terça-feira, 30 de março de 2010

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel - EXCERPT

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel


Thomas Cromwell was born in Putney, outside London, around 1485. Little is known of his family, but his father, a brewer and blacksmith, had court convictions for drunkenness and assault. Wolf Hall, my new novel from which this excerpt is taken,[*] imagines for Cromwell a hungry, anxious, and desolate childhood. Aged seven, he takes himself to the Lambeth household of Cardinal Morton, where his uncle is a cook, and begs work in the kitchens. Aged nine, he witnesses the burning of a woman of eighty, the heretic Joan Boughton. Aged fifteen, he runs away after a beating from his father. His life for the next ten years is obscure. He seems to have joined the French armies as a mercenary and fought in Italy. Working his way up from a servant's post in a Florentine household, he became a banker and cloth trader; he was sighted in Rome, Venice, and Antwerp.
Returning to London in his late twenties, a multitalented polyglot, shrewd, amiable, and ambitious, he became a lawyer and business adviser to Cardinal Wolsey. After the Cardinal's fall from power in 1529, he entered the service of Henry VIII, helping to steer the country through the break with Rome and the King into his marriage with Anne Boleyn. Through 1533, he has replaced Bishop Gardiner as the King's acting secretary, though he has not been given a formal role or title.

In the spring of 1534, the King, with the support of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, requires his subjects to swear an oath to uphold the succession of his children by Anne Boleyn. Thomas More, who has resigned as Lord Chancellor, is expected to refuse the oath. As a kitchen boy at Lambeth Palace, Thomas Cromwell had glimpsed the fourteen-year-old More, the golden protégé of the household. He has carried the picture in his mind ever since. More's enthusiasm as a heretic hunter has made them the most courteous of enemies. But as More embarks on overt opposition to the King, courtesy can no longer be sustained.
Thomas Audley is Lord Chancellor. Rafe Sadler, in his mid-twenties, is Cromwell's chief clerk.


   Summer arrives with no intermission for spring, promptly on a Monday morning, like a new servant with a shining face: 13th April. He, Cromwell, is at Lambeth, with Audley and Archbishop Cranmer; as the sun shines strongly through the windows, he stands looking down at the palace gardens. This is how the book Utopia begins: friends, talking in a garden. On the paths below, Hugh Latimer and some of the King's chaplains are play-fighting, pulling each other around like schoolboys, Hugh hanging around the necks of two of his clerical fellows so his feet swing off the ground. All they need is a football to make a proper holiday of it. "Master More," Cromwell says, "why don't you go out and enjoy the sunshine? 
And we'll call for you again in half an hour, and put the oath to you again: and you'll give us a different answer, yes?"
He hears More's joints creak as he stands. Parliament's late-night sittings and a fresh row every day have tired him, but sharpened his senses too, so he is aware that in the room behind him Cranmer is working himself into a terrible anxiety; Cromwell wants More out of the room before the dam breaks.
"I don't know what you think a half-hour will do for me," More says. His tone is easy, bantering. "Of course, it might do something for you."
More had asked to see a copy of the Act of Succession. Now Audley unrolls it, bends his head, and begins reading, though he has read it a dozen times. "Very well," More says. "But I trust I have made myself clear. I cannot swear, but I will not speak against your oath, and I will not try to dissuade anyone else from it."
"That is not enough. And you know it is not."
More nods. He meanders toward the door, careering first into the corner of the table, making Cranmer flinch, his arm dart out to steady the ink. The door closes after him.
Audley rolls up the printed copy of the statute. Gently he taps it on the table, looking at the place where More had stood. Cranmer says, "Look, this is my idea. What if we let him swear in secret? He swears, but we offer not to tell anybody? Or if he cannot take this oath, we ask him what oath he can take?"
Cromwell laughs.
"That would hardly meet the King's purpose," Audley sighs. Tap, tap, tap. "After all we did for him, and for Fisher. Going on our knees to the King. If we had not intervened they might already be locked up."
"Oh well. Blessed are the peacemakers," Cromwell says. He wants to strangle somebody.
Cranmer says, "We will try again with More. At least, if he refuses, he should give his reasons."
Cromwell swears under his breath, turns from the window: "We know his reasons. All Europe knows them. He is against the divorce. He does not believe the King can be head of the Church. But will he say that? Not he. I know him. Do you know what I hate? I hate to be part of this play, which is entirely devised by him. I hate the time it will take that could be better spent, I hate it that minds could be better employed, I hate to see our lives going by, because depend upon it, we will all be feeling our age before this pageant is played out. And what I hate most of all is that Master More sits in the audience and sniggers when I trip over my lines, for he has written all the parts. And written them these many years."
Cranmer, like a waiting boy, pours him a cup of wine, edges toward him: "Here."
Cromwell takes it. In the Archbishop's hand, the cup cannot help a sacramental character: not watered wine, but some equivocal mixture, this is my blood, this is like my blood, this is more or less somewhat like my blood: do this in commemoration of me. He hands the cup back. The north Germans make a strong liquor, aquavita: a shot of that would be more use. "Get More back," he says.
A moment, and More stands in the doorway, sneezing gently. "Come now," Audley says, smiling, "that's not how a hero arrives."
"I assure you, I intend in no wise to be a hero," More says. "They have been cutting the grass." He pinches his nose on another sneeze, and shambles toward them, hitching his slipping gown onto his shoulder; he takes the chair placed for him. Before, he had refused to sit down.
"That's better," Audley says. "I knew the air would do you good." He glances up, in invitation; but Cromwell signals he will stay where he is, leaning by the window. "I don't know," Audley says, good-humored. "First one won't sit. Then t'other won't sit. Look," he pushes a piece of paper toward More, "these are the names of the priests we have seen today, who have sworn to the act, and set you an example. So why not you?"
More glances up from under his eyebrows. "This is not a comfortable place for any of us."
"More comfortable than where you're going," Cromwell says.
"Not hell," More says, smiling. "I trust not."
"So if taking the oath would damn you, what about all these?" Cromwell launches himself forward from the wall. He snatches the list of names from Audley, rolls it, and slaps it onto More's shoulder. "Are they all damned?"
"I cannot speak for their consciences, only for my own. I know that, if I took your oath, I should be damned."
"There are those who would envy your insight," Cromwell says, "into the workings of grace. But then, you and God have always been on familiar terms, not so? I wonder how you dare. You talk about your Maker as if he were some neighbor you went fishing with on a Sunday afternoon."
Audley leans forward. "Let us be clear. You will not take the oath because your conscience advises you against it?"
"Could you be a little more comprehensive in your answers?"
"You object but you won't say why?"
More inclines his head.
"Where it is a matter of conscience, there must always be some doubt...," Cranmer ventures.
"Oh, but this is no whim. I have made long and diligent consultation with myself. And in this matter I hear the voice of my conscience clearly." More puts his head on one side, smiling: "It is not so with you, my lord?"
"Nonetheless, there must be some perplexity? For you must ask yourself, as you are a scholar and accustomed to controversy, to debate, how can so many learned men think on the one side, and I on the other? But one thing is certain, and it is that you owe a natural obedience to your King, as every subject does. Also, when you entered the King's council, long ago, you took a most particular oath, to obey him. So will not you do so?" Cranmer blinks. "Set your doubts against that certainty, and swear."
Audley sits back in his chair. Eyes closed. As if to say, we're not going to do better than that.
More says, "When you were consecrated archbishop, appointed by the Pope, you swore your oath to Rome, but all day in your fist, they say, all though the ceremonies, you kept a little parchment rolled up, saying that you took the oath under protest. Is that not true? They say the paper was written by Master Cromwell here."
Audley's eyes snap open: he thinks More has shown himself the way out. But More's face, smiling, is a mask of malice. "I would not be such a juggler," he says softly. "I would not treat the Lord my God to such a puppet show, let alone the faithful of England. You say you have the majority. I say I have it. You say Parliament is behind you, and I say all the angels and saints are behind me, and all the company of the Christian dead, for as many generations as there have been since the church of Christ was founded, one body, undivided—"
"Oh, for Christ's sake!" Cromwell says. "A lie is no less a lie because it is a thousand years old. Your undivided Church has liked nothing better than persecuting its own members, burning them and hacking them apart when they stood by their own conscience, slashing their bellies open and feeding their guts to dogs. You know history doesn't speak for you, More, not unless you distort it to your purpose. Whatever process of twisted complacence brought you here, you will drag down with you God knows how many, who will only have the suffering and not your martyr's gratification. You are not a simple soul, so don't try to make this simple. You know I have respected you? You know I have respected you since I was a child? I would rather see my only son dead, I would rather him beheaded, than see you refuse this oath, and give encouragement to every enemy of England."

More looks up. For a fraction of a second, he meets Cromwell's gaze, then turns away, coy. His low, amused, murmur: he could kill him for that alone. "Gregory is a goodly young man. Don't wish him away. If he has done badly, he will do better. I say the same of my own boy. What's the use of him? But he is worth more than a debating point."
Cranmer, distressed, shakes his head. "This is no debating point."
"You speak of your son," Cromwell says. "What will happen to him? To your daughters?"
"I shall advise them to take the oath. I do not suppose them to share my scruples."
"That is not what I mean. It is the next generation you are betraying. You want the Emperor's foot on their neck? You are no Englishman."
"You are barely that yourself," More says. "Fight for the French, eh, bank for the Italians? That's what you said to the King, everybody knows it. You were scarcely grown up in this realm before your boyhood transgressions drove you out of it, you ran away to escape jail or a noose. No, I tell you what you are, Cromwell, you are an Italian through and through, and you have all their vices, all their passions." He sits back in his chair: one mirthless grunt of laughter. "This relentless bonhomie of yours. I knew it would wear out in the end. It is a coin that has changed hands so often. And now the small silver is worn out, and we see the base metal."
Audley smirks. "You seem not to have noted Master Cromwell's efforts at the Mint. His coinage is sound, or it is nothing."
The Chancellor cannot help it, that he is a smirking sort of man; someone must keep calm. Cranmer is pale and sweating, and he can see the pulse galloping at More's temple. Cromwell says, "We cannot let you go home. Still, it seems to me that you are not yourself today, so rather than commit you to the Tower, we could perhaps place you in the custody of the Abbot of Westminster...would that seem suitable to you, my Lord of Canterbury?"
Cranmer nods. More says, "Master Cromwell, I should not mock you, should I? You have shown yourself my most especial and tender friend."
Audley nods to the guard at the door. More rises smoothly, as if the thought of imprisonment has put a spring in his step; the effect is spoiled only by his usual grab at his garments, the scuffle as he shrugs himself together; and even then he seems to step backward, and tread on his own feet. After some fashion, More is bundled out of the room. "Now he's got exactly what he wants," Cromwell says.
He puts his palm against the glass of the window. He sees the smudge it makes, against the old flawed glass. A bank of cloud has come up over the river; the best of the day is behind them. Audley crosses the room to him. Hesitant, he stands at his shoulder. "If only More would indicate which part of the oath he finds objectionable, it is possible something might be written to meet his objection."
"You can forget that. If he indicates anything, he's done for. Silence is his only hope, and it is not much of a hope at that."
"The King might accept some compromise," Cranmer says. "But I fear the Queen will not. And indeed," he says faintly, "why should she?"
Audley puts a hand on his arm. "My dear Cromwell. Who can understand More? His friend Erasmus told him to keep away from government, he told him he had not the stomach for it and he was right. He should never have accepted the office I now hold. He only did it to spite Wolsey, whom he hated."
Cranmer says, "He told him to keep away from theology too. Unless I am wrong?"
"How could you be? More publishes all his letters from his friends. Even when they reprove him, he makes a fine show of his humility and so turns it to his profit. He has lived in public. Every thought that passes through his mind he has committed to paper. He never kept anything private, till now."
Audley reaches past him, opens the window. A torrent of birdsong crests on the edge of the sill; it spills into the room, the liquid, fluent notes of the storm-thrush.
"I suppose he's writing an account of today," Cromwell says. "And sending it out of the kingdom to be printed. Depend upon it, in the eyes of Europe we will be the fools and the oppressors, and he will be the poor victim with the neater turn of phrase."
Audley pats his arm. He wants to console him. But who can begin to do it? He is the inconsolable Master Cromwell: the unknowable, the inconstruable, the probably indefeasible Master Cromwell.
Next day the King sends for Cromwell. He supposes it is to berate him for failing to get More to take the oath. "Who will accompany me to this fiesta?" he inquires. "Master Sadler?"
As soon as he enters the King's presence, Henry gestures, with a peremptory sweep of his arm, for his attendants to clear a space, and leave him alone in it. His face is like thunder. "Cromwell, have I not been a good lord to you?"
He begins to talk...gracious, and more than gracious...own sad unworthiness...if fallen short in any particular begs most gracious pardon....
He can do this all day. He learned it from Wolsey.
Henry says, "Because my lord Archbishop thinks I have not done well by you. But," he says, in the tone of one misunderstood, "I am a prince known for my munificence." The whole thing seems to puzzle him. "You are to be Master Secretary. Rewards shall follow. I do not understand why I have not done this long ago. But tell me... when it was put to you, about the lords Cromwell that once were in England, you said you were none of their kin. Are you still sure about that?"
"To be honest, I never gave it another thought. I wouldn't wear another man's coat, or bear his arms. He might rise up from his grave and take issue with me."
"My lord Norfolk says you enjoy being low-born. He says you have devised it so, to torment him." Henry takes his arm. "It would seem convenient to me," he says, "that wherever we go—though we shall not go far this summer, considering the Queen's condition—you should have rooms provided for you next to mine, so we can speak whenever I need you; and where it is possible, rooms that communicate directly, so that I need no go-between." He smiles toward the courtiers; they wash back, like a tide. "God strike me," Henry says, "if I meant to neglect you. I know when I have a friend."

Outside, Rafe says, "God strike him...what terrible oaths he swears." He hugs his master. "This has been too long in coming. But listen, I have something to tell you when we get home."

"Tell me now. Is it something good?"
A gentleman comes forward and says, "Master Secretary, your barge is waiting to take you back to the city."
"I should have a house on the river," he says. "Like More."
"Oh, but leave Austin Friars? Think of the tennis court," Rafe says. "The gardens."
The King has made his preparations in secret. The arms of Cromwell's predecessor Gardiner have been burned off the paintwork. A flag with his coat of arms is raised beside the Tudor flag. He steps into his barge for the first time, and on the river, Rafe tells his news. The rocking of the boat beneath them is imperceptible. The flags are limp; it is a still morning, misty and dappled, and where the light touches flesh or linen or fresh leaves, there is a sheen like the sheen on an eggshell: the whole world luminous, its angles softened, its scent watery and green. He stares down into the water, now brown, now clear as the light catches it, but always moving; the fish in its depths, the weeds, the drowned men with bony hands swimming. On the mud and shingle there are cast up belt buckles, fragments of glass, small warped coins with the kings' faces washed away. Once when he was a boy he found a horseshoe. A horse in the river? It seemed to him a very lucky find. But his father said, if horseshoes were lucky, boy, I would be the King of Cockaigne.

First he goes out to the kitchens to tell Thurston he is Mr. Secretary. "Well," the cook says easily, "as you're doing the job anyway." A chuckle. "Bishop Gardiner will be burning up inside. His giblets will be sizzling in his own grease." He whisks a bloodied cloth from a wooden tray. "See these quails? You get more meat on a wasp."
"Malmsey?" he suggests. "Seethe them?"
"What, three dozen? Waste of good wine. I'll do some for you, if you like. Come from Lord Lisle at Calais. When you write, tell him if he sends another batch, we want them fatter or not at all. Will you remember?"
"I'll make a note," he says gravely. "From now on I thought we might have the Council meet here sometimes, when the King isn't sitting with us. We can give them dinner before."
"Right." Thurston titters. "His Grace the Duke of Norfolk, we could put some flesh on his twiggy little legs."
"Look, Thurston, you needn't put yourself out with this sort of work. You have enough staff. You could put on a gold chain, and strut about."
"Is that what you'll be doing?" A wet poultry slap; then Thurston looks up at him, wiping pluck from his fingers. "I think I'd rather keep my hand in. In case things take a downturn. Not that I say they will. Remember the Cardinal, though."
He remembers Norfolk: tell Wolsey to get himself to the north, or I will come where he is and tear him with my teeth.
He had said, My lord, may I substitute the word "bite"?
He throws the cloth back over the tray of quails. Wipes his hands. The saying comes to him, homo homini lupus, man is wolf to man.
(A second excerpt from Wolf Hall will appear in a following issue.)
To be published by Henry Holt/John McCrae Books in 2009.


Unsuited to Everything By Inga Clendinnen

Unsuited to Everything By Inga Clendinnen

A Memoir.
By Hilary Mantel.
223 pp. New York:
A John Macrae Book/
Henry Holt & Company. $23.

     MEMOIRS are commonly reassuring affairs. Tough childhoods, promiscuous adulthoods, serious illnesses yield fame, or wisdom, or at worst a battered serenity. Memoirs tell us what we want to hear: that suffering ennobles; that tragedies have happy endings. Hilary Mantel, distinguished novelist and critic, had both a tough childhood and a serious illness, but her memoir does not reassure. It scalds. Mantel does not believe suffering ennobles. She believes it has done her irreparable physical and psychological damage.

To take the illness first. By 20, Mantel was in sudden shafting pain. A sequence of complacent, incompetent doctors, diagnosing what was in reality endometriosis as a bad case of female overambition, began dosing her with increasingly powerful psychiatric drugs until she was very nearly mad. A frightening decade later she identified her condition from the books available in a dusty African town where her geologist husband was working, and sought treatment. And then it is too late. In endometriosis, the womb lining migrates to abnormal locations, as on the ovaries or within the peritoneal cavity. Mantel's womb and various other parts of her person had to be removed, and this in a woman with a visceral commitment to the continuity of family. The disease reasserting itself, she was forced to embark on a lifetime of hormone taking, which has swamped her physical self in surplus flesh and continues to impose whimsical change on mind and body. This is the Book of Job without the purposeful deity but instead the bleak contingencies of period, place, poverty and gender. It is also a magnificent denunciation of cant.

Mantel shows us her wounds not to induce our pity but to express her rage. What is unnerving is that this dark tale of extravagant consequences and loathed transformations could have been scripted by Mantel herself. She is the novelist of unease, expert at unleashing the terror that lurks within the mundane. (I read my first Mantel years ago because the blurb promised me ''a Middle Eastern 'Turn of the Screw,' with an insidious power to grip.'') Much of her memoir describes her childhood, inviting the irresistible question we ask of writers: When and how did you become what you are?

Mantel was born in the grim little town of Hadfield, near Manchester, first child to a poor Catholic family of Irish descent. She was an ambitious, cheerful child, small in stature, large in hopes, and through her preschool days her clustered kin lovingly indulged her flaring imagination: a tepee with its own chair inside pitched on her grandmother's floor, a great-aunt earnestly confessing her sins to a 5-year-old priest. Mantel also looked toward liberating transformations. Was she not unfeminine in her rejection of tedious female concerns; in her vigor, audacity and taste for battle? Had not her mother told her that she had been born with long black hair, while now her hair was pale? She was accordingly confident that in time she would turn into a boy and take up either of her two preferred destinies, Arthurian knight or Indian brave.

Then she suffered the first of a series of fevers, to emerge not a warrior-in-waiting but a frail, irremediably female child, and knew her destiny had been altered without her consent. She was projected into the crippling tedium and unintelligible torments of a rough Catholic primary school, which was, she realized incredulously, obligatory. Nothing in her energetic infancy had been obligatory. The school's perverse rituals, its riddling speech (''Do you want me to hit you with this ruler?'') reduced this tough, inventive, highly verbal child to silent weeping and unspecific illnesses. She was labeled by a fool of a doctor -- the first in that ominous line of medical fools -- ''Little Miss Neverwell.'' Mantel, early persuaded of words' magical power, furiously resented that casual, prophetic ''naming.''

Meanwhile there was malaise at home. Her mother, herself stifling under poverty and the dictates of respectability, rebelled. She moved to a house away from the kin, installed her lover there along with her three children, reduced her husband to lodger status and fractured Mantel's intimacy with her beloved people down the hill.

At 7, Mantel took instruction to prepare her for the sacraments. A natural metaphysician (the doctrine of transubstantiation especially delighted her), she waited patiently for her due infusion of grace. Instead one ordinary morning something else came: a terrifying something ''as high as a child of 2'' manifesting in the rough grass beyond the new house. ''Within the space of a thought'' it was inside her, ''a body inside my body,'' and ''grace . . . runs out of my body like liquid from a corpse.'' Mantel acknowledges that after this event, she was always more or less ''ashamed and afraid.''

What had happened? What was this vile thing that had possessed her? A ''realization'' of vulgar Catholic teachings intensified by shame at the masked improprieties within her household? Perhaps. There is an archaic dimension in Mantel's sensibility, a sense of malign spirits moving under the surface of things, which makes that brisk modern explanation seem glib.

When Mantel was 10 her mother decamped with lover and children to another town to begin what was declared to be a new life. Mantel did not see her father again. In exchange she gained a peaceful school, an aggressive, resentful stepfather and a weight of obdurately cherished memories.

Mantel believes her childhood ended at that point, remarking, with uncharacteristic wanness, that her misery was nobody's fault: she was simply ''unsuited to being a child.'' I doubt that anyone is suited to being small, powerless and ignored, especially at the time when, being all character and no experience, we must somehow survive in a world run by unpredictable, disingenuous giants. Seven moderately calm years later Mantel's intelligence and ferocious will propel her into the world and London (she planned to study law), and she met the man who would become her life partner. Then the pains began.

Is Mantel the writer the product of infant sorrows skewed by a dangerous conviction of the magical power of words? I think not. Her sense of threat seems to have begun earlier, well before school, and when the breach between her parents was still a shadow. Consider the one doll small Hilary chose to cherish. It had been named for a dimpled cousin called Beryl. Beryl the doll was not dimpled. She had been conjured out of ''grubby green satin, with satin stumps for hands and feet, features inked onto a round of calico for her face, and her pointed head of grubby green satin also.'' Grubby satin, stumps for limbs, opaque face, pointed head. And there it is already: the authentic Mantel shiver. Now consider that creative-writing-course cliché, here fresh minted: Mantel's first memory.

''This is the first thing I remember. I am sitting in my pram. We are outside, in the park called Bankswood. My mother walks backward. I hold out my arms because I don't want her to go. She says she's only going to take my picture. I don't understand why she goes backwards, back and aslant, tacking to one side. The trees overhead make a noise of urgent conversation, too quick to catch; the leaves part, the sky moves, the sun peers down at me. Away and away she goes, till she comes to a halt. She raises her arm and partly hides her face. The sky and trees rush over my head. I feel dizzied. The entire world is sound, movement. She moves toward me, speaking. The memory ends.''

It is a great passage, easily outclassing Salvador Dalí's famous first memory of sitting in his pram gnawing a sick bat. Dalí startles, but we know bats get sick, and might, occasionally, fall into prams; that some babies will bite anything. We also don't believe him. We do believe Mantel. We are nonetheless unprepared for an infant's world to go into reverse, then melt into an ambiguous swirl of ominous movement. Nor do we expect so disturbingly unmotherly a mother. Here is the crack in the teacup that can open to swallow the world.

The matter is bitter, but North English tough-mindedness coexists with dreadful imaginings; Mantel's angular wit is as unquenchable as her anger; the reading experience is reliably exhilarating because of the sheer excellence of the writing. Mantel tells us she wrote to lure the memories of childhood out of their domestic hiding places, and at last to exorcise them. I doubt she will manage that. Hers are very vital ghosts. What she has done is to invite us into their unquiet company. For that her readers (may they be legion) will be deeply grateful.

Drawing (Drawing by André Carrilho)


Beyond Black: Demons Revealed by TERRENCE RAFFERTY

Beyond Black: Demons Revealed by TERRENCE RAFFERTY

By Hilary Mantel.
365 pp. A John Macrae Book/Henry Holt & Company. $26.

     HILARY MANTEL'S funny and harrowing new novel is the story of a woman who is coming to terms -- better late than never, as any one of the book's many platitude-dependent characters might say -- with her extremely disturbing past. And I say ''coming to terms with'' because that, too, is just the sort of comforting, shock-absorbing expression, familiar to viewers of the more earnest and wetly therapeutic daytime talk shows, that Mantel has made it her mission to seek out and destroy. The process undergone in the pages of ''Beyond Black'' by its fat, middle-aged English heroine, Alison Hart, is self-analysis and memory recovery of almost unimaginable psychic violence -- not the kind of self-actualizing experience Dr. Phil would recommend.
This is more like ''The Exorcist,'' with spinning heads and projectile vomiting and Jesuits hurling themselves through windows.
That's what coming to terms with one's past is, Mantel means to tell us, and she should know, having recently done the deed herself, in a painful, brilliantly prickly memoir called “Giving Up the Ghost.” She may regret not having saved that title for this book, because the heroine of ''Beyond Black'' is laboring to divest herself of malign spirits who are present in her life in the most immediate and most literal way. Alison is a professional medium and clairvoyant -- in her preferred terminology, a ''Sensitive'' -- and depends for her peculiar living on the services of a ''spirit guide'' named Morris, who is, in death as he was in life, an exceptionally nasty piece of work. He is also a constant reminder of the unspeakable childhood that Alison, for all her extrasensory powers, can recall only dimly.
     Morris is the ghost she longs to give up, ''this grizzled grinning apparition in a bookmaker's check jacket, and suede shoes with bald toe caps'' -- a demon who sees himself as a lovable rogue, a sport, but is in fact about as foul a specimen of humanity, living or dead, as British fiction has conjured up in the past few years. (At least since Ian McEwan cleaned up his act.) And, worse, Morris has mates: a crew of villains whom he has begun to gather around him, from the four corners of the underworld, all of them now converging on the already crowded consciousness of Alison the Sensitive.
It is no coincidence that Morris's horrible party guests start turning up just as Alison has begun to dictate her autobiography to her ''sharp, rude, and effective'' new assistant, Colette. The ''fiends,'' as Alison calls them, are of course Mantel's metaphor for the awful, toxic stuff that tends to bubble up from the depths of the unconscious when a person tries to write her memoirs. There's a passage early in ''Giving Up the Ghost'' in which Mantel admits ''I hardly know how to write about myself,'' and briefly resolves to keep it simple, ''plain words on plain paper'' -- a resolution she sheepishly abandons in the next paragraph. ''I stray away from the beaten path of plain words,'' she writes, ''into the meadows of extravagant simile,'' and in ''Beyond Black'' she strays yet farther, finding in Alison the most extravagant simile of all. A novelist writing her memoirs, Mantel seems to say, is like a psychic reading her own mind.
In this book Mantel, back on her home turf of fiction (this is her ninth novel), allows herself to gorge on simile and metaphor and wild comic invention -- the treats she had tried, and guiltily failed, to deny herself while following the hard-fact regimen of ''Giving Up the Ghost.'' (At one point in the novel, Alison is put on a diet by stern Colette, and she suffers agonies.) ''Beyond Black'' feels like a great, gleeful binge, a wallow in the not-good-for-you riches of this writer's extraordinarily vivid, violent imagination.
This is a dark, dark book, but it's fun to read because at heart it's a celebration of the joys of saying exactly what's on your evil little mind. The heroine might be speaking for the author when she tries to explain to Colette why the hideous Morris is her guide, and why the fiends have come to call: ''Ever since I was a little kid,'' she says, ''I've been trying to have nice thoughts. But how could I? My head was stuffed with memories. I can't help what's in there. . . . And so when you have certain thoughts -- thoughts you can't help -- these sort of spirits come rushing round. And you can't dislodge them. Not unless you could get the inside of your head hoovered out.'' That's the distinctive voice of Hilary Mantel, building from a soft, polite whisper to an explosively funny image -- the comic metaphor that makes life, if not worth living, at least worth writing.
Everything else, ''Beyond Black'' says, is euphemism, flimflam, camouflage. One of the good jokes of this book is that while Alison's powers are terrifyingly authentic, her stage patter is relentlessly soothing and upbeat, her flashes of dire insight muffled, for her public, in cottony cliché: ''It's about impressing them without scaring them,'' Mantel writes, ''softening the edges of their fright and disbelief.'' (Alison scrupulously avoids, for example, using the words ''die'' and ''death'' in her stage appearances or her private consultations with clients.) But Alison, to her horror and to her credit, is finally not capable of softening the edges of her own fright and disbelief, with nice words or nice thoughts or even a nice house in a brand-new development where no one has ever lived before. ''I'd like to live nowhere,'' she says, but she can't: the fiends track her down, and black slime starts to ooze up from the very ground on which the proud, cheesy instant community stands.
Yes, that's a metaphor, too. Mantel has a million of them, mostly of the shocking, grotesque variety, and at a certain point in ''Beyond Black'' you begin to realize that they are her weapons of choice in a continuing (and almost certainly unwinnable) battle against the dreadful blandness of 21st-century English life: a society that in this novel's satiric vision appears to have become a kingdom of euphemism, a place whose organizing principle is the denial of the rude facts of life and death. Flannery O'Connor, herself no mean connoisseur of the grotesque, once wrote: ''All comic novels that are any good must be about matters of life and death.'' That's precisely the sort of mortal urgency you feel in Mantel's extravagant similes and bursting metaphors. This is, I think, a great comic novel. Hilary Mantel's humor, like Flannery O'Connor's, is so far beyond black it becomes a kind of light.
Terrence Rafferty is the author of ''The Thing Happens: Ten Years of Writing About the Movies.''


Hilary Mantel

The British author Hilary Mantel is known for her wickedly funny, anguished novels. She won the 41st annual Man Booker Prize on Oct. 6, 2009, for "Wolf Hall," a historical novel about Henry VIII's court centered on the king's adviser, Thomas Cromwell.
Ms. Mantel was the overwhelming favorite, with the bookmakers William Hill giving ''Wolf Hall'' odds of 10-11, the shortest odds ever for a nominee. She prevailed over the literary lions J. M. Coetzee and A. S. Byatt, both previous winners of the prize and became  the first favorite to win since Yann Martel won for ''Life of Pi'' in 2002. The prize comes with roughly $80,000.
''Wolf Hall,'' published by Fourth Estate in Britain and Henry Holt & Company in the United States, was widely praised among reviewers. Writing in The New York Times on Monday, Janet Maslin said the book's ''main characters are scorchingly well rendered,'' adding that ''their sharp-clawed machinations are presented with nonstop verve in a book that can compress a wealth of incisiveness into a very few well-chosen words.''
Ms. Mantel, born in 1952 and the author of 10 novels, a collection of short stories and a memoir, spent five years writing "Wolf Hall" and is already working on a sequel.
Writing about herself, Ms. Mantel said: "I was born in 1952 in a mill village in Derbyshire, in the northwest of England. Most of my ancestors were poor, Irish and Catholic. My great-grandmother, who had 12 children, could not read. My grandmother left school at 12 to work in the mill. My mother left the school at 14 to work in the mill. She was an intelligent and beautiful woman who wanted better things for me, her first child. The village was a bleak place, dominated by gossip: harsh people in a harsh moorland landscape." Ms. Mantel would later write about Derbyshire in her novel "Fludd."


Renaissance Men (a book review) by CHRISTOPHER BENFEY

Renaissance Men (a book review) by CHRISTOPHER BENFEY

By Hilary Mantel
532 pp. A John Macrae Book/Henry Holt & Company. $27

     “Try always,” says the worldly Cardinal Wolsey in “Wolf Hall,” Hilary Mantel’s ­ fictional portrait of Henry VIII’s turbulent court, “to find out what people wear under their clothes.” Katherine of Aragon, the queen who can’t produce an heir, wears a nun’s habit. Anne Boleyn, the tease eager to supplant her, won’t let the king know what she’s wearing until their wedding night; she says “yes, yes, yes” to him, “then she says no.” Thomas More, willing to go to any lengths to prevent the marriage, wears a shirt of bristling horsehair, which mortifies his flesh until the sores weep. As for Thomas Cromwell, the fixer who does the king’s dirty work just as he once did the cardinal’s, what is he hiding under his lawyer’s sober winter robes? Something “impermeable,” Hans Holbein suspects as he paints Cromwell’s forbidding portrait. Armor, maybe, or stone.
Go to the Frick Collection in New York and compare Holbein’s great portraits of Cromwell and More. More has all the charm, with his sensitive hands and his “good eyes’ stern, facetious twinkle,” in Robert Lowell’s description. By contrast, Cromwell, with his egg-shaped form hemmed in by a table and his shifty fish eyes turned warily to the side, looks official and merciless, his clenched fist, as Mantel writes, “sure as that of a slaughterman’s when he picks up the killing knife.” One of the many achievements of Mantel’s dazzling novel, winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize, is that she has reversed the appeal of these towering rivals of the Tudor period, that fecund breeding ground of British historical fiction as the American Civil War is of ours.
     Cromwell is the picaresque hero of the novel — tolerant, passionate, intellectually inquisitive, humane. We follow his winding quest in vivid present-tense flashbacks, drawn up from his own prodigious memory: how he left home before he was 15, escaping the boot of his abusive father, a brewer and blacksmith who beat him as if he were “a sheet of metal”; how he dreamed of becoming a soldier and went to France because “France is where they have wars.” Cromwell learns banking in Florence, trading in Antwerp. He marries, has children and watches helplessly as the plague decimates his family.
In short, Cromwell learns everything everywhere, at a time when European knowledge about heaven and earth, via Copernicus and Machiavelli, is exploding. At 40, he “can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury.” He knows the entire New Testament by heart, having mastered the Italian “art of memory” (part of the inner world of Renaissance magic that Mantel drew on in her comic novel “Fludd”), in which long lines of speech are fixed in the mind with vivid images.
Cromwell is also, as Mantel sees him, a closet Protestant, monitoring Luther’s battles with Rome and exchanging secret letters with Tyndale, the English translator of the Bible, about the “brutal truth” of the Scriptures. “Why does the pope have to be in Rome?” Cromwell wonders. “Where is it written?” Historians have long suspected that Cromwell harbored Protestant sympathies, even before Anne Boleyn’s “resistant, quick-breathing and virginal bosom” caught the king’s eye. Mantel, with the novelist’s license, draws the circle more tightly. As a child, Cromwell is present when an old woman is burned at the stake for heresy: “Even after there was nothing left to scream, the fire was stoked.” Years later, he watches in disgust as Thomas More rounds up more heretics to feed to the fire. For Mantel, who acknowledges her debt to revisionist scholars, Henry’s divorce is the impetus for Cromwell’s “Tudor Revolution,” as the historian Geoffrey Elton called it, by which the British state won independence from foreign and ecclesiastic rule.
In “Wolf Hall” it is More, the great imaginer of utopia, who is the ruthless tormenter of English Protestants, using the rack and the ax to set the “quaking world” aright. “Utopia,” Cromwell learns early on, “is not a place one can live.” More’s refusal to recognize Henry’s marriage was the basis for his canonization in 1935, as well as his portrayal as a hero of conscience in Robert Bolt’s play “A Man for All Seasons” and its 1966 screen version. To Mantel’s Cromwell, More is in love with his own martyrdom, his own theatrical self-importance, while Cromwell, more in keeping with the spirit of Bolt’s title, seeks a way out for his old rival.
There’s a tense moment when More, locked in the Tower of London awaiting trial for treason, claims to have harmed no one. Cromwell explodes. What about Bainham, a mild man whose only sin was that he was a Protestant? “You forfeited his goods, committed his poor wife to prison, saw him racked with your own eyes, you locked him in Bishop Stokesley’s cellar, you had him back at your own house two days chained upright to a post, you sent him again to Stokesley, saw him beaten and abused for a week, and still your spite was not exhausted: you sent him back to the Tower and had him racked again.” Tortured, Bainham names names, who happen to be friends of Cromwell’s. “That’s how the year goes out, in a puff of smoke, a pall of human ash.”
In her long novel of the French Revolution, “A Place of Greater Safety,” Mantel also wrote about the damage done by utopian fixers. And surely the current uproar over state-sponsored torture had its effect on both the writing and the imagining of “Wolf Hall.” Yet, although Mantel adopts none of the archaic fustian of so many historical novels — the capital letters, the antique turns of phrase — her book feels firmly fixed in the 16th century. Toward the end of the novel, Cromwell, long widowed and as usual overworked, “the man in charge of everything,” falls in love with Jane Seymour, lady-in-waiting to Boleyn, and considers spending a few days at the gothic-sounding Seymour estate called Wolf Hall. What could go wrong with such an innocent plan? Perhaps in a sequel Mantel will tell us.
Thomas Cromwell remains a controversial and mysterious figure. Mantel has filled in the blanks plausibly, brilliantly. “Wolf Hall” has epic scale but lyric texture. Its 500-plus pages turn quickly, winged and falconlike. Trained in the law, Mantel can see the understated heroism in the skilled administrator’s day-to-day decisions in service of a well-ordered civil society — not of a medieval fief based on war and not, heaven help us, a utopia. “When you are writing laws you are testing words to find their utmost power,” Cromwell reflects. “Like spells, they have to make things happen in the real world, and like spells, they only work if people believe in them.” Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” is both spellbinding and believable.
Christopher Benfey, Mellon professor of English at Mount Holyoke College, is the author of “Degas in New Orleans” and “A Summer of Hummingbirds.”


One for the Good Guys by Dave Eggers

One for the Good Guys by Dave Eggers

Unpublished Short Fiction
By Kurt Vonnegut
Illustrated. 251 pp. Delacorte Press. $27

     It’s been two years since Kurt Vonnegut departed this world, and it’s hard not to feel a bit rudderless without him. Late in his life, Vonnegut issued a series of wonderfully exasperated columns for the magazine In These Times. During the darkest years of the Bush administration, these essays, later collected in “A Man Without a Country,” were guide and serum to anyone with a feeling that pretty much everyone had lost their minds. In a 2003 interview, when asked the softball question “How are you?” he answered: “I’m mad about being old, and I’m mad about being American. Apart from that, O.K.”
Vonnegut left the planet just about the time we, as a nation, were crawling toward the light again, so it’s tempting to wonder what he would have made of where we are now. Would he have been pleased by the election of Barack Obama? Most likely he’d have been momentarily heartened, then exasperated once again witnessing the lunatic-­strewn town halls, the Afghanistan quagmire, the triumph of volume over reason, of machinery over humanity.
For the last many decades of his life, Vonnegut was our sage and chain-­smoking truth-teller, but before that, before his trademark black humor and the cosmic scope of “Cat’s Cradle” and “Slaughterhouse-­Five,” he was a journeyman writer of tidy short fictions.
Unpublished is not a word we identify with a Kurt Vonnegut short story,” Sidney Offit notes in his foreword to “Look at the Birdie,” a new collection of Vonnegut’s early, and unpublished, short fiction. Perhaps more than any of his contemporaries of similar stature, Vonnegut was until early middle age a practical and adaptable writer, a guy who knew how to survive on his fiction. In the era of the “slicks” — weekly and monthly magazines that would pay decently for fiction — a writer had to have a feel for what would sell. The 14 stories in “Look at the Birdie,” none of them afraid to entertain, dabble in whodunnitry, science fiction and commanding fables of good versus evil. Why these stories went unpublished is hard to answer. They’re polished, they’re relentlessly fun to read, and every last one of them comes to a neat and satisfying end. For transmittal of moral instruction, they are incredibly efficient delivery devices.
The collection’s first story, “Confido,” immediately reminds us how beautifully Vonnegut wrote, and how judiciously he measured out his most lyrical sentences. The first line: “The Summer had died peacefully in its sleep, and Autumn, as soft-­spoken executrix, was locking life up safely until Spring came to claim it.” The story involves an all-American mother of two and her husband, a lab assistant who dreams of inventing something that will change the world and the family’s fortunes. He comes home one day with a device that will do both, an earpiece that whispers highly personal suggestions in the ear of its owner. The invention is instantly addictive, and surely it will sell in the millions — but is it good for you? Will it improve life on earth or simply make its inventor a fortune while hastening the demise of mankind?
     The Vonnegut of “Cat’s Cradle” might have offered a different answer from the one presented here. The most surprising thing about nearly all of these stories is how simple and straightforward they are. Vonnegut loved a good surprise ending, considered it an elementary virtue of storytelling — but most of the endings in “Look at the Birdie” are startling because they’re straight-up happy. Later in his career came the endings where worlds die, heroes are cut down by knaves, villains amble off unscathed. Here, though, good and evil are clearly delineated, and the good guys always win. The bad guys are fat cats, crooked cops, snake-oil salesmen and communism itself (these stories were written in the 1950s). The heroes are young, virtuous men and women of modest means and pure hearts who find a way to triumph each time, not by winning the lottery or ascending to the moneyed classes, but simply by doing the right thing.
In “Ed Luby’s Key Club,” a married couple, Harve and Claire Elliot, come to a nightclub to celebrate their anniversary, as they have for 14 years. They’re turned away because the club has become an exclusive membership-only spot, with an actual golden key required to open the door. Soon, through a quick and horrific series of events, Harve and Claire are arrested, thrown in jail and accused of murder. As it happens, Ed Luby not only owns the nightclub, he owns the town — and the cops and judge, too. Things look bleak for Harve and Claire, and the reader can be forgiven if he expects the couple to rot in prison, victims of a system where justice has a variable price tag. Instead, there are action-­packed twists and turns, a high-speed escape and, ultimately, justice.
In the collection’s best and most nuanced story, “King and Queen of the Universe,” a wealthy young couple, Henry Davidson Merrill and Anne Lawson Heiler, walk through a city park at night, dressed up and feeling impervious to danger, entitled to all they’ve been granted. A desperate and disheveled man emerges from the shadows. The couple recoil, assuming imminent violence. But he doesn’t want to rob them; he wants to introduce them to his mother. “She’d think you were the two most beautiful creatures she ever laid eyes on,” the man, Stanley Karpinsky, says. Turns out she emigrated from Poland and sacrificed every­thing to put Stanley through college and graduate school. Now she’s dying, and her son has amounted (or so he thinks) to nothing. He wants Henry and Anne to come to his apartment and tell his mother he’s invented a world-changing apparatus. “I’ve got to be a big success tonight or never,” he says. The couple, improbably, agree. The mother is “speechless and radiant” at the sight of these glittery people validating the work of her son. She’s about to pass away, content that her sacrifices were worth it, when Vonnegut provides the shocking twist that’s a trademark of these early stories: “Then the cops broke in.”
     Eventually Henry and Anne have to face issues of class, of privilege, of their complicity in a system rigged and unfair. They confront their own parents, who have given them everything, a life free of care and struggle. Anne’s mother “could not stand the idea of Henry’s and Anne’s growing up — the idea of their ever looking closely at tragedy. She was saying that she herself had never grown up, had never looked closely at tragedy. She was saying that the most beautiful thing money could buy was a childhood a lifetime long.”
Here a reader might think achingly of the young Vonnegut straddling the two worlds, the moneyed and the working-class, the carefree and the world-weary. Vonnegut had grown up middle-class, had found employment without great effort. But then again, when he was writing these stories, he had already seen the firebombing of Dresden, the torching of a hundred thousand souls, and had endured, at age 21, the suicide of his mother. This makes it all the more remarkable how optimistic and believing in simple goodness the author of these stories was. He valued hard work and true love, though never so much as when it came after a fight.
“Three days later,” Vonnegut writes, “Henry told Anne he loved her. Anne told him she loved him, too. They had told each other that before, but this was the first time it had meant a little something. They had finally seen a little something of life.”
Dave Eggers’s most recent books are “Zeitoun” and “The Wild Things.”