Hilary Mantel has had Margaret Thatcher in her sights for over thirty years. Somewhat surreally, the Prime Minister wandered into view around noon on Saturday, August 6 1983. Mantel’s flat, on a quiet Windsor street lined with cherry trees, overlooked the private hospital where Thatcher was having an eye operation. She was just standing by the big sash window in her bedroom when she spotted Mrs Thatcher “toddling” around the hospital gardens unguarded.
“Immediately your eye measures the distance,” says Mantel, measuring each syllable, her finger and thumb forming a gun. “I thought, if I wasn’t me, if I was someone else, she’d be dead.”
Imagining you are someone else is the essence of fiction. Mantel has been a medium, in Beyond Black, a giant, in The Giant O’Brien, and most successfully, Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. Both won her the Booker and are now packing theatres in London and soon, perhaps, Broadway. “We’re in negotiations now,” says Mantel in a tone that you wouldn’t try to negotiate with. The television adaptations, starring Damian Lewis as Henry and Mark Rylance as Cromwell, have just finished filming. She’s part-way through The Mirror and the Light, the last in the trilogy: “I don’t write chronologically so I can’t say where I am exactly but it’s not finished. It should be done next year.”
Her dark new short story collection offers her – and us – a break from the Tudors. It pulls together ten tales, nine of which have appeared before. They range from the subtly sinister to the outrageously gothic. “I was going to call it Ten Transgressive Tales,” she says. “But then, after thirty-some years, I finally finished my Thatcher story.”
In The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, Mantel succeeds where terrorists failed. It’s an unexpectedly funny exploration of the Maggie mythos delivered with sniper-like skill. It’s a horror story for her fans, a fantasy for her detractors. Either way, it’s shocking. Her tale is a true character assassination.
In it, an unnamed and unsuspecting householder waits in for a plumber who never turns up. So far, so normal In the plumber’s place arrives a stranger with a Liverpool accent. At first she thinks he’s a photographer hoping to avail himself of her view. So begins a tragi-comedy of quintessentially English misunderstandings.
“How much will you get for a good shot?”
“Life without parole,” he said.
I laughed. “It’s a not a crime.”
“That’s my feeling.”
Only when the not-plumber begins unpacking and assembling a gun does she realize she’s admitted an assassin. But, rather than screaming for help, she goes on to domestic autopilot. She tidies up. She offers him tea. The gravity of the situation dawns only when he asks for sugar. Such a man will kill.
I am no friend of this woman, though I don’t (I felt compelled to add) believe violence solves anything.
Yet, in just a few pages, this seemingly ordinary citizen ends up assisting an assassin. The “why” is more interesting than the “how.” Mantel wonders if we are all capable of being so culpable.
She started writing it the day she spied the Prime Minister. “I wasn’t published then but I immediately saw a story.” It’s hard to imagine a time when Mantel didn’t top the bestseller list and win every prize going. But she hasn’t forgotten it. In the first story, “Sorry to Disturb,” a housewife trapped with her husband in Saudi – “no one reads in Jeddah” – writes a comic novel in secret. Just as Mantel did. “I have had a little success, I explained, or I hope for a little success, I have written a novel you see, and an agent has taken it on.” That agent was Bill Hamilton, ‘the man in William IV street’ who represents her to this day and to whom this collection is dedicated.
So, why has it taken Mantel 30 years to pull the trigger on this tale? “I just couldn’t see how to get them to work together. The characters must examine their own myths and those of their communities. Each colludes for their own reasons.”
Was she freed by Thatcher’s death? “I am concerned with respect. I’m not concerned with taste. I would have happily concluded the story in her lifetime but couldn’t—it was my technical difficulty, not any delicacy. I believe in walking that line. You mustn’t be too timid to risk getting it wrong. ”
Last year Mantel was thrown in the stocks for describing the Duchess of Cambridge as a “plastic princess born to breed” in a lecture on “Royal Bodies.” Unbowed, she is uncowed at the prospect of more “fuss.” She even seems slightly excited about it.
“As a writer you have a choice to make—are you going to accept censorship or not? In the case of the Duchess, the great outraged weren’t at the lecture and didn’t read the article. I was saying ‘please back off and treat this young woman as human.’ I was speaking in her favor! I wouldn’t be so petty as to criticize someone for their appearance. Look at me and Mary Beard and all the other women whose arguments are not engaged with or dismissed by fixations with appearance. As for Baby Number Two: I congratulate the Duchess.”
Whether its 1580 or 1980, style versus substance is a key preoccupation for Mantel. Thatcher embodies this debate. Says the householder:
“It’s the fake femininity I can’t stand, and the counterfeit voice.”
The assassin counters:
“It’s not about her handbag. It’s not about her hairdo. It’s about Ireland.”
“Both positions are riven by contradiction,” says Mantel. “As was Thatcher. She is the very stuff of drama. She is a fantastic character. Why did she – does she – arouse such strong reactions?”
Thatcher dominated my childhood and shaped my life just as much, if not more, than my parents. Thatcher was the blond bogey-woman blamed for everything bad that happened in the former pit-village where I grew up. And a lot of bad things happened. But I found Maggie’s certainty inspiring and her Terminator-like rise from the rubble of the Grand Hotel impressed me as a child. Mantel has only grudging admiration.
“When I think of her I can still feel that boiling detestation. She did long-standing damage in many areas of national life but I am not either of those people in that room. I am standing by the window with my notebook.” And yet, the trigger is pulled.
“I never voted for her but I can stand back from my political views and from hers and appreciate her as a phenomenon. As a citizen I suffered from her but as a writer I benefited.”
“Creativity in politics is rare but I think she had it,” Mantel admits. “Cromwell did too. But there are big differences. He was a negotiator and she detested consensus—she saw herself as an Old Testament prophet delivering the truth from on high. Cromwell used history to pretend the new things he was doing were old and thus to soothe the English temperament. Mrs Thatcher despised history as a constraint.”
Cromwell and Thatcher were both self-made. As is Mantel—her mother was a mill worker and her father disappeared when she was eleven. As am I. We were all the first from our families to go to university. But, Mantel believes, Thatcher hated the end result: “She couldn’t turn herself into a posh girl with the right vowels. If you’re that dissatisfied with yourself you try to fix other people and if they won’t be fixed you become punitive.”
Women beware women.
“It’s true, no one can now say a woman can’t run the country but I think she set back the cause of women in public life. She imitated masculine quantities to the extent that she had to get herself a good war. It [The Falklands] was great stuff—limited casualties, little impact on the Home Front and great visual propaganda. I am not suggesting this was conscious. I suspect Thatcher was the last person in the world to be able to examine her inner life but she could sell a myth. The idea that women must imitate men to succeed is anti-feminist. She was not of woman born. She was a psychological transvestite.”
Ultimately it is neither style nor substance that persuades the householder to help the assassin.
“It’s her lack of pity. Why does she need an eye operation? Is it because she can’t cry?”
“Lack of empathy was Thatcher’s fatal defect,” says Mantel. “Without it there is no shared humanity. Without regret there can be no contrition, there can only be an agenda which is prepared to sacrifice people for ideology.”
When the householder realizes the assassin is effectively on a suicide mission she decides to show him mercy—a quality strained in the woman they despise. In her flat is a door which leads to the building next door. It offers escape. It is their – our – chance for redemption.
“Who has not seen the door in the wall? It is the invalid child’s consolation, the prisoner’s last hope…It is a special door and obeys no law of wood or iron…it is visible only to the eye of faith…Note the cold wind that blows through it, when you open it a crack. History could always have been otherwise.”
The trigger is pulled and a new history is written but the real target is not Thatcher—it is us, the reader. And Mantel does not miss. Her aim is merciless.
Behind my desk, in my bedroom, there is a large bookcase divided into 25 cubes. On the wall facing my desk there are three bookshelves. Instead of a table, there is also a shelf at my bedside. Beside my desk is an additional bookcase, the Billy model from Ikea, with six shelves. All this shelf space amounts to about 56 feet.
I have turned my attention to my bookshelves and not what stand on them because I am reorganizing my personal library. I need to know how much space I have for my books, in order to accommodate the existing space for a logical, efficacious, and personalized classification system for the books I own, which currently amount to just short of 500 volumes. My endeavor, of course, is not a very great one. I do have a considerable number of books, but by no means is my collection large or unwieldy. I’m only 20, and as such my library is not a lifetime’s library — it is only the nucleus of a true library, with burgeoning interests, mistakes, discoveries, a few treasures, and several shortcomings.
As for the organization of the books, well, I must say that in its current state the classification is far from optimal. Most of last semester’s books are still on the shelf above my desk and deserve integration with the rest of my collection, instead of groupings by course reading material. My French books are all together in the Billy bookcase, which results in separating the Penguin edition of Chekhov’s Ward No. 6 and Other Stories, 1892-1895 from the French translation of Chekhov’s (or, as it were, Tchekhov’s) plays, published by Folio in two paperback volumes.
Similarly, the current state of my books creates rifts between ideas and eras, or tensions where there shouldn’t be any. For instance my enormous paperback of Allen Ginsberg’s Collected Poems lies on a shelf above my desk because I was too lazy to make room for it in the cubes. Thus Ginsberg is a room apart from his friend Kerouac (if their belonging to the Beats shouldn’t be enough to bring them together, Ginsberg even took the pictures on the cover of On the Road, which I think calls for neighboring spots on my shelves). In the cubes there are other inconsistencies: Junot Díaz is between the single volume Chronicles of Narnia and Anne Michaels; Hemingway shares his shelf with Amitav Ghosh, Toni Morrison, and Nabokov — I can’t think of any reason why those authors should rub covers.
Likewise, when I see Eco’s The Name of the Rose on one shelf and his collection of essays On Literature on the opposite wall, I know it is time to take all the books out, dust off the shelves, and start again from scratch.
The first step in reorganizing my personal library is finding a system. Of this, there are many, some more improvised than others. In his bible of bibliomania, The Library at Night, Alberto Manguel explores the different facets of the library, and also the different ways to organize books. For his own collection of 30,000 books, which he keeps in his château in France, Manguel has chosen to divide his books by language, and then place them alphabetically. Rather drab for me, I think, considering the small size of my own book collection.
Some book collectors have been more original. Take Samuel Pepys for instance, the great 17th century diarist, who maintained a personal library (which still exists) of 3,000 books exactly, not a volume more. What is, perhaps, the most astounding feature of Pepys’ library is the way in which the books were organized: by size. All his volumes were numbered from 1 to 3,000, from smallest to biggest, and placed in that order in his bookcases, each volume bound in matching leather, and each book resting on a little wooden stilt matching the cover, to create unity in height — gentlemanly elegance.
What may be acknowledged about any organizational system is that they all have certain limitations. Even the Dewey Decimal System, used by the majority of public libraries in the world — which divides human knowledge into ten decimals, in turn subdivided into ten categories, and so on — is limited when it comes to books with split subjects (take the excellent Time Among the Maya, by Ronald Wright, which is part travel journal in Mesoamerica, part history book on the Mayas).
But I am looking for a more intuitive organizational system, something flexible and creative. An article in The Guardian’s online book section discussed “bookshelf etiquette,” organizational systems like grouping books by theme or color. One of the propositions was to place books together by potential for their authors to be friends. I choose a different path: all of an author’s books are together (no matter the language), authors that go well together go together, other books are placed by association of genre or style. I will start with that in mind, and see where it brings me.
I remove books from my shelves. I grab multiple spines between my thumb and fingers, slide out the volumes and pile them on my desk, on the floor — soon my room is like a messy cave of paper and multicolored covers and spines. The wall behind my desk is bland, covered in empty cubes, spacious and clean. I am reminded of a time, not so long ago, when my entire book collection did not even fit on the six shelves of a Billy bookcase.
As I take the books out of their bookcases, crack open a few to see if the words inside still have the same ring, and admire the beauty of some covers, I start to understand that there are some books I do no want anymore. There is a vital difference between books you do not need and books you no longer want to have. I would willingly keep a book I hated if it had a nice cover (and I do, like Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes, a silly collection of short stories with a stunning, elegant cover). The books I am ready to give away are books I don’t care about: they are ugly, I have had them for too long, I have never read them and never will — they simply become a waste of space.
Take How to Read Novels Like a Professor, a paperback I bought a couple of years ago, in an attempt to uncover some of literature’s secrets before entering University. I drop the book with the other giveaways. A few days later I pick it up again and this passage catches my attention: “Books lead to books, ideas to ideas. You can wear out a hundred hammocks and never reach the end. And that’s the good news.” I certainly agree with that. No English major would be supposed to be caught dead with such a preposterously titled book in their library, and maybe that’s the reason why I wanted to give it away in the first place. I decide to keep it in my collection after all — for now.
In the end I’ve put aside two dozen books in the giveaway pile. By no means am I kidding myself that I’m actually getting rid of a large chunk of my library. I admire people who are able to rid themselves of books they love, give books away selflessly so that others can enjoy them. I know I could never do such a thing.
I admit, with a hint of guilt, that I have not read all the books I own. Not even close. The majority of them, yes (I hope), but far from all of them. Despite the incredible amount of reading left for me to do before I really know my library, almost every week I buy more books.
Part of the problem lies in my appreciation for books as objects, as elegant collectibles. I like not only to read them, but to look at them, touch them. Larry McMurtry has phrased it rather elegantly in his memoir, titled simply, Books:
But there can be secondary and tertiary reasons for wanting a particular book. One is the pleasure of holding the physical book itself: savoring the type, the binding, the book’s feel and heft. All these things can be enjoyed apart from literature, which some, but not all, books contain.
While I have shelves full of books I have not read at home, I keep on thinking about which books I’m going to buy next. Although minor, this problem does create a fair amount of anxiety, essentially caused by the fact that I simply don’t read enough. Furthermore, as I reorganize my books I realize there are many I would like to reread soon. (At the top of my list: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows…) Sometimes I wish I were that man in the Twilight Zone episode who finds himself in the ruins of a public library, with lots of food and all the time in the world to read all the books he wants.
My library is also the most personal of filing systems, with countless mementos flattened between the covers of the books. There is a card from a blood-drive marking a page in Greenblatt’s biography of Shakespeare, reminding me of when I can give blood again. I slam away the congratulations card from the English department of my college which awarded me a prize in Shakespeare studies (oddly, the quote on the card is by Anaïs Nin) in the bard’s complete works (leatherbound, gold page edges). A business card from the Winding Staircase, a charming Dublin bookstore, falls out of De Niro’s Game, which I read in Ireland. Between my Oscar Wildes I find a touching card from my parents, given to me when I turned 18. I choose a better place for it: between the pages of a book on self-fashioning in the Renaissance they bought for me at Shakespeare and Company, in Paris, a place I have only been to in my dreams.
I have finally emptied all my shelves. It was long — and tedious. Not in the physical sense, but in one that is, of sorts, moral. Removing all those books was the undoing of something that was set, a collection which, it seems, had built itself up, slowly, purposefully, into a cohesive whole. The work of an oyster.
After the toil of the unmaking, now I have to rebuild my library up — restock the shelves that now stand cleared, poised, filled only with light and shadows. After some consideration, the first book I place back on the top left cube, is Beowulf, masterfully translated by Seamus Heaney, the beginning of literature in English. I have to rifle down the spines of a few piles before I finally locate it.
Next up goes Tolkien. I cannot resist — without him I’m not sure Beowulf would even be taught in schools at all. His translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, first, to soften the transition, and then The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, Tree and Leaf, and The Children of Hurin. Then I place Herodotus, whom my girlfriend assures me thinks exactly like Tolkien. I am startled by my audacity. There is a jump from 10th century Anglo-Saxon manuscript to 20th Century fantasy writer to the father of history, a fifth-century Greek — my system is either creative or blasphemous.
My girlfriend came to help me. Her presence was motivating — I have done more work in half an hour than in the last week. The Canterbury Tales are inserted between Beowulf and Tolkien by her recommendation, I add Peter Ackroyd’s The Clerkenwell Tales beside it. A cube inspired by military history starts with Thucydides and ends with a biography on George Washington — yet George Orwell, Alan Moore, and Annie Proulx all end up on it by association. From the look in my girlfriend’s eyes I know she thinks this is starting to look like a madman’s library. Nothing new there, bibliomania is a psychological disorder, I am told.
Putting Sylvia Plath with her husband Ted Hughes feels wrong, so we try to find a new lover for her. I think of Byron as a joke, my girlfriend proposes Mary Shelley as a fellow tortured female writer. The offer is accepted and Plath serves as transition into gothic fiction. Ironically, Byron ends up just after Shelley anyway (they shared more than shelf-space in their lives, after all), and before Polidori and Stoker. Books start to place themselves on their own.
There is a cube for my books about books: Anne Fadiman and Manguel, Borges (which I can no longer dissociate from the latter), 501 Must-Read Books, A Gentle Madness, The Companionship of Books, and others go here. There is a cube, or half of it, at least, for Faber friends: Eliot, Hughes, Graham Swift, Kazuo Ishiguro. Edgy writers (Bukowski, Tony O’Neill, Mark SaFranco, Writing at the Edge) share their cube with erotic fiction (The Gates of Paradise, Delta of Venus, the Marquis de Sade, Wetlands by Charlotte Roche, La vie sexuelle de Catherine M.) — Neil Strauss buffers between them.
I go on like this, a few minutes every day. Slowly, surely, books leave my floor, my desk, my bed, my bathroom, and regain their place on the shelves in some kind of order. Some associations are obvious — others, not so much.
Finally the cubes are filled again. I can breathe a bit more in my bedroom. I enjoy looking at the neat rows of spines, follow the literary path of my own twisted organization system. Still, there are many flaws on my shelves, mainly caused by lack of room (or perhaps because the number of books is too great). Some books just don’t “fit” anywhere, others would go well in too many places. Ian McEwan, for instance, ends up sharing his shelf with female writers like Doris Lessing, Emily Brontë, and Virginia Woolf. I have to think of the shelves as a work in progress in order to live with their limitations.
Then, of course, there are also some things I love about the new shelf-arrangement: the various degrees of moral and social incorrectness in the cube that starts with Oscar Wilde, then moves to Thomas Hardy and D. H. Lawrence; how A Moveable Feast rubs covers with John Glassco’s Memoirs of Montparnasse; and that His Dark Materials finally stands beside my three editions of Paradise Lost.
Over my desk I place essays on philosophy and literature. My heavy anthologies — costly books with a fair amount of repetition (parts of The Canterbury Tales appear in at least three of them) and some textbooks I keep as reference — go in the sturdy Billy. I also shelve my art books there, like my Janson’s History of Art, as well as some exhibition catalogues, which map out my travels: the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, the Ivan Mestrovic Gallery in Split.
Lastly, I put back my books in French. I keep them together, two compact shelves of ivory spines. I have always wondered at the uniformity of French covers, often white, usually bland. I start with Don Quixote, move down to Alexandre Dumas, the Arsène Lupins which belonged to my father, then Québecois literature. The next shelf is mostly from France: Sartre, Camus, Flaubert, and Littell (which I put beside the latter because of the masterful description in Les Bienveillantes of the narrator reading L’Éducation sentimentale as he walks through fields devastated by war), and contemporary authors like Makine, Folco, and Pennac.
Now my shelves are full again, or almost. I have given away enough books to leave two empty shelves — one in the Billy and the topmost shelf above my desk — waiting to be filled by new acquisitions (which certainly won’t be long in coming).
This adventure in bookshelf etiquette helped me take control of my library, rediscover what I have, solidify my appreciation for my books — the majority of which are probably going to follow me for the rest of my life. I have realized how many books I own but have not read (The Portrait of a Lady, Nicholas Nickleby, War and Peace, Beyond Black…), but I know that I am not quite ready for some of them, and they can wait a while longer. I dream of owning and reading all of Atwood, Munro, Updike. There are many books I should own but do not: I have nothing by J.M. Coetzee, or Ovid, or Paul Auster. I have Bolaño’s 2666, but not the Savage Detectives; Waugh’s Vile Bodies but not Brideshead Revisited; Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, but not Love in the Time of Cholera. My book collection is full of hopes and holes.
Thus I have a second library, in my mind, of which my real, physical book collection is only the tip (to use that famous iceberg metaphor). Underneath my shelves lie all the books I want, all the books I should have (dictated by the canon, or recommendations from friends and famous people), all the books I need, like Borges’ fabulous Library of Babel, extending out into book-lined room after book-lined room, infinitely.
Now, you will have to excuse me, but I have to stop this business — I have some reading to do.
[Image source: Stewart Butterfield]
Long considered likely to win the prize one day, Hilary Mantel has finally taken home the Booker for Wolf Hall. The book will hit shelves in the States next week but has already been warmly received overseas. To win, Mantel edged out other big names like J.M. Coetzee and A.S. Byatt.
[Mantel’s] work is full of devils, literal devils, and when they are not present their place is filled by regular, shocking evil. Graves are robbed; a baby is drowned; a woman kills her mother. At the same time, the books are extremely funny. This doesn’t cancel out the horror. What we are left with is a picture of people—not necessarily good people—muddlingly trying to explain to themselves the pain and unknowability of their lives. Is there a God? What’s going to happen to us when we die? Eschatology crossed with comedy: this is Mantel’s literary property.