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21 January 2015 @ 11:19 am
Wolf Hall, take one  
I'm going to go ahead and post the last couple of things I've written about trying to read Wolf Hall recently (I figure I should try to read it before I see the miniseries? I have until April - which is when PBS is airing it), even though I am kind of embarrassed by them (why can I not appreciate this book that everyone else in the world loves? What is wrong with me?), but for the sake of honesty, here we go.

18 January 2015

Somewhat perversely, I would like to read some criticism of Wolf Hall by someone smart and thoughtful who didn't like it; maybe it would help me like it better, knowing that someone out there hadn't praised this book to the skies when I am not enjoying it. Admittedly I have only managed to struggle through the first three chapters - this is only partly the book's fault; I haven't been reading it consistently - so maybe I haven't adjusted to the prose yet and I will enjoy it more as I get used to it, but right now the book's very syntax is grating on my inward ear. Stop cramming all the paragraphs with so much syntactically unconnected detail, Hilary Mantel! Stop changing point of view in the middle of paragraphs! (You can't just throw "We hope he'll grow up tall" in the middle of a paragraph about Cromwell's son when the whole rest of the paragraph is being narrated in the third person, what are you even doing!) Also, I know this book is all dudes*, but if you could be a little bit clearer who you're talking about - so that every sentence isn't "He said to him that he was a great scholar" or whatever, although this would be less difficult to figure out if every paragraph weren't crammed with so much detail, because each one of those three pronouns could refer to a different man mentioned in the last two sentences, for all I know - that would be nice. (Yes, yes, I'm sure this is on purpose. That doesn't mean it doesn't grate.)

Also, the dialogue is also irking me, but this is more personal; it just sounds so terse and modern that it actually feels at odds with the way that Tudor people seem to me to think. Even their personal letters are more playful and elaborate with language than we are today - they like playing with words and coining new ones; they weren't like, "ah yes, in the halls of power we get right to the point, none of this fancy-dancy speechifying." And their speech could still be muscular and vivid - but they were not exactly a terse people. I know historical fiction doesn't have to represent the speech patterns of its historical period exactly, even in stories about speakers of whatever language one is writing in (a book set in ancient Rome but written in English is never going to sound like Latin), but still.

*This bit actually sounds more sarcastic about Mantel than I meant it to; it's not her fault that every important person in this period is a guy named Thomas!

21 January 2015

Still trying to read a chapter or so of Wolf Hall before bed; right now I am only managing three or four pages every couple of nights, but hey ho. I hit one of those bits last night where Mantel apparently uses what reviewers actually called "ye olde speech," because why not, in order to make a humorous contrast or whatever:
Above all, Mantel avoids ye olde-style diction, preferring more contemporary phrasing. Small rises in the level of language are frequently used for comic effect, as in: "Well, I tell you, Lady Shelton, if she had had an axe to hand, she would have essayed to cut off my head." The effortless-seeming management of contrasting registers plays a big part in the novel's success, as does Mantel's decision to let Cromwell have a sense of humour."

And this is even more grating than the lack of clarity regarding third-person singular masculine pronouns, because it's indicative of a thing that feels to me like a failure in the world being imagined. It's the same problem I had with Desperate Romantics, a not particularly good miniseries about the PRB, in which all the painters spoke in relatively modern speech, except for Millais (played by an adorably hapless Samuel Barnett), who was supposed to sound so quaint and prim and prudish...except that all he really sounded was Victorian. You know, like all of the other characters in the miniseries are as well. Or "The Shakespeare Code," which is supposedly set in 1599, but has an exchange between two of "Shakespeare's" actors in which they complain that they never know what old Will is going on about (yeah, Early Modern English must be really hard for you sixteenth-century guys to understand), and the only characters in the episode who ever sound remotely Elizabethan are the Carrionite "witches," who are supposed to be from the dawn of time. I mean, I get it: modern readers and viewers hear that language as old-fashioned and ridiculous, but that doesn't stop me from wanting to yell "do better!" at people when they pull this nonsense. It never stops bothering me when historical fiction or historical drama takes the language that people actually spoke and turns it into nothing more than a ridiculous joke. Surely historical fiction is supposed to be about imagining what the past was like, to the degree that we ever can, and trying to conjure up an actually different world, in which people thought - and yes, spoke - very differently from the way we do? And wouldn't it make more sense for critics to - let's get crazy here - respect that endeavor, instead of demeaning the so-called trappings of historical fiction as nothing more than "ye olde-style diction," and only praising those books of historical fiction that "make the past seem just like today" or "make the sixteenth-century court seem just like the modern halls of power," as though the erasure of difference and such easy parallelism between then and now are things to strive for?

I know I have ranted this rant before, about RTD-era Doctor Who historical episodes (oddly enough, Moffat managed to ameliorate this not by having a companion from the past - which I still want, and I'm still wistful about Victorian Clara - but by changing the Doctor so that he no longer says things like "This lot have still got one foot in the Dark Ages," but instead remarks offhandedly that he's on Virginia Woolf's bowling team, and has longstanding relationships with figures like Churchill, and takes Vincent van Gogh seriously and befriends him instead of making jokes about him like Ten does to Shakespeare), but still. This attitude is like nails on a chalkboard to me; I can't help it. And it's such a waste. (As much as I find myself yelling "what are you even doing right now" at Sleepy Hollow on a regular basis this season, one thing that they got right is that Ichabod's old-fashioned language doesn't mean that he's a joke - even though he is often funny, and Abbie rightly laughs at him when he takes refuge in an even greater level of formality because he doesn't want to deal with something. He speaks the way he speaks not because he's some kind of prudish fussbudget, but because he's, you know, from 1781. They spoke like that then. And he can still be curious and tender and exasperated and everything else in that language, because it is an actual language to him, not just an affectation a writer has him put on when he wants to make fun of someone else. I can't wrap my head around Mantel's decision, after reading what must have been tons of Tudor documents and history, to look at the way they spoke and then decide to use it only in mockery. Why not just choose not to use it at all?)
a_t_raina_t_rain on January 21st, 2015 07:38 pm (UTC)
I loved Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, but I can definitely see why someone wouldn't -- the style is idiosyncratic in ways that I can imagine a different reader might find very grating.
tempestsarekind: viola readingtempestsarekind on January 21st, 2015 10:23 pm (UTC)
Oddly enough, writing the second post helped a bit - because it reminded me that this is a recurring issue with me, and as such, it's not unique to my reaction to this book. :) Sometimes great books are not for every reader!
litlover12 on January 21st, 2015 09:02 pm (UTC)
I liked the book (though I prefer More to Cromwell! :-) ) but I do see your point!
tempestsarekind: i am my father's daughter [elizabeth]tempestsarekind on January 21st, 2015 10:24 pm (UTC)
I haven't even gotten as far as More yet…but I haven't heard good things about his portrayal. :)
(Deleted comment)
tempestsarekind: cheveril glovetempestsarekind on January 21st, 2015 11:23 pm (UTC)
Hmm…maybe I'll have to find more time to read it in chunks, then!

I think my real problem is not that the language is contemporary, or that she doesn't spend time reveling in scenery; it's that when she does mention those things, it's to point out how weird or funny they are. The diction is where I'm finding that disconnect really hard to deal with. The scene that prompted the second post was a scene in which one character (Gardiner?) wants to mock someone (Thomas Boleyn) and play up the ridiculousness of the "theater" that happened between Boleyn and Wolsey. Not only does Gardiner turn the dialogue between them into an improvised play as he tells Cromwell about what happened, but he reports Boleyn's language by using words like "thou," when Mantel avoids that language elsewhere. That just rings as peculiar to me, and kept jolting me out of the scene: there are plenty of things that one Tudor speaker might mock another one for, but using the perfectly ordinary pronoun "thou" is not one of those things! It seems to me that you could 'translate' Tudor speech into a contemporary idiom (even though I find it peculiar because I read a decent amount of Early Modern English) - after all, it was contemporary to them - but to have your Tudor characters slip into that Tudor language only as though it were strange and a bit silly puts my hackles up a bit.
melancholy in the rainliseuse on January 22nd, 2015 05:06 pm (UTC)
I really loved Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies but I definitely appreciated Wolf Hall more after I'd read Bring Up the Bodies, as did a couple of other people I know who've read both (I think it is a combination of having accustomed yourself to not being entirely sure who is speaking and there being less history to cram into Bring ...). Trying to read Wolf Hall in short segments didn't work for me at all - I only got through it on my second try when I had a) an electronic copy as well as a paper copy and b)time to sit on my bed and just *read* for a considerable chunk of time.
tempestsarekind: books and flowerstempestsarekind on January 23rd, 2015 02:01 am (UTC)
The consensus seems to be that reading it a little at a time is not a good idea! Maybe I'll postpone the reading until Spring Break.