Monday, June 18, 2012

The death of Anne Boleyn

I finally settled down to Hilary Mantel's sequel to Wolf Hall, which I had been eagerly awaiting. The first novel introduced Thomas Cromwell, the rough-and-ready blacksmith's son who rises from acolyte to Cardinal Wolsey, to trusted councilor of King Henry VIII. Cromwell smooths the path for Henry to rid himself of Katherine of Aragon, to become head of his own Church and throw off Rome, and to marry Anne Boleyn in hopes of  a male heir. But, as the title foreshadows, by the end of the first installment, even in his triumph, Henry's eye falls on Jane Seymour of Wolf Hall, and as his enthrallment with Anne fades, the stage is set for Bring Up the Bodies, which picks up just where Wolf Hall ends.

True to his philosophy of "pick your prince," Cromwell realizes that, for better or worse, his best interests lie in aligning himself with Henry's interests -- in this case, Jane Seymour. Of course, there is always a faction angling for power, and Cromwell falls in with Anne's enemies as he plots her ouster and Jane's installment as queen. Cromwell has lost his wife and young daughters; grief has stripped away any moral ambivalence he might feel as he manipulates events to remove Anne. He doesn't hate the Queen, but she is an obstacle that must be removed. If she would consent to be put away quietly in a convent, Cromwell would be satisfied, but he knows she will not. It is to be a fight, literally, to the death, and he is equal to the task. Mantel's great power lies in her ability to shade the character of Cromwell. His ruthlessness is monstrous, but also merely practical; he feels sympathy for his enemies, but understands his neck will be on the block in their stead if he does not prevail. He knows how unlikely it is that he will retire quietly to the country after faithful service to the king, but he is willing to play the game out to the end.

The four interviews he holds with Anne's accused lovers are marvelous. Each man's guilt, in Cromwell's eyes, isn't so much about what they may or may not have done with Anne, or how they may have been treasonous to the king, but the extent to which they had a hand in the downfall of his mentor Wolsey. If they are to be executed for crimes which they may not actually have committed, they will at least pay for something: "He needs guilty men. So he has found men who are guilty. Though perhaps not guilty as charged."

 As for Anne, Cromwell believes she is the author of her own fate -- up to a point. She has only the the poor weapons that women can wield, and they are not enough to vanquish her enemies. Until the end, she believes Henry will rescue her, but she is already dead to him before the sword falls -- this is something that Cromwell understands.
The queen is alone now, as alone as he has ever been in her life. She says, Christ have mercy, Jesus have mercy, Christ receive my soul. She raises one arm, again her fingers go to the coif, and he thinks, put your arm down, for God's sake put your arm down, and he could not will it more if -- the executioner calls out sharply, 'Get me the sword.' The blinded head whips around. The man is behind Anne, she is misdirected, she does not sense him. There is a groan, one single sound from the whole crowd. Then a silence, and into that silence, a sharp sigh or a sound like a whistle through a keyhole...
Again, at the end of Bring Up the Bodies, Cromwell's will has carried the day. The executions are accomplished and Jane Seymour will ascend, but this is not an end as Mantel makes clear in the final words of the novel: "There are no endings. If you think so you are deceived as to their nature. They are all beginnings. Here is one."

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Eudora Welty

Just after vacation, I read both The Robber Bridegroom and Delta Wedding by Eudora Welty. Welty is one of those authors lodged permanently in the canon of literature, and in particular, Southern literature, read by every school child (is that still the case?) and in every survey of American lit. Her wonderful short stories are classics. I'm sure I read "The Worn Path," "Why I Live at the P.O.," and "The Petrified Man," and probably more that I've forgotten. But I never had read any of her longer fiction. Coming back to her after so many years, I was completely charmed by both novels, really, by every word. There is a great warmth and humor, and such grace in the flow of her language, pulling the reader along as powerfully as the Mississippi current .

The Robber Bridegroom is told in the fantastical style of a Southern fairy tale, with a decided Grimm Brothers' darkness. There's a horrible little goblin-like being who talks to his brother's severed head in a box (and the head talks back), a wicked stepmother, a beautiful maiden (but not maid for long), an anti-hero bandit/kidnapper, and all sorts of bizarre characters existing at various points on the continuum of villainy. For the most part, everyone gets their just deserts, but the getting there is funny and quirky and quintessentially southern in its mythic qualities.

Delta Wedding  is a title that puts in a nutshell exactly what the novel is about at its most basic level. The novel is set in 1923 and opens with nine-year-old Laura McRaven traveling by the Yellow Dog train alone from Jackson to the Delta, along the Yazoo River, to attend the wedding of her cousin Dabney Fairchild. The sprawling Fairchild clan, at their ancestral plantation of Shellmound, are preparing for the wedding -- an event not universally approved, but grudgingly accepted by the family. Dabney is marrying the Fairchild overseer, a step down in they eyes of many, who revere their storied ancestors with no less zeal than the ancient Romans did their household gods. The prolific Fairchild patriarch Battle and his Virginia-born wife Ellen preside over the place and their eight children (and yet another on the way), two Civil-War widowed aunts, a mentally disabled child of Battle's sister, a household of black servants (in addition to those who work on the plantation), and an array of other Fairchilds and wedding guests who show up in the course of the story.

This gathering of generations around a particular time and event is Welty's opportunity to explore the complexities of families, foremost, but also of privilege, nostalgia, and how families can build their own mythical backgrounds. Welty makes use of the modernistic device of shifting viewpoints and voices to create a densely layered portrait of a family almost claustrophobic in their closeness and their shared history, but at the same time, she manages to get at that conundrum that even people so tightly bound together and intertwined can still be mysteries to one another. This is something I've pondered myself about my own family. They are at one and the same time, both completely known and unknowable, and the mystery only deepens when they leave home and return with outsiders who know them in completely different ways.

Here is only a short sample of her beautiful, descriptive prose. The scene is of young Dabney taking a last, solitary morning ride at Shellmound on the morning of her wedding.
Flocks of birds flew up from the fields, the little filly went delightedly through the wet paths, breasting and breaking the dewy nets of spider webs. Opening morning-glories were turned like eyes on her pretty feet. The occasional fences smelled sweet, their darkened wood swollen with night dew like sap, and following her progress the bayou rushed within, ticked and cried. The sky was softly blue all over, the last rim of sunrise cloud melting into it like the foam on fresh milk.

...How sweet life was, and how well she could hold it, pluck it, eat it, lay her cheek to it -- oh, no one else knew. The juice of life and the hot, delighting taste and the fragrance and warmth to the cheek, the mouth. (p208-209, Library of America, Complete Novels)

Monday, June 04, 2012

Beach reading 2012

I've been known to take a stack of books to the beach, and even though I don't do more than lie under an umbrella for three or four days, sipping a frosty drink, I still don't have time to read all of them. For one thing, I'm easily amused -- by gulls and their endless patient stalking for a treat, the silvery roll of a finned back out in the Gulf, stiff-winged cormorants or big, gliding Brown Pelicans making a sudden dive and splash. All of this takes hours...and so I don't have time to read all those books!

This year, I packed light -- Breakfast at Tiffany's and Colette's Chéri, both of them rather slim. I still had to finish Chéri at home, too. I must finally get to In Cold Blood -- I love Capote's style, whether it's the heart-wringing A Christmas Story -- sweet, sentimental, funny, sad -- or in BaT, where he is clever and affectionate, but he doesn't let anyone off the hook. Holly is far more dark and exasperating than Audrey Hepburn's charming portrayal, but Capote writes her very sympathetically. I wonder how much of himself he saw in her -- she could be thoughtless, cruel, but also completely delightful, wrapping everyone into her fantasy, even when they knew better.

Chéri was, of course, beautifully written -- can anyone match Colette for the sensuous description? -- the curve of a settee, the play of rosy light on fluttering curtains, the arrangement of limbs, the sugared crust of a pastry eaten in bed. The story's protagonist is the beautiful and aging Parisian courtesan Léa, who is dealing with the letting go of her young lover, nicknamed Chéri, the son of one of her own friends (although I think "frenemy" is the most accurate modern description of their relationship). Chéri's marriage to a young girl has been arranged by their fractious mothers, but the young man is vain, petty, beautiful, and spoiled. He expects to have an obedient wife who lets him go his old ways as well as his mistress. Léa is worldly and wise, but still shaken by Cheri's marriage -- it becomes the looking glass of her vanishing youth. So many times, as she was observing the inevitable march of time in her actual mirror -- trying to apply the little arts to mask the effects on her skin, her hair, her morphing silhouette -- I was silently commiserating, "Tell me about it, girlfriend!" I rather keenly felt the poignancy of that very particular loss -- portrayed more seriously and more intimately than it usually is.

So, I expect there will be more Colette to come -- I haven't read any of the Claudine novels, although I did read a lesser known one several years ago (at the beach!) called The Pure and the Impure. It sounds much racier than it was. She reminds me of a randier Jane Austen -- a great observer of the ways of society, a sophisticated wit, and possessing a wonderful ability to lay bare (ahem!) the weaknesses and foibles of her characters.