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 mĂ©nage 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.