Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Wolf Hall book review

Hilary Mantel's novel Wolf Hall won the Man Booker Prize in 2009, and no wonder. She weaves together history and the inner life of a self-made man at a pivotal moment in England's history, creating a rich tapestry of the human desires that reordered an era. If you're familiar with Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons, a hagiography of Sir Thomas More, this is its verso. More was the brilliant, humble, moral lawyer who as Chancellor chose silence and death rather than defy his king or deny his church, when Henry VIII was casting off his 20-year marriage to Katherine of Aragon in favor of Anne Boleyn, with whom he hoped to produce an heir to his throne. Churchmen, scholars, diplomats and schemers all worked to give Henry what he wanted, while loyalists to the Pope, the French emperor, and Katherine and her parents (Phillip and Isabella of Spain) resisted. Civil war was not out of the question.

Mantel's hero, however, is Thomas Cromwell. In Bolt's play he is a lout whose power stems from blackmail, and whose web reaches far. But in Mantel's intimate characterization, Cromwell, a blacksmith's son, has the instincts of a born politician. Fleeing a violent father, the boy makes himself useful to people in the fabric trade, and living in Europe becomes fluent in many languages. With no illusions about the nobility of man, he applies Machiavellian principles to achieve his aims. He is observant, a good listener, and cultivates a memory system that proves invaluable as he moves into the rarefied worlds of Cardinal Wolsey, whom he serves steadfastly, then Henry, Anne Boleyn and her court, Katherine, churchmen, even More despite their differences. Conversations with friends and foes alike are witty, barbed and productive.

Mantel's great achievement is that for the eight years of the story's focus, 1527 - 1535, we live in Cromwell's skin with him. He never fails to note the fabric worn by those around him, we feel deeply the deaths of his wife and daughters to "the summer sweats", a devastating illness in which a person goes to bed in the morning feeling bad, and is dead by sundown. We see the satisfaction he takes in bringing young men into his large household, guiding them and setting them on productive paths. He also takes in strays: the widow and children of his brother; a pregnant young woman whose abusive husband has abandoned her and their two small children ; a French youth with bloodthirsty inclinations. He buys the loyalty of servants in his enemies' households, to keep track of their doings.
He is the King's adviser because while he is soothing in how he imparts bad news, he doesn't hide the facts. Henry trusts him, and we feel he should, because here is a man who is his loyal subject, who will bend his will and use his connections to get him what he wants.

And perhaps because he is immune to Boleyn's charms, he earns her confidence as well. The aristocracy scorn him for his low origins - though he says very little about his childhood, claiming not to know even what year he was born - but they also fear him: he is a shrewd investor while they squander money they assume they have, and it unnerves them to see in high precincts a man who gained power and position without bloodlines.

Cromwell is depicted as a generous man, loving husband and father, always on the lookout for the welfare of those under his protection. More, on the other hand, oversees the torture of those he regards as heretics, belittles his own wife in her presence, and is as parsimonious as Cromwell is open-handed. Between Bolt's story and Mantel's one must wonder, Who were these titans of reason really?

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Review: John Crowley's Four Freedoms

John Crowley explores mind, body, spirit and human society through intriguing individuals. He's unafraid of coincidence, magic, or mystery, every person enmeshed in a life that constricts in some ways but exalts in others.

His 2009 novel Four Freedoms is about World War II America.
"We look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression--everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way-- everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want . . . everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear . . . anywhere in the world."
--President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Message to Congress, January 6, 1941

Roosevelt's optimistic assertion is not enough to transform the status quo, but in combination with America's shift to a wartime economy and the removal of white men, drafted and sent overseas, from their accustomed dominance, it adds impetus to a sea-change. Marginalized people - cripples, minorities and women - are suddenly wanted, and paid, to step into the vacancies - and so they flower, and thrive, and find fulfillment far outside their accustomed niches.

We follow Prosper Olander, a young man with a twisted spine and useless legs, who journeys from Chicago to an airplane factory in Oklahoma. This factory, the creation of a pair of brothers long fascinated by flight, is a self-contained village: houses and streets, clinics, child care, a newspaper, cafeterias and entertainment - an ideal community dedicated to war materiel. Its round-the-clock workforce have come from all over the country to earn top wages. Most are women, many married to servicemen but others single, excelling at work they've never before been allowed to do.

Crowley's story flows from one character to another, into their lives and thoughts. We learn important moments in their histories, we see how love and loss have blunted them, and we watch as they form alliances then break them. Prosper, though crippled, attracts certain women, and proves a simpatico and able lover, a catalyst who makes them consider a more open future.

This book is primarily about women: Prosper's father left when he was small, his struggling mother fell ill, he grew up with a pair of maiden aunts. Meanwhile, the women he meets are on their own in ways unthinkable just a few years before, their resourcefulness surprising not just to them but to society at large. One is a standout softball pitcher, another a young mother who becomes a highly competent inspector in the factory.

Crowley fully evokes wartime: the way ramped-up military manufacturing ended the Depression; the rationing of food, gasoline, and other resources; the sounds, smells and habits of an era. Changing circumstances shook society into motion: new places, new roles, new confidence. The weakening of the family gave rise to individual success, and like-mindedness trumped blood ties as people sought personal freedom within relationships. By ending the story after V-E Day but before the servicemen come home, he leaves us with a hopeful vision of America's future - along with the realization that in every era greatness is squandered, and we permit or maybe even welcome the fetters of the past.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Roger Ebert, Fare Well

I first encountered Roger Ebert forty years ago at University of Colorado's Conference on World Affairs. He came every year with a movie, and sitting by the stop-action 16 mm projector in the 150-seat theater, he would spend an hour a day over the 5 days of the conference screening the film, stopping the scene every time he or another audience member had an observation to make.

It was a conversation in the dark - no need for shyness - and he shared his deep knowledge and genuine delight in the ways a movie engages us to tell its story. Color, lighting, depth of focus, which direction characters are facing, lines of perspective, use of sound, camera motion or stillness, closeups and long shots, image motifs, rapid cuts or continuity, the ways the director develops themes and uses plot structures -- he, and we, explored and talked about it all.

Some years later, when I lived in the DC area, I was fortunate to attend a similar movie-in-depth, the subject being Citizen Kane.  Again, in the companionship of darkness and our collective love of film, we talked for hours about frame after frame, from Orson Welles' camera angles that included ceilings, to the lengthening table that illustrated in a quick succession of shots the estrangement of Charles Foster Kane and his wife, to the rich palette of his black-and-white creation.

Roger knew so much about this relatively young art form, but he didn't just love high-born films - he loved movies too: Swamp Thing, Fast Times at Ridgemont High - he admired craft and a well-told story, whether the intention was to explore universal themes or just to entertain.

Roger, thank you so much for opening our eyes!