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?