By Sarah Stone, Faculty member in the Department of Writing, Consciousness, and Creative Inquiry, and author of The True Sources of the Nile
Electrical, memorable moments of happiness: not just the big ones of falling in love or having adventures out in the world, but also the inside adventures, like finding a writer who changes everything for you. The shock of pleasure -- trying to get your mind into and around a whole new sensibility and way of imagining the world. Hilary Mantel! The painful realism and brilliant structure of A Change of Climate: the abyss at the center revealed and replicated by the way the book is formed. The majestic and mind-blowing Wolf Hall: Mantel’s depictions of layers of power use and abuse, her surprising misdirections of attention. The bizarre and convincing magic of Beyond Black (partially a ghost story and partially a metaphor for what happens to a writer possessed by her characters, a person obsessed by the dark events of her past). Dark, dark, dark. But sometimes mischievously, deliciously so -- without undercutting or downplaying those moments that are like a sudden opening of the mouth of hell.
A friend’s holiday gift -- A Change of Climate -- started a Mantel rampage in our household. We even wound up discussing A Change of Climate in our book group, where we all pull each other into our enthusiasms, forming a three-dimensional hologram of the heart of a book, finding other ways to see, getting outside our own ideas. Now I’m reading Mantel’s stories (Learning to Talk) and her memoir (Giving Up the Ghost). So this is just the barest beginning of reading her/writing about her.
Here’s one of the moments that stays with me from A Change of Climate:
Let no one come in; he cannot face them, cannot meet human eyes. Animals are better than we are, he thought; they do what they must. Pounce, tear, suck the blood; it is their nature, God has made them so and has given them no choice.
He moved heavily across the room to the small window, which was barred against thieves. He looked out at an East End evening: wastepaper scudding in autumn gutters, and cabbage leaves from some street market, white veins shining in the dusk. Early darkness: a month ahead of rain and fog, slush and thaw. God had to permit his creations to do evil; it was the penalty of giving them a choice. Animals have no choice; it is why they are different from us. If we could not choose to do evil, we would not be human. I will tell him this, he thought, tell his poor wife. I will not say what I have often thought: that animals, who have no choice and so commit no crime, may have a guarantee of heaven, but that we, who are God's apes, may be shut out for eternity in the cold and the dark.
Like Iris Murdoch, Mantel can vividly embody a moment of moral/philosophical crisis: she tears into her verbs, corrals her words in semi-colons, and works through details that reinforce the psychological landscape, here one of mortality and violence. And her subjects and tones shift from book to book, as her characters shift and change within each book:
As a writer you owe it to yourself not to get stuck in a rut of looking at the world in a certain way. You have no business saying, ‘My character is this and my character is that. This is my habit, this is what I am like.’ That is no good for a writer. You have got to be absolutely fluid. You have to become everything your material demands of you. You have to be mutable. You have to be constantly ready to change shape. (From Hilary Mantel Interview in The Telegraph)