Hilary Mantel, an excellent writer, is the subject of a review by Joyce Carol Oates (not an excellent writer) in the Oct. 23 NYRB; from it I pluck two excerpts from Mantel’s memoir Giving Up the Ghost to show why I like her so much. In the first she is responding to Orwell’s “good prose is like a windowpane”:

Persiflage is my nom de guerre…. I stray away from the beaten path of plain words into the meadow of extravagant simile: angels, ogres, doughnut-shaped holes. And as for transparency—windowpanes undressed are a sign of poverty, aren’t they? How about some nice net curtains, so I can look out but you can’t see in?… Besides, windowpane prose is no guarantee of truthfulness. Some deceptive sights are seen through glass, and the best liars tell lies in plain words.

The second needs no annotation:

Writing about your past is like blundering through your house with the lights fused, a hand flailing for points of reference. You locate the stolid wardrobe, and its door swings open at your touch, opening on the cavern of darkness within. Your hand touches glass, you think it is a mirror, but it is the window. There are obstacles to bump and trip you, but what is more disconcerting is a sudden empty space, where you can’t find a handhold and you know that you are stranded in the dark.

The first section of the book, about her early childhood, is online here. Enjoy.


  1. “If you smash it with a rock, you can make all sorts of pretty things out of the shards.”
    Or words to that effect. (On the other hand: good painting is best effected through hypernaturalism. Or is it acrylics? –I can never remember.)

  2. To everyone who thinks fiction should be transparent.
    You’re telling a story, you twits, show me where it’s happening.
    (Aint I grouchy today?:))

  3. First a new word: Sinopite.
    Mantel’s Jane Eyre riff, ‘An Experiment In Love’ was a book I loved. A wonderful writer, she is many things that Joyce Carol Oates isn’t, but excellent-as-opposed-to?
    Oates irritates many, the volume of her production alone a required mention in any review more than three paragraphs long, mostly I think because that volume so intimidates. Has she written any books whose quality is below the average of Mantel’s 8 or 9? Assuredly.
    But the last time I hit a digital card catalog search for Ms. Oates it gave me 133 hits. Admittedly a good half or more were annotations and short story references, but she’s written, as my mother would say, scads of books. Scads. Some of them interesting artifacts, some of them entertaining diversions. Some of them perfect human art. Even her flaws are majestic in her best work; her stance, the service of her craft to her vision, her heroic combat with hidden truth, her valor, and the holiness of her compassion, are unmatched.
    I was comforted to see W.S. Merwin say in an interview: “When the movement of poets against the war began earlier this year and Sam Hamill asked a few poets on the Internet to contribute a few poems, they were absolutely mobbed by 15,000 entries. There’s that kind of response. The people who edit poetry for the big slick magazines will tell you that they’re flooded with poetry. A lot of it’s bad. It doesn’t mean that those people read poetry, but some do.”
    Comforted not just because he finds some light for the poetic in benighted modern culture but because he says without equivocating that there is bad poetry.
    There is bad art. There is good art. There are bad novels. There are great novels, and all degrees between. Refining our ability to tell one from the other is a lifelong task.
    It may be that you mean by excellence a conformation to expectations, of structure, consistency, even entertainment, which is not a low value in a novel. Saying that Mantel is not as deep as Oates at her best makes both seem trivial, saying that Oates can be far more profound as a writer still makes Mantel seem lacking. That is not what I see. Her worst is worse, her best is better, if it has to be put that way, but it doesn’t really.
    I love them both and feel no need to compare.
    ‘The Giant, O’Brien’ is one of the anthems of my people. So is ‘Them’.

    I’d hope someone who championed Hilary Mantel so definitely would like Peter Carey’s books as well. Possibly Peter Hoeg’s too.

  4. msg: Well, I’m certainly glad I restrained myself when it came to Oates — my original phrasing would have made you considerably unhappier. I confess it: Oates rubs me the wrong way. I don’t like her style or her obsessions. But people I respect think highly of her, so I try not to give free rein to my animus. But look at it this way: everyone has their blind spots. Nabokov (not that I’d ever compare myself to him) couldn’t stand Dostoevsky. And, as you say, I’m not alone.

  5. Nabakov also had nothing good to say about Cervantes. He had a bit of the twit in him. I was surprised to find recently (on a link from here) that he admired Melville. Melville tended to overreach and was sometimes sloppy on detail, which seem to be two of Nabakov’s big no-nos.
    Oates is tiny! With all these fat books. When Averroes died, his coffin and the books he had written were supposedly delivered to his ancestral home balancing each other on the two sides of a camel. Ibn Arabi or al-Ghazzali made a snarkily profound remark about that. Chuang Tzu said something similiar about the sophist / logician Hui Tzu and his books.

  6. Rich thread this.
    First the mysterious additive MSG with a memorable “the holiness of her compassion”, and then intriguing military theorist Slavoj Zizka weighs in with a no less memorable “Oates is tiny.”
    Oates is tiny in the holiness of her compassion. That might show up in Ashberry’s (or Merwin’s, for that matter) next “award winning” volume.
    I have no strong opinions about Oates, though I am not moved to read anything by her. Wasn’t she a co-author with one Hall once? Oates and Hall, something like that…
    Any disrespect to Nabokov, whose mastery was so near complete, whose virtues are so extravagant and humbling, and I well might release a batch of bed bugs into your sleeping chamber. Don’t mock my gods.

  7. Oates IS tiny. She looks like she weighs somewhere between 45-90 lbs. Probably but not certainly on the high end.
    If I’m forced to choose, it’s Cervantes over Nabakov every time. My sturdy Hussite bodyguards with their threshing flails will reduce any bedbug-laden Papist or Orthodox intruder to jerky in the matter of seconds.

  8. Bug fight!
    *settles into armchair, opens beer*

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