Monday, 6 February 2012

Why have I not enjoyed Pillars of the Earth as much as Wolf Hall?

Somehow over the past two weeks I have read Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth.  Admittedly I had been looking out for a secondhand vaguely since enjoying the television version last winter, and wanted to see if reading the book would recreate that enjoyment.  It was different of course, but enjoyable.  Particularly I enjoyed curling up on the sofa for most of Saturday evening while it was getting colder outside, and polishing off most of the last third, though it was past one in the morning before I decided to save a bit for the morning.  By then the house was cold.

Some of it raised the occasional grimace: some of the writing about sex is hamfisted, some of the details of cathedral building feel more like ‘bolt-ons’ rather than a natural development of the story, and clichés like ‘a fine figure of a woman’ and ‘the civil war dragged on’ .  But what surprised me most was the ease with which I have read 1074 pages without really trying; I haven’t read it on the train going to work, I haven’t read it in the toilet, and since I bought it it was by the bed until the long Saturday session.  What is it that makes it such a ‘good read’?  This question reminded me of some of the discussion about the last Man Booker Prize; were judges going to decide on the winner on the basis of its being ‘a good read’ or having ‘literary merit’, and does the projected decision imply that these two criteria are mutually exclusive?

Certainly Pillars of the Earth is a very good read - it is very popular, and has been a bestseller since it was published; it is pacy, full of suspense, and I don’t think I skipped or skimmed any of it.  I suspect that its appeal lies in Follett’s knowing how to construct a book which keeps several strands running alongside each other, and in meaningful contact with each other, where a lot happens, none of it irrelevant to what is happening elsewhere.  Much of the book is told as conversation, so the reader feels complicit in the immediacy of the plot.  Violent sequences are told in very short sentences, five to ten words.  But few sentences are longer than twenty-five words, leaving a sense of a ‘ceiling of complexity’ which is not exceeded. Many of the characters are thin and uncomplex, the prior being unremittingly good, even when he fails his own standards, while William Hamleigh is unremittingly bad.  We are directed to make quick judgements as to which side of the line they stand on, and few characters are redeemed by repentance or remorse. I never felt I was inside any of them, or did not understand any of them, unlike in Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, which seemed to satisfy the demands of both criteria, being a good read and having literary merit.  There I could empathise with the cautious political enterprise, the world-weary tautness that infused the character of Cromwell and the environment he inhabited, the darting exploitation of situations by those who knew that if they did not rise they would fall.  But most of all in comparing the two books I was aware of discrepancies in my own reactions to the stories, my ‘reader’s need for justice’ plots.    

Bear in mind that I knew vaguely what would happen in Wolf Hall from a general knowledge of history, and that I knew vaguely what would happen in Pillars of the Earth from having seen the television version, though realising pretty quickly from reading the book that there were going to be differences.  Would justice be done a) in the sense of Cromwell being compensated for the treatment he had received as a child from his father, and b) in the sense of the baddies being punished in Pillars of the Earth?  In the case of the second book, yes, it was important; in a way, that seemed to be the point of the book, and what kept me reading – as the outrages were detailed so too did the retribution have to be equally detailed, the physicality of rape matched by the physicality of the rapist’s death, down to details of the same part of the body.

Not so with Wolf Hall; I knew there would be no retribution, that Cromwell would not see his father punished, for the reality of life is that bad things happen, and those who perpetrate them seldom come to remorse through punishment.  This maturer view of the world, which we may not like, is for me where Pillars of the Earth is at its best, where a hero is killed, innocent people suffer, harvests fail, and enterprises collapse; however, in the case of this book, this makes the final retribution more important, for in this way fate too is punished.  In the case of Wolf Hall, I could empathise with Cromwell’s restrained triumphs and his private griefs, recognising a world of realism where, beneath her blindfold, the figure of Justice is staring unblinking into an unfocused distance.  I empathised with not just his pain, but his knowledge that the pain would not be healed.

So, for a good read Pillars of the Earth certainly delivers the goods; it is a good story, well told, and I feel satisfied.  But I now want to read Wolf Hall again: for the dissatisfaction. 

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