This Month in My Class and Other Updates: Hilary Mantel, Beyond Black

A long, long time ago, I noted that I was about to begin teaching an intensive spring session course…oh, wait, it was only four weeks ago! And tomorrow is our last class meeting before the final exam. As Archdeacon Grantley would say, Good Heavens! As I said then, “the pace is relentless . . . and it all goes by in what seems like a flash”–and it certainly has gone by with amazing speed and intensity. We’ve read and discussed Pride and Prejudice, Scott’s “The Two Drovers,” Jane Eyre, Gaskell’s short stories “Lizzie Leigh” and “The Old Nurse’s Story,” A Christmas Carol, and Silas Marner. Though at times during class discussion I did regret not having done bigger books (with Dickens, especially), for the time we actually had between class meetings this did seem like plenty to read, as the students were also completing (and therefore I was also reading and evaluating) daily reading responses and two other writing assignments. Also, though at times I regretted having signed up for another of these mad romps, overall it still suits me better to be teaching than not. I was lucky in my students, too, the large majority of whom seemed keen and participated energetically and intelligently pretty much every day.

I hoped that being under some pressure and on a regular work schedule would be good for my reading and blogging. That turned out to be somewhat optimistic (you may have noticed a couple more posts from the archives–though I always meant that to be part of establishing myself at this new address, so it wasn’t altogether a sign of being overwhelmed with other business.) As for my reading, I did complete The Antiquary and write about it for the Scottish Literature Reading Challenge (you should also look at the posts on it at Wuthering Expectations–between us, I think we did it justice–and it is indeed uncanny how allusions to the darn book do crop up once you’re noticing them, as in a review of Silas Marner from which I was reading to my students just yesterday, quite unsuspecting that once again, the Mucklebackit cottage would come up as exemplary of how to write about simple folk without diminishing them). I sneaked in Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop, too, before things got too crazy (and it appears to be the case that The Blue Flower, which I take to be her best, or at least most highly acclaimed, novel, is not currently in print, at least in Canada? can this be true?).

Last night I also finally managed to finish the only other book I’ve been able to read any of during the course, which is Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black. It’s a very strange, grimly comic, discomfiting book. A bit hesitantly, I do recommend it, even if (like me) you are a complete skeptic about psychic phenomena of all kinds. Mantel has an astonishing ability to compel my belief in her stories–and her versatility is astonishing as well, as I can’t think of anything about Beyond Black that gives it away as being “by the author of Wolf Hall,” or “by the author of A Place of Greater Safety,” for that matter. You’ll get an idea of the book’s flavor from this remark, by her “sensitive,” Alison, who is impatient with the reiterated questions she gets about proof:

Why should people come through from Spirit for other people who don’t believe in them? You see, most people, once they’ve passed, they’re not really interested in talking to this side. The effort’s too much for them. Even if they wanted to do it, they haven’t got the concentration span. You say they give trivial messages, but that’s because they’re trivial people. You don’t get a personality transplant when you’re dead. You don’t suddenly get a degree in philosophy. They’re not interested in helping me out with proof.

“You don’t suddenly get a degree in philosophy”–I love that. And poor Alison should know, as the spirits (if that’s even the right word) that she deals with are spiteful, even vengeful, dirty-minded, low-humored, or else vaguely pathetic, lost and confused about their situation. When her pale assistant Colette, in a panic, begs for advice on what to do if she dies, Al’s advice is hardly spiritual in the sentimental way we might casually expect:

Don’t start crying. Don’t speak to anyone. Don’t eat anything. Keep saying your name over and over. Close your eyes and look for the light. If somebody says, follow me, ask to see their ID. When you see the light, move towards it. Keep your bag clamped to your body–where your body would be. Don’t open your bag, and remember the last thing you should do is pull out a map, however lost you feel. If anybody asks you for money, ignore them, push past. Just keep moving towards the light. Don’t make eye contact. Don’t let anyone stop you. If somebody points out there’s paint on your coat or bird droppings in your hair, just keep motoring, don’t pause, don’t look left or right. If a woman approaches you with some snotty-nosed kid, kick her out of the way. It sounds harsh, but it’s for your own safety. Keep moving. Move towards the light.

It’s as if the afterlife is a tube station at rush hour, crammed with people equal parts lost, desperate, and treacherous. Al’s spirit guide is an offensive low-life named Morris, who (we gradually learn) was (is?)  intimately connected with Alison’s childhood traumas, which include sexual abuse and mutilation (to oversimplify). I don’t think Mantel is setting up her story of the other side simply as a projection of memories and feelings from this side: though there is some cynicism mixed in about the possible chicanerie among the ranks of the mediums or psychics themselves, and about the neediness and self-absorption of their clients, that some people are “sensitive” to disembodied presences is a reality in the novel, worked out in a wry spirit of ‘what if…’ What if people are just as self-interested and emotionally needy after they pass over? What if they retain some capacity to interact with the living world? What if they can find you, or follow you, and annoy you, no matter where you go to hide? What if the pressure of their intrusions and demands makes you ill and exhausted? On the night of Princess Diana’s death, for instance, Alison is reduced to “rocking herself and groaning” from the shockwaves to her sensitivities. But Mantel shuns pathos: when Diana “manifests” to Alison, she’s lost her glamour but retained a quality of peevish entitlement:

“Give my love to my boys,” Diana said. “My boys, I’m sure you know who I mean.”

Al wouldn’t prompt her: you must never, in that fashion, give way to the dead. They will tease you and urge you, they will suggest and flatter; you mustn’t take their bait. If they want to speak, let them speak for themselves.

Diana stamped her foot. “You do know their names,” she accused. “You oiky little grease spot, you’re just being hideous. Oh, fuckerama! Whatever are they called?”

“Give my love to . . . Kingy. And the other kid. Kingy and Thingy,” she says as she begins to fade away, “melting away to nothing,” Alison thinks, “to poisoned ash in the wind. . . . Al implored her silently, Di, don’t go. The room was cold.”

The constant emotional battering is exhausting, debilitating. If that’s indeed what it’s like being receptive to messages from the beyond, you might find yourself, as poor Alison does, standing in your own hallway yelling “What testicles?” to a recalcitrant spirit. Though I had some sympathy for Colette (‘”That’s it,” she says. “I don’t intend to spend another night under this roof. How can I live with a woman who has rows with people I can’t see, and who stands outside my bedroom door shouting ‘What testicles?’ It’s more than flesh and blood can stand”), it’s tormented Alison, unable to separate her present from her past, who earned my compassion, as she seeks understanding and perhaps relief from her haunted life:

Back and back. There is an interval of darkness, dwindling, suspension of the senses. She neither hears nor sees. The world has no scent or savour. She is a cell, a dot. She diminishes, to vanishing point. She is back beyond a dot. She is back where the dots come from. And still she goes back.

1 Comment to This Month in My Class and Other Updates: Hilary Mantel, Beyond Black

  1. June 24, 2010 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    “You say they give trivial messages, but that’s because they’re trivial people. You don’t get a personality transplant when you’re dead. You don’t suddenly get a degree in philosophy. They’re not interested in helping me out with proof.”

    But it’s worse than that. People who weren’t trivial and banal suddenly become so in the afterlife; they do get a personality transplant, for the duller. And in all the millennia they’ve been communicating with us, not one of them has said anything we couldn’t have come up with on this side. As for proof, supplying it would be inevitable: Imagine you’re keeping the juiciest possible secret; how could you converse with people for that long and never let it slip? Mantel seems to have missed the chance to have Alison say something smarter on this topic.

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