Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Hilary Mantel

The grand projects

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The Lisle Letters

Thirty-five years ago, on October 18, 1981, the New York Times published a long article by the critic D.J.R. Bruckner. Titled “The Grand Projects,” it was a survey of what Bruckner called “the big books or projects that need decades to finish,” and which only a handful of academic publishers in the country are equipped to see from beginning to end. I first came across it in a photocopy tucked into the first volume of one of the books that it mentions, The Plan of St. Gall, the enormous study of monastic life that I bought a few years ago after dreaming about it for decades. At the time, I was just starting to collect rare and unusual books for their own sake, and I found myself using Bruckner’s article—which I recently discovered was the first piece that he ever published for the Times—as a kind of map of the territory. I purchased a copy of Howard Adelmann’s massive Marcello Malpighi and the Evolution of Embryology mostly because Bruckner said: “Go to a library and see it one day; it is wonderful just to look at.” And last week, as a treat for myself after a rough month, I finally got my hands on the six volumes of Muriel St. Clare Byrne’s The Lisle Letters, which Bruckner mentions alongside The Plan of St. Gall as one of the great triumphs of the university press. For the moment, I have everything on my list, although I suppose that Costa Rican Natural History by Daniel Janzen is beckoning from the wings.

But I’ve also found that my motives for collecting these books have changed—or at least they’ve undergone a subtle shift of emphasis. I was initially drawn to these beautiful sets, frankly, for aesthetic reasons. As the product of years or decades of collaborative work, they’re invariably gorgeous in design, typography, printing, and construction. These are books that are meant to last forever. I don’t have as much time to read for my own pleasure as I once did, so I’ve begun to treasure what I’ve elsewhere called tomes, or books so large that their unread pages feel comforting, rather than accusatory. It’s unlikely that I’ll ever have the chance to work through Marcello Malpighi from the first folio page to the last, but I’m happy just to be living in the same house with it. When I’m honest with myself, I acknowledge that it has something to do with a middlebrow fondness for how those uniform sets look when lined up on my bookshelves: it’s the same impulse that led me to pick up books as different as William T. Vollmann’s Rising Up and Rising Down and the sixteen volumes of Richard Francis Burton’s translation of The Arabian Nights. At some point, it amounts to buying books as furniture. I can’t totally defend myself from this charge, except by saying that the pleasure that they give me is one that encompasses all the senses. I like to look at them, but also to handle them, leaf through them, and sometimes even smell them. And I’ll occasionally even read them for an hour.

Marcello Malpighi and the Evolution of Embryology

Over the last year or so, however, I’ve begun to see them in another light. Now they represent an investment of time, which is invisible, but no less vast than the amount of space that they physically occupy. (You could even say that the resulting book is a projection, in three-dimensional space, of the temporal process that produced it. A big book is invariably the product of a big life.) The undisputed champion here has to be The Lisle Letters, which was the end result of fifty years of work by Muriel St. Clare Byrne. She was in her thirties when she began the project, and it was published on her eighty-sixth birthday. It’s an edited and wonderfully annotated selection of the correspondence of Arthur Plantagenet, 1st Viscount Lisle, the illegitimate son of Henry VIII. The surviving letters, which encompass one of the most eventful periods in Tudor history, were an important source for the novelist Hilary Mantel in the writing of Wolf Hall. Like most of the tomes that I love, it uses its narrow subject as an entry point into a much larger era, and I especially like Byrne’s explanation of why these particular letters are so useful. Lisle wasn’t even in England for most of it—he was Lord Deputy of Calais, on the northern coast of France. Yet he still had to manage his affairs back home, mostly through letters, which means that the correspondence preserves countless details of daily life that otherwise wouldn’t have been committed to writing. The letters had long been known to historians, but no one had ever gone through systematically and considered them as a whole. Byrne saw that somebody had to do it, and she did. And it only took her five decades.

It’s the time and effort involved that fascinates me now, even more than the tangible pleasures of the books themselves. In some ways, these are just different aspects of the same thing: the academic presses, which can afford to break even or even lose money on monumental projects, can provide scholars with the time they need, and they can publish works intended for only a few thousand readers with the resources they deserve. Occasionally, you see the same impulse in mainstream publishing: Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson sometimes seems less like a commercial enterprise than a public service. (When asked in that wonderful profile by Charles McGrath if Caro’s books were profitable, Sonny Mehta, the head of Knopf, paused and said: “They will be, because there is nothing like them.”) In the end, Caro will have spent as much time on Johnson as Byrne did on Lisle, and the fact that he did it outside the university system is equally remarkable. It’s no accident, of course, that I’ve begun to think in these terms after embarking on a big nonfiction project of my own. Astounding can’t compare to any of these books in size: it’s supposed to appeal to a wide audience, and there are certain constraints in length that are written right into the contract. I don’t have decades to write it, either. When all is said and done, I’ll probably end up devoting three years to it, which isn’t trivial, but it isn’t a lifetime. But I keep these books around to remind me of the devotion and obsessiveness that such projects require. We desperately need authors and publishers like this. And whenever I feel overwhelmed by the work that lies ahead, I just have to ask myself what Caro—or Muriel St. Clare Byrne—would do.

Blood Meridian and the limits of violence

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In her fascinating New Yorker profile of the author Hilary Mantel, Larissa MacFarquhar writes: “What kind of person writes fiction about the past? It is helpful to be acquainted with violence, because the past is violent.” Of course, the present can be violent, too, along with many of our visions of the future, and one of the hardest things about becoming a writer, at least for me, is coming to terms with the depiction, meaning, and significance of fictional violence. I’m about as mild-mannered a personality as they come, but I’ve found myself working in a genre utterly predicated on the anticipation of violence and the occasional violent payoff. Both The Icon Thief and City of Exiles have high body counts, and Eternal Empire doesn’t seem likely to break the pattern. There’s a moment fairly early in my third novel in which an innocent person meets an unfortunate fate, and several readers, including my wife, have pointed to this scene as particularly shocking. But I can’t see any way around it. For the narrative stakes here to have any meaning, the reader needs to know that no one is safe. As a result, although I’m a fairly cerebral novelist at heart, I’ve ended up writing about violence more than I ever expected.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot ever since finally finishing Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which had been on my short list of novels to read for a long time. Until now, the only McCarthy I’d read was The Road, another devastatingly bleak and violent novel, but Blood Meridian goes much further: it’s essentially an epic meditation on violence, with more atrocities per page than any other story I can name. It’s a challenging book, hugely readable from paragraph to paragraph but often wearying as a whole, which is an inextricable part of McCarthy’s conception. The violence here is deliberately depicted without the usual payoffs: the narrative doesn’t build in any conventional sense, but instead carries the reader along through sheer rhetorical and symbolic power. This isn’t an unstructured novel by any means, but the structure is paratactic rather than periodic—the plot doesn’t advance so much as proceed inexorably from one bloody set piece to the next. McCarthy’s strategy is to give us as little context as possible: the book is based on real but largely forgotten historical events, and its characters spend much of the story moving through vast, featureless deserts where even the constellations cease to take their familiar shapes.

I’m not especially interested in delving into the allegorical depths of McCarthy’s story, and I’m not even sure he has much to say about the role of violence in American history, any more than Kubrick does in The Shining. As a writer, I’m more inclined to consider the book on its most fundamental level, as the work of a novelist of formidable gifts confronting the narrative problem of violence. I’ve mentioned McCarthy’s language, which, like all great styles, is often vulnerable to parody. Its central strength, however, and the one that unites its many registers of tone—from brutal realism to Biblical sonority—is its specificity. McCarthy delights in arcane but evocative proper names for animals, weaponry, landscape, and it’s hard for the reader not to be caught up in that spell:

…all about in that circle attended companies of lesser auxiliaries routed forth into the inordinate day, small owls that crouched silently and stood from foot to foot and tarantulas and solpugas and vinegarroons and the vicious mygale spiders and beaded lizards with mouths black as a chowdog’s, deadly to man, and the little desert basilisks that jet blood from their eyes and the small sandvipers like seemly gods, silent and the same, in Jedda, in Babylon.

And this specificity is central to the novel’s treatment of violence. McCarthy shows us horrible things, but he’s no more or less specific in the details of mass scalpings as he is in describing the way a man’s shadow looks against a rockface, and it’s all part of the same rich narrative fabric. (This is why the idea of a film adaptation is so daunting: it would take a director of genius to find a visual equivalent for McCarthy’s prose, without resorting to the sorry compromise of voiceover.)

In the end, however, McCarthy, like Shakespeare, is most evocative when he falls silent. After more than three hundred pages of detailed bloodshed, the book ends, famously, on a note of ambiguity: the final encounter with Judge Holden is left to our imagination, and rightly so—it’s one of the most terrifying moments I’ve ever read in a book, the embodiment of the fear that our childhood nightmares will still be waiting for us, when we least expect it, years or decades after we thought we left them behind. And the moment when the author finally turns his eyes away wouldn’t be nearly as effective if the entire novel hadn’t methodically demonstrated that McCarthy can describe violence as well as any writer who has ever lived. The most frightening image in the world, as Stephen King once observed, is a closed door. McCarthy knows this, too, and it’s a measure of his shrewdness that as soon as that door opens, it closes immediately—and shoots the wooden barlatch home, locking us out of what follows. And although I have no way of knowing this, I suspect that McCarthy wrote all of Blood Meridian with that closed door in mind, systematically showing us everything to prepare us for the moment when he shows us nothing, leaving us with that one simple sentence: “Then he opened the door and looked in.”

Written by nevalalee

October 19, 2012 at 10:03 am

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