Wednesday, May 16, 2012

bluff King Hal, and a dude who was full of many expert beans

Finished Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel. It follows up Wolf Hall, which told the story of Thomas Cromwell's rise to power under Henry VIII. Wolf Hall focused on the downfall of Cardinal Wolsey and Cromwell's part in Henry setting aside his first wife for Anne Boleyn. In Bring Up the Bodies, Henry has tired of Anne and fallen in love with Jane Seymour, and it is once again Cromwell's job to smooth the way.

This book is insanely good. You need to read Wolf Hall first, no question; this is a leaner, quicker book and doesn't waste time filling in forgetful readers. I spent a fair amount of time on Wikipedia, I confess, because I was too eager to read this to set aside the time for re-reading Wolf Hall in its entirety. I may do that now, though, because I am so hungry for more of Mantel's prose. It's very crisp, with lots of sentence fragments, not an extraneous word to be found, and pinpoint-perfect descriptions and metaphors. I wish I could articulate how I feel reading an author who has such a breathtaking control over language, but that feeling mostly shows itself in frantic gestures and saying, "Aaaaaa! SO GOOD!"

The description of Anne's execution had the hairs all over my body rising; even though we are getting it from Cromwell's point of view, and he has no sympathy for Anne, I felt as if I were being led to the block. Terrifyingly immediate. I remember feeling the same way about family deaths in Wolf Hall - it's almost too much, how close she brings you.

After reading Wolf Hall, I ambushed everyone I know with, "READ THIS READ THIS READ IT," and I feel the same way about the sequel. READ IT. And there will be a third! Hooray!

And, on the subject of Henry VIII, are we ready for the Henry VIII Expert Guy story? It is the best.  

In 2004, I drove to Canada to see a performance of Shakespeare's Henry VIII. It was nine hours each way, but I was determined to see all the plays in the canon before I turned thirty (and I did!), and no one ever does Henry VIII. For good reason: it's pretty bad. They did what they could with the play; the actress playing Katherine was astounding and Buckingham hit his big speech out of the park. It was still far from great.   

The important part here is that I was sitting in front of an Expert Guy. He was there with his wife and another couple, and all three hung on his every pontification, which was clearly why he had chosen them as companions. At intermission he decided to fill them in on the English history of the time period. Let me stress that this is not my area of expertise. However, even I know that the daughter of Henry and Katherine did not grow up to be Mary, Queen of Scots. When he informed his companions that she did, I raised my eyebrows, but kept on reading my book. I don't confront strangers about things like that.

But then his wife asked, "What happens to Katherine?" and he responded, with total authority, "Oh, Katherine has been beheaded already; that's why she didn't appear at the end of the last act." And I could not help myself. I turned around and said, very politely and helpfully, "Actually, Katherine dies of natural causes, as we'll see in the second half of the play."

He would not admit he was wrong. We argued for five minutes about this, and by "argued" I mean that for five minutes he said, "She was beheaded," and I responded, "No, she wasn't," and then he said, "Yes, she was beheaded," again. Eventually people from my row started turning around and backing me up. The man sitting beside me tried to give Expert Guy a graceful way out, by acknowledging that Katherine Howard was, in fact, beheaded, and he probably just mixed up his Katherines. He wouldn't take the out. No Expert Guy worth his salt is going to admit, in front of his wife and friends, that a young woman knows something he doesn't.

Finally I played my trump card. "Look," I said, "in a few minutes Katherine is going to walk on stage again, and talk about how ill she is, and then someone else will come on stage and tell us that she has died from her illness. Trust me. It's going to happen."

His back was against the wall. "Well," he huffed, "maybe that happens in the play. But in real life she was beheaded." And as I drew breath to contest that, he looked down his nose, inflated his chins, and in the world's most condescending voice uttered what immediately became my favorite quote of all time: "You may not know this, but Shakespeare played fast and loose with historical fact."

I had no response. Not then, not ever. When someone has said something that balls-out amazing, what can you do but just sit back and bask in it?

Several people from my row, who did not feel like basking in it, said, in unison, "SHE WASN'T BEHEADED!" And then the lights started flashing for the end of intermission. Expert Guy and I did not speak again.

But wait! There are two things which make this story even better.

One is that the other couple with Expert Guy and his wife had been avidly observing the argument, including its conclusion. They were also, as far as I could tell, watching the play. As we were all walking out afterwards, the wife turned to her husband and said, "That's so awful, that he had Katherine beheaded even though she was so sick!"

The other thing, though I did not learn this until later, is that: guess who popularized the phrase "fast and loose"? Shakespeare. You SEE why I love this story beyond all measure? It was like the perfect storm.

P.S. Speaking of playing fast and loose with historical fact: if you think the trash-fest "The Tudors" did not just get bumped to the top of my queue, you overestimate me greatly.


  1. You are nicer than I am (although we knew that already). I would have been chanting at Expert Guy: "Divorced, Beheaded, Died, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived!"

    I loved "The Tudors," although it definitely ranks among my few guilty pleasures (by which I mean: there are lots and lots of low brow things that I like, but I feel guilty about almost none of them).

    Actually, it ended up teaching me a lot of English history, because I spent so much time fact checking it. I have to check these books out now.

    Also, the actress that plays Anne Boleyn in "The Tudors" is fabulous.

    1. Ha, I think one of the other people in my row pulled out, "Divorced, Beheaded, Died, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived." Expert Guy just ignored it.

      I also recommend, non-fiction-wise, Antonia Fraser's The Six Wives of Henry VIII. It's so fascinating.

  2. ohghod

    Best fucking story ever, no kidding. Oh my Lord. The only thing missing was you whipping out James Shapiro or something, a la Woody Allen in Annie Hall.

    1. Yes, it is my favorite Expert Guy story ever. Claudio prefers the Cormac McCarthy one, which is good but, I think, not on this one's level.