WOLF HALL WEEKEND

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Neither Ginny nor I are prone to tout our own abilities, but there are some things we can do, and that’s all there is to it. As it ajm)avmhappens, one of them is sitting. Like Will Sonnet, the old TV character played by Walter Brennan put it. “No brag, just fact.” Not that we won’t pee occasionally; not that we’ll always be awake. But park us in a chair, and it’s likely that come hell or high water, we’ll be there long enough to be mistaken for George Segal sculptures. Thus when it was announced last December that Wolf Hall, the two-part adaptation of Hilary Mantel‘s brilliant novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, would be playing on Broadway, we jumped at the chance to see both plays in a single day, which we did last Saturday.

It was a great experience. It was just fun to immerse oneself in theater and historical drama and literature, things we both love. Frankly, we don’t get to it enough. And helping to make it special was that Hilary Mantel herself was at the theater, and I rather fearlessly shook her hand and told her how much I admired her work. I do wish I liked the plays better. I guess they were dramatic enough, but the great pleasure and the great accomplishment of the novels was being inside the head of the main character, Thomas Cromwell, something very difficult to do in a play. As depicted by Mantel, Cromwell was
very intelligent, very shrewd, a great judge of character, a man who had spent his whole life living by his wits, and who was quite good at it. He was also a man of opinion, one who held views about the monarchy and religion and the world generally. We don’t really see much of these attributes in this adaptation. Cromwell is not as complicated: he protects his friends and hurts his whenemies. Way too simplistic, I’m afraid.

As it happens, the television adaptation of the novel began on Sunday night, and was pretty much for me everything that the play was not. Cromwell was fleshed out far more fully, and you could see his subtle intelligence at work. Mark Rylance, playing Cromwell, had much more to work with–many more facets of Cromwell’s life was portrayed, and one could see him as father, husband, reformer, and so one. In the best scene in Part One, Cromwell has an audience with the king, Henry VIII, played by Damien Lewis. Cromwell had once been in  parliament and was critical of Henry’s war aims in France, and Henry has not forgotten. Henry. a man surrounded by syncophants, is surprised that not only does Cromwell not back down, but he suggests a better way from Henry to get what he wants. There is a moment when a Henry looks at Cromwell with a sidelong glance and a half smile, as though surprised, and even amused, that someone would express to him an original thought. Aha! That’s Wolf Hall in a nutshell–the sublime pleasure in encountering something new and unexpected. I can’t wait for the rest of the series.

THE TOP TEN OF 2012

1love-for-levon-3-600x-1349361870This year that is fast disappearing will not be remembered in these quarters with very much warmth. It was a fairly hideous, sickening year, the year that I felt I got old. But like all good things, the bad ones come to an end as well, and thanks to some much appreciated end of the year action by Richard Plepler, Steve Koepp, David McCormick and others, we begin 2013 on an upswing, and with hopes for better times to come. In the meanwhile, here are some jewels, personally chosen and wholly idiosyncratic, recovered from 2012:
1.) Love for Levon. Without a doubt, everything about the tribute concert to Levon Helm–reporting the story, meeting the people involved, attending2searching-for-sugar-man-poster_large the event, the reception to the article, what may happen yet–turned this into the best thing that I was involved with this year.
2.) Searching for Sugarman. This modest documentary about a real-life Cinderella made my heart leap with joy. A very 3carly-rae-jepsen-jimmy-falloninspirational story.
3.) Call Me Maybe. Carly Rae Jepson‘s unassuming, sweet, girlish, flirty hit was attractive enough, but the way it went viral and enveloped everyone from the US Olympic Swim Team to Colin Powell was delightful. The song never failed to bring a smile to my lips, especially in Jepson’s collaboration with Jimmy Fallon4choir_2238852b and the Roots.
4.) The dauntless, rain-drenched performance of the young people of Royal College of Music Chamber Choir during the flotilla of the Queen’s Jubilee was simply stirring, especially when they sang “Land of Hope and Glory.”
5bill_clinton_dnc_cc_120905_wg5.) The presidential campaign as a whole this year was a fairly tedious affair, but the rousing Democratic convention, driven by one splendid speech after another culminating in Bill Clinton‘s masterful dissection/deconstruction/destruction of the GOP position was fairly brilliant, just as the Republicans’ ceaseless rhetorical self-destruction–“Oops”, “Nine, nine, nine”, “I like to fire people”, “legitimate rape”, “the 47 percent”–was the best long-running comedy series on TV.
6.) The Giants Win the Super Bowl. Just as in 2009, 6manningham_catchthe inconsistent Giants managed to win four–or in this case, six–games that they could win but were not likely to, and managed, one play at a time, to walk off with the hardware.
7he-hour7.) The Hour. A splendid, sophisticated, intelligent BBC series about a ground-breaking TV news magazine being produced in the early fifties. I love the way they can combine news judgment, inside baseball, and messy personal situations. Dominic West, Ben Whislaw and Romola Garai are just terrific. We also liked the posh Downton Abbey and the relentlessly vulgar The In-Betweeners. (I must say, I haven’t seen Homeland yet.
8.) Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel. Having loved Wolf Hall, 8809-11booker2_full_600I feared its sequel would suffer by comparison. I shouldn’t have worried. Other enjoyable books this year: Watergate, by Thomas Mallon; Passage of Power, by Robert Caro; The Long Road to Antietam, by Richard Slotkin.
9.) I went to Lincoln fearing a Spielbergian historical romance, full of longing gazes and quivering lips and swirling strings. But while there was some of that, it wasn’t enough to 9lincoln-daniel-day-lewissicken the whole deal. I give total credit to screenwriter Tony Kushner for his decision to hang this pageant on a moment that has been largely overlooked by historians, the passage by the House of Representatives of a constitutional amendment outlawing slavery. Historians undercut the importance of that moment because there were other ways to accomplish Lincoln’s end, but that’s not the point: whether or not the vote had significant is irrelevant10Superstorm_Sandy_Keel-1_t618, it is a perfectly splendid motor for an historical drama.
10. Superstorm Sandy. “There is nothing more exhilarating than to be shot at with no result,” Winston Churchill once said. I have no reason to dispute him, but I can tell you this: it’s a humbling thing to realize that the killer hurricane has come and gone and that you’ve been missed.

BRILLIANT “BRING UP THE BODIES”

It is a hard job being a sequel, but it is nearly an impossible task to be the second book of a trilogy. The first book gets all the benefit of the first blush of a love affair between the subject and the reader, and the third cashes in on the great drama of the climax. This is the fate, I’m afraid, of Hilary Mantel‘s excellent Bring Up the Bodies, which has the thankless job of following Wolf Hall, as original and as dazzling a novel as I have ever read. In Wolf Hall, Mantel took the well-known tale of Henry VIII‘s first divorce and second marriage and found a new way to tell it, by taking a little known figure in the saga, Thomas Cromwell, and making him not only a flesh-and-blood figure, but a very contemporary character. Cromwell is a shrewd behind-the-scenes advisor, a Bob Strauss or a Jim Baker, whom modern readers recognize, but a also a figure of modernity–a globalist, a pragmatist, a secularist, and a self-made man who has advanced on the basis of his knowledge of the new world of commerce and industry and arms past those had risen on, and are now encumbered by the rules and limits and strictures of the past. Mantel gives us a very human Henry, who is frustrated and unhappy, and a bold, clever Cromwell, who manages not only to give the king what he wants, but to set him on the path to the modern era. As if all this weren’t achievement enough, Mantel has devised a truly original narrative voice, one that is shrewd, and sinister, and that moves in and out of Cromwell’s head and back and forth in time with almost magical seamlessness.

Bring Up the Bodies cannot match this achievement; it cannot be original in the way Wolf Hall was. But to say that Bring Up the Bodies follows in Wolf Hall’s path without faltering or without diminishing is to give it all the credit in the world. In Bring Up the Bodies, the first lesson is to be careful what you wish for. Anne Boleyn, Henry’s new queen has longed for the death of her predecessor, Catherine of Aragon, thinking that it will solidify her status. Astonishingly, she is rendered more vulnerable, and the mechanics of her downfall make for great reading. But the great surprise in the book is the slow, subtle corruption of Cromwell, who finds himself seeking only as much justice as he can use, as he memorably puts it, and who finds himself weaving personal vengeance with his labors for the king. These changes in Cromwell elevate the entire book, and make it something deeper and more thought-provoking than the usual historical thriller.

And then there’s the writing! Here’s a nice morsel, plucked from Cromwell’s thoughts: “It is not easy to explain to a young man like Wriothesley why he values Wyatt. He wants to say, because, good fellows though you are, he is not like you or Richard Riche. He does not talk simply to hear his own voice, or pick arguments just to win them. He is not like George Boleyn; he does not write verses to six women in the hope of bundling one of them into a dark corner where he can slip his cock into her. He writes to warn and to chastise, and not to confess his need but to conceal it. He understands honour but does not boast of his own. He is perfectly equipped as a courtier, but he knows the small value of that. He has studied the world without despising it. He understands the world without rejecting it. He has no illusions but he has hopes. He does not sleepwalk through his life. His eyes are open, and his ears for sounds others miss.”

I could immerse myself in such passages, and swim in them all day. Mantel reportedly is working hard on part three. Bring up The Mirror and the Light!

THE BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR

2wolf hallPublishers’ Weekly has come out with its list of the ten best books of 2009. The fact that not one of the authors managed to be a woman would in itself require PW to do some energetic tap-dancing, but the fact that the single best book of the year has been written by a woman named Hilary Mantel is what emphasizes PW’s risible ignorance. And it’s not like Mantel’s novel, Wolf Hall, is some obscure, twee literary exercise; it’s a big, robust novel set in Tudor England, and it just won the prestigious Man Booker Prize.

During a decade when books and films and TV shows about Henry VIII are almost as common as vampire stories, Mantel pulled off the most remarkable coup and found a new way to tell the tale. She focused her tale on Thomas Cromwell, who in all other stories is a minor functionary who does the bidding of the monarch. Mantel takes Cromwell and makes him a new man in a new age–a commoner, a Protestant, a man whose power comes not from ancient titles but a knowledge of new forces–the law, the emerging global economy, spreading literacy. Mantel’s Cromwell is a thoroughly contemporary character, the sort of wise and resourceful and if necessary ruthless man we see nowadays sitting on boards and advising presidents and hopefully saving the world from self-destruction. It’s interesting that Cromwell’s adversary here is a man who in most other tellings of this tale is a hero, that Man for All Seasons Sir Thomas More. Mantel’s More is religious zealot who is tied to Rome and to a set of beliefs in furtherance of which he ordered torture and execution; a fundamentalist and an ascetic set against Cromwell’s modernist, curious, man of the world. And not only does Mantel do a terrific job reimagining the tale, she tells it brilliantly, with language that immerses you in the story, and a kind of urgent, sometimes eliptical construction that kind of makes you lean in closer to follow what’s happening.

Mantel says she is working on a sequel, but that right now all she has is a box of notes. Ms. Mantel, I am waiting.