Sunday, 31 January 2010

Nicholas Nickleby. By Charles Dickens

Nicholas Nickleby

Charles Dickens

First published 1838-39. The edition I read was the Penguin Popular Classics edition published by Penguin Books in 1994

Maybe the third or fourth time I am reading this book. One of Dickens' best, but not the very best. It was serialized in weekly or monthly parts when Dickens first published it, and some of the requirement of such serialization shows in the book. There are frequent climaxes, characters are introduced even late into the novel (e.g. Arthur Gride and Madeline Bray), and many stories, apparently unconnected, are interwoven, Nevertheless it's a wonderful book, worth the three or four reads, and maybe worth more. The most memorable is Dotheboys Hall, both the name and the description of the school.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Wolf Hall. By Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall

Hilary Mantel

Published in 2009 by Fourth Estate, London

This historical novel won the Man Booker Prize for 2009. It deals with the mainly political events in the life of Thomas Cromwell, a man who held various offices during the reign of King Henry VIII of England, including that of Chancellor (of the Exchequer?) and Master Secretary to the King. He was responsible for the reformation, i.e. the breaking away of England, especially, from the Roman catholic church and the power of the Pope over all Kings. Henry VIII probably had no real philosophical or larger social motives in wanting this to happen - apparently it was his infatuation with Anne Boleyn, (who comes across as a tough lady, desperate to bear a male child by Henry, but failing ultimately) that made him want to divorce Katherine of Aragon (who in addition, did not bear him a male heir, either). And since the divorce (or annulment of the marriage) was not permitted by the Church, he wanted to break away from it. In the book, Mantel imputes larger motives of good governance, etc., to Cromwell, as underlying all his activities in furthering the reformation. This gives a somewhat pragmatic and sympathetic aspect to his character which other biographies (e.g. Wikipedia) have described more harshly.

An interesting story, but I found the writing irritating in the extreme. Apparently Mantel does not care too much about the reader, and does not work hard enough make it a good read for him. For example, she rarely refers to Cromwell by name, but simply keeps saying 'he' did this, and 'he' did that. And there are so many characters that one has to keep backtracking to figure out who actually is saying what. The characters are not properly identified by the author, and since they have very similar names (Anne, Jane, Thomas, Henry), and since their surnames keep changing according to their positions (e.g. Cromwell himself becomes the Earl of Essex) the book is very difficult to read and understand fully. I suppose Mantel will say 'that's the whole point'. But unless I am particularly a historian, or a student of literary theories and criticism, I do not see why I should spend so much time and effort to have a good read, and to understand some of medieval English politics.

So on the whole, the topic is great, and Mantel has done a great deal of research, but, I think, not enough work at writing the novel. Perhaps enough for the Booker judges, but not enough for me. I bought this book not just because it won the Booker, but because it was a described as a 'historical novel' and it received some good reviews. I think I have to be more careful how I interpret the reviews as well.