Wednesday, September 20, 2017


Mention Gilbert Keith Chesterton to most people nowadays, and they'll probably know him as the author of the Father Brown mysteries and not much else (unless you're mentioning him to Roman Catholics, who might know him for a lot of excellent apologetics for their faith). Unless that person was me, for I have mostly thought of him as that guy who wrote that epic poem about "the last knight of Europe" and the Battle of Lepanto, and I'd have said, "oh, he wrote prose, too?"

So he's kind of like the elephant encountered by all of those blind men who could never agree on what kind of creature they were meant to describe, which is of course hilarious because G.K. Chesterton was himself a pretty large and imposing figure of a man, much like the enigmatic driving force of The Man Who was Thursday, a fantastic allegorical thriller/detective story that (REMEMBER THE VERY BLOG DESCRIPTION TEXT ABOVE SAYS "WARE SPOILERS" SO, YOU KNOW, NO BITCHING) pits a small army of secret policemen against another small army of not-so-secret anarchists, only to eventually lob a bomb of a revelation into the reader's lap that there's actually just the one small army, yuck yuck yuck.

I say yuck yuck yuck as if to mock the story's attempts at humor, but those attempts are actually quite successful. Each plot twist and reveal is skillfully done even as the broad slapstick silliness of each ramps up the broad slapstick silliness of the whole. But where humor usually relieves tension in a scene or story, Chesterton's humor, here, actually manages to make the tension "worse" -- scare quotes here because the worsening of the tension is just so damned enjoyable, whether the reader has yet figured out the final punchline of the joke or not.

I suspect that nowadays, most readers will have anticipated that punchline by at least halfway, if not a quarter of the way, through the story, but as I often maintain (especially when people complain about spoilers), a story that relies solely on surprise for its ultimate effectiveness is not really much of a story. Citizen Kane is still enjoyable if you first heard the secret of Rosebud decades before you actually got to see the film; ditto The Man Who Was Thursday if you've figured out who Sunday "really" is early in the reading.

I put "really" in scare quotes because, of course, Sunday (the characters' names are all their day-of-the-week code names within the anarchist society, the governing board of which meets in glorious public view the better to make the public and the police assume they're just a bunch of ridiculous dilettantes) has an allegorical identity quite beyond his dual role within the world of the story, though both within and without the story, he is the puppetmaster, and seeing him as that and no more is just fine. Seeing him as God, as some chose to do, has about as much impact on the enjoyability of the work as seeing Aslan as Jesus does for the Chronicles of Narnia. Well, aren't you clever.

Regardless of whether one is the kind of reader who seeks to decode literature, who, I suspect, might not like this work quite as much as the kind of reader who is happy to enjoy a surface narrative and maybe idly speculate a little about its Deeper Significance does, The Man Who Was Thursday has quite a lot to offer, quite apart from the slapstick humor of its plot twists and reveals. There are some exquisitely intense scenes when the protagonist provocateur might be about to have his cover blown; there are some genuinely thrilling chase scenes that, as I said before, are even more exciting because they are also funny as hell.

It's a classic for a reason.


As a title, Bring Up the Bodies sounds to a modern book-browser like it must surely concern the uncovering of a previously unknown mass grave, or at least of an exhumation, but as Hilary-Mantel-As-Thomas-Cromwell explains in this sequel to Wolf Hall, it's an old phrase meaning simply to bring the accused into the courtroom or other facility in which they are to be tried, as opposed to just leaving them in their cells while their fates are decided. The bodies, in other words, are still alive.

For now.

As the previous book chronicled the rise of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII's second wife, as documented by one of the chief architects of that rise, so this second chronicles her fall, and, incidentally, that of several brash young noblemen who all, coincidentally, once staged a simply hilarious masquerade play in which several demons dragged the soul of Cardinal Wosley to hell. Wosley was Cromwell's patron, and so Thomas was not impressed with these theatrics, except in that they gave him a bit of an Arya Stark list of people who needed to eat turd before he died. He remembers the performance so vividly that, despite their masks, years later he is given to referring to them in his mind based on which of the pretend Cardinal's limbs each man held during the dragging scene.

The suggestion that maybe not all of Anne Boleyn's supposed lovers actually were her lovers is only occasionally entertained, and not all that seriously, both in the world of the book as a whole and in the internal musings of Cromwell as viewpoint character, but this habit of Cromwell's of referring to them by limb strongly suggests it anyway. Maybe some of them did help her cuckold Henry VIII, but pretty much all of them were on Cromwell's list, from the play and from some other events.

The list joins the looming fact of Wolf Hall (family home of Jane Seymour, lady-in-waiting to both Queen 1.0 and Queen 2.0 and, of course, destined to become Queen 3.0) and its inhabitants, and also Cromwell's eventual fate as another cast-off of Henry's*, as sort of haunting omnipresent ghosts-to-be in a way that really distinguishes these books from more ordinary and straightforward works of historical fiction -- though of course this is less apparent in the television adaptation. Expressive as Mark Rylance's face is, you can't really tell which bit of his list is being checked off after a conversation, unless you have read the books and have very good recall. A lot of nuance and ambiguity gets lost in the translation.

Speaking, though, of ambiguity, Bring Up the Bodies is a bit easier reading than its predecessor, with a more conventional prose style and a lot fewer ambiguous pronouns -- though it's still a good idea to remind oneself that if it's not immediately obvious that a "he" or "him" is referring to somebody else, it's probably Cromwell, even if he's not the subject of the sentence or paragraph in question. It still amuses me to no end to see this, for, of course, in any ordinary account of this period the He who needeth no attribution is Henry VIII.

The focus on Cromwell, self-made and no-nonsense and sympathetic without in any way seeming like the kind of guy who'd have wanted anyone's sympathy (though his loss, last novel, of his wife and daughters to the "sweating sickness" is delicately and tragically portrayed), is a refreshing change from the kinds of fictional biographies of kings and queens that I mostly seem to come across in, e.g. Jean Plaidy or Philippa Gregory, or of the larger-than-life heroics and histrionics of Dorothy Dunnett's unbelievably accomplished heroes. Cromwell feels more accessible and believable than any of these, sound and unflashy (but never boring) and perfectly transparent of motivation and still very firmly in control of it all as the Bodies are Brought Up.

I almost don't want to read the legendary and long-promised third book of this series, whenever it sees the light of day, because watching his fall might be more than I can bear.... But who am I kidding? Of course I'll read it, if and when it happens.

*Cromwell, instrumental in the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn and in the rise of Jane Seymour, when called upon to find yet another wife after Jane's sad demise, finally failed in that mission, after a fashion, when he helped arrange Anne of Cleves' becoming Queen 4.0. This Anne was great on paper, an eligible Protestant who seemed okay looking in official portraits, but in person was not attractive enough for Henry, who never consummated the marriage, tucked her away in a nice estate with a decent little household far away from him, and referred to for the rest of his life as his dear sister (I'd argue that she made out the best of all of his wives, since she never actually had to put up with him). Cromwell's standing with the king never recovered, and he was eventually himself executed on the king's orders.