steepholm (steepholm) wrote,

Wolf Hall and Narration

About two years after everyone else, I've finally read Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall. I liked it very much indeed, but at first I found the style of narration quite confusing. To anyone who hasn't read it, Wolf Hall - which is about Thomas Cromwell - is written in third person present tense, but whenever it is possible without ambiguity (and frequently when it isn't) Mantel refers to Cromwell as 'he' rather than by name. So we get passages like this (and I've returned my copy to my mother, so this is to give the idea, rather than a real quotation):

Norfolk paces about the room, barely able to contain his anger.
"Naturally, the King will not consent," he says.

Now, in most books the 'he' of the second line would refer to Norfolk. But in Wolf Hall it almost always (but not always) refers to Cromwell. This meant a lot of going back and re-reading, trying to sort out who was speaking in any particular scene. These hiccoughs became less frequent as the book wore on and I got the hang of Mantel's technique, and by the time I hit p.600 they were fairly infrequent, but they never went away entirely, and of course re-reading in that way isn't an aid to absorption.

On the other hand, Mantel did get something worth having in exchange. In cinematic terms, Wolf Hall gives us a 650-page tight close up of Cromwell. We hover round about his skull, often peering inside to see his thoughts and feelings (the former more than the latter), often looking out at his immediate surroundings, but seldom drawing back for a picture of the whole landscape in which he moves. Instead, Mantel builds his world jigsaw-wise, privileging nothing and censoring nothing - or rather, artfully giving that impression, which is all one can ask of a novel. The 'he' technique contributes powerfully here. She could have achieved something of the same effect through first person narration, of course, but the slight distance imposed by third person is important. I can't off hand think of any other novels that use it this way. Can you?

I've more to say about Wolf Hall, or at least tangential to it, but that will wait for another post. I'm about to take my daughter and double second cousin once removed (who's visiting) to @Bristol.
Tags: books
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