The Middlemarch effect: Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies

I knew halfway through Middlemarch that whatever book I read next was utterly doomed. Eliot’s novel is too fine, too well-written, too mature (as Woolf so succinctly said, it’s “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people”); whatever followed it would come off as shabby, awkward, and half-formed. And it was; I chose a Neal Stephenson book, Anathem, in the hopes that broad differences in style, subject, and genre would mitigate the inevitable letdown; it didn’t work. Anathem still sits in my memory as a merely okay YA fantasy novel; I’m certain it isn’t YA, or mediocre YA at that, but that’s how I remember it. This is the Middlemarch effect.

Bring Up the BodiesI’m reading now, but friends, I’m suffering. I read Bring Up the Bodies in July or August and I’m still floundering around trying to find novels that seem good enough; my brain keeps returning to Hilary Mantel, comparing everything to her second tale of Cromwell, to its energy, to that writing! (The one gloriously demented exception to this terrible drought has been Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One; damn, I loved that book.)

I didn’t think at the time that Bring Up the Bodies was as perfect as Wolf Hall; but I also don’t know why I thought that. I had a vague impression of mild breakdowns in language or plot at points but I can’t remember any such breakdowns in detail now. I do very clearly remember feeling a sort of poisonous exhilaration as Cromwell enacted his revenge on the men who made such grotesque mockery of his beloved mentor’s death. Henry Norris, left forepaw.

I remember the thin but impenetrable veil hanging gracefully between Jane Seymour and any real understanding of what motivated her. The impossibility of reconciling Anne Boleyn’s private female body and her public role, her public presence, her not quite acceptable public voice as queen; she only returns to the closed, private domain of women after her head is separated from her body. Then there was Mantel’s terrifying characterization of a king equal parts squalling baby, hopeless romantic, and vicious paranoiac.

I want more of this: unembarrassed ambition in writing; I want clear repudiation of prose describable as sparse or luminous; I want profound delight in pure story-telling. Mantel’s gift (one of her many, many gifts) is that she can create mysteries in her narrative and characters without just leaving things out; she can write literary fiction that is robust enough to not need to be described in earnest capital letters to be taken seriously.

It’s a sad and frightening irony that the more truly great books I find, the less I’m able to read the middling to acceptable to pretty good ones. Yet, this contrast is part of what makes the experience of reading something like Middlemarch, Bring Up the Bodies, or Crime and Punishment (the first novel that ever struck me down this way) so unsettling. Their very rarity gives them more power than they already inherently possess!

Part of my plan to remain a happy reading person is to delve into more non-fiction; I’m bolstered by my lack of experience with it, in part because my dearth of knowledge of that whole mega-genre means my standards are in some ways relatively low (that said, MFK Fisher and E.B. White have shown me that in terms of pure style, my standards should remain just as high as they are with fiction). My other, more immediate, plan is to read the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of Doctor Zhivago. Surely, this will help snap me out of fruitless pining for Mantel’s Cromwell…! Right…?

14 Comments Add yours

  1. Switching genres is a goof idea, to read something that can’t be compared and that transports us in a different way.

    I’ve read some excellent creative non-fiction over the last recent period, a lot of my preferred non-fiction is nature writing, our encounters with it and some of the most enjoyable I’ve read (and reviewed) are:

    Nature Writing
    Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams
    Kathleen Jamie, Findings
    H is for Hawk Helen macdonald

    and two on my shelf to read
    Kathleen Jamie, Sightlines
    Rachel Carson Under the Sea-Wind

    Reflecting on Life
    Terry Tempest Williams, When Women Were Birds
    Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby
    Edmund DeWaal The Hare With Amber Eyes (my top non-fiction read of 2013) – absolutely stunning
    Irfan Olga Portrait of a Turkish Family

    Ann Patchett This is the Story of a Happy Marriage
    Anne Fadiman, Ex Libris

    Good luck finding your next read!

    1. Colleen says:

      Thanks for the recommendations–I’ll look for the ones I haven’t read (which is most of them). Ex Libris is one of my favourite books of all time; and an essay about Arctic Dreams that I wrote in my first year of university convinced me to change my major from Chemistry to English…! I only really remember the part when he realizes he’s standing on top of a forest…

  2. rmaitzen says:

    “Why are so many books so disappointing?” is indeed a depressing refrain to fall into. I wonder: have you read The Once and Future King? I can’t recall when I was more surprised by being absolutely, utterly absorbed and blown away by a novel — partly because it is not a *kind* of novel I naturally gravitate towards.

    1. Colleen says:

      I have not read The Once and Future King–but I have a copy precisely because of your response to it! As you know, if there’s an organizing principle behind what I read, I have no idea what it is. It wasn’t ripe when I bought it, but maybe it is now. 🙂

  3. Barbara Ellis says:

    Better still, you might try Pevear and Volokhonsky’s Brothers Karamazov,another amazing experience for me.

    1. Colleen says:

      I have already read it! That’s how I know which translators to look for re: Russian lit. 🙂

  4. Stefanie says:

    I know what you mean about Bring Up the Bodies. Still a wonderful amazing book but not quite as good as Wolf Hall. I found myself disappointed in the slight narrative technique shift. Mantel makes it much easier to follow who is talking and inserts thing like “he, Cromwell” all over the place. I felt like she caved in a bit to all the readers who complained.

    1. Colleen says:

      Funny, I wondered if the “he, Cromwell” bit was Mantel showing how Cromwell becomes tied up in his own persona, his increasing (and eventually fatal) belief that he’s becoming untouchable on his own terms…

  5. Sylvia says:

    Hmmm – I actually stopped reading _Wolf Hall_ because I was frustrated trying to follow who was speaking.

    1. Colleen says:

      I don’t know what to say about that; I really didn’t find it confusing at all.

  6. I enter Wolf Hall.
    I tail T. Cromwell with interest.
    A glorious figure that chap cuts!
    And I’m only on page 20-something.
    Not pages a day, only words I read, maybe several hundred.
    I’m as slow as the process that’s moving a slice of CA inexorably to Alaska.
    Shit, I just saw the “eventually fatal” bit above.
    Oh well.
    A process is a process.
    And it will continue.

    1. Colleen says:

      A few words a day is a good way to read Wolf Hall. Sorry for the spoiler; actually, blame history for that one. 🙂

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