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‘The queen, my lord, is dead’

September 30, 2022

In history, all of us are dead and alive at once: quantum superposition.

Robert Kahn

By Robert Kahn

Deputy editor emeritus, Courthouse News

When I heard last week that Hilary Mantel had died, I was lounging on a shady porch, enjoying the last pages of “The Mirror & the Light.” She died on the first day of fall — Sept. 22 this year. I heard about it on the 23rd: John Coltrane’s 96th birthday. 

Trane made it to 41. Hilary was 70. I’m 71. Who said life was fair?

Thomas Cromwell got it in the neck 480 years ago. He was 55. Henry VIII died seven years later, also at 55. I never liked Henry, and never cared much for Cromwell, until I read the trilogy. Now I don’t so much like him as sympathize with the poor fellow. 

No one else could have done as well, for so long, but he got it in the neck anyway.

I never liked historical fiction. Still don’t, save for the divine Hilary’s. Give me history or give me fiction, I say, but not both at once. Wasn’t it Tom Paine who said: “Give me liberty or give me fiction!” Or do I disremember that one?

Wait … wasn’t it “Give me history (or liberty?) or give me …” O yeah, death.

No, no! I mean fiction.

Most histories, even the great ones, have a bit of fiction in them. How could they not? History is quantum superposition: All of us are dead and alive at once, in history.

Fair is fair and foul is foul.

A lot of good that does us.

That afternoon after the Autumn Equinox I snoozed under a cool breeze … woke up … read a page or two … snoozed again, book on my chest … half woke up again to see the first leaves of fall falling, draping my trusty guardian Titus Flavius: husky-greyhound, noble beast. He would do anything for me, and I for him. We all need someone like that — even kings need it.

In reviewing the Cromwell trilogy, one is reduced to the level of a tour guide in the Louvre: “Look at that! And look at the next one! And how about this?” In scene after scene for more than 1,800 pages, Mantel presents — creates? imagines? — the exquisite hypocrisy of high-level diplomacy: a knife hidden under every word of praise, the teeth behind every smile.

Mantel’s first great book was “A Place of Greater Safety” (1992) a triography of Maximilien Robespierre, Georges Danton and Camille Desmoulins — three heroes, villains, whathaveyou of the French Revolution. It was her first published novel — 725 pages, for Pierre’s sake — and was rejected repeatedly by publishers. 

For my money, it’s just as good as the Cromwell trilogy, and — this is indisputable — it’s shorter. (Full disclosure: Danton is my man.)

Mantel lived most of her life in great physical pain. I’m sure you will forgive me for not getting philosophical here.

I must, however, disagree with the Los Angeles Times reviewer who claimed, “her action scenes rival Shakespeare.”

Hold on, pal. Shakespeare me no Shakespeares. 

Hilary Mantel was great: Among the greatest prose writers in the English language in the past 100 years? Probably. But Shakespeare?

Come on, man. Neither Hilary nor anyone, except a reviewer tryna show off, would claim such a thing.

Shakespeare and Chaucer will never be surpassed in English, because they were there at the origin. Mark Twain will never be surpassed, in our one-eighth of the world, for the same reason: He was there at the beginning of American English.

Hilary Mantel was something else — a spirit now, a guide looking back through the mists of 500 years to a world of men and women like us, in all their pathetic glory, their bright shining misery, stumping around the world like Henry, with our open wounds, our magnificent ignorance, our common end.

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