Tuesday, 30 December 2014

MANTEL'S PROSE

From Hilary Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies:

If Wolsey wanted Norfolk he would lie quiet inside a table top, breathing along the grain of the wood; he would ooze through a keyhole, or flop down a chimney with a soft flurry like a soot-stained dove.

As a rule I don't much like prose that holds me up with its brilliance, but Mantel's is always in service to her content.  This little passage is remarkable in several respects, but the one that took me is that "soft flurry".  I would have been more than happy with "flop down a chimney like a soot-stained dove" (and I might have thought of "ooze through a keyhole", though never of the table top and the grain), but the soft flurry is the Wolsey part of it; it allows us to see rather than simply imagine.  Sometimes this kind of thing robs the reader, but not here, because the person doing the imagining is Thomas Cromwell.

Mantel may not be Tolstoy, but the Cromwell books certainly stand comparison with War and Peace as works of historical fiction. They are also of course desperately pertinent today, as they describe the complexities of power and the battle between reason and superstition.

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