There’s a famous moment in Nabokov’s Pnin, in which the title character drops a nutcracker, and watches as the “leggy thing” falls toward the ground. James Wood writes about this moment in How Fiction Works. He says it’s a brilliant example of free indirect discourse—a tool that allows the author to slip in and out of a character’s consciousness.
“Leggy”, Wood argues, is Nabokov’s word: it’s a perfect, precise adjective to describe a nutcracker. “Thing”, however, is Pnin’s word: the flustered professor can’t quite find the term for “nutcracker” as it flies from his hands. We get to hear both the narrator’s voice and the character’s voice—both, in just two words. This clever shifting-back-and-forth is part of the reason that Pnin is such a pleasure to read.
There’s a similar moment in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. Thomas Cromwell, Mantel’s protagonist, is holding his newborn baby; with one hand, he supports the baby’s head. Mantel refers to the head—the precious, singular object in Cromwell’s hand—as a “fuzzy skull”. This is every bit as memorable as Nabokov’s “leggy thing”. Cromwell, an awestruck father, experiences the fuzziness, the cuteness, the heart-melting properties of the object in his hand. “Fuzzy” is Cromwell’s word.
Mantel, however, is less sentimental. Mantel is aware of life’s fragility; she knows that many of her characters will die swift, shocking deaths before her story is over. Cromwell may be holding something cuddly and sweet, but Mantel wants us to know that her character is also holding something that could lose its life, its soul, its dearness at any moment. Mantel wants us to know that Cromwell is holding a skull.
These two words—“fuzzy skull”—evoke some of the major themes of Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, a sequel to Wolf Hall. Bodies is a love story, but it’s also a tale of shocking revenge. It’s quite funny, but it’s also chilling. It has a great deal of fuzziness, and it has quite a few skulls.
A love story about Thomas Cromwell? Readers of Wolf Hall will be surprised. Does Cromwell, the coldly efficient politician, really fall in love? Let me clarify: it’s not romantic love that pushes Cromwell through Bring Up the Bodies and governs most of his major decisions. It’s love for his mentor and his son that often determines the way that Cromwell behaves. Cromwell’s hero and surrogate father, Cardinal Wolsey, was brutally demoted by Henry VIII and his henchmen in Wolf Hall. Now that Cromwell has vast and ever-growing stores of power, he will ensure that Wolsey’s enemies pay for their sins.
Also, he will protect himself and his riches, so that his son, Gregory, might have an easy life. It’s evident that Cromwell—this blunt, calculating man who looks and acts a bit like Tony Soprano—wants great things for his son. The depth of feeling that Cromwell has for both Wolsey and Gregory makes him complex, unpredictable. It’s sometimes hard to believe that this loving man could commit some of the evil acts Mantel describes.
It’s hard to believe, but it’s not impossible—and this is the result of Mantel’s genius. Mantel shows how a sympathetic character can also be a devil. Cromwell’s behavior toward the end of the novel is appalling. He coolly sends Anne Boleyn and a few of her friends to their graves—not because these people have done anything seriously treasonous or unspeakable, but because Cromwell’s employer, the King, lusts for blood.
Cromwell makes a series of allegations—likely false allegations—against Anne and her friends, and so these unsuspecting characters are beheaded. Cromwell assumes, if these victims are not guilty of the crimes ascribed to them, then they are certainly guilty of other misdeeds—and, thus, they might as well die. For example, they are guilty of humiliating Cromwell’s beloved Cardinal Wolsey. For this, alone, they are not to be mourned. Cromwell does not spend much time thinking about them after they are dead.
Can a novel with so many corpses be funny? Yes. Here are a few of my favorite moments. A woman complains that her husband, George, is sleeping around: “The only fault George finds with God is that he made folk with too few orifices. If George could meet a woman with a quinny under her armpit, he would call out ‘Glory Be’ and set her up in a house and visit her everyday, until the novelty wore off.”
At another moment, Cromwell’s anti-papist disciples build a snowman in the form of the pope, with a small blue-orange carrot for his nose, and a smaller carrot “for his prick.” Early in the novel, malicious gossipers suggest that Anne Boleyn’s male friends stand around “frigging themselves” so that they are immediately ready, upon receiving a summons, to go to the Queen’s chambers and fulfill her sexual needs.
Funny, sure, but this book might also send chills up your spine. The ability to combine humor and terror has been a hallmark of Mantel’s prose, at least since the publication of her creepy Middle East tragedy, Eight Months on Ghazzah Street. In Bring Up the Bodies, the terror comes from your awareness that Cromwell will die a bloody death. This seemingly omnipotent statesman will end up dead, with his head on a spike, in just a few short years. You care about Cromwell’s fate; you can’t help but love him. Despite his frequent cruelty, he is a man who feeds the poor and whose viewpoint is almost unbelievably seductive.
Like David Chase in The Sopranos, Mantel ensures that you are often, uncomfortably, rooting for the antihero’s team. Mantel foreshadows Cromwell’s downfall in a brilliant way. We eventually realize that Cromwell has taken down all of Cardinal Wolsey’s enemies… with the exception of the King himself. The King cannot have forgotten his own complicity in Wolsey’s degradation—and he cannot have forgotten Cromwell’s fondness for Wolsey.
None of this bodes well for Cromwell. By the end of Bodies, Mantel has you almost salivating for the tale of Cromwell’s death—a tale that will have to wait for the third and final volume of the Cromwell trilogy.
Mantel has occasionally said that she wants to make readers aware of just how different life was way back in the 26th century. At that time, you were lucky (maybe) to make it to your 40th birthday. There was a bit less time, a bit less leisure, for nursing psychic wounds. This is clearly true, and part of Mantel’s great achievement is to introduce you to a parallel universe—a richly imagined Renaissance world, in which you’ll occasionally feel like an alien visitor.
Still, I have to add that Cromwell often seems like the sort of person you might meet today in the office, or on a TV show with a contemporary setting. He is a great thinker with flaws. He wants to protect the people he loves, and he can’t help but seek vengeance against the people he hates. He lives among people who are capable of both tenderness and violence—in a world full of “fuzzy skulls”. And so you might find that Cromwell will occasionally surprise you: you might find that this nasty, charitable, compelling, long-dead Cromwell…will occasionally remind you of yourself.
In any case, Bing Up the Bodies is entirely worthy of a Nabokov comparison. It’s brisk, wrenching, and pleasantly filthy. It’s the work of a natural storyteller who is also a first-rate intellectual.