Monday, December 21, 2009

Book Report: "Wolf Hall" by Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall: A Novel (Man Booker Prize)is more the story of that guy who kills the cow than the big shot who eats the steaks.

Hilary Mantel's time and setting are the oft-told English Court of King Henry VIII.

And while the randy and capricious Harry (is their a supreme ruler who is not?) and his short-lived wife Ann Boleyn come in for some decent portraiture, "Wolf Hall" is the story of an influential aide to both, Thomas Cromwell.

Although we don't watch the goings-on at court unfold from Cromwell's point of view, Ms. Mantel uses him as guide and compass through the seven or so years during which Ann Boleyn worked her whiles on Henry who extricated England from the Papacy's influence to marry her.

You know, probably, how she failed to deliver a much-desired heir, cheated sexually, and lost her head as a result, but this book does not venture there.

It journeys, instead, early into the young Cromwell's life as a low-born country boy whose father comes within a hair's-length of beating him to death before deciding to strike out on his own.

He is a seasoned fellow with no small measure of luck who becomes a good soldier in France, and better banker in Italy, before returning to England where his cause is taken up by one influential Cardinal Wolsey whom he serves in turn.

The first parts of the book detail Wolsey's fall from grace at court and his simultaneous death at the news of it. The latter parts render Cromwell's rise at court as someone useful to an archly-rendered Boleyn, and later Henry, for his skill as bureaucrat (of a pre-modern kind).

This skill primarily involves the undoing and capital punishment of one Thomas More, the Holy See's top dog in England.

But it entails all manner of "fixing" including arranged marriages, unarranged ones, deaths at the hand of the state, the purchase of properties for the crown, and other things those of us born in a modern democracy have such a hard time wrapping our minds around.

And that's what makes it most fun. There is also the usual confusing family politics of succession (the bastard son of the deposed King borne by his second wife and shunted in The Tower, etc.) rendered no less intelligible by this otherwise superb writer.

Cromwell is sympathetic even if he is prized mostly for certain hard-assed qualities and a talent for using his low-birth and war pedigree to intimidate gentle ladies and men alike.

The fact he is something of state-sponsored monster is obscured by the fact we're rooting for him. Cromwell takes in all manner of folk needing help and turns them out of the house at Austin Friars and onto varying paths toward prosperity.

He represents something of a democratic green shoot growing in the golden brown wheat fields of aristocracy.

Here's one of highwayscribery's favorite lines about Cromwell regarding his close alliance with Ann Boleyn; who was nothing if not the wrecker of Henry's first marriage with Spain's Katherine of Aragon.

"He sighs. It's not much, to know that all the merry young whores are on your side. All the kept women, and the runaway daughters."

Mantel's greatest triumphs are the elevation of Cromwell as archetype for the true governmental mechanic (think Rahm Emmanuel), and her making believable the goings-on behind closed doors, the stuff of closed council, as she paints them.

"The fate of peoples," the author writes, "is made like this, two men in small rooms. Forget the coronations, the conclaves of cardinals, the pomp and processions. This is how the world changes: a counter pushed across a table, a pen stroke that alters the force of a phrase, a woman's sigh as she passes and leaves on the air a trail of orange flower or rose water; her hand pulling close the bed curtain, the discreet sigh of flesh against flesh."

"Wolf Hall" is a recent winner of the British Commonwealth's "Man Booker Award," useful as far as such things go, which in this case is pretty far.

The writing is economical, the transitional passages are deft and colorful, her application of language is economical but rich, her focus never so tight as to lose that English subtlety for telling you a story with a point not too obvious.

It's a big literature, fancy-schmanzy in reach and range, all the while being a page-turner that sheds light on an important, if under-celebrated, historical figure.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Calvino's Propositions Presented

In 1984, the Italian intellectual Italo Calvino was invited by Harvard University to conduct its Charles Eliot Norton Poetry Lectures cycle. The author of "The Path to the Nest of Spiders," "If on a Winter's Night a Traveler...," "The Cloven Viscount," and other post-war classics decided upon the theme of "Six Propositions for the New Millennium." Calvino was only able to finish five of them. According to his wife Esther, the sixth, "Consistency" was never completed in as much as he died of cerebral hemorrhage on September 19, 1985, one week before the conferences were to begin. The propositions were directed primarily at the future development of novel composition, but contain lessons applicable to our lives, which are, in a world of exploding aspirations and desires, increasingly novel in and of themselves.


Calvino began the discourse on "lightness" by noting that his own literary efforts had consisted primarily of relieving the weight bearing upon humans, celestial bodies and cities. At those moments when the human condition appears condemned to heaviness, Calvino said he attempted, like Perseus, to fly toward another space, to change his focus, to see the world through an alternative looking glass, using a different logic, other methods of investigation and verification.

Through the centuries, he maintained, literature has been characterized by two tendencies: one which construed language as an element without weight, like a cloud or a field of magnetic impulses; the other which used it to communicate weight, density, and the concrete nature of bodies and sensations.

"The second industrial revolution does not present itself as did the first," he noted, "with overpowering images of presses and steel furnaces, rather as bytes in a flux of information, which run through circuits in the form of electronic impulses. Machines of steel still exist, but they obey bytes without weight."

He goes on to recount an anecdote composed by Bocaccio about the Florentine poet Guido Cavalcanti.

Despite being "rich and elegant," Cavalcanti was unpopular with the young lions of Florence for he chose not to cavort with them and because they suspected him of sacrilegious thoughts. Once, they decided to test the poet, surrounding him on horseback as he meditated atop a tomb in the piazza of Santa Reparata. "Guido," they sought to intimidate him, "you reject our company, but when you discover God does not exist, what will you do?"

The poet replied, "Sirs, in your house [of death], you can tell me what you please," before escaping them, using the weighty tomb as a springboard for a leap to safety.

"If I had to chose a single symbol with which we might approach the new millennium," Calvino asserted, "it would be this one: the agile, sudden jump of the poet/philosopher rising above the heaviness of the world, demonstrating that in its gravity lies the secret of levity, whilst that which many consider the vitality of the times, noisy, aggressive, angry, and thundering, pertains to the kingdom of the dead, like a cemetery of rusty cars."


In his second proposition, Calvino broached the question of speed and the differences between its physical and mental manifestations. A story, he asserted, is a horse, a means of transportation with its own pace and itinerary. "The horse as a symbol of speed, even mental speed," he wrote, "marks the entirety of literature, and presages all that is problematic on our technological horizon."

Today, he observed, other, faster media triumph to the point where we run the risk of "flattening all communication into a uniform, homogeneous crust."

Faced with this challenge, it is the job of literature to establish lines of communication between what is different, and exalt that difference. If the machine age has imposed speed as a measurable value, the records of which mark the history of progress, "mental speed cannot be measured and does not invite confrontations or competitions. It has its own value -- namely the pleasure it produces in those sensible to it -- not for its practical utility"

Only mental speed possesses a tool for arresting civilization's race with time: the digression. "If a straight line is the shortest distance between two inevitable and fatal points, digressions stretch them out; and those digressions return, thereby becoming longer, more complex, tangled, tortured and so fast themselves as to become derailed. In doing so, perhaps death loses our scent."

Calvino opposes speed for its own sake and likens our obsession with it to one with death itself. Only the meditative nature of literature, drawn from life-engendering creativity, can delay it.

The genie of modern velocity, of course, cannot be returned to the bottle, but writers [and everybody else] "should keep in mind its rhythmic components: that of Mercury and that of Vulcan, a message of immediacy obtained through patient and meticulous labors; an instantaneous intuition which, barely formulated, acquires the fullness which permits its perception by any other means."


"I have the impression," he stated, "that language is used approximately, casually, negligently, which causes an intolerable anxiety in me." Calvino likened this condition to a plague affecting language so that it "loses all cognitivity and immediacy, like an automatism which tends to level expression into its most generic forms..."

But more importantly for our time, this pestilence affects the world of imagery as well. "We live under a rain of uninterrupted images; the most potent mass media do nothing more than transform and multiply the world of images which, in large part, lack the internal necessity that should characterize them, like form and meaning, like the capacity to attract one's attention, a richness of potential signifiers."

The world, he claimed, is ever-dissolving into a cloud of heat, precipitating a whirlwind of entropy. But this process lends itself to intervals of order and form, privileged points from which a plan and perspective can be perceived. "The literary work is one of those small points of privilege where things crystallize into a form which acquires such meaning."

Just as the understanding of speed requires deliberate labor, so the search for exactness takes two roads: one which reduces events to abstract schemes and the other which uses words to express, with the most precision possible, the meaning of things.

"I think we are always in the hunt for something hidden, a potential or hypothetical, the tracks of which can be seen on the surface of things, and which we follow. I think our most rudimentary mental mechanisms repeat themselves, from our Paleolithic hunter-gatherer forefathers, throughout the cultures of humanity. The word unites these tracks with the invisible entity, the absent quantity, the thing desired or feared, like a fragile bridge improvised across the void."

Calvino urged the exact use of language because it would permit us to approach things, present or absent, "with discretion, attention, and caution, with the respect for those things which communicate without words."


The fourth conference Calvino gave was to start with the following premise: Fantasy is a place where it rains.

"We can distinguish two types of imaginative processes," he maintained. "One that uses the word as a point of departure, another which derives inspiration from the image."

As a writer, Calvino fell into the latter category. "In conjuring up a story, the first thing that comes to my mind is an image that, for whatever reason, is charged with significance for me."

Where do the images raining upon the imagination come from? he asked and then answered: "Writers establish links with earthly emissaries such as the individual or collective unconscious, sensations emerging from lost time, epiphanies, or the concentration of being on a certain point or moment. It is a case of processes which, although not born in heaven, escape from the world of our intentions, from our control, granting the individual a kind of transcendence."

For Calvino, the imagination is a form of identification with the "soul of the world." He worried about its future in the so-called "civilization of the image." He saw it threatened by the deluge of prefabricated pictures bombarding us all.

"Our memory is coated with image fragments, like a depository of waste, where it is becoming increasingly difficult for one figure, amidst so many, to acquire full relief. If I've included visibility in my list of values that should be saved in the next millennium, it is as a warning to the danger of losing a fundamental human faculty: To focus upon images with our eyes closed, to make them jump forth in full color and form from the alignment of black letters on a white page, to think in images."

Calvino argued for a continuation of the modern novel as an open encyclopedic adventure in opposition to the unitary, closed system which characterized the form in its medieval incarnation.

"Knowledge as multiplicity is the thread which unites all the masterpieces, both modern and post-modern, a thread which transcends all labels. This I would like to see developed further in the coming millennium."

He maintained that the best novels encompassed the convergence of a multiplicity of interpretive methods, modes of thought, and styles of expression. What is important, Calvino argued, is not that the story close harmoniously, rather that its centrifugal forces liberate "linguistic plurality as a guarantee of impartiality."

"Somebody," he concluded, "might argue that the closer a work leans toward a multiplicity of possibilities, the farther it gets from the unified self who is writing, their inner sincerity, the discovery of their own truth. Bu the opposite is true. What are we but a combination of experiences, information, readings and imaginings? Each life is an encyclopedia, a library, a showcase of styles which can be continuously mixed an reordered into all the possible forms."

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Princes and Paupers (Afghanistan)

"When I look past the crazy name, I just see another guy from Harvard," highwayscribery's dad said of Barack Obama on the eve of the 2008 presidential election.

In doing so the old man might have presaged the scribe's content with President Obama as a traditional Democratic, but his disillusionment as an orthodox hippie.

The president has turned out to be utterly conventional where Democratic policies are concerned.

That's hurting him with independents who took his pledge to bring change as meaning something different than government spending to improve our collective lot.

They don't like stimulus plans, don't care much for infrastructure schemes, and hardly give a hoot about reforms in labor relations or health care.

They just wish their credit cards worked again.

That's fine. Democrats must sink or swim according to the appeal and impact of their policies.

But the staffing of the administration with familiar party hacks and Obama's retention of the Bush crowd's Defense Secretary has put us wild-eyed dreamers in the position of defending so much realpolitik from "our" president.

We have to tell ourselves that Obama's pragmatism keeps us in power and permits a slow sea change in American politics and culture as witnessed, let's say, in the largely quiet movement toward a liberalization of marijuana laws.

At highwayscribery we consider it a good thing that people be freer to partake in their stimulant of choice and that our jails not be busting with those busted for doing so. And we think the administration's simple decision not to harass medical marijuana outlets in states where they go in for that kind of thing has had a cataclysmic impact.

Hurray for the hippies! If only the Obama crowd was so influential elsewhere.

For example, Afghanistan, where we don't much like what we see.

It is just too familiar, what with Dick Cheney accusing the president of "weakness" for merely deliberating so important a matter.

Obama seems more worried about such criticism than a traditional Democrat might. His efforts are always designed to assure those who are convinced he is a black radical, that he is not a black radical.

And giving in on the war will gain him no grace in the "weakness" department. In fact, giving in at all will win no converts from their camp.

For we have seen plenty of what passes for a Republican Party these days and it's no surprise debate and thought are confused with "weakness" since the GOP is short on both, and long on bluster or "strength" (as they see it).

Anticipating the President's non decision to keep W.'s Afghan adventure alive, "New York Times" columnist Bob Herbert deemed the new/old policy "A Tragic Mistake."

"New York Times" columnist David Brooks went softer, suggesting in "Clear, Hold, and Duct Tape," that Obama is merely splitting the difference between peace and war through a half-hearted military effort focused on withdrawal.

highwayscribery's positions are normally aligned with Mr. Herbert, who can probably withstand the damaging association, and not so harmonious with Mr. Brooks's, who probably can't.

Caviling about our boys dying overseas has never achieved much. After all, folks like Cheney are always willing to sacrifice other people's children while their own enjoy life on the D.C. cocktail and conference circuit.

And America is hardly a place where moral and ethical ideas hold the same currency as, well, currency.

So we're going to do what the administration did and sit the hippie over in a corner (with his weed, of course). In his stead we'll forward the rank-and-file Democrat's economic arguments before going to pick the kid up from his overcrowded and under-funded public school.

And rather than stain Brooks through our usual trick of electronically linking and commingling our prose with columnist stars such as himself and Herbert, we're going to spin things in a literary way.

We will do this by excerpting a timely exchange between King Henry VIII, and a lesser-know historical entity by the name of Thomas Cromwell, beautifully presented in Hilary Mantel's Man Booker Prize-winning novel, Wolf Hall: A Novel (Man Booker Prize)

Sincerest apologies Ms. Mantel.

In this exchange (page 150), Cromwell has come for a chat with the King whom he hopes will let up on his own patron, the Cardinal of York, a fellow falling out of favor "at court" as they say in these English dramas.

Cheney, er, um Henry, apparently blessed with a long memory, quickly takes Cromwell to task for a speech in Parliament, made seven years prior, challenging the king's right to wage war in France:

"Listen to me, master -- you said I should not fight because the taxes would break the country. What is the country for, but to support its prince in his enterprise?"

"I believe I said -- saving your Majesty -- we didn't have the gold to see you through a year's campaign. All the bullion in the country would be swallowed by the war. I have read there was a time when people exchanged leather tokens, for want of metal coins. I said we could be back to those days."

"You said I was not to lead my troops. You said if I was taken, the country couldn't put up the ransom. So what do you want? You want a king who doesn't fight? You want me to huddle indoors like a sick girl?"

"That would be ideal, for fiscal purposes."

Everybody wonders if the Internet has made newspapers obsolete. A more important question might by why we need public discourse at all if the issues never change and neither do our responses?

NYTimes' Copy Clunker

Here's a clunker from "New York Times" writers Tim Arango and Bill Carter:

"While a deal between G.E. and Comcast still could hit a snag over price, it is considered highly likely because G.E. wants to sell NBC because of rising losses and Comcast wants to buy it so it can control more television programs and movies to offer viewers through its cable systems."

That's one heck of a paragraph/sentence. It's a run-on, as they say in third-grade, uses "because" two times in the same (long) breath, and "it" thrice.

highwayscribery humbly suggests:

"A deal between G.E. and Comcast could still hit a snag over price, although that is unlikely. The electronics giant wants to sell NBC, which is losing money. Comcast wants to buy the network because its movie and television properties would help to fill cable programming needs."

That's not so hard.

"Times" writers, supposedly the best in the business, churn out this kind of stuff almost everyday. The
example before us is most remarkable for its center-page placement on page one.
Watch that picture-window folks.