WHILE I WROTE this review I felt queasy. Just a low-grade nausea, enough to make the lurching subway and the plummeting elevator a bit of a chore. The Talenti gelato I was consuming in copious quantities probably had something to do with it, the Talenti gelato that my local overpriced food purveyor put on sale during the transition, or hypothetical transition, of the seasons. But it was still hot, heat wave hot, sticky and thick, weather for swooning. Every morning I woke sick, tender, flushed from heat, my head pounding, my dreams scattered around me, a thousand pieces of splintery subconscious, a thousand pieces of glass beginning to dance. I would try to run — I was supposedly training for a race; and I would try to read — I was supposedly writing this review. My stomach roiled and recoiled. Everything seemed an abomination.
As any phenomenologist worth her salt knows, stomach sickness is never just stomach sickness. Emmanuel Levinas, the great 20th-century ethical philosopher, wrote, “The state of nausea […] encloses us on all sides. Yet it does not come from outside to confine us. We are revolted from the inside.” When nauseated, we want nothing so much as to escape nausea, but there is no place to go, no way to leave behind our nauseated selves. The world is a hostile place, and that hostility is us. We are stuck with ourselves.
Hilary Mantel understands this. For most of her adult life she has felt nauseated, or faint, or heavy-headed. Her fictional world is always a gray and greasy world, a sickly smear, an oil stain, a humid wind. Across centuries, across genres, she captures, again and again, a world at odds with itself, a world ill-at-ease, gray and gross, sickened and sickening.
I am talking, of course, about evil. Maybe you don’t believe in evil. Many liberals don’t. Mostly the Devil is for Christians these days. Mostly, liberals believe that labeling a person evil shuts down the conversation. It demarcates difference. It eschews responsibility. Of the shooter, of the young man with a gun, we say, That’s just evil, in order to distance ourselves; or so the liberals say. But what if evil was not the end of conversation, but the beginning? What if we said evil and, with wit and glee and trepidation, drew ever closer? Then we would be thinking like Hilary Mantel. Then we would be setting foot in her queasy world.
In Beyond Black, Mantel’s ninth novel, an obese medium flees the spiteful ghosts of the men who raped and tortured her as a child. Why would a man cut the leg of a child with a chef’s knife? Why would a mother facilitate the gang rape of her child? These are not questions most novelists ask; but Hilary Mantel is asking. A friend told me that after she finished Beyond Black she left her copy in a hotel room; it was “too creepy” to have the book near her. Often, while reading it, I felt ill, “revolted from the inside.” Yet it is also outrageously funny. Princess Diana, newly dead, manifests to the psychic, imploring her to “[g]ive my love to my boys […] you know who I mean […] Oh, fuckerama! Whatever are they called? […] Give my love to … Kingy. And the other kid. Kingy and Thingy.” Reviewers seemed split between delight and horror. “A great comic novel,” declared The New York Times. “Terrible and swirling,” wrote A.S. Byatt.
A Change of Climate, published in 1994, is much more subdued and stately than Beyond Black, much closer to a traditional novel of psychological realism. Yet it betrays the same philosophical interest in evil. Ralph, a young missionary in Africa, reasons to himself:
If we are not to be mere animals, or babies, we must always choose, and choose to do good. In choosing evil we collude with the principle of decay, we become mere vehicles of chaos, we become subject to the laws of a universe which tends back towards dissolution, the universe the Devil owns. In choosing to do good we show we have free will, that we are God-designed creatures who stand against all such laws.
So I will be good, Ralph thought. That is all I have to do.
A moment later, Ralph will open the door to a stranger in need, a stranger calling for help in the midst of a storm. That stranger will wreak unimaginable violence upon his wife and young children; he will blow Ralph’s family apart. Choosing to be good, Ralph will welcome into his home his own destruction. Years later, haunted by loss, Ralph revises his notion of evil:
He dreamt of scrubbing blood away, scrubbing his own blood off a cement floor; but the stain always returned, like the blood in Bluebeard’s room. He understood, then, what the fairy tale means; blood is never wiped out. No bad action goes away. Evil is energy, and perpetuates itself; only its form changes.
Before, evil is entropy, decay: evil is a balloon deflating, its air gusting out. Now, evil is its opposite: energy. Indestructible, perpetual, permanent: always in play.
This is sort of a review of Mantel’s latest, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, but I will not talk right away about the title story or any of the other nine that make up Hilary Mantel’s new collection. I will approach them slowly, as they approached me. For, you see, in those hysterical lazy late summer days, the galley kept getting delayed. Mantel’s back catalog arrived, and then nothing, for weeks. Finally it was revealed that I must sign a non-disclosure agreement, which I did. The navy blue galley arrived two days later, emblazoned with a sticker: STRICT EMBARGO. Yes, yes, I thought: I promise, I won’t tell. But when I turned to the final pages, eager to read this title story, the title story that, according to Mantel’s British publisher, “shows us the country we have become,” the closely guarded, top-secret story, I found — nothing.Just the penultimate story, followed by a page of credits. Strict embargo meant, apparently, we don’t trust you.
So I waited, and I sweated, and I ate ice cream and read her gray smeary evil funny novels and jotted down notes. My dreams turned weird. They had demons and kings. They had swords and scaffolds. I dreamt one night an old boyfriend returned, threatening me; I screamed at him to get out, I flung him from the apartment, I deadbolted the door. And then, as in a horror movie, the knobs and bolts began to twist and twirl. The lock spun uselessly in my hand; from the other side I heard his pounding fist. Unlike Ralph, I was not welcoming evil into my house, I was trying to throw it out; but he was coming in. “Evil is energy, and perpetuates itself;” there was nothing I could do to make myself safe.
Then the weather changed. By the time The Guardian and The New York Times ran the title story, the nightmares had ceased. Still, the fact remains: it does not feel safe to read Mantel. It is not a comfort. True, she has written a book called A Place of Greater Safety, but the place of greater safety, to which the title refers, is death.
When Hilary Mantel was a young woman, she had a pain in her legs. She had migraines, dizziness. Her gut hurt. She took six aspirin a day. She went to Student Health Services and the doctor told her no disease could account for her pain and she nearly threw up on his shoes. The pain persisted.
More doctors, unable to find the cause, decided she was mad. They chided her for studying the law and diagnosed strain. Drugs were prescribed. She graduated from antidepressants to antipsychotics under the smirking supervision of men with medical degrees, who urged her to start a family and strictly forbade her to write. The drugs took away her hearing, blurred her vision, induced agitation and fluttering limbs. Consumed by ghostly pain that traveled her body, she flailed from doctor to doctor, becoming more and more ill, the misprescribed tranquilizers sending her into panicked fits.
To steady herself, she began to take notes on the French Revolution. To assemble a card catalog of sorts, a precise timeline, an interlocking picture of the primary players. Then, against the instructions of her doctors, she began to write. A novel.
Finally she fled, with her husband, to Botswana, where the pain persisted but her mind at least was clear. Alone in a library, medical textbooks piled round, she diagnosed herself with endometriosis: her womb, of its own accord, had been for years on the move. Cells had broken free and wandered to her knees, to her chest, to her brain. There they had embedded themselves, and began to bleed. In her bowels, and stomach, and veins, they scarred, and pushed against her nerves. Her amorphous pain was really a matter of misplaced, misbehaving cells, of swellings that took up too much space: of mechanics, not psychosomatics.
She returned to London, where her diagnosis was confirmed and her uterus removed. De-wombed, she discovered she had been de-husband’d, as well: her marriage, already ailing, collapsed with the collapse of her reproductive future. At the same time, her agent called: not one publisher in England would take on her French Revolution book.
(If you know this about Hilary Mantel, you read her books differently. The dark humor becomes a defiant triumph.)
It seems no mystery, then, why she was drawn to Henry VIII and the long stream of miscarriages and stillborns and unwanted daughters that haunted his reign. She understands diseased and misbehaving organs, and how they might sabotage one’s fortune. She understands how medical and romantic travails can take on a spiritual significance: how they occasion talk of the Devil, or God’s favor, or lead to hauntings by children that will never be. For her masterpiece, she chose the part of English history that she has called “frankly gynecological.”
For Mantel a medical problem quickly becomes a communion with the spirit world. In her memoir, Mantel writes of buying house after house, each one too large for a childless couple; she seems unable to give up the ghosts of the children she will not have. A couple, you ask, a childless couple? Ah, yes, that is another part of a tale: after two years apart, when hormone replacement therapy had swollen Mantel to twice her former size, she married her husband again. As she writes in her memoir Giving Up the Ghost:
It seemed that what I had left, with my ex-husband, was more than most people started with. So we got married again, economically, at the registrar’s office in Maidenhead, with two witnesses. It was September, and I felt very ill that morning, queasy and swollen, as if I were pregnant; there was a pain behind my diaphragm, and from time to time something seemed to flip over and claw at me, as if I were a woman in a folktale, pregnant with a demon […] This is how — I have to shake myself to say it — I have been married twice: twice to the same man […] I thought it was what people did when they had stormy temperaments; it was not an enterprise for the prudent or steadfast. Though perhaps, if you’re prudent and steadfast past a certain point, it’s the only reasonable thing to do. You would go on getting married and married to that person, marrying and marrying them, for as many times as it needed to make it stick.
Henry VIII, remarrying, is always concerned that his new bride still be a maid, still have her maidenhead; Mantel goes to Maidenhead to renew her marital vows. She feels pregnant, yet her womb has been removed; both Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn had phantom pregnancies and miscarriages. Mantel feels as if she is pregnant with a demon; was it not whispered in the courts that Anne Boleyn had given birth to a demon? And then there is her dizzying repetition of marriage, her incantation of marrying and marrying until you “make it stick.” Henry VIII married and married, different women, but always seeking the productive pregnancy, the healthy male heir.
I do not think Mantel was thinking explicitly of Henry VIII when she wrote this passage, back in 2003, although of course it is possible. I think it is more that Mantel’s sensibility has, at times, a distinctly 16th-century ring; which is to say, a distinctly supernatural ring. “In the back bedroom of my grandmother’s house at Bankbottom,” — again, from the memoir — “I have sometimes seen […] shadows, objects that are unnameable, that float and are not solid, objects through which the wall behind them can be glimpsed.”
In Tudor England, the fire of hell and the fire that consumed heretics were equally real. The ravages of this world and the ravages of the next held equal weight, perhaps because plague or childbirth or starvation carried away so many. Nearly everyone had lost, too young, a child or spouse, and so the only sense to make of one’s oversized, overwhelmingly common grief was a kind of super sense, an appeal to what could not be seen: God, or the Devil. This held true in the courts, as well. Only God’s disfavor could explain Henry’s lack of sons, and the Pope’s displeasure — the threat of excommunication — had all of Europe wondering if the King would burn.
Contrary to what your good, liberal, secular education taught you, the break with the Church, the threat of Luther, the shifting of the priests’ relationship to the government, and the government’s relationship to the Church, were not merely political shifts. They had to do with God. When a nun claims that Henry will not live six months past his wedding to Anne Boleyn, it is not enough to burn the nun at the stake: she must first admit that she fabricated the tale. Otherwise, Henry will wonder whether it is a true prophecy, whether he is in fact doomed. Heresy trials, and burning logs, are not only to calm the superstitious masses; the superstitious royals need soothing as well. Anyone, even a humble nun — or a French peasant girl — can touch the divine and, touching the divine, touch history as well. What is medical is social; what is marital is spiritual, for Hilary as it was for Henry.
Wolf Hall is a God-haunted book, struck through with horror at damnation, but by Bring Up the Bodies the main source of horror is the King. Cromwell, instructed to clear out the current queen, orchestrates show trials that treat Anne Boleyn and her five supposed lovers to the comic hell of arguing with a judge while their scaffolds are being built. The book is taut, ferocious, and terrifying, an expression not of the next world’s fires but of this one’s. I hear in its pages the echo of Mantel’s psychiatrist from four decades ago, drugging her up and calling her depressed. As she says in her memoir, “By nature, I knew about despotism: the unratified decisions, handed down from the top, arbitrarily enforced: the face of strength when it moves in on the weak.”
Religion, in these pages, gives way to irony. Nearly every passage concludes with a crisp line that flicks with double meaning, a brick house or candied fruit or wobbling head that illuminates the previous scene. For instance, closing in on Anne, Cromwell recalls a card trick he played in his youth on the wharfs of Dover. Practicing his scam, he would patter, “See the queen. Look well at her. Now … where is she?” The lines both refer to the trick and to Anne Boleyn’s fast approaching execution: “The queen was in his sleeve. The money was in his pocket. The gamblers were crying, ‘You will be whipped!’” Like lightning in a dark forest, the metaphor makes Mantel’s words, those black gnarled limbs, glow.
Across all her novels, Mantel’s world is two worlds: the shabby smeary dull one, and this heightened glowing symbolic one. Everything is either a blood scarlet or a smothering gray, a shiny piece of foil or a matte cloth. She is a deeply religious writer, but utterly unlike our other prominent Christian novelist of the moment, Marilynne Robinson. To Robinson’s plain pine Protestantism, to her humility and restraint and hard-earned, rough-hewn grace, Mantel throws up her glamorous trashy Catholicism, all shiny icons and Devil glint. There is grace here, just as there might be wisdom in nausea, but it comes in the quiet moments, in the interval before the bombs explode.
In her new story collection, Mantel proves she can conjure dread on any scale. In the Cromwell books, the bloody stink of history heaves its hot breath upon us, and in The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, the most ordinary domestic scenes roil with death: the doors of one character’s apartment are “heavy like coffin lids;” in another story another room contains “a kitchen smell […] deceptively sweet, as if there were a corpse in the wardrobe.” A woman, “under a pall of pollen” feels as if she is “trying to break out from her own funeral.” A city is filled with “sick saplings” and “smeary windows”; a narrator records in her diary, “Execution dream again.”
Yet if Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies are seven-course banquets, rich feasts of meat and fish and wine, then the stories of The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher are crudités, spindly carrot spears on a divided tray. Which is not to demean them. They are very witty, and very dark. They are unmistakably British; it is impossible to imagine an American writing them. The economy of language, the clipped dialogue, the humor: all reminds me of Muriel Spark’s work, or Barbara Pym’s, or even Elizabeth Bowen’s at its most trenchant. A woman has “no sense of humor: no sense of anything, really.” Accepting an undesirable invitation, a narrator explains, “[Y]ou think the time will never arrive: that there will be a nuclear holocaust, or something else diverting.”
Oversmart and undergroomed women abound in her work, young girls with mussed hair and ill-fitting clothes who, relatively powerless, take refuge in wit. About a young co-worker, one narrator says, “She’s adequately pneumatic and brain-dead, and yet she complains of lack of success with men.” Deducing the obvious reason behind her father’s chatter about his secretary, a teenager quips, “Occam’s razor shaves you closer.” The poor guy has no idea what his mouthy daughter means — which is that, by over-explaining, he’s revealed his adultery. These stories mostly hark from an earlier era, or a place (Saudi Arabia), which represses women; their tension stems in part from women being rather explicitly held in place. Yet they don’t feel dated or irrelevant: Mantel’s sensibility, forged during an age when a woman could be diagnosed as overambitious and packed off to a mental hospital, still bites today, perhaps because they are never only about misogyny, never as simple as a one-note complaint. In “The Heart Fails Without Warning,” an especially dedicated anorexic wastes away while her distant father sneaks pornography on the shared computer and her smart, sloppy sister is ignored. Yet Morna’s anorexia is not merely the manifestation of the ills in her house. It is stranger than that: “Morna was undoing herself. She was reverting to unbeing.” Death comes shuffling through, once again, moving slow, disguised as something like sexism.
Here, as elsewhere in Mantel’s oeuvre, boundaries prove porous. Pain wanders. The walls ache, the air wavers; an armchair jauntily lifts one leg. One character reports: “The migraine angel leaned hard on my shoulder and belched into my face.” In another case, dinner will be “seethed in onion and tomato sauce;” before that, a seat belt “saw[s] into her throat.” Her stories live a double or triple life, ticking along at the symbolic level: a white dog, or a wardrobe, or a hand, will repeat and reappear, in a mutating pattern of meaning, a steady thrum beneath your conscious thought.
Until the title story, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher is mostly ugly; then we lift into beauty — beauty here means, simply, the comforts of the upper class. Gone is Mantel’s oily greasy gray England, replaced by a prosperous town of old homes, each decorated with “a fragile Georgian fanlight, or a warm scoop of terra-cotta tiling, or a glint of colored glass.” As the story begins, Margaret Thatcher has retired to a “graceful pale building” to receive “minor eye surgery.” Reporters and photographers have swarmed the gently curving streets; our narrator, a single woman, not young, exchanges cheerful words with a neighbor and retires to her third floor apartment to wait for the infamously fickle town plumber.
He never arrives; instead, “a man in a cheap quilted jacket” barges in, announcing that her bedroom offers a clear view of the hospital’s back garden, where the prime minister will depart; “It’s a perfect place,” he tells her, “to get a shot.” She thinks at first he is a photographer — until he starts assembling his gun.
Thus begins an oddly amicable hostage situation. The woman recites the usual liberal sanctimonies, eager to show the assassin that though she does not agree with his plan, with “violence,” she loathes Thatcher as he does. She espouses ideology that costs her nothing to espouse. The assassin, sensing this, and her class prejudice, brushes off her sympathies. He calls her bourgeois; she sneers, “Bourgeoisie, what sort of polytechnic expression is that?” In other words, her sympathies have their limits; like Thatcher, perhaps, our narrator secretly also despises the poor.
But then something shifts. The narrator realizes that her brand of non-violence is only “a piety, like a grace before meat”; it is the privilege of those who already have power. She offers to show her assassin a secret exit from her house, which might help him elude capture. She becomes, in a word, radicalized.
And then — because Mantel is Mantel, because although she is very good about social class, whether the social is 16th-century England or 20th-century Saudi Arabia, she is unbelievable on matters spiritual — the story lifts off to another plane. The narrator leads the assassin down the darkened stairwell. The literal space of the story moves from the rigid demarcations of public and private into a shadowy realm: “The air, uncirculated, has a camphor smell […] Neither in nor out of the house, visible but not seen, you could lurk here for an hour undisturbed, you could loiter for a day […] [you could] grow old yourself, slip the noose of your name.”
At the bottom of the stair there is a door, and through that door another door, a door that leads to the neighboring building. As the narrator demonstrates, “You can step out of that frame and into this. A killer, you enter No. 21. A plumber, you exit No. 20. Beyond the fire door there are other households with other lives.” These lines refer to a literal truth about apartment buildings; they also make sly reference to the story’s central conceit: Margaret Thatcher “went on living till she died,” as the story has it, and yet “history could always have been otherwise.” The door in the wall, the fairy-tale marginal space between two buildings, is also the space where this counterfactual historical fiction lies: “Beyond the front door he melts, and this is how you’ve never seen him on the news.”
Levinas’s book On Escape describes how we must escape the chain of our being; this escape is “a search for refuge.” The secret door through which the assassin might escape has this same quality of dissolving the self: “Once through it, you return as angles and air, as sparks and flame.” Yet if Levinas is intent on dissolving the self, or prefiguring the self before there is a self, then Mantel is intent on dissolving the inevitability of history:
But note the door: note the wall: note the power of the door in the wall that you never saw was there. And note the cold wind that blows through it, when you open it a crack. History could always have been otherwise.
This is not merely a trite observation about the role of chance in world-historical events. When she tells us “History can always have been otherwise,” I hear the emphasis not on otherwise but on always. Not only is the past always with us, but all the pasts that might have been are always with us. “Different histories lie close; they are curled like winter animals, breathing shallow, pulse undetected.”
Mantel has spoken elsewhere of the difficulty of the Cromwell books resting in remembering that history always “could have been otherwise,” that for historical actors, whose destinies seem to us fixed, nothing is a given, nothing is preordained. In another universe, Henry fathers a son, Anne Boleyn escapes the ax, and Queen Elizabeth never reigns. This connection makes the distance between the Thomas Cromwell books — famed for their historical accuracy — and the flight of fancy of “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher” seem not so far apart.
Of all the funny things my Mantel immersion did to my brain, the funniest was the effect of her punctuation. It is legion. A single sentence containing two semi-colons, or a colon, a semi-colon, and a half dozen commas, is nothing to her. A colon will do the work of a preposition, express causality: “Our conversation dried up: lack of interest on my part.” Semicolons, dashes, and dots — all are deployed to allow phrases to pile up, gathering momentum, urgency, building and building until a sentence detonates: “They brought the menu; she took it without seeing it; she pushed her curly fringe from her forehead and — as I could have forecast — burst into tears.” Reading Mantel’s punctuation, I hear the range of the English language, all of its speeds, the dash, the clip, the curt aside. Her prose is tight, precise; it feels highly edited. There is no sprawl to it. A period becomes an unbelievable luxury, its rest something to be earned.
In her memoir, Mantel cheerily announces her addiction to semicolons; in her new collection, she has named a short story “Comma.” The title character is an invalid, wheeled lovingly onto the front porch of a great mansion by a doting daughter. Two girls, one mildly neglected, the other almost certainly abused, spend a hot, lazy summer sneaking onto this estate, searching for the invalid, whom Mary, the older and crazier of the two girls, calls a “comma” for his swaddled shape. In response, the narrator, thinking how she might excuse her days, imagines telling her mother, “I was out punctuating, looking for a comma.” Mantel the adult writer also spends her days “out punctuating”; the child’s play and the adult’s play are given the same name and center around the same gently curving crescent.
The two long sentences that detail the comma’s unveiling together contain 16 commas, six semicolons and a dash. Here is the second of the two sentences:
And we saw — nothing; we saw something not yet become; we saw something, not a face but perhaps, I thought, when I thought about it later, perhaps a negotiating position for a face, perhaps a loosely imagined notion of a face, like God’s when he was trying to form us; we saw a blank, we saw a sphere, it was without feature, it was without meaning, and its flesh seemed to run from the bone.
Mantel delays reaching that final description for as long as she can, deferring and interjecting again and again. Thus, the shape of the sentence mimics the shape of the girls’ hesitant, fearful glances. Looking and being seen, making and being made, all become conflated in the phrase “a loosely imagined notion of a face, like God’s when he was trying to form us.” God, in the act of forming humans, has only for himself a half-formed face. The girls, looking at the invalid, are reminded of the metaphysical void. Both the comma and a comma become pivots between one clause, one thought, one world, and the next.
Thirty years later, Mary Joplin is the one tending to a comma-shaped bundle — not a mangled human but a baby carriage full of clothes. (Is she half-mad, or simply going to the launderette? It is unclear.) The narrator, visiting her hometown, sees her and calls out, expecting “a pause, a hyphen, a space, a space where a question might follow.” Instead Mary turns, and then “gave me a bare acknowledgement: a single nod, a full stop.” In other words: a period. That last period hits like the grave. Their childhood friendship, full of ambiguities, had led them to a comma, a terrifying indefiniteness, but Mary, with her curt nod, her full stop, shuts things down, ends the child’s and the adult’s punctuating — and Mantel’s ambiguous, open space of play.