This is the year that The Godfather 4 came out in book form—as The Family Corleone, with Ed Falco revising an unmade Mario Puzo screenplay into book form.
This week, a novelist got the sort of acclaim not seen in the arts since the films The Godfather and The Godfather II both won Academy Awards for Best Picture. Violent historical thrillers, not to mention thrillers, don’t usually get that sort of attention.
Hilary Mantel won the Man Booker Prize this year for her new novel Bring Up the Bodies. She won the prize previously in 2009 for Wolf Hall. The Man Booker Prize, like the Oscars, not only carries great prestige but tends to turn its winners into blockbusters. Winners of the annual literary prize regularly rake in millions of dollars in sales. Wolf Hall had already become the biggest bestseller of all Man Booker winners.
Bring Up the Bodies is a continuation of Wolf Hall. Both books chronicle life and political struggles of Thomas Cromwell, told in tandem with the tale of the growth in power, confidence and maturity of King Henry VIII.
They’re pretty amazing books, distinguished by vivid stretches of snappy dialogue. Mantel humanizes these historical characters in a number of other impressive ways. There’s a sense of menace, mission and emotional anguish that gives the stories the epic feel they require, while adding a humanity and reality and vulnerability to the exercise. There are psychological underpinnings, but they’re rich and grounded rather than cheap analyses.
I “read” Wolf Hall by alternating between the audiobook version and the print edition. The audiobook is read by Simon Slater, who brings a real bite to all that testy dialogue between monarchs, religious leaders and their cagy advisors. (The audio edition of Bring Up the Bodies has been entrusted to a different reader, also named Simon: Simon Vance. I haven’t heard it yet.) In both books, information is inparted through loaded pronouncements, well articulated inner thoughts, and subtle doses of historical context:
He gets Sir Francis round and gets him drunk. He, Cromwell, can trust himself; when he was young, he learned to drink with Germans. It’s over a year since Francis Bryan quarreled with George Boleyn: over what, Francis hardly remembers, but the grudge remains, and until his legs go from under him he is able to act out the most florid bits of the row, standing up and waving his arms. Of his cousin Anne he says, ‘You like to know where you are with a woman. Is she a harlot, or a lady? Anne wants you to treat her like the Virgin Mary, but she also wants you to put your cash on the table, do the business and get out.’
Sit Francis in intermittently pious, as conspicuous sinners tend to be. Lent is here: ‘It is time for you to enter into your yearly frenzy of penitence, is it not?’
Francis pushes up the patch on his blind eye, and rubs the scar tissue; it itches, he explains. ‘Of course,’ he says, ‘Wyatt’s had her.’
He, Thomas Cromwell, waits.
But then Francis puts his head down on the table, and begins to snore.
‘The Vicar of Hell,’ he says thoughtfully. He calls for boys to come in. ‘Take Sir Francis home to his own people. But wrap him up warm, we may need his testimony in the days to come.’
He wonders exactly how much you’d leave on the table, for Anne. She’s cost Henry his honour, his peace of mind. To him, Cromwell, she is just another trader. He admires the way she’s laid out her goods. He personally doesn’t want to buy; but there are customers enough.
That deft screenplay-like blend of careful description, constant reminders of who is speaking or thinking, and delineations between thought and expression is constantly invigorating. You never get lost in Hillary Mantel’s books—she nimbly leads you around all the fussy factoids which rise like stalagmites in all historical fiction. She creates characters and enlivens them with context.
Interestingly, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies have already been compared to Puzo’s Godfather books and films by a number of alert critics. Mantel’s books, like Puzo’s, are deeper and richer and more fulfilling than the overstuffed lit genres they tend to be lumped with. Those genres can partly explain the extraordinary popularity of these works. But they transcend, and they deserve awards.