Invitation to a Beheading


Anthony Powell, in wise-facetious mood, once quoted an English publisher on how to write “a good Jewish novel”: write a good novel, then change all the names to Jewish ones. The joke came to mind while I was reading Hilary Mantel’s “Bring Up the Bodies” (Holt). Both this new book and its predecessor, “Wolf Hall,” are mysteriously successful historical novels, a somewhat gimcrack genre not exactly jammed with greatness. One of the reasons for this literary success is that Mantel seems to have written a very good modern novel, then changed all her fictional names to English historical figures of the fifteen-twenties and thirties. Where much historical fiction gets entangled in the simulation of historical authenticity, Mantel bypasses those knots of concoction, and proceeds as if authenticity were magic rather than a science. She knows that what gives fiction its vitality is not the accurate detail but the animate one, and that novelists are creators, not coroners, of the human case. In effect, she proceeds as if the past five hundred years were a relatively trivial interval in the annals of human motivation.

more from James Wood at The New Yorker here.