Last night Hilary Mantel won the 2012 Costa book of the year for Bring Up the Bodies. Yet there is the distinct bitter-sweet taste of sour grapes in the Guardian coverage this morning, though the ‘origins’ of this slight seem somewhat misplaced. The acrid tones of McCrum’s ‘Commentary’ are characterised by his description of the use of third person in the novel as ‘extra literary pizzazz’, then shot through with rather patronising glances of reassurance: ‘Mantel has made her career with fiction and non-fiction of stunning originality’. This short text has already decided that the success of Bring Up the Bodies ‘will certainly score a footnote in the history of early 21st-century British fiction’. Aside from the astonishing sense of hubris, this remark assumes such literary immortality to be the goal, which rather misses the point. For example, in an era where various narratives of world destruction close in around us with a matrix-like certainty what meaning can the history of British fiction, whether main text or footnote, possibly evoke? It hardly matters.
Also, I hate to raise the spectre of feminism, but women writers generally exist on the margins of the canonising, chronologising and stabilising signalled by such a ‘history’. Whether or not you wish to engage with this angle, it is difficult to prove that the surety of Robert McCrum’s ‘Commentary’ is operating entirely outside of these ‘masculine’ discourses. The subtitle to the text contains the word ‘middlebrow’ and this is seemingly the novel’s achievement; it has provided both bookmakers and booksellers with ‘much-needed commercial relief’. However, McCrum’s argument graciously concedes that this was ‘probably’ not Mantel’s primary objective:
‘This novel, however, is nothing if not reassuring. It takes one of medieval England’s greatest thrillers (the persecution, trial and death of Anne Boleyn) and gives it a clever contemporary spin […] It also meets the demand for a cracking good read […] Superior to Wolf Hall, its predecessor, Bring Up the Bodies will stimulate a feel-good factor throughout the nation’s book groups’
The astute might begin to wonder at the implication of McCrum’s text – Mantel, a woman writer, has made a success of herself, not long-lasting of course, but passing recognition for that quintessential female achievement ‘a cracking good read’. I mean, it is what women excel at, is it not? Crowd-pleasers, popular at the time, but instantly forgettable – for example, who remembers Jane Austen these days? I am sure that this is not McCrum’s meaning, yet that hardly matters since it is one of the many ‘goings-on’ traceable in his text.
My position is different, of course. I recently wrote an abstract for an academic conference comparing Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies with the writing of contemporary French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy. I do not say this to ‘legitimise’ the contents of the novel via the apparently higher discourse of philosophy; this movement instead illustrates the possibility of such a comparison, a comparison of equals. The abstract was peer-reviewed and accepted, which leads me to think (momentarily) that I am not alone in thinking the book is more than just ‘a cracking good’ anything.
McCrum’s piece concludes – ‘Posterity is generally unkind towards crowd-pleasing winners’ – but it is not indifferent posterity that is being unkind here, it is subjective commentary.