“Too many notes,” says the philistine Emperor Joseph II to Mozart, in the film Amadeus. “It’s quality work, … there are simply too many notes. Just cut a few and it will be perfect!” I feel very afraid that I am playing the part of the Emperor when I read Hilary Mantel’s novels because I often find myself thinking “Excellent, wonderful, but … too many scenes, too many episodes. Just cut a few and it will be perfect.”
That’s one reason why the television adaptation of Wolf Hall is so pleasurable. As John Sutherland, reviewing episode one in The Guardian today says, “with a mere six hours and 60,000 words of dialogue at his disposal,” Peter Kosminsky has given Wolf Hall pace. Every scene, every word, advances the story.
If you read the novels expecting a similar advance from every scene you will be making a mistake. Many scenes feel like they ought to be read not so much as narrative but as portraiture, the product of Mantel’s apparent desire to pull out of the darkness and into the light as many episodes in Cromwell’s life as she possibly can.
I find that difficult. Perhaps, as a reader, I should restrain my hunger for narrative and just enjoy contemplating these well-crafted word-pictures. But it could be argued that some of them aren’t best placed in the novels themselves, that they should be viewed separately, as part of the author’s rich imagining of the world from which the novels themselves are sculpted by the creative process of cutting. Think of Tolkien’s immensely prolific creations, his millennia-long fictional histories and mythologies of Middle Earth. These gave The Lord of the Rings a wonderful stage but would have destroyed it if they hadn’t been confined to The Silmarillion, The Unfinished Tales, or to Tolkien’s study.
“There are just as many notes as are required, Majesty. Neither more nor less,” says Mozart, and he should know. Likewise Mantel. Such an intensely careful writer as her must have very good reasons for including all of the scenes that I found “too much.” What might those reasons be?
Beyond Black, Mantel’s story about a medium, suggests a possible answer to that question.
In Beyond Black, Alison Hart is a woman who sees ghosts. She makes her living from this ability, touring theatres and giving her audiences a means of contacting people in the afterlife. But she is also tormented by it. The ghosts that surround her are intrusive, unreasonable, and they compel her to remember a childhood that was violent and abusive. It is easy to see Hilary Mantel herself in the character of Alison Hart. Mantel seems to feel the presence of her characters very vividly. They take up residence with her for the duration of her writing projects, like Alison’s troubling ghosts, and stay overwhelmingly close. About Wolf Hall, Mantel says, “the camera is behind Cromwell’s eyes.” In other words, within the world of the story the novelist is peering out from within Cromwell’s head. Which suggests that, in the world of the novelist, our world, Cromwell is peering out from within her head, a very intimate presence, perched inside her in the same way that “Morris,” Alison Hart’s foul and violent spirit guide, is perched in Alison’s home, slumped repulsively against her bedroom wall. So I wonder, is Mantel oppressed and bullied by her characters like Alison is by ghosts? Does ruthless Cromwell make too many demands on her, compelling her to see and write everything that brings him out of obscurity and into public view? Is that why the books are so long?
It’s a lovely picture to conjure, and perhaps there is something in it. Some authors are led by their characters more than others. But I don’t think it is quite the right picture. Mantel seems a rather strong woman, who keeps an assured hold on her books’ meanings in the face of commentary and interpretation from readers with whom she disagrees. I think she could handle Cromwell pretty well.
So here is a slightly different picture, also drawn from Beyond Black, also involving compulsion; but this time it is a compulsion arising not from imperious characters but from the very nature of the project of uncovering lost history.
Beyond Black is about terrible childhood events, so traumatic that they produce amnesia, and it is about the horrible process by which that amnesia is eroded, the disruptive presence of ghosts compelling Alison to return again and again to her buried past and excavate it. The book’s title hints at the afterlife, which is black to Alison’s clients but dimly seen by her. But it is also suggestive of the “beforelife,” the time-before-memory from which we emerge as young adults only dimly recalling many of the events and forces that have shaped us. To try to understand ourselves we have to overcome forgetfulness, to get beyond the black redacted spaces. That isn’t always an entirely voluntary project. Alison’s story is about forced remembering, imposed by her intrusive, beleaguering ghosts. And we know, not least from all the recent high-profile cases of historic child abuse, that the victims of abusive or otherwise traumatic childhoods don’t have the luxury of choosing whether or not to be preoccupied with the past. The “return of the repressed,” the problematic, involuntary, resurfacing in our lives of the fallout from ill-processed features of our past, affects most of us to some extent. For most of us there is something in our lives that provokes us into an Ancient Mariner compulsion, conscious or unconscious, to return to awful events and hammer them into a narrative which we hope will subdue them.
The Wolf Hall books are similar to Beyond Black because they too are about a memory gap, a hole in the historical record. They are about a man who “arrives from nowhere.” Cromwell appears on the historical scene fully formed, shaped by events that are largely lost to history. The Cardinal wonders about Cromwell’s past, so do Cromwell’s rivals, so does the King, so do historians. And so does Cromwell, I think. At various points in the story he is searching, unsuccessfully, for Guido Camillo’s “memory machine,” whose nature is left mysterious. Why does he need this machine? He has a supremely efficient memory for inventories and debts and recipes and rumour. His memory is one of the talents that keep him always a step ahead of his enemies. I think that Cromwell craves a memory machine because his own past is partly a mystery to him, just as it is to others. A childhood scarred by his father’s violence has produced something of the traumatic amnesia that Alison suffered. And his arrival in a position of great power, from a background very different from most of the people around him, has disoriented him. It has made him ask himself, “How did I get here?”
Forgetfulness, and a compulsion to remember. The need to pull half-remembered events out of obscurity and into the light. To get beyond black. That is one of the themes of Mantel’s books. The compulsive nature of that quest for memory is expressed in the content of Wolf Hall, and Bring Up the Bodies, and Beyond Black. But it is also expressed in their structure and length. Scene upon scene upon scene, fractured, confusing, sometimes hampering progress, dragging us back when we want to move forward. That is what is so difficult about Mantel’s stories. But it is also what is difficult about the debilitating way that our memory can work, when we feel driven to bring it to bear on the dark experiences that shape a human life. We are dragged backwards. We hoard fragments of memory that seem to offer the hope of understanding but never fully deliver. We don’t, usually, manage to perceive, comprehend, and accept these fragments so well that we can have done with them, release them, and achieve a lean account of the past that lets the narrative of our life move smoothly forwards. They stay with us, so that the books of our lives are unwieldy and exhausting to read. The excess of episodes in Mantel’s novels is a replication of that. So it is good to be frustrated, overwhelmed, confused, when reading her work. “Too many notes” is just the right amount.