Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is neither a novel, nor a history book. Unreadable, finds our columnist Sören Heim
There are, very roughly spoken, two types of historical novels. Those that try to grasp the atmosphere and the social life of the time and therein to tell an interesting story. And those, which from a given historical constellation try to develop one or more specific ideas, weigh them against one another and maybe, this way, open up new ways to see history and present times. Naturally, both types are not mutually exclusive. Often enough the best novels of the first type will also be the best novels of the second. Rarely, Hegels perspective on the beautiful as „the pure appearance of the idea to sense“ is more fitting than with a good historical novel.
Ideas and material world
A very magnificent example is the small book Peter’s Day by Aleksey Tolstoy. Starting with the not at all regal view of Peter’s daily routines, strangely focused on the working of his body – quite materialistic in the very strict artistic sense of socialist realism and also very symbolic, kind of a memento mori in the beginning, presenting the Emperor as a mortal being – Tolstoy’s shortstory paints a complex picture of the emerging Petersburg. From the cold, swampy atmosphere of the workers quarters through the grey economy surrounding them, to the soldier quarters and the nobility and again, to the emperor. The idealistic concept of „history as the work of great men“ is balanced against the toil of the many. There are little moments of happiness and peace within the grinding machinery of bodies, while it remains unsure whether a greater good is growing or an all devouring molloch
Yeah, we get it. A good book. But what on earth has it to do with Wolf Hall? Well, Mantels much praised work is a third type of historical novel, the type I previously forgot: The bad one.
3rd type: The bad novel
All we get from more than 800 pages is nobility making small talk. Over politics, religion, marriage, all that Tudor chitchat. And not one slice of life, not one scene from everyday working people’s or merchant’s or peasant’s existence. Only the fortune 50, talking on and on about what makes the world go round (it’s sex, religion and money, by the way). The whole of Wolf Hall sounds like a dry history book read out dramatically. But a history book mind, from the pre-Tolstoyan era (and I’m talking Lew, not Aleksey). Like a much too long stage play, in which the minimum stage directions are not even trying to establish the scene. Static flat characters parading around in front of the generic set of some generic late middle-age castle.
Whoever knows the Tudor era won’t find anything new in the novel (generally, that isn’t what one would expect to find in a historical novel, but since this one doesn’t have anything else to offer), whoever wants to find out about the Tudors better takes a look at a proper history book. That this doorstopper has not only won the Booker, but also up to now didn’t have to face any substantial amount of negative criticism puts me on the brink of losing what is left of my faith in humanity. I find only one bit of negative criticism from a professional, and it’s not very elaborate:
„High on my list of Really Bad Books are two best-sellers: Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, both of which I rate as dreadfully badly written. Brown wrote to a computer game formula: solve one level and move on to the next, whereas Mantel just wrote and wrote and wrote. I have yet to meet anyone outside the Booker panel who managed to get to the end of this tedious tome. God forbid there might be a sequel, which I fear is on the horizon.“
But Mrs. Bassnett is completely right. Who then reads a book like Wolf Hall? The historically interested equivalent to the readers off The Sun or the Daily Mirror I suppose. Wolf Hall and similar historical novels are the tabloid of the educated classes. Readers want to know exactly, who sleeps with whom right now, who said what to whom and did the princess really kiss that guy at the beach this summer? Look! The high society is just like we are. And always has been. It’s documented, that aside from religious works some of the first printing products for the masses were pamphlets of an often personal nature and „newsreports“ from the court. Wolf hall is such a report. Seems, it pays not only to write about the private lives of current celebrities, but about historic ones, too.