Recent Reading: Bakker, Souza Leão, Salter, Byers, Roth, Bennett, Antrim, Crace, Suddain, Ziervogel

What with one thing and another I haven’t been able to write about as many of the books I’ve been reading as I would have liked: so, by way of a corrective, I thought I’d talk about a few of the books I’ve enjoyed and, occasionally, been slightly baffled by over the last few months – with no pretence of adherence to chronological order, I should add. The full list of this year’s reading is to be found by clicking on ‘Books Read 2013’ somewhere above here.

detour-ukOne of my resolutions for this year was to read more American and translated fiction. Much to my surprise this actually seems to have gone fairly well. Indeed, one of my favourite novels this year is Gerbrand Bakker’s The Detour, which won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize a few months ago and makes more references to Escape to the Country than one might have expected. So quiet and full of life, my overriding impression of The Detour was of a vibrating air surrounding the Dutch woman mysteriously arrived in Wales, of a thickness to the medium which was not cloying, for the language is transparency itself, but somehow, like water, able to propagate feeling and mystery all the more effectively for its density.

Whereas The Detour vibrated due to some uneasy tension, All Dogs are Blue, theALL-DOGS-ARE-BLUE_FRONT-cmyk-300x456 latest translation from And Other Stories, derives its energy from a riotous and rebellious challenge to narrative and the mental institutions of Brazil. In her introduction, Deborah Levy calls Rodrigo De Souza Leão’s work ‘a comic modernist novel about being messed up – and then being messed up even more by numbing doses of pharmaceuticals.’ The sheer momentum generated by Souza Leão powers one through the book. A first reading just has to take in the manifold ramifying threads of a stream of consciousness the balance of which is as undermined by the society in which it finds itself as much as it is by any illness or ensuing medication to which it is subject. ‘I swallowed a chip yesterday. It forced myself to talk about the system that surrounds me. There was an electrode on my forehead. I don’t know if I swallowed the electrode with the chip. The horses were galloping. Except for the seahorse, who was swimming around in the aquarium.’ Quite an opening paragraph.

salterSpeaking of opening paragraphs, James Salter is known for them, and his most famous is that which begins Light Years.

We dash the black river, its flats smooth as stone. Not a ship, not a dinghy, not one cry of white. The water lies broken, cracked from the wind. This great estuary is wide, endless. The river is brackish, blue with cold. It passes beneath us blurring. The sea birds hang above it, they wheel, disappear. We flash the wide river, a dream of the past. The deeps fall behind, the bottom is paling the surface, we rush by the shallows, boats beached for winter, desolate piers. And on wings like the gulls, soar up, turn, look back.

Which, in its current of refracted nostalgia, fractured distances, and coldly receding life, captures the intuition of the entire novel. A work of dissolution and awing concision of character, not to mention the scattering of stunning paragraphs, Light Years is remarkable. Salter likes water: the opening sentence of his latest novel All That Is runs: All night in darkness the water sped past. Despite this – and some Twitter murmurings about a thirsty horse – I haven’t quite got around to reading All That Is yet. I have a habit of eagerly awaiting novels and then suddenly finding myself unable to pick them up.

Glorying in a different kind of linguistic bravado one finds Sam Byer’s Idiopathy, Idiopathydescribed as ‘A novel of love, narcissism and ailing cattle’. Each of Byers’ three central characters is mired in a different kind of self-involvement and self-pity, symbolised by those ailing cattle standing ‘at the edges of fields staring blank and unblinking into the middle distance, starving and dehydrating to death.’ The prose matches and vindicates the rationale. Byers’ sentences twist and turn, moving back and forth, in and out, becoming increasing self-involved before, rather unlike the thoughts of his subjects, resolving beautifully. Likewise, each sentence forms part of a paragraph whose guiding thought is clear, but whose meandering yet controlled course mirrors both the contours of introspection and the ‘self-caused cause’ that is its impetus. Byers consistently finds the humour that underlies the nonsense we manage to twist our thoughts and lives in to.

Gabriel-Roth-The-Unknowns-186x300Gabriel Roth’s The Unknowns also addresses the challenges of interpersonal communication and love. (No cattle). Through the nice premise of an expert in user interfaces who is nonetheless bad with people until he develops a theoretical framework with which to approach them, Roth questions the relationship between people and the facts about them, between knowing someone and understanding them. The Unknowns reminded me of the debates in the philosophy of mind which ask how it is that we predict or understand the behaviour and thought of others given the inaccessibility of their mental lives. This is often called ‘folk psychology’. One view, ‘Theory-theory’, holds that we understand the behaviour and thoughts of others (‘mindreading’) by accessing a theory of human behaviour we all hold in our minds: we reason somehow about others and come to conclusions about their lives. Roth’s novel is rather snappier and an awful lot funnier than the texts one finds in the philosophy of mind, but it covers the same ground and highlights that same gulf in knowledge and understanding which we have to find some way to bridge if we are ever to relate to anybody.

The development of knowledge and understanding that attends immersion inUncommon-Reader-Alan-Bennett literature is the satirical substance of the most straightforwardly joyous book I’ve read recently: Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader. A small book which manages to contain more insight about the value of reading and the fear it engenders in others. One of my favourite passages finds the increasingly literate Queen reciting Larkin’s The Trees during what would otherwise be a rather run-of-the-mill planting. (This is one of my favourite poems, which helps). Everyone should read Bennett’s very short, but lovely book.

‘See a town stucco-pink, fishbelly white…’ To electreturn to the Americas, Donald Antrim’s reissued Elect Mr Robinson for a Better World was one of the more disconcerting novels I’ve read this year, which is probably why I didn’t review it at the time. I was baffled. I had lots of words I could use: surreal, macabre, fantastical, satirical, bloody odd, and so on; but I couldn’t make them cohere into the substance of a review. And perhaps this is the point. Antrim’s novel defies the kind of approach I often take to reviewing. It’s defiantly violent and refuses to allow that violence to signify in the way that literary novels so often do; its language is so at odds with its subject which is magnified and twisted as a result; its amorality challenges the narrative one wants to place on it. It’s not easy.

I might also have been quite tired when I read it.

This might also be true of Jim Crace’s Booker longlisted Harvest, but given my lack of response to his earlier Quarantine, I think I may simply have a Crace blind spot. harvestCrace is one of those whose technical ability, whose sentence-making, I recognise in an abstract way, but whose writing simply fails to move me. ‘This land has always been much older than ourselves’. Its insistently measured pace, its careful probing of a thought, a place, a person, a name, or possibility enlarges the space of Crace’s prose, makes its spaces rich and sacred, but in the same way renders it detached, dreamlike, everywhere and nowhere: so richly detailed, so freely of the earthy and sky, yet none that we may find.

To continue in the vein of books about which I am ambivalent, Matt Suddain’s enormous Theatre of the Gods challenges merely by its length. This tale blacklistpublishing_covers_theatre_of_the_godsof transuniversal exploration is as big and brash and ambitious as any science fiction/fantasy one might name. It’s full of wit and intelligence and might be somewhat too aware of the fact. In short, it might be shorter. The sprawling character of the narrative as we follow M. Francisco Fabrigas (explorer, philosopher, heretical physicist) across the universes as he battles, amongst others, the Pope of the universe, myriad assassins, and the flora of one very dangerous moon, is part of the essential character of the work. However, certain passages descend into something of a display, which might, of course, be evidence of the supposed narrator of Fabrigas’ tale. If you feel like taking on a big book with big ideas and definite talent behind it, then Theatre of the Gods is worth considering.

Finally, and in contrast, I read Magda by Meike Ziervogel, which follows Magda Goebbels from her abusive childhood to Hitler’s bunker beneath Berlin.  Ziervogel’s9781907773402frcvr.indd writing is at its most remarkable when probing the spiritual starvation Magda feels and her satiation in the person and project of her Fuhrer: ‘This man believes in meaning, this man delivers meaning, this man is meaning. He is mind without body and Magda is inspired; the spirit has entered her, the Holy Spirit has come to her and taken her, planting a seed in her as he did with the Virgin Mary.’ One of the challenges of writing about historical figures is to resist the inevitability of their fate; it is even more challenging when those figures have such a hand in that determination. Ziervogel’s painful portrayal of Magda and the fear and confusion of her children as the steel doors close on them is chillingly good. The interpenetration of prostration before the cross, before an abuser, before National Socialism; of bodily and national resurrection, of abuse and purity and the manner in which the victim comes to feel unclean and seek forgiveness; of the bitter irony of one people believing itself chosen and thus seeking to exterminate another: all is brought to bear in Magda.

And that’s some of the books I’ve read recently. One book I’ve not written about is Javier Marías’ The Man of Feeling. I’m going to need a while to get my head around that one. It’s brilliant, but I think I need to reread it at least once before I can say much about it. The same goes for Antal Szerb’s Journey by Moonlight, which is remarkable and full of wisdom and humanity. My next post should be a few thoughts on Dracula.  

Titles with a star were review copies.

  •  *Harvest (Picador)
  • The Uncommon Reader (Faber/Profile)
  • The Detour (Vintage)
  • Light Years (Harvill Press)
  • *Elect Mr Robinson for a Better World (Granta)
  • *Idiopathy (Fourth Estate)
  • All Dogs are Blue (And Other Stories)
  • *Magda (Salt)
  • *The Unknowns (Picador/Waywiser Press)
  • *Theatre of the Gods (Jonathan Cape)

Man Booker Shortlist

Shortlist

The Shortlist has been announced and of my predictions four were correct. I’ll read and review all of them by 16th October when the winner is announced. The official Man Booker Prize announcement is here.

I’m really pleased with this list. Of the books that I’ve read all the ones I really wanted on the list have made it. It’s great to see all three indies make it through. I really enjoyed Swimming Home and The Lighthouse in their very different ways. Bring Up the Bodies was  as good as I expect of Mantel and Umbrella is extraordinary. Onward to Narcopolis and The Garden of Evening Mists!

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng (Myrmidon Books)

Swimming Home by Deborah Levy (And Other Stories)

Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (Fourth Estate)

The Lighthouse by Alison Moore (Salt)

Umbrella by Will Self (Bloomsbury)

Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil (Faber & Faber)

Man Booker Longlist: The Lighthouse – Alison Moore

Part of the Man Booker Prize 2012 Longlist Series.

In The Lighthouse Alison Moore has created an unsettling, seemingly becalmed but oddly sensual, and entirely excellent novel. The middle-aged and recently separated Futh is going on a walking-tour in Germany to clear his head before returning to a single life in a flat full of boxes his soon-to-be-ex-wife, Angela, had to pack for this stunningly ineffectual man. Futh’s very name is an awkward monosyllabic cotton-woollish and wholly unmemorable sound. He is constantly outrun and unbalanced by the actions of other people: the aggressive cuckolded hotel-manager, whose wife desires his mother’s silver lighthouse perfume case, his father’s women, and his bored wife who echoes the mother who left him as a child. Time and again Futh ends up in the middle of others’ problems but is too inept to realise it and suffers as a consequence.

His heart feels like the raw meat it is. It feels like something peeled and bleeding. It feels the way it felt when his mother left.

Futh is lost in the present, at home only vaguely in the past. Indeed, it is as if his development was arrested the moment his mother left, and everything else is seen through the lens of that departure, that void. His childishness is remarkable: in one episode Futh, fully-grown physically at least, is smacked by his father for speaking out of turn. He has so little idea of how to conduct himself that his behaviour renders him frankly creepy. At one point he approaches a woman reading an English book and tells her she smells like his wife. Matters are only made worse when she sees his hand thrust deep into his pocket as he talks: he’s clutching his lighthouse, which takes on a rather phallic dimension in Moore’s writing at this point. When he first arrives at his German hotel he encounters Ester, the chronically unfaithful wife of the manager, who sleeps with passing men in the guest rooms.

 He stands in front of her, and she regards him, this man with gravy on his chin and on his shirt and even on the crotch of his trousers. ‘I’m Futh,’ he says again in English. ‘Someone’s expecting me.’

And yet no one is really expecting him. Futh is, at almost every point, superfluous.

A strange symmetry runs throughout the novel. Symmetries of smell and memory, of stains and disinfectant, and of the sense of lives cut adrift and slowly driven onto the rocks at the very moment they thought themselves safe. At the centre is the lighthouse, the object with which Futh orientates himself to the world. It becomes fairly clear that he has chosen the wrong reference point. Futh’s silver lighthouse belonged to his mother who liberally applied its expensive scent of violets and he repeatedly returns to the moment atop a cliff where he first recognised the fractures in his parents’ marriage.

Futh, up on the cliffs in Cornwall with the silver lighthouse in one hand and the stoppered glass vial in the other, wandered back to his parents. His mother was still lying with her eyes closed, her face turned to the sun. His father was looking out to sea and then Futh heard him say, ‘The foghorn blasts every thirty seconds.’

’Do you know,’ said his mother, ‘how much you bore me?’

The vial shatters in Futh’s small fist, scarring his hand and rendering the silver lighthouse hollow as his mother leaves him. Ester also has a lighthouse but hers is a cheaper wooden version: a symbol of her dissatisfaction, her infidelity a symbol of her dissipation. Their coming together does not bode well for Futh and Moore handles the denouement (for once a fitting term) very well indeed.

Moore builds a picture of a deflated and damaged man with whom it can be very difficult to feel any sympathy. Throughout particular smells attract Futh: violets, orange peel, apples, cigarette smoke warm cotton. All of them signal the memory of his mother and motivate his search for substitutes which seems to sully every relationship. Time and again his wife tells him ‘I’m not your mother’ in the face of some request. The artificial evocation of his mother through scent signals Futh’s sheltering within the false, with the safe. His professional life was bound up with producing artificial smells – the now outmoded scratch’n’sniff cards. Their dependability after twenty years is what matters most to him: these tiny bottles of scent don’t leave him. His essential childishness and need for support sabotages every endeavour. He can’t even manage a regular meal or avoid sunburn and blisters whilst on holiday. At times, his obsession with the past takes on more disturbing sexual dimensions, a result of his father’s dalliances in shared hotel rooms.

It is interesting to compare The Lighthouse to another Booker longlisted indie novel Swimming Home by Deborah Levy.  Both create an uncomfortable atmosphere of unhappiness and loss, both hark back in some sense to parents and childhood and dependence, and yet they are so different in tone and structure that reading both as part of the Booker longlist is a complementary, if not  altogether cheering, experience. Levy’s prose creates a fluid space of uncertain dimensions within a crystalline, faceted structure, which is resistant to interpretation beyond a certain point. Moore, however, sustains an understated but utterly compelling drive, which unflinchingly documents the failings of her protagonist, piling each unexceptional moment on the next, to create a discomforting and moving portrait of intense loss.

Man Booker Longlist: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry – Rachel Joyce

Part of the Man Booker Prize 2012 Longlist Series.

And the lost heart stiffens and rejoices

This is a hard book to review. Not because it is bad. In fact, it is by turns charming, heart-warming, distressing, and profound; a novel of intense regret, grief, great tenderness, faith, and desolation. As Rachel Joyce’s debut novel it is a great achievement and deserves its place on the Man Booker Longlist. It is hard to review – at least as I find it – because the achievement of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is so tightly bound up with the cumulative effect of its various vignettes – the people and places Harold comes across – with the insights and setbacks Harold experiences, some of which seem trite or mere truisms in isolation, but which grow in the telling and in the initially Prufrockish person of Harold himself. Likewise, Joyce’s style is so unobtrusive, not plodding but diligent in its articulation of Harold and his wife’s voices that it threatens to defy analysis.

Harold is a retired and retiring sixty-five year old living in South Devon and with nothing to do. He is intensely insecure, private, wary of attention and emotional engagement.  His difficult childhood and that of his troubled son have hollowed him out, fearing and mishandling emotional connections to others. One day in mid-April, as he sits at the kitchen table, a letter arrives from Queenie Hennessy, a former employee at the misogynist-dominated brewery from which Harold has retired. She is dying of cancer in Berwick-upon-Tweed. Harold resolves to escape the house and his snappy, impatient, and sarcastic wife, for a while and post her a rather lame reply.

 Harold thought of the words he had written to Queenie, and their inadequacy shamed him. He pictured himself returning home, and Maureen calling David, and life being exactly the same except for Queenie dying in Berwick, and he was overcome. The letter rested on the dark mouth of the post box.

Harold keeps walking, meets a girl in a petrol station who speaks of cancer and faith, and comes to believe he can do something for Queenie, who long ago did something for him. So begins the unlikely pilgrimage of Harold Fry to Berwick-upon-Tweed: ‘Tell her Harold Fry is on his way. All she has to do is wait. Because I am going to save her, you see. I will keep walking and she must keep living.’

Maureen is left alone in Devon to contemplate a life without Harold, from whom she has become so estranged. ‘She thought of their cold beds, in separate rooms, and the words they shared, which skimmed the surface and meant nothing.’ Since their son left them, Harold and Maureen have come to be coincidental occupiers of the same house, unable to bridge the gap between them. As in Larkin’s poem Talking in Bed ‘more and more time passes silently’, so

It becomes still more difficult to find

Words and once true and kind,

Or not untrue and not unkind.

I was recently reminded by Charles Fernyhough of a line from Paul Auster’s The Invention of Solitude ‘Memory: the space in which a thing happens for the second time.’ As he walks Harold’s memories, of his son, his wife, his absent mother and unsatisfactory father, and Queenie, assail him, deepening his despair and losing nothing in their recollection, but rather intensifying as though thickened by time and the impotence of distance.

Later in the same book Auster quotes Hölderlin who, before his first mental breakdown, undertook his own three-month walk from Bordeaux to Stuttgart across the Massif Central in 1802. Following the death of his wife, he spent thirty-six years in a room in a tower, built for him by a carpenter called Zimmer (which means room in German). Like Hölderlin Harold seems to have lived in one stuffy compartment of his life. And yet,

TO ZIMMER

The lines of life are various as roads or as

The limits of the mountains are, and what we are

Down here, in harmonies, in recompense,

In peace forever, a god will finish there.

The heart of this book is the walk, the journey along the lines of life begun by Harold as he finally steps away in his yachting shoes from his staid life, only to find himself walking through it, seeing everything around him in terms of it his memories, regrets, optimism, or despair. Throughout Joyce summons parallels between the weather and Harold’s state of mind. The landscape of Britain becomes the geography of his life, the people and places, flora and fauna, the moments of joy when all around appears radiant, and the moments of desolation and utter isolation, which are themselves intensified by Harold and Maureen’s inability to communicate. There are moments where the story can strike one as repetitive, punctuated as it is by many moments of despair and subsequent new beginnings; but then such a journey is repetitive – will involve returning to thoughts, moments, memories. Some images can feel a little contrived, but occasionally they really hit home.

He looked out at the rain, waiting for it to break, and saw a crow with its head bowed, its feathers so wet they shone like tar. He wished the bird would move, but it sat sodden and alone. Maureen was so busy she had hardly noticed Harold had gone.

What rescues Harold’s insights from apparent triviality is their place in the context of his stunted emotional development. He meets an apparently prosperous gentleman in a railway café, and yet,

He was a chap like himself with a unique pain; and yet there was no knowing that if you passed him in the street, or sat opposite him in a café and did not share his teacake…It must be the same all over England.

This line might feel, perhaps does feel somewhat underwhelming, but Harold has never felt such things before, and this realisation, reinforced with each person he meets, leads to the heart of Joyce’s novel.

He understood that in walking to atone for the mistakes he had made, it was also his journey to accept the strangeness of others. As a passer-by, he was in a place where everything, not only the land, was open. People would feel free to talk, and he was free to listen. To carry a little of them as he went. He had neglected so many things, that he owed this small piece of generosity to Queenie and the past.

And thus, as in Pilgrim’s Progress so in Harold Fry atonement integrates both the journey and its telling. At-one-ment: the return to a state of harmony, an act of reconciliation and reparation for past wrongs. The dark heart of this book questions the meaning and possibility of such things for Harold very effectively through the lens of his troubled relationship with his difficult son; but, at the same time Joyce questions the limits of our responsibility for others’ choices, a weight that surely all parents feel. She does so very well indeed and marshals the turbulence, love, fear, doubt, and faith of a life with originality in that most frequent of metaphors, the journey.

Man Booker 2012 Series

Right, I’m going to be reading the longlisted books this Summer/Autumn. There is a tab above where I will collate all the reviews. I’ve already posted some thoughts on Hilary Mantel’s characterisation which will suffice. It’s too long since I read it for me to go back and write a full review. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce is already on my shelf, so that will be the next book on the list. Time to get reading.

Man Booker longlist Prediction

OK, I’ve given in and made the following rather unsurprising predictions for tomorrow.

  • Bring Up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel
  • Ancient Light – John Banville
  • Hawthorn and Child – Keith Ridgway
  • Toby’s Room – Pat Barker
  • The Yips – Nicola Barker
  • NW – Zadie Smith
  • Merivel – Rose Tremain
  • The Painter of Silence  – Georgina Harding
  • Sweet Tooth – Ian McEwan
  • John Saturnall’s Feast – Lawrence Norfolk
  • Umbrella – Will Self
  • The Land of Decoration – Grace McLeen
  • The Big Music – Kirsty Gunn

Hilary Mantel and the Moralists

Part of the Man Booker Longlist Series

In Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell novels we follow the rise to power of Henry VIII’s minister and facilitator as he navigates and terrorises the Royal Court of the 1530s. In Wolf Hall Cromwell emerges from the shadow of the doomed Cardinal Wolsey and helps resolve Henry’s Great matter in favour of the seductive Anne Boleyn. In Bring Up the Bodies his star continues to rise as Boleyn’s sets in favour of the seemingly unremarkable Jane Seymour. Cromwell enables and disables Henry in not-quite-equal measure; his very service and facilitation of Henry’s desires ensures their insatiable and changeable nature. The better Cromwell appears to satisfy Henry’s wants – and, of course, it is often only an appearance – the more he is held to such success in the future. The more he is hostage to caprice. Mantel’s next novel will show where this must lead.

Anthony Beevor has recently professed a dislike for historical fiction, arguing that it blurs the boundaries between history and fiction. As Mantel writes in her Authors Note in Bring Up The Bodies, however, she offers only an interpretation of the people and events of that turbulent time. This, of course, is the strength of historical fiction and allows Mantel to explore certain questions of human nature and motivation within that context without being assessed for historical rigour, although she displays plenty of that. The intimacy she achieves amidst events so often the subject matter of the epic is symptomatic of the best historical fiction and cannot be criticised for that. Characters recognisable as human, and in the most human situation of marriage, birth, death, play out their lives on the most public of stages. And it is when the private explodes into public view – as for Royals it must – that she is at her best.

In ‘Jane Austen and the Moralists’ the philosopher Gilbert Ryle argues that Austen was a writer interested in theoretical problems about human nature and conduct; whether, for example, ‘deep feeling is compatible with being reasonable’ (Sense and Sensibility), or ‘What makes it sometimes legitimate or even obligatory for one person deliberately to try to modify the course of another person’s life, while sometimes such attempts are wrong?’ (Emma) To an extent Mantel marries such opposing traits in her central characters. Anne Boleyn is a mixture of cold reason and hot passion, each intensifying the other in an overreaching rage of resentment and calculation. Whichever is the driving force at any one moment can be no guide as to the next. In contrast, Jane Seymour is everything Boleyn is not: inexpressive, seemingly uncalculating, virginal, and, of course, fecund, or so it is hoped. Cromwell himself seems to embody repressed passion, presenting only a blank mechanical exterior to the world, whilst harbouring a hidden violence.

It would be neat if one could sum up Mantel’s Cromwell novels in terms of an exploration of such dualities as the conflict between personal feeling and duty, or between action and reaction, but her work is more complex than that, and all the better for it. Her moral psychology is complex and avowedly not the bi-polar arrangement of good and bad that Ryle terms ‘Calvinist’. In contrast, he writes, ‘A person is not black or white, but iridescent with all the colours of the rainbow; and he is not a flat plane, but a highly irregular solid.’ And yet this ‘Aristotelian’ moral psychology cannot apply wholeheartedly to anyone in Mantel’s work other than Cromwell, for in an entirely deliberate fashion she leaves the thoughts and actions of others opaque: we, and Cromwell, can conjecture, even be fairly certain, as to the motivations and character of others, but it is only conjecture born of experience and acquaintance with humanity. Even Cromwell’s knowledge of Henry’s moods and how best to handle him is born of trial and error, garnered from the advice of Wolsey, and his ability to project himself into the minds of others.

Mantel’s writing mirrors the psychology of her protagonist. As Cromwell is thoughtful and patient so is Mantel’s prose. Yet there are flashes of depth and introspection in both, which are all the more striking for the measured action and narration surrounding them. Cromwell’s reflection on the lowliness and instability of his origins – detailed in Wolf Hall – enables him to navigate more deftly a world built on the order, birth, and power from which he was initially excluded and alien. His very ascent to power empowers him in a way that the aristocracy cannot understand. It is telling that eventual doom should be heralded by admission to the ranks of a class he has so terrorised. And yet, even Cromwell’s motives and convictions are unclear much of the time. Of course, his driving passion seems to be vengeance for the hounding and death of Cardinal Wolsey, but even this underdetermines the quiet ferocity of his actions which contrast so strongly with the kindness of his behaviour to others. Indeed, it is his very slipperiness of identity that so alienates Cromwell from others who rule. They are as duplicitous as he is, but he does not even have the virtue of their breeding.

At the heart of these novels is a vagueness of motivation, an instability of character, which moves Mantel’s work beyond Ryle’s Aristotelian moral psychology toward a more characteristically modern, perhaps more humanistic, understanding of motivation and duty. This vagueness goes hand in hand, of course, with the indeterminate nature of historical interpretation: ‘truth’ is a term anathema to historians these days. There is both a moral and a motivational vagueness in Cromwell. He seems likeable from inside, a man who cares about family, duty, and service: in the context of the 16th Century he seems a near paragon. And yet even we can’t be sure what he really thinks, and certainly those around him can never be sure. It is those who watch him most keenly who seem to understand him best, those who trust to his word are both few and far between and likely deceived. We certainly can’t acquit Cromwell for Anne’s death; a death that Mantel is careful to leave far from justifiable on the grounds that Cromwell believes her guilty. Her wrongdoing is never laid bare and nor is that of her courtiers. Is Cromwell simply facilitating Henry, advancing the interests of the nation, or cleaving to old loyalties? This impenetrability is characteristic of Mantel’s characters reflects one of the (few) aspects of moral psychology that Immanuel Kant and David Hume held in common: we can never be really sure why we do act in as we do, especially in ethical matters. Duty, self-interest, both, neither, one masquerading as the other? Cromwell is often questioned about his motives. His outward certainty belies his humanity.