Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (2009) 650 p.
The entire time I was reading this I was trying to think of which book it reminded me of, a piece of literary fiction featuring both impenetrable prose and extreme tedium. It wasn’t until the home stretch that I realised Wolf Hall is strongly reminiscent of The General In His Labyrinth. Both books are historical fiction novels with an unconventional take on a historical figure, both are written by literary heavyweights (Marquez has a Nobel Prize and Wolf Hall won the ’09 Booker) and both were tiresome and difficult to follow, books that I forced myself through and remembered very little of upon completion.
Wolf Hall is a fictionalised account of the life of Thomas Cromwell, an English statesman in the 16th century (not to be confused with his great-great nephew Oliver Cromwell, also a prominent statesman one hundred years later). He was a close advisor to Henry VIII, whom I was somewhat more familiar with for having six wives, one (or more?) of whom he beheaded. That’s about the limit of it. I have a solid understanding of Australian and American history, but Britain has too many goddamn centuries under its belt.
In any case, the story of Thomas Cromwell is a promising one: a blacksmith’s son, born into relative poverty, who rose up through the British class system on nothing but his wits. That has potential. Unfortunately, I didn’t care for Mantel’s writing style in the slightest: foggy and murky, prose clinging to the random thought paths of various characters, and the novel rarely making concessions to a reader who is already having a difficult time keeping up with the story, since he has no prior knowledge of the period and the characters are all named either Thomas, Henry, Anne or Mary.
Looking back over my review of The General In His Labyrinth, I began it with the sentence: “This is one of those difficult books that was objectively good, and I know it was objectively good, and yet I didn’t like it.”
Was it, though? Just because something is held up to wide acclaim by the intelligentsia, does that make it “objectively good?” I’m not railing against literary fiction. There are plenty of prize-winning, highly regarded novels that I’ve read and loved (like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and Life of Pi). But those books were entertaining as well as having literary merit.
I think a book like Wolf Hall, that sits in the “literary merit” circle of the Venn Diagram of Fiction, well away from the overlap, is just as guilty of wasting my time as a book by Matthew Reilly or Clive Cussler, which would sit in the “entertaining” circle but be equally as far away from the overlap. There are so many great novels in that overlapping slice, so why should I force myself through something that is brimming with artistic credentials, but an absolute drag to read? Certainly, there are occasional flashes of beautiful clarity: the death of Cromwell’s wife and children, the downfall of his patron, the burning of a Lutheran… but the vast majority of Wolf Hall is an unpleasant slog through a dreary landscape.
I’ve made up my mind: just because a book is widely acclaimed does not neccesarily mean it is worthwhile. Last night I was trying to print off a list of every Pulitzer and Booker winner so I could blu-tac it to my bookshelf and cross them all off as I go, but my printer malfunctioned. Maybe that was a sign.