Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Wolf Hall by Hillary Mantel

Henry VIII, Cromwell, Thomas More—three larger than life personages all appear in Hillary Mantel's book Wolf Hall. While I can't imagine wanting to live in England at that time, I can vicariously, and from a time distance of over 484 years, be involved in the machinations of the realm of Henry VIII.

Henry VIII grows tired of his wife Katherine when she bears him no heir , a son, and he wants the marriage annulled. The fact that he and Katherine have a child—albeit a girl—does not prevent him from desiring the marriage to be nullified, repudiated as if it did not exist because he wished to marry Anne Boleyn.

To be released from a marriage in an age when the Pope's authority meant a strict obedience to his Papacy required stealth, cunning and diplomacy.

Thomas More, a strong Catholic, refused to bend to the King's desire to both have the marriage annulled and later on to take an oath making the king and not the Pope head of the English Church. The refusal to take the vow eventually leads to his confinement in the Tower and then to his death.

Cromwell, on the other hand, enabled the marriage to proceed by a variety of nefarious moves—or perhaps shrewd moves.

Knowing some history—we know that Anne—in time, after giving birth to a daughter and several miscarriages, was beheaded in 1536—only three years after her marriage to Henry. Mantle's depiction of Anne portrays her as a unlikeable and conniving woman.

Henry married six times and beyond the scope of this book—however—his wives didn't fare too well. Poor Katherine, or Catherine, of Aragon's marriage was annulled and her freedom was restricted , under watch and guard, at a grim castle. After Anne Boleyn came Jane Seymour who died a few days after childbirth. Another annulment—Anne of Cleves, but at least she did better than Catherine Howard who was beheaded. His last wife—Catherine Parr became a widow.

Cromwell and More, both enigmatic and fascinating, appear in a number of books and plays. Thomas More, often depicted as a saint while Cromwell is often seen as diabolically shrewd. Recently a few historians have looked at Cromwell in a different light—politically acute, behind the scenes in the rewriting of English policy, and instrumental in the movement of England into modern times.

Hillary Mantel's Cromwell is portrayed in a favorable light—but who knows for certain. That he was disliked by the nobles because of his lowly birth is certain—that he was feared because of his powerful position was also certain. That he used any means to effect the ends is debateable— or certain— depending upon the historian.

Every story must have an inciting incident which propels the story forward. Is the inciting event Henry VIII's desire to be released from his marriage? Does everything proceed from there?

William Tyndale is in the background with his translation of scriptures into English in 1524 . The Church of England was in a period of turmoil and Tyndale moved to Germany where he continued with his work. Initially Henry VIII opposed the translation and confiscated copies of the Tyndale Bible.

Tyndale was betrayed by a friend, tried, and imprisoned near modern day Brussels. Despite being in prison he tried to continue his work of translation. "On October 6, 1536...he was strangled and then burned at the stake. As he died, Tyndale prayed, Lord, open the king of England's eyes."

In 1539 Henry VIII "sanctioned the printing of an authorized version of an English Bible..." * ( about.com)

Of course, as Mantel indicates, it was to Henry's advantage to distance the Church of England from the Pope, and to require allegiance to himself as the head of the Church of England.

So indeed—the kindling for all the changes may indeed be the desire to be released from a marriage that didn't provide him with an heir.

I suspect that Hillary will continue the story for it is Cromwell who convinces Henry to marry Anne of Cleves as part of his plan to "assure the support of the German princes against the Holy Roman Empire. The marriage was a disaster and the alliance failed. Henry withdrew his support from Cromwell, who was charged with treason. He was executed at the Tower of London on July 28, 1540." * (BBC History)

Odd how things work out.
Cromwell who worked so hard to find a way to allow Henry VIII the chance to nullify his marriage to Catherine so that he could marry Anne Boleyn and have a legitimate heir, was beheaded four years after Anne Boleyn's similar fate.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Empire of Kalman the Cripple

I find myself connected to some book reviewers and the books they recommend—the older books, those books I don't know and authors that are unfamiliar. Several weeks ago I wrote down the name of an author and a book recommended by reviewer—new to me.

The author—Yehuda Elberg and the book The Empire of Kalman the Cripple. According to the short bio on the book flap Elberg descended from a rabbinical Polish family and was an ordained rabbi. Born in 1912 his twenties coincided with World war II. He actively participating in the Polish resistance throughout the war.

His books were written in Yiddish and Hebrew. The Empire of Kalman the Cripple, originally published in 1983, and translated into English in 1997, takes place in Dombrokva, Poland— a shetyl where Jews lived amidst a strong current of anti-semitism.

Kalman, crippled at a young age—unable to walk, drags himself around. He's astute and grows up to become a superior business man in a society where he's dealing with strong anti-Jewish sentiment. Yet, Kalman through his own machinations learns to deal with the people in charge and soon has a large shop that sells everything.

From there he spreads out—brings electricity to the town, builds a mill, and expands his business operations.

Bullying, unkind comments, physical torments all leave him with a spitefulness that he inflicts on others. Over the course of years he inflicts others with his bullying and malice, but then as he begins to amass more money he starts handing out kindness—and he changes.

Although he knows that some of his acts can never be eradicated, nor the harm that he perpetrated be forgotten by one woman.

He is building an empire and surrounding himself with people who see him as a kind man. Before he dies he makes out a will leaving his money to a number of people he's helped. He asks the young man who works for him and is like a son to him to take care of his empire, to keep it growing.

Kalman dies the year before the Nazis come into power—the empire will crumble.

The act that can't be forgotten or erased is a horrible act of rape against a woman he loved and who thwarts his advances.

It is only at the end of his life that Kalman relives the horror of what he did and his impotence in forgiving himself for the rape.
As a protagonist Kalman is a flawed character, molded by his disability, his father leaving when he was crippled,and the intense loneliness of his youth.

One wonders if Kalman, despite the changes, can ever be released from the enormity of what he did to another human being. Perhaps only God can truly forgive Kalman.