In praise of difficult - Nick Green

There’s a pivotal scene in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall in which Cromwell, faced with yet another of King Henry’s frankly ludicrous demands, murmurs, ‘It will not be easy.’ To which the King replies, ‘Master Cromwell, this is not Mission Difficult. This is not even Mission Impossible. This is Mission Find Henry More Rumpy Pumpy and Fewer Interfering Popes and Reboot Religion As We Noe It. Mission Difficult should be a walk in the park for you.’

Actually I paraphrase (don’t have the book to hand) but it’s words to that effect. In fact Henry says (because actually I have a good verbal memory), ‘Do I retain you for what is easy? I retain you, Master Cromwell, because you are as cunning as a bag of serpents.’ Which I think you’ll agree is an even better line. Oddly the TV adaptation condensed ‘You are as cunning as a bag of serpents’ into ‘You are a serpent,’ probably because ‘You are as cunning as a bag of serpents’ sounds too much like something Blackadder would say (‘Master Cromwell, you are as cunning as a fox who has just been appointed Professor of Cunning at Oxford University’). Come to that, the similarities between Mantel’s Cromwell and Blackadder are hard to miss.

But back to Mission Difficult. Apparently Wolf Hall is high on the list of books that people start and never finish. It’s also been criticised for being ‘difficult’, specifically, its ‘difficult’ point of view in which Cromwell is persistently referred to as ‘he’ even in scenes with lots of ‘hes’ competing for attention, so from time to time it’s possible to get mixed up if you’re trying to read while watching The Great British Bake-Off. I find both claims odd (it’s really not that hard to tell who ‘he’ is each time, and certainly easier than the language in ‘A Clockwork Orange’ for instance, where every other word is made up). But why, people cry, is Mantel so irritating with her readers? Why does she deliberately make it hard to read, when she could just write ‘Cromwell’ and be done with it? Does she want to make it difficult?

You know, I think maybe she does. I think there’s something about a ‘difficult’ read that benefits the reading process. The modern reader tends to race through books, skimming, tearing through the pages (we say a book is a ‘page turner’ as a high form of praise, rather than – as Peter Cook might say – ‘the minimum requirement’). To read a book fast is to say that it’s brilliant. Pah, I say to that. If I go to a restaurant and have a really amazing meal, I eat as slowly as I possibly can. I want the meal to last. Sure, I WANT to wolf it hall down in one gulp (bad pun alert), but I’d rather enjoy it for as long as the waiters will let me.

That’s why it can be good if a book contains some quirk, some ‘automatic braking system’, to prevent the reader from dashing through it too fast and missing what’s best about it. My favourite example of this is Ulverton by Adam Thorpe. A difficult book in many places (large parts of it are in archaic English), it becomes nigh-impossible in one notorious chapter, a punctuation-free stream of consciousness in the thick country dialect of a senile ploughman. What makes it all the more frustrating is that this chapter is unskippable – it’s the key to several unresolved plot arcs that run both before it and afterwards. I plodded through it like the ploughman himself, decoding it a phrase at a time. And it was an amazing experience – like learning to read for the first time, feeling the lights go on in the brain, the brand new neural pathways lighting up. I can’t describe it any better than that – it’s a pure celebration of the reading process. None of that would happen if we just had the ploughman’s thoughts in plain English.

I guess it boils down to trusting the writer. There’s the kind of book that is difficult because the writer is a bad one, and can’t express themselves effectively (I think of the tomes on literary criticism I tried to wade through at university). And there’s the kind of book that’s deliberately difficult, not to obstruct or frustrate but to challenge, to push the reader above their comfort zone and give them a genuinely new experience.

If that’s not as cunning as a bag of serpents, I don’t know what is. Baldrick?


Lee said…
It's possible to trust a writer, because you find they make their choices work, and work well. Yet even good writers can make mistakes in judgement, which I happen to think Mantel has done in her artificed use of 'he' in Wolf Hall. I'm nearly finished rereading it, and I can count at least seven or eight times, possibly more, where she herself has added 'he, Cromwell' to clarify (and possibly in one or two cases, to emphasise). So, in effect, she is not entirely happy with her own choice.

Why do I feel this near exclusive use of the third person doesn't work? Ostensibly, and according to Mantel herself, it's meant to create a greater sense of intimacy with Cromwell. Here's the New Yorker interview in which she states this:

The effect, however, is far more one of alienation than intimacy.
It's been variously suggested that asking readers to pay attention is much like what Cromwell himself does to survive and prosper. Perhaps, but if you seek a greater intimacy with your characters, you don't achieve it by creating confusion, by making readers constantly stop and ask, 'Eh, who is this?', by in effect reminding them constantly of your artifice.

'Gregory is coming up thirteen. He’s at Cambridge, with his tutor. He’s sent his nephews, his sister Bet’s sons, to school with him; it’s something he is glad to do for the family.'

In this much-quoted early passage, the momentary confusion (he/him) is just that -- confusion, not greater identification or insight.

Adding difficulty without meaning is meaningless. Mantel is a marvelous writer, and she establishes it in many ways, but not by this particular device. There's more than enough other reasons to read her work slowly.
JO said…
I agree that most 'difficult' books are worth the effort - though there is a discussion to be had on what we mean by 'difficult'. One had must be read slowly, just to savour the language and get all the nuances (Wolf Hall)? One that must be read slowly or you just don't understand what's going on (Visit from the Goon Squad)?

I will persist with any book I've paid for - and sometimes struggled to the end of something and wished I'd used my time differently (Voss springs to mind). And with others there is a 'lightbulb moment' and I know why I hung on through challenged early pages till I couldn't put it down (A Suitable Boy).

But reflecting on why a book worked - for me - is the learning bit. How did this writer engage me in the story, however difficult it might be. That's the bit I try to take back into my own writing.
Jan Needle said…
" I plodded through it like the ploughman himself, decoding it a phrase at a time. And it was an amazing experience – like learning to read for the first time, feeling the lights go on in the brain, the brand new neural pathways lighting up."

I tried this method once on War and Peace in Russian (a language I don't know at all). That was forty years ago. I'm still on chapter one. Well, word
one, tbh.
Nick Green said…
The first lines of War and Peace are in French, Jan. That's why your Russian dictionary didn't work.
Mari Biella said…
Hmm … I didn’t find Wolf Hall particularly difficult to read. It demands attention, certainly – and perhaps, in a world impatient with slowness and subtlety, that’s part of the problem. But I love writers who are prepared to push their readers a little, because that often does lead to an entirely new reading experience. I haven’t read Ulverton, but it sounds intriguing!
Lydia Bennet said…
Very entertaining post Nick, I'm happy to read difficult books if they are that way for a reason - I do tend to gallop through books but if they are good I re-read and savour them. I've not read Wolf Hall as i've been all Tudor'd out for the foreseeable. I did read a memoir by Vita Sackville-West who had a linguistic clarification trick of her own - she claimed that 'that' is confusing, having two meanings, and so for one of them she used 'thatt'. Most disconcerting to keep bumping into that! I mean, thatt.
Chris Longmuir said…
I'm afraid I don't have enough years left to plod through books, so I haven't read Wolf Hall, and I won't. I read for recreation, often just before falling asleep, so I'm not about to start to read and savour all those worthy novels that I'm sure would benefit me. I'll carry on reading my page turners.
Susan Price said…
I wouldn't say that Wolf Hall was 'worthy.' I'd say it was a great, page-turning read. Like Valerie, I was all tudored out, and didn't feel like I could face another account of Anne Bolyn - then I just looked into a sample, and was completely hooked.

I can't say that referring to Cromwell as 'he' bothered me any more than slightly confusing sentences in other books - almost every book has the occasional one you have to read twice.

Even if you consider Mantel's use of the pronoun a mistake - and I don't - I think it's hardly worth mentioning when set against the immensity of what she achieved in these books.
Lee said…
Susan, it bothered me because 1) it isn't just occasional; 2) it serves no satisfactory end. Difficulty just for the sake of difficulty strikes me as the antics of an apprentice writer, not someone of Mantel's calibre. In any case, she doesn't claim to use the strategy to 'push' her readers but for another purpose altogether.

None of which means that I don't appreciate her work. I've read just about everything she's written, a good deal of it twice or more.

Nick, there are not just two sorts of difficult books i.e. those written by a bad writer and those by a good writer which are meant to challenge us. Every stylistic choice is ultimately a compromise -- a trade-off, as Mantel herself says -- and must be judged accordingly.

That said, Valerie, I agree with Susan that it's a marvellous, page-turning read, not at all heavy-going and (gah!) worthy. If you read the first section, you'll probably be caught up in its pleasures.
Lee said…
Sory, Chris, I meant to address you, not Valerie.
Jan Needle said…
First words of War and Peace are in French!? Now you've got me really worried Nick. Maybe I'm thinking of Warren Peace, the little-known sequel to Watership Down. That's definitely in Russian.

Fine post, though. I enjoyed it. Forgive my natural flippancy. I blame the parents.
Debbie Bennett said…
I must admit, I'm a lazy reader. I don't have much spare time to read (usually just before I go to sleep), so I like something I don't have to work too hard at. Might try the harder stuff when I retire and have more time - you *do* get more time when you retire, don't you? :-)
Chris Longmuir said…
Debbie, I'm afraid I have to disillusion you. In retirement you become even busier, and considering that when I was an Assistant Principal Officer for the Council I was averaging 50 hours a week of work time on average, you can imagine how busy I am now!
@Ruby_Barnes said…
I recall people complaining, at the time Wolf Hall was winning awards, of the large number of Thomases. Yes, it was indeed a time of many Thomases.

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