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This past weekend I was fortunate enough to be in Portland, Oregon for the Willamette Writers conference.  I love writers conferences—not only do I welcome an opportunity to meet new people, I enjoy hearing pitches (and, some might say, hearing myself talk).  In any event, I met an interesting assortment of writers, some accomplished, some aspiring, and I have my fingers crossed that my brief sojourn in the Pacific Northwest will net me a new client or three.

This trip was a particular pleasure because it gave me the long-awaited opportunity to meet two of my clients—people I have represented for the better part of a decade and yet, due to circumstance of geography and timing, never met. I liked them tremendously from afar and corresponded with them often, but meeting them in person was a pure and absolute delight.  I occupied much of the long plane ride back counting my blessings.  Few things are as humbling or inspiring as the chance to represent brilliant writers, people whose works should be shouted from the rooftops.  Evangelizing on behalf of my clients is the one sort of proselytizing I can get behind.

I also used my travel time—uncomfortably extended by virtue of being twice bumped from flights (curse you, United Airlines!)—to read Hilary Mantel’s sequel to Wolf Hall, Bringing Up the Bodies.  In it, something interesting takes place, quite the opposite of what so often happens in fiction (or, in the case of me and my authors, real life) in which the reader’s feeling for the protagonists increase as we spend time in their company.  Granted access to a character’s heart and mind, plunged into his choices, flawed as they may be, we may cultivate a deep and abiding sympathy for a figment of our own (and the author’s) imagination.  This experience is no less profound for being 1) imaginary and 2) familiar. Surely the sense of identification that grows between reader and character is one of the things that gives novels such power.  In Mantel’s book, which tells the story of Thomas Cromwell, trusted adviser to Henry VIII and facilitator of his master’s serial marriages, Cromwell becomes less likeable and more problematic with every page. The shift is subtle, discomfiting and completely by design.  By the time I reached this passage:

“He needs guilty men. So he has found men who are guilty. Though perhaps not guilty as charged.”

I realized that my companion of some 400 pages is intelligent, observant, and pretty much amoral.  Mantel’s ability to make her readers complicit in Cromwell’s choices, his pragmatism and his insight into human behavior,  in his damned and damning relationship with his monarch–whom he serves with complete obedience but few illusions– is remarkable.  This Thomas Cromwell does not emerge from the tradition of unreliable narrators of the sort who-initially- seem-like-nice-folks-but-turn-out-to-be-axe-murderers. Cromwell is ultimately a killer, but he implicates the reader in his crimes.

I wonder if you can think of other characters who become less, rather than more sympathetic in the course of a story (and not just because the author fell down on the job). None are leaping to mind, but I suspect it’s because I am still, at least partially, tarrying with the Tudors.

 

5 Responses to

  1. My nominations: Charles Arrowby in Iris Murdoch’s THE SEA, THE SEA, and Tony Webster in Julian Barnes’ THE SENSE OF AN ENDING. I happened to read these two Booker Prize winners back to back earlier this summer, and found the parallels striking — including the matching protagonists who become harder to like with every turned page.

  2. Belinda in THE QUEEN’S BASTARD became much less likeable for me by the end of the book, due to the way she manipulated several people with none of the remorse or horror I felt she (or any human) should have experienced. I’m not 100% sure if the author intended this, or at least intended me to loathe her as much as I did; part of my dislike could be me reading further into some of the character’s actions and her implications than was intended, or holding her more responsible for them than the author would have liked. It kept me from reading the sequel, though.

  3. Siri Kirpal Kaur Khalsa says:

    I very much enjoyed meeting you at the conference and look forward to sending you the proposal.

    The Writing on the Wall by Lynne Sharon Schwartz is two books in one. The book about the 9/11 attacks through the eyes of an average New Yorker is good. Unfortunately, the book about the need for clear communication and straightforward language is blindsided by the main character, who promotes these beliefs about communication, but is nonetheless a habitual liar. I don’t think the author intended the main character to come off so badly, but that character grows more loathesome as the book progresses.

  4. I think I’m on a roll. I just finished Per Petterson’s I CURSE THE RIVER OF TIME … and there he was, another protagonist who becomes more pathetic and less sympathetic with each new chapter. Hmmmm … maybe it’s me? Am I a misanthrope, or do I just happen to be reading through a string of loser protagonists???

  5. Steve’s choices are so good!–though I wonder if Tony, and indeed every character in THE SENSE OF AN ENDING, had any appeal from the start. John Dowell in THE GOOD SOLDIER was an early “deteriorating narrator,” and I’d add Sam from THE MAN WHO LOVED CHILDREN, who began as a comic figure and gradually emerged as an unforgettable monster.

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