Tag Archives: Booker at Birkbeck

Booker at Birkbeck 2014: Hilary Mantel

This post was contributed by Birkbeck alumnus Dr Ben Winyard.

Hilary-and-RussellOn 15 December, in a lively and wide-ranging conversation, Birkbeck’s Professor of Creative Writing Russell Celyn Jones and novelist Hilary Mantel discussed her Booker Prize winning novel, Bring up the Bodies (2012). This is the second book in an unfinished trilogy about Henry VIII’s shadowy chief minister Thomas Cromwell, who clambered from obscure origins to become one of the most powerful men in Tudor England, before his swift, unexpected and spectacular downfall and execution.

Wolf Hall (2009), the first book and also the recipient of the Booker Prize, memorably opens with the young Cromwell reeling from an assault by his brutal father. From this startling opening onwards, the world of the Tudors is mediated through Cromwell’s consciousness. Mantel discussed how the novels gestated for about thirty years, but it was during a visit to Putney, Cromwell’s place of birth, that she accessed his voice and interiority and composed the novel’s opening line, spat at Cromwell by his belligerent father – ‘“So now get up.”’ Mantel also delighted the audience by tantalisingly revealing that the keenly awaited third and final novel, The Mirror and the Light, will close with Cromwell similarly felled, awaiting the executioner’s axe. The extinguishing of Cromwell’s consciousness will categorically terminate the reader’s access to Mantel’s fictionalised Tudor world.

Wolf Hall covers Cromwell’s pupillage and rise under Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, his orchestration of Henry’s divorce of Catherine of Aragon and subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn in 1533. Bring up the Bodies opens with Cromwell ascendant and charts the collapse of Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, her usurpation by Jane Seymour, and Cromwell’s coolly legalistic and ultimately brutal machinations to oust Boleyn at the king’s behest, which culminated in her beheading in 1536. Mantel discussed how Boleyn and Cromwell warily recognise their similarly precarious positions as social climbers in a world delineated by inherited wealth and power, although Boleyn is hungry for status while Cromwell focuses on the acquisition of power. Ironically for the queen, her ascent to the throne reduces her to ‘just a womb’, as Mantel put it, and her failure to provide a male heir and bolster a union considered illegitimate by many of the European powers makes her ‘a political liability’. Ultimately, Boleyn and Cromwell’s entwined rise to prominence unravels to be replaced by a fierce, and bloody, enmity.

Mantel was unwilling to concede to the commonplace that the historical novel, long a critically disdained genre, reflects the present more than the past. Historical fiction is not, she energetically expounded, a trivial, escapist mode. Although accepting that ‘every novel is written out of the sensibility of its time’, she also keenly emphasised her efforts to enter and engage with the consciousness of people who lived 500 years ago. Mantel sees the Tudors as inhabiting a peculiar, mythic landscape, in which short lifespans and a lack of documentary evidence meant that a sense of history was limited and personal identity a mystery. She cited legal cases of marriages under strain when consanguinity was discovered, particularly between cousins who married in ignorance of their shared kinship. Indeed, it was Cromwell who, in 1538, instigated the keeping of parish registers. The author was also impatient with comparisons between Henry VIII’s rule and that of tyrannical or totalitarian regimes in our own times. Although the novels cover contemporary themes of surveillance, information gathering, torture, religious extremism and political ‘spin’, Henry VIII, Mantel insisted, lacked the bureaucratic governing structures necessary for absolute rule and such comparisons are ahistorical and ‘lazy’. She also stressed that these historical figures were ‘whole and entire’ and not ‘pallid rehearsals’ of our modern selves; for Mantel, history is not simply a Whiggish teleology from backwardness, ignorance and incompleteness to progress, knowledge and civilised wholeness.

AudienceThe audience, which included students on Birkbeck’s successful Creative Writing programmes, enjoyed Mantel’s frankness about her working process, which involves the creation of ‘scenes’ built on meticulous research and a less mechanical process whereby the voice, consciousness and worldview of a character is accessed, putting Mantel ‘right there in the scene’. Mantel was particularly enthusiastic about the experience of seeing Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies adapted for the stage by the RSC, observing that the actors strenuously avoid ‘the heavy hand of determinism’ and play each scene as if in the present moment. This, she argued, further encourages her to be there in the scene with her characters when writing. With twenty one actors taking on many of the 159 characters in the novels, Mantel humorously observed, ‘It’s wonderful what you can do with beards.’

James Wood, writing in the New Yorker in 2012, praised Mantel for knowing that ‘what gives fiction its vitality is not the accurate detail but the animate one.’ Mantel’s extraordinary talent for historical ventriloquism also creates suspense and the thrilling sense that history is still unfolding, making historical ‘fragile again, with everything at suspenseful risk’, in Wood’s words. Mantel described herself as ‘a good spiritual ventriloquist’, easily accessing the conflicting religious worldviews and passions that rent Tudor Britain, despite having lost her Catholic faith around the age of twelve. Although keen to refute any element of the ‘mystical’ in her efforts to access and channel past voices, it is perhaps fitting that an author who has written so engagingly on spiritualism in Beyond Black (2005) should present her writing practices as employing her body, memory, consciousness and life experiences to access something beyond perception. A novel, Mantel stressed, must cohere on a deep level, below consciousness – writing is not simply a mechanised process. When asked where she can be found in the novels, Mantel replied ‘Living lives vicariously’, exploring the paths she wasn’t able or willing to take in life. Mantel relishes that writing is not gendered and enables the author to become another, particularly as the gender ambiguity of her name encouraged a childhood ambition to pursue a ‘masculine’ career as a knight of the round table or as a railway guard.

In a 2012 interview in the New Statesman, Mantel described her writing as more sinewy, tough and uncompromising than her everyday self. However, citing the recent controversy surrounding her short story, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher (2014), Jones observed that, like Cromwell, Mantel is good with her fists when she needs to be – ‘you fight back’. Mantel expressed exasperation at the ‘trivial’ and ‘bullying’ nature of contemporary public debate, but she was obviously thrilled by the frothing, manufactured outrage of Tory grandees and some corners of the tabloid press, chuckling at demands for a criminal investigation into her fictional account of a fictional assassination. Like last year’s Man Booker speaker, Alan Hollinghurst, Mantel also seems keen to use fiction to explore and interrogate the cultural, political and socio-economic legacies of the Thatcherite 80s.

This was the fourth Man Booker event at Birkbeck – previous speakers include Sarah Waters, Kazuo Ishiguro and Alan Hollinghurst – and follows Mantel’s Orwell lecture at Birkbeck in 2009. Both the Booker Prize Foundation and Birkbeck share a commitment to bringing the highest intellectual and cultural achievements to the widest possible audience and this enlivening exchange further cemented this successful and rewarding partnership.

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Man Booker at Birkbeck 2013: Alan Hollinghurst

This post was contributed by Birkbeck alumnus Dr Ben Winyard.

On 27 November, in a wide-ranging, vibrant and thought-provoking exchange, novelist Alan Hollinghurst and Birkbeck’s professor of Creative Writing Russell Celyn Jones considered the crafting, reception and afterlives of Hollinghurst’s Booker Prize-winning novel, The Line of Beauty, alongside Hollinghurst’s biography, literary influences and writing practices. With many Birkbeck creative writing and English literature students in the audience, the conversation naturally turned to the craft and discipline of writing, the origins and development of plot, narrative and character, and the overlaps and dissonances between autobiography and fiction. As the purveyor of what the Guardian termed – in a tone falling short of complimentary – ‘high literary style and low-rent sex’, Hollinghurst was unruffled by searching queries about gay male life, sex between men, drugs, the AIDS crisis and Thatcherite politics.

The Line of Beauty opens in the summer of 1983. That summer, in which AIDS began to impact forcefully on British life, appears, in retrospect, a fulcrum on which subsequent gay history turned. Indeed the novel is ostensibly a historical one – albeit history within living memory for many – and it taps into a gay tradition of using history fictionally to frame and explore the sexual self. Hollinghurst spoke openly about the problem of AIDS for male gay writers; the author felt pressure throughout the early, frightening and politically-charged years of the pandemic to represent the suffering and loss of gay men, particularly in the face of official intransigence and popular homophobia. Hollinghurst himself lost friends to the disease, but it was only with The Line of Beauty that he felt finally able to satisfactorily represent the ‘queasy situation’ of AIDS impinging on new-found gay freedoms. AIDS is, like many communicable diseases, literary in its metaphoric permutations and its usefulness as an authorial tool for imposing moral meaning and order, but the roster of infected, dying and dead at the close of the novel suggests less a moral structure than the virus’s banal randomness.

The novel’s protagonist is Nick Guest, a gay Oxford graduate newly arrived in London, and events are mediated through him alone. Hollinghurst spoke of his wish to emulate Henry James in presenting experience with the intensity of one protagonist’s solitary viewpoint, and he sought to apply James’s fastidious powers of social analysis to the situations he was depicting, exposing a ‘seedy and corrupt world’. Hollinghurst confessed to taking a Jamesian delight in ruthlessly dissecting social intercourse, exposing what lies beneath social niceties – ‘all the things not said or that can’t be said’. For Hollinghurst, there were clear parallels between the callous dog-eat-dog culture of the 1980s and the fin de siècle era of the 1890s so adroitly analysed by James. Hollinghurst spoke amusingly of his concerted efforts to overcome his ‘terror’ of James’s notoriously dense novels, joining a reading group dedicated to just such a task. Celyn Jones observed the parallels between James’s and Hollinghurst’s precise use of ornate language that captures and holds a moment.

Applied to Nick, ‘hero’ is perhaps too grandiose a term for a character drawn with such studied ambivalence and so divisive in his reception by readers. Nick is, as his surname suggests, a visitor, lodging indefinitely and with little settled purpose in the home of Toby Fedden, his straight undergraduate friend. In the exquisitely appointed, aesthetically captivating environs of the Feddens’ Notting Hill mansion, Nick is beguiled by the wealth, manners and exalted social status of the family, becoming the de facto carer-companion of their psychologically troubled daughter, Catherine, while providing general support to Gerald Fedden, a boorish, newly elected Tory MP, and his captivating and refined society wife, Rachel.

Hollinghurst spoke at length about Nick’s uncertain status as both insider and outsider: he is highly educated (‘stuffed with knowledge’ in his creator’s words), self-confident and socially outgoing, eliciting trust from the highest ranking members of the ruling classes. Indeed, in one of the novel’s most brilliantly cheeky and admired vignettes, Nick, high on coke and just returned from a threesome, asks Margaret Thatcher to dance with him at the Feddens’ grimly self-aggrandising silver anniversary party. However, Nick is also secretly gay, sexually and socially inexperienced (initially), anxious about his background, and he exists in an ambivalent space between classes, lacking upper-class breeding and nous but possessing an education, aesthetic sense and sexual orientation that distinguish him from his tediously respectable bourgeois parents. Hollinghurst confessed that the amusing but painful scene in which Nick returns home and is embarrassed by, and condescending towards, his parents was ‘a rather personal experience’. Nick is though, Hollinghurst insisted, ‘a distinct fictional character’ and he expressed wonderment at the ‘fascinating, unknowable variables’ that arise when new readers ‘create [the novel] afresh’. One questioner asked if Hollinghurst imaginatively carried his protagonists with him; Hollinghurst confessed that he is usually ‘pleased to see the back of them’ – ‘I don’t terribly like [them]’.

Hollinghurst referred to Nick as ‘a political blank’ who allows his thirst for the aesthetic to mould his behaviour and shape his experience. Nick thus follows the line of beauty – the ogee – a double ‘s’ curve identified by William Hogarth as an underlying aesthetic principle in his derided 1753 Analysis of Beauty. Hogarth, rather like Nick – and perhaps a little like Hollinghurst – was the son of a middling family who used his artistic prowess to leverage his way into the upper echelons. For Hogarth, The Analysis of Beauty offered a means of bringing aesthetic knowledge and pleasure to ordinary people, while Hogarth’s art, rather like Hollinghurst’s, uses an outsider’s eye to dissect upper-class mores, foibles and hypocrisies. Hollinghurst considered how his focus on the upper-classes allowed him to tap into a rich literary heritage and admitted that upper-class ‘people are tremendously fun to write about because they’re rich enough to behave so badly’.

Like the ogee, Nick’s life follows two parallel but separate paths: one his ‘official’ life of wealth, comfort and politely received doctoral research into the novels of Henry James (a wry reference to Hollinghurst’s own Jamesian preoccupations); the other is his hidden life of initially tentative and then increasingly compulsive and brutish sex and drug-taking. Nick exhibits less desire for its own sake than a calculated Wildean eagerness to prioritise beauty and experience over morality; what Hollinghurst sought to explore through Nick is ‘the limitation of being led through life by your sense of beauty’.

The novel seethes with barely concealed secrets, as Nick first embarks upon a tentative, romantic affair with the closeted Leo and then a destructive, loveless affair with the cold, jaded and self-loathing Wani. Increasingly, Nick becomes enamoured with secrecy itself, revelling in his risky sauntering between the two worlds he keeps separate. Nick’s increasingly outré adventures are later served as a tabloid side-dish to Gerald’s adultery, eliciting his stinging eviction from the cosseted world of the Feddens. It is Catherine Fedden, with her manic depression (which her father maintains a wilful stupidity about), unsuitable lower-class boyfriends and visceral distaste for the smothering hypocrisy of her own class, who, Cassandra-like, speaks the truth of the outsider and brings down the artifice of her parents’ – and Nick’s – lives. The double helix of the ogee also suggested, to one questioner, a tension in the novel between the public and the private, between privacy and surveillance, which Hollinghurst admiringly admitted he hadn’t considered before.

In the decade in which Wham! famously encouraged ‘young guns’ to ‘go for it’, Nick’s descent into hard-heartedness and unthinking, repetitious excess suggests one destination for those following the line of beauty. From the range of reactions expressed by readers at the event – from sympathy, identification and admiration, to irritation, dislike and even hatred – it is clear that the mutable character of Nick continues to abundantly evoke the ‘fascinating, unknowable’ responses that Hollinghurst so enjoys.