One of the most interesting things about history is thinking about perspective. Very few people lived their lives with an intention of being known as...moreOne of the most interesting things about history is thinking about perspective. Very few people lived their lives with an intention of being known as a villain of history. Yet I think all of us fall into the trap of thinking of the past in moralistic terms sometimes. This is a function of generations of storytelling and cultural indoctrination. There are facts that we don't ever necessarily learn, or at least can remember learning, that we don't pause to consider.
My favorite thing about Wolf Hall is how it turns previous conception of a much discussed period of history on its head, while maintaining complete plausibility. Maybe it was my Catholic upbringing, but I always thought of Thomas More as a great man of learning and advocate of free speech, while Thomas Cromwell was a ruthless, unprincipled yes-man. Mantel effectively exploits facts to make you completely reverse your feelings about the two characters. In truth, More was a religious fundamentalist, the man tortured and executed people who strayed from the Church's dogmatic beliefs, hardly a free speech advocate. Cromwell's rise to power would be inspiring if it occurred today, all the more so that he did it almost 500 years ago. Mantel almost does too good of a job of making Cromwell likable, but you are completely ready to buy it. I didn't realize this until I watched the film A Man For All Seasons and found myself becoming upset with its portrayal of Thomas Cromwell. I think this is Mantel's greatest accomplishment, she reverses 500 years of preconceived notions.
The book isn't a necessarily easy read. Mantel throws you into the world and she doesn't give you a ton of exposition or remind you who characters are and how they relate to each other. I frequently had to consult the character list and the genealogical charts at the beginning of the book for a reminder. One night, I stayed up until 4 reading the wikipedia entry on the War of the Roses to refresh myself on that subject. (I actually highly recommend potential readers doing this. Mantel frequently references the events and it also gives you good context of why the production of a legitimate male heir was deemed such an immediate necessity.)
The title Wolf Hall is taken from the estate of the Seymour family, minor characters in the novel. But the title accentuates what I would consider the theme of the novel, which Cromwell repeats to himself several times over the course. Homono homini lupus, man is wolf to man. Mantel's Cromwell is presented as a precursor to the modern politician. This is a hazardous occupation in a time where political missteps had much graver consequences than potential resignation accompanied by a lobbying gig as a fall back plan. In this way Wolf Hall could be labelled a political thriller. One of the thrills in the novel is how Cromwell manges to, excuse the bad joke, keep his head on his shoulders. Watch Cromwell survive the political crushing of his patron and political mentor. See him hazard the stormy rapids that was the Boleyn family. Marvel as he clashes wits with the great Thomas More.
What makes this even more effective is the novel is very well written. Mantel does a great job inhabiting familiar characters and making them come to life. Unlike other fictional works that have dealt with the same period, none of the characters are cliched or one dimensional. Her Henry VIII is my favorite depiction of the much depicted monarch since Robert Shaw's. Here, he is temperamental and often child-like, but also as intelligent and goodhearted. And as a rule, any confrontation with the Boleyn sisters will likely be very entertaining. As it was for Henry, though in a rather different way.
The plot tends to revolve heavily around such such confrontations. There will be plot movement, but most of the time it sets the scene for another meeting between Thomas and Anne, or Cardinal Wolsey, or Thomas More, or the Earl of Norfolk. Nevertheless, my favorite chapter of the book was one of the first, "An Occult History of England." This chapter is mostly exposition, but it works brilliantly as a kind of "how we got here."Combining politics, history, and legend, it reads like something Rushdie could have written.
I enjoyed Wolf Hall much more than I expected to. Although I know how the story ends for all the characters, the novel kept me entertained until the end. Now that I think about it, the novel really reminds me of Robert Caro's first two LBJ biographies which detailed Johnson's rise to power. While they don't retell the traditional hero's journey, a non-mythical path to power can be more worthwhile and just as entertaining epic.(less)
There's something mythical about the way Rushdie writes. His writing is very modern, but there's still a sense of age to it. Throughout the novel I so...moreThere's something mythical about the way Rushdie writes. His writing is very modern, but there's still a sense of age to it. Throughout the novel I somewhat unprecedented sensation. I can't adequately put this sensation into words. There's something in the way he tells his story that reminded me of the stories of Greek mythology, or the tales of King Arthur. Perhaps it's in the way he tells his story. Rushdie simply owns the story he is telling. Rushdie writes Midnight's Children like he is retelling a story that has always existed, which in a way he is. I may be off base, let me just say that the experience of reading this book is viscerally unique.
Novels, as with any kind of art, can generate different methods of appreciation. There are books that you don't fully appreciate until the closing pages where the author brings everything together. There are albums that don't reveal themselves until you listen to it several times. There are films that don't fully crystalize until you spend some time thinking about them. For me, Midnight's Children is one of those rare works where you are engrossed and amazed from the beginning. The reader is conscious that they are encountering something special throughout the course of the novel.
One of the that makes Midnight's Children special is that it doesn't work solely as a work of literature, it could be read as a work of history.*. Rushdie writes history in a way that people haven't written history in quite some time. Midnight's Children works as a history in the way that the Old Testament, Ovid's Metamorphoses, and epic poems work as history. I've read that Biblical era societies had different historical traditions than we do today. They didn't necessarily aim for complete accuracy when writing history. They felt that the overall "moral" that they were trying to impart was more important than sticking to the events exactly as they occurred. The broad course of events usually weren't tampered with, but the details of specific incidents and conversations weren't necessarily preserved untampered.** This was mainly referring to works that were preserved by a storytelling tradition for a while before they were written down. I believe Rushdie created a modern recreation of these storytelling traditions. So, unlike in other works of historical fiction, it really doesn't matter when Saleem Sinai, narrator and protagonist, mixes up dates and events. This is history, but history told in a story telling tradition.
Saleem Sinai, Rushdie's narrator and protagonist, warns us repeatedly, "to understand me, you'll have to swallow a world." I would say this is accomplished. I can't think of another novel that gives a better sense of a place. South Asia isn't just a setting, it's a main character. He accomplishes this intellectually through his prose and descriptions, but also, I repeat myself, viscerally. Again, I may be missing my mark, but it seems where other authors write a novel that is about a country, Rushdie aims to write a novel that is India.***
However bountiful I've been in my praise, Midnight's Children isn't perfect, and it probably isn't for everybody. However, I would say that it's definitely one of those novels you should at least give a shot at if you're interested in literature. There are many things to praise in the novel. Rushdie writes beautifully, he brings locations, especially Bombay, to life, and most readers will learn a great deal about South Asian culture and history. The storytelling is what stays with me most. Rushdie writes a distinctly modern book that feels at the same time harkens back to our earliest storytelling traditions. Midnight's Children is about a specific place in a certain time, but is simultaneously timeless.
*This seems like a good place for my daily benediction to Wikipedia. It was really helpful to read articles on Indian history before the appropriate sections of the novel. It isn't necessarily essential to, Rushdie does a decent job of filling ignorant readers in on the events, but an idea of modern Indian-Pakistani history, however rudimentary, helps you better appreciate the life of Saleem. Also, there are several little jokes and asides throughout the novel that you may not catch if you don't have some understanding of specific events.
** The general rule, according to people who know more than I do argue, is the greater the separation between the time of the actual event and it's reduction to written, the less reliable it is as a record of actual events. This makes sense in a society with a respect for perserving history as it happened, so where there is inclination to embellish you have to be particularly on your toes.
***I am not claiming to be an expert, or even adequately knowledgeable, about South Asia. Rushdie's world might seem utterly alien to those who know more than me. (less)
I don't like the idea that literature is written "for" or "not for" any people. Sure, you might be able to appreciate War and Peace better if you are...moreI don't like the idea that literature is written "for" or "not for" any people. Sure, you might be able to appreciate War and Peace better if you are a member of the 19th century Russian intelligentsia. But you're a fool if you let a smaller share of comparative appreciation get in your way. I mean, I can't let the fact that I'm middle class and white distract me from the fact that I enjoy listening to Public Enemy. I'm not comfortable with the idea that anything is beyond my empathy. What I'm saying here, however inelegantly, is that I don't want my background fucking with the way I react to novels or movies or music. I say all this because, although I enjoyed The Finkler Question, my background totally kept getting in the way and kept me from giving it a higher recommendation.
Let's start here. The Finkler Question is about three friends. Two are middle aged, one is elderly. Two are Jewish, one is a gentile who is obsessed with Jewishness / convinced of his Jewishness / attempting to transcend Jewishness and become some sort of uber-Jew. Two are recently widowed, the other aspires to widowerhood. All three are Londoners. I was aware of most of this going in, as I am similarly aware that some of this might not absolutely resonate with me, a 20-something, single, American, Irish-Catholic agnostic. Although, like Treslove (the gentile) I sometimes feel like certain tastes, beliefs and idiosyncrasies could be better explained if there were some trace Semitic branches in my family tree. Nobody wants to just interact with fictional characters exactly like themselves. But you do want some relatable sentiment. For me, through no fault of Howard Jacobson, there was a lack of this. And there are certainly parts of the novel that I throughly enjoyed. But a lot of it left me feeling like a witness to an engaging debate whose interference would be unwelcome. The best way I can put it is this: the table next to you at a restaurant is having a intriguing but non-obtrusive family argument. Even if you want to put your two-cents in, it would be wildly inappropriate, and it's likely they could give a shit about your two cents. While this argument of strangers may be engaging, you still can't really relate to it.
As of now, there aren't a ton of reviews on this site, so let me go into greater details gist-wise, if anybody's interested. - There isn't really a plot to speak of, and the elements of plot present don't matter. - The novel is mainly concerned with the relationship its characters have with Judaism and "Jewishness."The novel explores what it means to belong to a group, what obligations you have to this group, and what obligations this group has to you. A lot of this can be implied to anything, such as country, religion, family ect. - Jacobson is very talented, and often funny. He deals with serious issues but never loses grasp of his sense of humor. - I'm from the South, where all forms of bigotry and prejudice haven't exactly been eradicated. However, I was somewhat shocked at this novel's depiction of London's contemporary anti-Semitism. I mean, I know it's not extinct or even close to it, but I had no idea it was as prevalent as Jacobson depicts it. - Israel is almost the MacGuffin of the novel. Jacobson gives an interesting cross-section of how the policies of Israel both unite and divide the Jewish community.
I'm not wildly enthused, with this review, it's not particularly well-thought out, and I've feel like I've spent too much time worrying about, to steal a joke from Always Sunny. dropping the "hard J." but I've spent too much time on the damn thing to scrap it. Let me try to somehow tidily sum up what I'm basically saying. It's not that you have to be Jewish & English & middle aged & widowed to enjoy this novel. I'm none of those things, and I did enjoy it on many levels. However, this book actively seeks a certain intellectual engagement that can only come through fully with a sense of relation. Therefore, any lack of relatable feelings might compromise your enjoyment of this book.
Ugh, look don't take my word for it. I don't regret spending time on this and it has giving me a good share of things to ponder on. Maybe you guys should figure this one out for yourself. (less)