Sunday, 1 November 2009

Hilary Mantel

The 2009 Man-Booker Prize judges have thrown a curve. For the first time in years the bookies’ favourite has actually bagged the prize. Hilary Mantel, an overwhelming favourite this year for Wolf Hall, her historical novel about the Tudor villain, Thomas Cromwell, romped home, seeing off a late challenge from Simon Mawer. Mawer, initially considered an outsider (he was given the odds of 14/1 to win the award when the long list was announced and few, at that stage, would have expected him to make it to the short-list), moved into the second position (7/2 odds) behind Mantel (10/11 odds) just a day before the announcement of the award. The Chair of the panel said that the judges were split between Mantel and one other finalist (who was not named); in the end Mantel ‘won’ after a secret ballot, which came out in her favour by 3-2. By awarding the Man Booker to Wolf Hall, the judges have laid to rest another long-held assumption that the literary awards rarely go to genre novels. In the almost forty year history of the Booker prize, not many genre novels have featured as winners. J.G. Farrell won the Booker in 1973 for The Siege of Krishnapur, his revisionist take on the Indian mutiny of 1857, in the fictional town of Krishnapur. In the eighties Thomas Kennelly won the Booker for Schindler’s Arc, his fictionalized account of the German entrepreneur Oskar Schindler who saved thousands of Jews from the Holocaust.

Mantel is a prolific writer—in 24 years she has produced 10 works of fiction and a couple of works of non-fiction, besides contributing regularly to broadsheets— who is difficult to pigeonhole into a single category; she has handled different genres with equal ease. Her novels, at first glance, could not be more different from one another, yet they are bound by leitmotifs. Her first two novels, Every Day is A Mother’s Day and its sequel, Vacant Possession, were black, almost spiteful, comedies, characterized as much by their excellent, near-perfect prose—a stylemark that would distinguish Mantel over the years—as by their relentlessly bleak tone. She followed them up by Eight Months On Ghazzah Street, a political thriller in Saudi Arabia. However, it was not just a thriller; it was also a scorching denunciation of a society that (as Mantel saw it) reduced women to second-class citizen. Fludd, her next novel, was a theological mystery set in a fictional town in the North of England; the evil, whose presence can always be felt in Mantel’s fiction, actually takes the appearance of a person in this novel. It was her next novel on the chaos of the French Revolution, A Place of Greater Safety, that brought Mantel wider recognition. Even though it was the fifth to be published, it was the first to be written, and, perhaps, for that reason, it is the most straightforward of her novels. Mantel wrote the novel in her twenties when she was having severe health problems because of an undiagnosed gynaecological condition. (The monumental 350,000-words manuscript, as Mantel revealed later, was rejected when she submitted it the first time around. Later, she expressed doubts as to whether it was even read properly; the rejected manuscript, when it arrived, had a few chunks missing!) Since then Mantel has published five more novels (including the Booker winner, The Wolf Hall): A Change of Climate, which moves nimbly between England and Africa; An Experiment in Love, a coming of age novel; The Giant O’Brian, which could not have been further afield from her previous novels—the story, set in the eighteenth century, of a freakishly tall Irishman, who, when faced with starvation at home, decides to go to London and earn money by exhibiting himself as a curiosity; and the excellent Beyond Black. In an interview around the time of the publication of Beyond Black, Mantel said that the novel was conceived after the death of Lady Diana and it took her seven years to complete it. ‘In a spirit of mild curiosity’ Mantel visited a psychic and was ‘fascinated and amazed’ by her persona. As she went out, in the foyer, she saw a woman who was obviously the assistant of the psychic. This got Mantel thinking: ‘What kind of job was it? What did it involve?’ The novel, she said, began out of simple human curiosity.

A distinctive characteristic of many of Mantel’s novels, and much has been written about it, is the sense of something eerie and spine-chilling that pervades her narration—the hidden violence, nastiness, malevolence, and betrayal that lurk just underneath the surface. Her approach is calculated to get the hair on your neck rising, not in a sudden shock, but gradually; the sense of menace gets gradually overpowering. Her novels are often about pain and rage. There is comedy, but it is invariably black. It would be fair to say that Mantel does not tell the most pleasant of tales.

In 2003, Mantel published her memoirs, Giving Up the Ghost, which throws some light on the preoccupations and themes which have consistently appeared in her work. Born into a working class family in Derbyshire, Mantel, the eldest of the three children of her parents, Margaret and Henry, had, to say the least, rather disturbing childhood. She was a sickly child and missed school a lot because of her illness. In a recent interview she said that she was ‘squeezed’ into an observer’s role because of her frequent absences from school. A precocious child, she was gifted with a large vocabulary, yet retreated into being virtually dumb and hardly uttered a word during her primary school. Then, at the age of seven, she encountered devil, as she puts it, in her back-garden. What she encountered was so evil that she still finds it difficult to describe it. This is how she describes it in her memoirs:

‘It is as high as a child of two. Its depth is a foot, fifteen inches. The air stirs around it, invisibly. I am cold, and rinsed by nausea. I cannot move. . . . It has no edges, no mass, no dimension, no shape except the formless; it moves. I beg it, stay away, stay away. Within the space of a thought it is inside me, and has set up a sick resonance within my bones and in all the cavities of my body.’

Much later she recalled: ‘The experience was absolutely destroying, as if my body was falling apart at a cellular level, which expressed itself in intense nausea. The way I rationalised it was that it was the devil. As a Catholic, that was the theology I had at my command.’ It was as if, the devil represented all the things that were going on in the house – ‘the unhappiness of our family and the pressure of secrets and lies’. Her childhood, she recalled later, was ‘distinguished by a pervasive quality of fear.’ Young Mantel would appear to have fervid imagination: she could feel dead whistling in the wall, was convinced that the house was haunted, and for a period when she was eight her field of vision was filled with ‘a constant moving backdrop of skulls.’ In an interview she explained this by saying she was probably seeing sensory images of other people’s unhappiness. (Such strange experiences seem to have dogged Mantel even in her adult life. She once claimed that she dreamt a whole story, got up and typed it in the early hours of the morning and went back to sleep; when she got up again, the manuscript had vanished!)

Hilary Mantel was born Hilary Thompson. Her father was a clerk. When she was seven or eight, the family took on a lodger by the name of Jack Mantel. Over the next 3-4 years, Jack Mantel became the dominant figure in the house, and replaced her father in her mother’s life. Her father, however, did not move out, not straightaway; he moved into the spare bedroom. He remained a peripheral, shadowy figure in the house. In the evenings, Hilary’s mother would be in the kitchen with the lodger while her father would stay in the front room. The ménage a trios lasted for almost 4 years. When Hilary was eleven, the family moved from Derbyshire to Cheshire. Her father, though, did not move with the family. He vanished, and Hilary never saw him again. In Cheshire, Hilary was instructed to tell at school that Jack Mantel was her father and the family took on the name Mantel. (The biological father, it turned out, married a widow who had six children, one of whom got in touch with Mantel after the publication of Giving Up the Ghost. He died in 1997.) After finishing school Mantel studied law. She married her husband, who was then a geologist, at the age of 20 (they divorced a few years later and remarried a few years after that). Mantel spent five years in Botswana and four years in Saudi Arabia, the two countries forming the backdrop of some of her novels. The twenties were traumatic years for Mantel, mainly because her physical health deteriorated and she was plagued with crippling pain. She was initially diagnosed as suffering some form of psychiatric illness. Unsurprisingly the treatment did not help; into the bargain, she experienced debilitating side-effects from the medications, and steered clear of the medical profession for the next few years. Eventually, feeling desperate, Mantel referred to the medical textbooks and self-diagnosed her condition! It was confirmed subsequently by the doctors. The treatment—this time the correct one—was not without its aftermath: she had to undergo hysterectomy (at the age of 27)—which meant that she could not have children—and the hormonal treatment caused her weight to balloon to twenty stone. In an interview, Mantel described herself—with the detached irony that is so characteristic of her writing—as a comic book version of herself. These scarring years, however, had one good upshot. They made her a writer. ‘I do not think I would have been a writer if I hadn’t been ill,’ Mantel once recalled. She said, ‘Illness forces you to the wall, so the stance of the writer is forced on you. Writing keeps you still and as long as your brain is working it doesn't matter if your body isn't.’ She was in ‘despair ‘as to how she was going to make her mark on the world. ‘All I was good at was writing, so I sat on the sofa with a notebook.’

It is not difficult to see how Mantel’s background, childhood and life-experiences are the driving force behind much of her fiction. Take Mantel’s last published novel before Wolf HallBeyond Black. The novel is absolutely first rate, with sharp, witty—even nasty— humour, and cool—almost detached—prose style reminiscent of Muriel Spark. The black comedy would have had Graham Greene nodding with approval. The novel nevertheless has a kind of unsettling feel to it; underneath the biting observations and satiric vision is lurking something ominous and creepy. (One of the two protagonists of the novel, Alison, is a medium, who tries to help people; meanwhile devils pour filth into her ears day and night (is she hallucinating?); her childhood is not overtly happy either, as she is locked into the attic of her prostitute mother.) In Change of Climate, the missionary couple, Ralph and Anna, are leading a quiet existence, doing good work, in Norfolk; yet something has happened in South Africa where they had lived for years before their return to England, something that happened to one of their children, which they cannot bring themselves to speak about. An Experiment in Love, which tells the story of the descent of an adolescent girl into anorexia, despite its razor-sharp observations and clear-eyed wit, has dark turns and, ultimately, is a deeply dispiriting novel. Eight Months on A Gazzah Street is remarkable for its narrative power—Mantel slowly builds up the tension and almost imperceptibly horror replaces the stifling boredom the protagonist, Frances, experiences. The central theme of The Giant O’Brian is freakishness, which, as one reviewer put it, holds the reader somewhere between nausea and fascination.

Mantel, whose quality was never in doubt, has been writing for well over two decades, since the publication of her first novel in 1985; but, until now, had never been excessively high profile. Earlier this year, in an interview, she said that Wolf Hall—which, she revealed, post-Booker, she almost did not write as she hesitated for years since the idea first germinated twenty years ago— might prove to be her breakthrough novel. And so it has proven to be: with the Man Booker prize, Mantel has stepped out of relative obscurity and entered the premier league of writers. And deservingly so.

Book of the Month: Don't You Know Who I Am (Piers Morgan)

In 2004 Piers Morgan was sacked as the editor of The Daily Mirror after he authorised publication of the photos of British soldiers torturing Iraqi prisoners, which subsequently proved to be a hoax. As Morgan revealed in his delightfully trashy and gossipy memoirs, The Insider (for which he is reported to have received an advance £ 1.2 million and which he never tires of informing was in the bestseller list for a number of weeks), there was not inconsiderable schadenfreude in the media over his downfall.

In Don’t You Know Who I Am, published in the same diary format as The Insider, Morgan updates us on what he did next after his newspaper career, which reached the dizzy heights of editing not one but two British tabloids in the space of ten years, came to an abrupt and cataclysmic end when he was frogmarched out of the offices of The Daily Mirror. So what did Piers do next? Well, he became a celebrity. How did he become a celebrity? He became a judge on a reality talent show in America, imaginatively titled America has Got Talent, along with that bloke who used to run in slow motion (when he was not cavorting with busty women) in the serial Baywatch, and a singer improbably named Brandy. Whom does Piers have to thank for his celebrity status? Why, of course, Simon Cowell, the modern day Svengali, the creator of several reality talent shows, on both sides of the pond, which attract huge television viewership and have the common element of encouraging people to make spectacles of themselves in front of camera, giving Cowell (who frequently appoints himself as one of the judges) opportunities to tell them how utterly talentless and useless they are.

In Don’t You Know Who I Am, Morgan supplies, in—to use slang from the country, which he says he has cracked like no one else—hellacious detail, his attempts to embrace the world of D grade celebrities such as Jade Goody (may her soul rest in peace), Abi Titmuss and Jordon, on whom, at the beginning of the diaries, he heaps scorn for having no discernable talent and doing outrageous things simply to stay on the front cover of Heat. Morgan then proceeds to describe, with candidness that makes you wince and, at times, self-deprecating humour, his desperate attempts to carve for himself a niche as a television presenter in programmes which few watched and fewer took seriously—he even sang and danced to Macarena while filling in for a day-time television programme, although he had the decency to cringe about it afterwards—before he washed up as the mean Brit on an American talent show. And this is not the only contradiction you will come across in these memoirs which are every bit as bitchy and causeristic (and therefore unputdownable) as The Insider. Having worked in the tabloid world for as long as he did—more than a decade of that period was as an editor—Morgan, of all people, should have known the tactics of the grub street to get juicy stories out of unsuspecting victims; yet he allows himself to be stitched up by a hack from The Daily Telegraph, and is surprised and disappointed when the published article shows him in less than glorious light.

There is name-dropping aplenty in the memoirs—you lose count of the celebrities Morgan dines with in the Ivy, gets drunk with, goes to watch cricket and football with, and who insult or snub him. We are also given salacious titbits from the interviews of celebrities he questions for the GQ magazine (Billy Piper, you might be interested to know—and I shall understand if you aren’t; or indeed aware who she is—is a really dirty girl). He is nauseatingly sycophantic about Simon Cowell, which is understandable seeing as he, Cowell, opened the proverbial doors of the celebrity world to Morgan. He is viciously vituperative about some others: Kate Moss, the supermodel, is dismissed as a ‘stroppy, pinched faced, cocaine-snorter from Croydon’, while her boyfriend, Pete Doherty is described as a hyena on acid. All of which, needless to say, makes very entertaining reading.

Morgan is obviously a witty, intelligent person, utterly untroubled by self-doubt; he is also, on the evidence of the two memoirs he has published, vain, egoistical, grandiloquent and (curiously) naive in an endearingly juvenile manner. You can’t help shaking your head as he boasts about some or more of his capers, be they tripping up George Galloway in an interview, or getting his back on Jack Straw in Question Time, or trying to gatecrash into parties only to be rebuffed by the security. You chuckle affectionately as he describes with unbridled ebullience his sense of delight when he is given his own trailer for the reality television show in America; it obviously is proof, if proof is needed, that Morgan has firmly ensconced himself in the celebrity world: the Hoff gets a trailer and so does Morgan. There is rather a lot of the Hoff, or David Hasselhoff, one of the three judges on the reality TV show America Has Got Talent. Morgan would have you believe that Hasselhoff, despite only ‘medium talent’, is a cultural icon of our times, but does not really provide any convincing evidence to support this assertion; what he gleefully dishes out, instead, is numerous anecdotes of the Hoff’s erratic behaviour and insecurities. Morgan himself does not seem to lack in insecurities: a thread running through the memoirs is Morgan’s attempts to woo the gossip columnist from The Daily Telegraph, Celia Walden, whom he gushingly describes as ridiculously beautiful and utterly gorgeous (going by Morgan’s description, Walden, the daughter of an ex Tory MP, is a cross between Bridget Bardot and Claudia Schiffer), and, linked to it, his insecurities when he thinks others are trying to hit on her or when she is speaking to someone like Shane Warne, who, according to Morgan, is so charismatic and has such animal magnetism (and not just with pub waitresses) that he feels compelled to be present throughout the 30 seconds he allows his girlfriend to speak to the Australian cricket legend. However, it is when Morgan writes about his own expectations and experiences in America, with his tongue firmly lodged in his cheek, that he is most entertaining, for example when describing his disappointment when no one recognises him, or, worse, someone recognises him as Alan Titchmarsh. Morgan recounts these incidents with a kind of easy banter which is simultaneously not at all serious and very earnest. His three children (who live, we are informed, with his ex-wife) get a lot of mention and Morgan comes across as a proud and affectionate father, even if he seems to contribute practically nothing towards their upbringing.

Don’t You Know Who I Am is an enjoyable, scabrous read, written in a forceful, no holds barred manner. It is impossible to take any of it seriously, of course, but you get the impression that Morgan does not want you to, in any case. You’d probably enjoy it even more if you have watched the talent show Morgan judges and know a bit about the celebrities he talks about. But even if you don’t, you will savour the book. Piers Morgan is a very funny writer, and Don’t You Know Who I Am is a thoroughly good fun.