Archive | 6:00 am

The Step Between.

27 Jun

‘When Adam delved, and Eve span,
Who was then the gentleman?’

In and Out of Cipher.

but that was not History,
that was only faith,
and then each rock broke into its own nation;
then came the synod of flies,
then came the secretarial heron,
then came the bullfrog bellowing for a vote.
Derek Walcott,  from The Sea is History

Umberto Eco tells us there is a fate that links the historical novel to medieval topics, that our conflicts can be traced to the tumultuous, ongoing, break between the dark ages and ‘today’– the chugging engine of modernity.  We live, he claims, within a wave of the neo-medieval. The trick is to identify what brand of Middle-Ages is being traded, and Eco identifies ten variations upon the theme. Of the lot, he comes out in favour of the philological Middle-Ages, which “lack sublimity, thank God, and thus look ‘human’”. He would rejoice in Wolf Hall’s painstaking historiography.

If the medieval does haunt the modern, Eco himself fed our steady fascination. No one stalked the antecedents of modernity better than Eco in Name of the Rose or Baudolino.  And no one, Eco inclusive, has injected the modern as precisely into the feudal as Hilary Mantel in Wolf Hall. Mantel is aided by her choice of protagonist. A more modern man than Thomas Cromwell you would be hard-pressed to find in our postmodern, neo-medieval times. One might long for Fr. William’s lucidity while parsing the difference between Reginald Pole and Martin Luther, but he remains too enmeshed within the organisation of an earlier time to look through it as astutely as Mantel’s Cromwell does.

Plenty of critics have emphasised the confusion created by Mantel’s consistent use of the third person nominative to refer to Cromwell: there is only one ‘he’ in her novel. I found the device ingenious: substituting the omnipresent divine ‘Him’ with a personal ‘him’ as the driving feature of narrative is a splendid caption for the altering gestalt she captures.

Continue reading

Advertisements
%d bloggers like this: