I sit in my living room, lit as if for a movie scene of a gentleman reading in peace. The natural conclusion to a day that began at 2'F and progressed all the way to 9'F, with high winds lashing any exposed flesh. Shoppers scurrying to and fro trailing wisps of frozen breath. A lamp over my shoulder casting strong direct light on my book, a fire adding warmth and light, its crackle the only sound in the room.
A book. A flesh and blood book: paper, glue and ink. Immanent, a weight in my hand, the magic of imagination as symbols on a page, and converted by the mind of the reader into maybe what the author has hoped for. The title of this piece the title of one of the many books by Anthony Powell that made up his A Dance to the Music of Time. Each a perfectly sculpted short novel of an episode in the life of Nicholas Jenkins. The novels a world. The novels, a life. If a complete life can ever be told by books, these books do.
I write this and I remember another novel in the series: At Lady Molly's. It may be that I named my daughter Molly because of that book as I named my son Ethan after Ethan Edwards.
The book on my lap, the book I read in the almost darkness, is this year's Booker Prize winner: Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall. A novel of historical fiction surrounding Henry VIII, Cardinal Wolsey, and the central character in the novel, Thomas Cromwell. I'm just halfway through but I am riveted. She writes with a curious style, not off-putting, but it requires getting used to. And, she writes, as Anthony Powell did, a world unto itself. The fire crackles both in cold drafty Esher Hall where Cardinal Wolsey has been exiled to from Hampton Court, and it crackles at my feet. I am both places at once. No, in truth, I am more in 1527 than here in Evanston. Such is Hilary Mantel's skill as a writer.
Yesterday evening, not that far into the book, but deeply engaged already in the characters, I read of the sudden death of Thomas Cromwell's wife, Liz, and felt as if someone I knew well had died. Great books can do that. I remember years ago waking up at four of a summer's morning to finish The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. By seven I read of Oscar Castillo's death. A character so alive, so vibrant, his passing made my eyes well up, just as my young daughter came laughing into the room. Daddy, she asked, shocked at seeing her father crying for the first time, what's wrong? She huddled up to me near tears herself ... darling, I said: Oscar Castillo has died. Oscar, she asked, who is he? A character in this book. It is so sad. But, daddy it's just a book ... I know I answered.
She has been an avid reader ever since.
Liz Wycks, Thomas Cromwell's wife, a real woman, fictionalized with such clarity that I would know her, dies in a day from 'sweating sickness.' Cromwell comes home late after having spent the morning in bed with her, now going to their bed to see her dead.
I looked 'sweating sickness' up on Wikipedia. It appeared suddenly at the end of the 15th century in England and ravaged London intermittently three separate times ... the last in the 1520s, where this novel is set. It killed indiscriminately and inexplicably, lords and commoners, women and children, in their thousands. Those that could, fled the city in the summer months, stiff regulations guided actions if a member of a family became infected. Death came in hours from first sign to final shudder. Thomas Cromwell's beautiful daughters were next, the youngest vivid to the reader in her delight at wearing angel's wings in a Christmas pageant. The author writes with such sensitivity and humanity: her little hand in her father's telling him not to be sad that she would see her mother again. His older daughter, serious as he, learning Greek at an early age, taken just as swiftly, looking at her father with clarity, both of them knowing what would come.
From another book: the body moves on, the mind circles the past.
Thomas Cromwell thinks: "Sunlight outside. He feels as if he could almost sleep, but when he sleeps Liz Wykys comes back, cheerful and brisk, and when he wakes he has to learn the lack of her all over again."
He has to learn the lack of her all over again.
I once asked an uncle, a famously tough guy, combat veteran, fierce in that Scots-Irish southern way, about a story I had heard. That he had loved a Cherokee woman when, in the South, it wasn't done. Now, many years later, married appropriately, children grown, an old man, he looked at me and said yes, it was true. What had happened to her, I asked? Gone. Gone where? I never saw her after the war. Do you ever think about her, I asked?
Every day of my life, he answered.
Wolf Hall is alive in my hands. You will have to concentrate when you read it. Great events sweep this way and that, famous people come and go, fortunes are made and heads are lost, and you are there through Mantel's genius. Not just a world realized but the 16th Century realized.
Those who have seen A Man for All Seasons will be familiar with the story, but the story is told from a different perspective with different heroes and villains. Orson Welles' Cardinal fits though, as does Robert Shaw's Henry VIII. I was in London recently and I saw all of these people in the National Portrait Gallery. Thomas, the King, the Boleyn sisters, Katherine of Aragon, the Cardinal, but, I must admit, moving images on the screen, or paint on canvas, were not nearly as vivid as what Hilary Mantel has done with mere words.