Friday, 19 August 2016

Is Radio 4 Risking a Diplomatic Incident?

Radio 4's Book at Bedtime this week and next is Eight Months on Ghazzah Street. This is doubly gratifying: not only is Hilary Mantel's third novel an excellent piece of work, it is also - in its unflinching portrayal of the Hell on Earth that is Saudi Arabia - just the kind of thing you might have expected the PC multiculturalists of Radio 4 to avoid. I'm sure the Saudi embassy will be sorely displeased. So hats off to Radio 4 for making this bold choice of Book at Bedtime.
 They're making a good job of it too, with Anna Maxwell Martin a perfect choice of reader.  The collaborative abridgement by Hilary Mantel and Sara Davies seems to have lost nothing of the novel's disturbingly sinister atmosphere, nor the loathing and disgust that infuses it. It's a great listen (you can hear it all on the Radio 4 iPlayer) - just as the novel (which I reread a few years ago) was a great read.
 I first read Eight Months on Ghazzah Street - and the two earlier novels - after having been hugely impressed by Fludd, and I subsequently read each new Hilary Mantel as it came out (with one exception, which I'll return to): A Change of Climate (another, very different dystopian take on expat life), An Experiment in Love, the extraordinary Beyond Black...  The one I never got round to reading, despite my best intentions, was Mantel's big historical novel of the French Revolution, A Place of Greater Safety. And sure enough, when Wolf Hall came out - another big historical novel - and then Bring Up the Bodies, another one, I balked again. Reader, I have not read Hilary Mantel's best-known, best-selling, prize-winning and most praised novels, the ones with which she found literary fame - and this despite having been a Mantel fan almost from the start of her career.
 Is it just me being perverse? I don't think so (and my earlier non-reading of A Place of Greater Safety would suggest a pattern). I know of at least a few other Mantel readers who have found themselves strangely unable to read Wolf Hall and its successor. This seems to suggest that Wolf Hall created a whole new Mantel readership, bringing in huge numbers of new readers who only felt the urge to read her when she turned her attention to Thomas Cromwell. Which is odd - but good news for the author, who had certainly earned her eventual fame.

10 comments:

  1. I thought both Wolf Hall one of the best novels I've ever read, and Bring up the Bodies close behind. I Liked Fludd, but the Cromwell ones seemed a rare case of the hype and prizes being fully justified. Not read Eight Months, but will have to.

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  3. I loved Change of Climate and An Experiment, waded dutifully through A Place of Greater Safety, being a French teacher, but it was definitely duty. Tried the Cromwell ones but gave up. Much like you Nige.

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  4. I wonder if there's a length problem - the familiar one (these days) of writers writing longer as their careers go on and their reputations rise. I thought at the time that Beyond Black would have been even better with a quarter or a third shaved off. The 'too eminent to be edited' problem? She's not alone in that... Those early novels of hers are so tight.

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  5. Both my wife and I, separately and without consultation, threw Wolf Hall away within twenty pages: it just produced an "Oh, for God's sake" reaction in us both.

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  6. It's beginning to look as if Mantel's readers divide into Pre-Cromwellites and Wolfists...
    Another complication is that, since Wolf Hall, Mantel has become something of a Public Figure, encouraged to utter on public affairs. This is often bad for even the best writers - something similar has happened to Marilynne Robinson in America. So much more interesting and impressive before Fame struck.

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  7. A Place of Greater Safety is my favourite novel and a I have read it 5 times. Wolf Hall is no. 2 favourite bit it is hard work the first read, much easier 2nd and 3rd time. I love Mantel. Her short stories also. Sorry to be late commenting, have been away and am catching up!

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  8. I am so pleased to read this. Although I did read Wolf Hall, I didn't find it as impressive as everyone else, whereas Beyond Black I really loved. Until now, I've never encountered anyone who agrees. I also liked Eight Months on Gazzah Street, and found particularly admirable the essay she wrote about living in Saudi Arabia that won the Shiva Naipaul prize in about 1986. I wish I'd kept a copy, as I've never found the whole thing since, (I think there are bits of it in her introduction to the Ghazzah street book). What is sad, if my impression is right, is that since her success with the recent historical novels, Mantel has lost some element of her old perspective and seems to have become politically aligned, whereas I think a really good novelist needs too great a sense of life's absurdity to be able to start writing snarky things about particular political targets, (Mantel's being, lately, Margaret Thatcher, the monarchy, the "posh", et cetera). Mind you, there was early on a whining note in some of her autobiographical writing, but it seemed not entirely unjustified given her medical sufferings at the hands of apparently incompetent doctors, (am I imagining that; I'm fairly. sure I've read accounts along those lines)

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  9. Thanks Karen and zmkc and Dave - we seem to see eye to eye on this one, zmkc. Will be good to read that essay again...

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