travel back in time and stalk the leading players – there is such detailed and – apparently – accurate research on all the players!

The book covers a thirty year time period, from 1500 to 1535, and at 650 odd pages is a somewhat intimidating read. It’s not really a comfortable bus book – purely down to its blocky size, and I have to admit that at the moment, I have stalled, exhausted and a little broken, somewhere around the 400 page mark.

This book is wonderful. It really is – the characterisations are superb, the language and setting all have an authentic air and the swiftly changing  political environment keeps those pages turning.
For the most part.

However, despite the impressive pacing, the intriguing plot, the compelling characters and the beautiful prose, I’m finding it difficult to read due to a lack of clarity, especially during scenes revolving around conversations (which seems to be most situations!). The author seems to be trying out a style of prose that deliberately tries to avoid naming characters during interactions. Perhaps this does indeed serve some higher literary purpose, but it makes a fantastically interesting book a chore to work through.

There again, it’s only fair to point out that even when names are used, it can be just as unclear – everyone of the time period seemed to be called Richard or Thomas or…you know… one of those other clearly Tudor names.

Nonetheless, the book has hit a spot where I seem to re-reading every page twice just to figure out who is saying what and to whom. In my head it reads –
‘He said this to him and he did not approve. He left, while he entered – they nodded as they passed. He, on the other hand, agreed wholeheartedly, though in his secret heart of hearts he wondered what the right honourable him would think of it. And of course he had to make sure that he never heard about it. For then he would not trust him.’
A gross exaggeration?
Perhaps…but I know that I’m not alone in this complaint. On twitter, a few very book-y friends have noted the same complaint, and, in one case, indicated that it had put her off completing the book. Rather flatteringly, another has said that my struggle has inspired her to give it another go, as I am a ‘Reader'(!) and if I was having difficulties, she was certainly allowed to!

Now, I am going to finish this book. In fact, I am determined to, and the sooner the better. I will also probably read the sequel – as I’ve said, I’m really enjoying the book itself, it’s merely the mode of writing that I seem to have an issue with.
On the other hand, I’ll be careful recommending this book to others. I am not a person of below average intelligence, and I do have the facility to retain unusual names, or similar sounding ones in books (heck, I made it through Wild Swans with barely a flicker of hesitation), but I am left confused and a bit depressed in places with this book – I’d hate to make anyone else feel this way.

This is not a book written just for those who have memorised the locations, personality types and personal histories of every significant Tudor of the time, it unfortunately just feels like it is.

Anyway, back to the toil, I’ll let you know how I get on.

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