Sunday, November 8, 2009

Thomas Cromwell and Gerolamo Vano

The following review of Hilary Mantel's Booker Prize-winning novel about Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall, is quoted from Abigail Nussbaum's excellent blog, Asking the Wrong Questions (although it begins with a passage that Abigail takes from another review by Dan Hartland). It is a long extract. I have set it in Arial to indicate the extent of the quoted text more precisely, and readers are encouraged to consult Abigail's original review here:

As Dan Hartland points out, Mantel makes a virtue out of Cromwell's lack of conviction:

Those around Cromwell are characterised by an allegiance to a system: More’s Catholicism, Norfolk’s feudalism, Wolsey’s royalism. Cromwell, on the other hand, has an almost Nietzschean approach. “I distrust all systematizers, ” wrote the philosopher, “and I avoid them. The will to a system is a lack of integrity.” Mantel’s Cromwell likewise believes in personal respect and education, a fully humanist perspective which sets him at odds with the medievalised England to which he is born. Mantel sees his meritocratic rise – from smith’s son to soldier, trader to merchant, lawyer to Lord Chancellor – as a symbol of the birth of our modern age.

I would go even further and say that Mantel makes a virtue out of Cromwell's lack of integrity and sense of personal dignity as well (the latter is presumably linked to his humble origins, which leave him, unlike the nobles around him, indifferent to his family's honor). Several times over the course of the novel, Cromwell visits prisoners condemned for their words--the heretic John Frith, condemned by More; the self-proclaimed prophetess Elizabeth Barton, who had threatened Henry with divine retribution for casting off Catherine of Aragon and marrying Anne Boleyn; and finally, More himself. Each time, he counsels the prisoners to lie, recant, and compromise their principles in order to save themselves. "I would advise anyone to get a few more weeks of life, by any means they can," he tells Barton, advising her to 'plead her belly' in order to delay her execution, and the final conflict of the novel, between Cromwell and More, hinges on More's refusal to compromise his immortal soul by swearing an oath acknowledging Henry as the head of the church in England and the legality of his marriage to Anne. What in A Man for All Seasons was treated as the crowning glory of More's saintliness is, in Wolf Hall, described as the epitome of his arrogance and self-regard, with Cromwell, instead of the devil trying to tempt More away from righteousness, portrayed as a humanistic angel trying to save More from himself.

This description of Cromwell as an avatar of modernity, and moreover of a very particular - we might call it Nietzschean - idea of modernity, is reminiscent of my own characterisation of Gerolamo Vano in Pistols! Treason! Murder! as a man who stands not only for aggressive indifference to pious convention, but also for unlimited cynicism, maximum exploitation of a limited talent by ruthless opportunism, an almost ascetic indifference to the suffering of others, and a willingness to exploit the fear and credulity of his employers for his own gain (see here). I do not mean to imply that my book is the equal of Mantel's. Rather, I have 'prefigured' or 'emplotted' the past (or more accurately, the relationship between past and present) in similar ways to Mantel.

The will to a system is a lack of integrity: this criticism applies to historians as well as to the subjects of their enquiries.

Public Space in Modern Venice

Santa Lucia, Venice, 2002, from Senza Posa by A. Chemollo and F. OrsenigoAbove: Alessandra Chemollo and Fulvio Orsenigo, Santa Lucia, 2002

Under the republic, public space was crucial in defining a political identity for Venice. Sixteenth-century guidebooks boasted that the preservation of Piazza San Marco at the city’s heart was in itself a sign of liberty and communal vitality. Today, Venice remains uniquely open. Even if the city’s alleys are cramped and confusing to visitors, the absence of barbed wire fences and ‘Keep Out’ signs is just as notable. Most Venetian thoroughfares are uncomfortably narrow, but they remain footpaths in the sense that they link shared spaces, and in that sense Venice is truly a city for walking (even if it only actually became so in the nineteenth century, when many canals were filled in). It is not, however, a utopia, and in this, as in so many other ways, it is not immune to the more negative aspects of economic development. At the city’s periphery, and on some of the islands in the lagoon – that is, in the areas whose development status is currently under debate – there are gated communities, where barking dogs (the protectors of suburban respectability as well as of privacy) and sullen, self-important security guards shadowed my every move. Here walking was not a pleasure, but a constant source of frustration.

Further development can presumably go either way: towards ever greater privatization of the Venetian experience in luxury hotels and apartments, or a reaffirmation of an expanded sense of community, which can and must include people such as students and new immigrants.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Zoë Sadokierski

Last year I met Zoë Sadokierski to discuss how the illustrations and design of my first book, Pistols! Treason! Murder!, might relate to Zoë's research for her Ph.D. thesis. Zoë is also a freelance book designer. In particular, she has worked on several titles in Allen & Unwin's new graphic novel imprint, notably Nikki Greenberg's adapation of The Great Gatsby. It was through Zoë that I first met Erica Wagner, the publisher at Allen & Unwin who eventally bought my novel Five Wounds, on which Zoe is - of course - the designer.

On her blog, Zoë explains that:

Books that use graphic elements as a literary device are not a new phenomenon: ... In fact, it could be easily argued that historically, books have been more heavily illustrated than they are today. However, these illustrations have generally been decorative embellishments, rather than conscious interruptions, to the written text. By contrast, Zoë is interested in books that use photographs, illustrations, diagrams, experimental typography. .... in a manner intrinsic to the writing; where the visual does something more than simply reflecting the text.

How does the use of graphic elements affect book production? Zoë explains:

There are designers who write, just as there are writers who design and illustrate. Generally, these people are the exception to the rule rather than the norm. I don’t think merging the two disciplines is a realistic future. I think it’s collaboration. To explore this narrative style in a way that won’t render it a passing trend, writers and book composers (to borrow El Lissitzky’s term) need to reconsider their relationships.

If it’s appropriate for a novel to include graphic elements for narrative, rather than decorative purposes, the writer and the book composer must consider the book’s graphic elements from the initial stages of the process, rather than cake decorating a manuscript once it has cooled. In the tradition of literary pairings from Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake to Hunter S. Thompson and Ralph Steadman, I think writers and book composers need to develop closer working relationships; they need to understand the way each other work and think. It’s something that graphic novel writers and illustrators do well.

Parenthetically, it is deeply dispiriting that the area of publishing where a total absence of 'closer working relationships' is most glaringly apparent is that of mainstream photography books, where the authors of forewords and introductions often make no reference whatsoever to the images contained within, or, if they do so, discuss them in a manner so crude and reductive that one wishes they had kept silent (some negative examples are discussed here). This is a problem with the incompetent incorporation of text into a predominatly visual presentation rather than the other way around; but the consequences of this failure to conceptualise (that is: to design) the entire book as an integrated whole are even more catastrophic.