Recent Reading, Briefly: Mantel, Goldstein, Darwin

I’m in the midst of marking exams, so there’s not a lot of mental energy left for serious reading–or writing. But I have read a few things in the not-s0-recent past that haven’t been properly written up, so here are some brief notes, at least:

Hilary Mantel, Eight Months on Gazzah Street. This is another good one, quite different from Wolf Hall and A Place of Greater Safety but also showcasing Mantel’s ability to shape terse but evocative scenes. The NYRB ‘blurb’ on the cover describes her as “the blackest of black comedians” but I didn’t find this work funny at all, probably because the lurking horrors in it are all too real (as shown in Mantel’s recent autobiographical essay about her experiences living in Saudi Arabia–experiences on which Eight Months on Gazzah Street is based). The story reminded me not so much of The Turn of the Screw as of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” paranoia and incipient madness brought on by the claustrophobia of living as a woman under particular historical and social circumstances.

Rebecca Goldstein, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God. Like DorothyW at Of Books and Bicycles, I didn’t finish this one–at least, I haven’t yet. I was really looking forward to it, having liked what I heard about Goldstein’s biography of Spinoza (which I am still interested in reading) and having heard good reports of it from my husband–who is an analytic philosopher specializing in the epistemology of religious belief, so perhaps I should have taken into account that he would have a higher tolerance than I did for a book that seemed all too analytic, including about its own humour. An atheist myself, I had (have) plenty of genuine interest in the conception of the book, but when by two thirds of the way through I still found myself totally unengaged with the characters and put off by the academic satire, which is a risky genre for any novelist (warning: making fun of boring pedants by too close imitation risks making a boring pedant of you!) I just put it aside in favor of other things, and so far I haven’t gone back. When David Masson proposed that it would be best for the novel if our novelists were also philosophers, I don’t think this is the result he had in mind…but of course it’s perfectly possible that the failing is my own, that like Peter Wimsey, I haven’t the “philosophical mind.” (FWIW, my philosopher husband didn’t get very far in Wolf Hall, which I found thoroughly riveting…I do think that different habits of mind are cultivated by different disciplines, which is one reason “interdisciplinarity,” though an ever-popular buzz-word in the humanities, often seems so unsatisfactory in practice.)

Emma Darwin, A Secret Alchemy. I had to read this, to keep up an almost life-long interest in “Ricardiana.” It was OK. It’s one of those hybrid books splicing a contemporary plot (this time about an academic historian, Una, researching Elizabeth Woodville, wife of Edward IV and mother of the Princes in the Tower, and her brother Anthony) with a historical one (about Elizabeth and Anthony, which turns out to be the historical fiction Una writes after deciding she can’t be satisfied with a ‘straight’ historical one). I think the ‘alchemy’ of the title is meant to refer to the creation of fiction (or life) from the imperfect historical record, though I’m not altogether sure. Darwin is a pretty good writer in the contemporary part, though I couldn’t figure out a thematic relationship between its story and characters and the historical one that obsesses Una. In the historical part, she falls victim to the tedious habit of trying to convince us we’re in the past by using stilted language, as if everybody in the Olden Days had a poker up, well, you know. Perhaps I’m idiosyncratic in this reaction, but prose with no contractions isn’t, to me, convincingly ‘historicized.’ I much prefer Mantel’s technique of letting her characters speak robustly, colloquially, even at the risk of anachronism in the specifics. Both stories managed to be poignant at times, about love and loss, but so far I’m not convinced (after reading two of her novels now) that Darwin has the rare combination of acquirement and genius necessary to write truly compelling historical fiction.

7 Comments to Recent Reading, Briefly: Mantel, Goldstein, Darwin

  1. April 25, 2010 at 10:54 pm | Permalink

    on disciplines and habits of mind: I think we sometimes forget that “discipline” in the sense of area of academic study and “discipline” as in “discipline a child” or “military discipline” are not different uses of the word.

    Which suggests that of course different disciplines produce different habits of mind. That's what they are trying to do, discipline the mind. Interesting example, though.

  2. April 26, 2010 at 4:44 am | Permalink

    Very interested to see you’d been reading A Secret Alchemy which I read a couple of weeks ago. Oddly enough, my reaction was different in that I found the historical parts well written and didn’t like the contemporary story, which had a tinge of mumsy chick-lit to it for me. Well, often it depends on the mood in which these things are read, I find. But I’ve held off reviewing it as I couldn’t quite think of enough to say. But I recently got hold of Philippa Gregory’s book The White Queen which is also based on Elizabeth Woodville as I thought the comparison might be interesting. And no, I didn’t see any real connection between the old and modern stories in the Darwin, and wished that there had been a connection of substance, rather than one of (at best) glancing details.

  3. April 26, 2010 at 9:00 pm | Permalink

    Well, this post makes me feel better about abandoning the Goldstein book. My guess is that I would have continued to feel distanced from the characters, just as you describe here.

  4. July 26, 2010 at 8:51 am | Permalink

    Hello again, Rohan – and apologies for dragging you backwards, as it were ;-)!
    Felt much as you did about ‘Eight Months on Gazzah Street’ (and also, later, read the enlightening piece by her on the real background). Found the novel unfunny – sinister and claustrophobic but far from ‘darkly comic’ (but I don’t think she does handle comedy well – the later novel about the medium whose title half escapes me [Black x?], emphasises the bleakness and dismay, rather than the absurdity which might have yielded a laugh or two). Loved ‘A Place of Greater Safety’ & ‘Wolf Hall’.
    Rebecca Goldstein: have heard of; but decidedly ‘off’ the Deity (and all his various followers) at present, so any distancing objectivity necessary just isn’t going to be accessible …
    Aargh: I HATED E Darwin’s attempt at ‘time-slip’ historical fiction. Agree that the contemporary tale is the better-told of the two strands; but thought all her characterisation weak: the characters struck me as a tiresome bunch of caricatures, all doubtless based on some half-forgotten children’s fiction (which might have been far more worth reading – bits of E E Nesbit in there?) together with more than a few nods to the likes of Barbara Erskine (who, because she’s unpretentious, handles this sort of plot much better). The historical elements were the fictional equivalent of watching ‘Braveheart’ – ie painful and irritating in equal proportions, so suspension of disbelief + engagement were impossible. Windy – not even enough ‘sound and fury’, either! – and terribly, terribly precious (definitely poker-up-the-fundament in all respects!). ED seems more of a poser than a genuine storyteller (just as some female crime writers are really romantic novelists manquées) – she’s all “look at me and My Craft” rather than attending to her audience.
    Thank you for the fascinating posts.

  5. July 26, 2010 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    Minnie: Thanks! I think historical fiction is a genre that is just much harder than it looks, and is done badly so often that perhaps readers forget to care.

    Also I wanted to comment on your recent post on Fitzgerald but the comment are off, so I’ll just say here, in case you stop by again, that I really enjoyed it! And also that my copy of The Blue Flower is in the mail to me. I’ve been hearing about it for about 15 years, so I’m looking forward to reading it for myself at last.

  6. July 26, 2010 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    Hello again, Rohan – delighted you felt it worth commenting on the Fitzgerald post. Am considering allowing comments once more (stopped due to some horrors), so watch this space!
    You’re right: most historical fiction is one of the most demanding genres for a writer. Like you, I’ve read and enjoyed Scott (he reads wonderfully out loud, don’t you think?). Also Dunnett is worth reading, if you haven’t already.
    Mind you, just re-reading Norah Lofts’ ‘House’ trilogy set in Bury St Edmunds – where she lived – and am constantly being surprised by its high quality: psychological insight in creating complex, believable characters; strong sense of place, and while observing as much historical accuracy as possible, she wryly and subtly brings out the sheer unreliability of ‘history’ as it merges into the past for each generation – all elements/themes handled by Adam Thorpe in ‘Ulverton’ , which received huge praise for it more than a decade later!).
    Do hope you enjoy ‘The Blue Flower’ – looking forwarding to reading your review in due course.

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