Thursday, June 26, 2014

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (2012)

Reading Wolf Hall was such an experience, and in re-reading my post, I know I wanted to listen to the audio version of Bring up the Bodies, narrated by Simon Vance - which I did.  I thought the audio book would envelope me in the story, and it did so.  It was incredible, intimate, amazing.  I thoroughly loved it.  Mantel's deep, rich, electric writing shines through in the audio version.  The story becomes so much more riveting.  You aren't necessarily there in the sense of standing next to Henry VIII; you aren't even in Thomas Cromwell's head.  Rather, it's like you're a spirit, becoming one with Thomas Cromwell, a man 500 years dead and executed, able to see through his eyes, hear his thoughts, yet still separately viewing the situation as well.   You don't become Thomas Cromwell; you are more like a mouse in his pocket with ESP.  The dinner party scene, where Cromwell invites everyone to a feast to help him plan the downfall of Anne Boleyn, all his enemies and her enemies in one feast - except the feast is all in his head, a conceit, a figment of his imagination.  That's wonderful writing, and makes for incredible audio theater.

I guess this is historical fiction, but taken to another level.  Mantel's historical accuracy isn't based on the right kind of armor or food; I frankly don't remember anything historically sticking out.  It's not about historical language either; these people all talk like you and me. Rather, Mantel's interest is aimed at historical accuracy regarding power and its corruptible force; women and their role in a male dominated society; politics in a time when making the wrong political choice didn't mean losing an election or the jaunt through the political wilderness, it meant losing your life.

I've read quite a few books, both fiction and nonfiction, about the Tudors.  Margaret George's The Autobiography of Henry VIII was probably the first fiction I ever read; also Alison Weir; also Philippa Gregory.  Because the all the details from history are hidden to us, the true motives, the personalities, the authors use the characters as ciphers for various reasons - to enhance the plot, to highlight character flaws, to show deeper meaning.  Jane Seymour is almost always a cipher; George's Jane, if I remember correctly (it's been a long time since I read that one) was all blonde innocence; Gregory's Jane was a flirt (Madonna or whore). Queen Katherine takes on various roles - mother, schemer; the Boleyns and their relatives - particularly Norfolk, always have their roles to play (Norfolk is as interesting a study as Jane Seymour, his personality is almost a caricature at this point in literature).  Anne Boleyn, perhaps because we know more about her historically - always seems to be the same:  cold, calculating, deadly.  Henry himself changes with each novel; sometimes more heroic, but as of late emptier and more tyrannical.  Lady Rochford, though, she's the same in each book.  Gregory portrayal of her in The Boleyn Inheritance is more nuanced.  Most of the time, she's portrayed as the meanest of the mean girls.  The grand high mean girl of all time. Whoever gets to play Jane Boleyn, though, they get a meaty role, something to play with.  Cruella DeVil on ice.

After so many years, why does the story of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII still resonate?  There is probably at least one book written about their romance and tragedy every year; certainly more than one.  Fiction is written from the view point of one character or the other.  Minor players get their own books (Mary Boleyn, Jane Boleyn).  The story is so arresting and can be told in so many ways, taken in so many directions, because at its heart it is about women's power and powerlessness during this historical period.  Anne Boleyn reached the very top of the political heap of her time, and disastrously fell from the peak.  Her rise and fall are fascinating because for a woman to rise to far and fall to drastically was unique.  Modern writers of both fiction and nonfiction have put various spin on this tale.  But its still about women's power - not just Anne Boleyn, but Queen Katherine, Princess Mary, even Jane Boleyn and Jane Seymour.  Pawns or queens?  Or both at the same time?

Why did the dwarf lift up her dress and show Cromwell her private parts?  That's the only question I have for Hilary Mantel - a WTF question.

Wolf Hall is the story of More's fall and Cromwell's part in it.
Bring up the Bodies is the story of Anne Boleyn's fall and Cromwell's part in it.
I'm assuming the next book is the story of Cromwell's fall.

Bring Up the Bodies (Thomas Cromwell, #2)Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If reading Wolf Hall was an bewildering and extraordinary accomplishment, listening to Bring Up the Bodies was akin to a sacred experience, literarily speaking.  Intimate, incredible; Mantel's prose is electric, deep, rich; Simon Vance's narration was nigh on perfect, and made the (really, quite familiar) story riveting.  Cromwell has been dead over 500 years; yet Mantel (and Vance channeling her) allows you to slip over him like some sort of ectoplasmic spirit from the future, a mouse in his pocket with ESP, hearing his thoughts, seeing through his eyes, yet also kenning the experience from above and beyond time.  Mantel's historical fiction isn't that of the right armor, the right food, the right language (I don't remember a single thee or thou).  Rather, Mantel's interest is aimed at historical accuracy regarding power and its corruptible force; women and their role in a male dominated society; politics in a time when making the wrong political choice didn't mean losing an election or the jaunt through the political wilderness, it meant losing your life.  At its heart, always, this story, and its many interpretations and renditions, at this point almost a folk story, is about the power and powerlessness of women in Tudor society, a story that culminates with the story of Queen Elizabeth I herself.  When you think the Tudor tale is told out, along comes Mantel to inject new life.  The Tudor tale will probably always be this way; its a story that will never grow old.

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This may be the best way to end a book two in a trilogy ever, every devised.  I loved it so much I had to read it three times, and copy it down here:

“The word 'however' is like an imp coiled beneath your chair. It induces ink to form words you have not yet seen, and lines to march across the page and overshoot the margin. There are no endings. If you think so you are deceived as to their nature. They are all beginnings. Here is one.”

It took me quite a while to find this, what I considered one of the best lines in the entire book, read so well by Simon Vance.  They have just arrested Anne Boleyn and are taking her to the tower.  "He, Cromwell, takes hold of her -- since no one else will do it - and sets her back on her feet.  She weighs nothing, and as he lifts her, her wail breaks off, as if her breathe had been stopped.  Silent, she steadies herself against his shoulder, leans into him, intent, complicit, ready for the next thing they will do together, which is kill her."

That last sentence, those last words.  So powerful.  Wow.  That's the climax of the whole book.

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