Gabriel Mälesskircher, Saint Guy Healing a Possessed Man, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
This week, we remember Hilary Mantel (1952–2022), and bring you recommendations from two of our issue no. 241 contributors.
On holiday in France, I went to Colmar to see the Isenheim Altarpiece in the Musée Unterlinden. Afterward, wandering through the museum’s collection of medieval and Renaissance art, I came across a small oil painting: part of an altarpiece attributed to Gabriel Mälesskircher, a fifteenth-century German artist from Colmar. Saint Guy Healing a Possessed Man has clear, singing colors, predominantly reds and greens. While Saint Guy looks on, the possessed man in question is being restrained by three other men. His head is thrown back, and the expelled demon, a tiny black humanoid, has just flown out of his gaping mouth.
I thought at once of Mavis Gallant’s story “In the Tunnel,” which ends with the protagonist, Sarah, writing a jokey, flirtatious invitation to dinner on the back of a postcard that shows a miniature human figure cast out from a man’s body: “This person must have eaten my cooking.” I remembered that another of Gallant’s stories, “Virus X,” is set partly in Colmar, and I felt certain that she knew Mälesskircher’s painting. I imagined her looking at it, taking in its detail as I was, and the thrill of connection ran through me like bright wire.
Back in Sydney, I woke with jet lag at three in the morning. In the living room, I switched on the heater and a lamp and began to read “In the Tunnel.” Well before I reached the end, I knew I had been wrong about Sarah’s postcard. The story is set on the French Riviera, and Sarah steals the card in a mountain chapel not far from Menton. The chapel, which Gallant doesn’t name, is Notre-Dame des Fontaines, famous for its frescoes. The one reproduced on Sarah’s postcard, by Giovanni Canavesio, depicts the hanged Judas. From the mess of guts that spills from his open stomach, his soul—a tiny man—reaches out to the waiting Devil. Visiting the chapel with Sarah are her lover, Roy, and the woman with whom he’s cheating on her. It’s Roy, betrayer and devil, a man who takes pleasure in cruelty, a man who has supervised hangings, who first makes the remark about Sarah’s cooking—seeking, as usual, to inflict pain. In other words, the subject of the fresco is integral to the story. But in my wish to connect with Gallant, I’d contrived to forget all this and had superimposed Mälesskircher’s painting onto Canavesio’s work.
At the end of the story, years have gone by and Sarah, too, has forgotten everything: Roy, the day in the chapel, the provenance of the postcard. When she unconsciously repeats Roy’s words, she’s making them her own, transforming hurt into erotic potential. After she writes the card, the past comes back to her. Her prospective dinner guest might turn out to be another Roy, but for now she’s out of the tunnel, and there’s joy in view. We remember only as much as we need to for happiness, and I felt happy that day in Colmar. Maybe Gallant did once pause in front of Saint Guy Healing a Possessed Man—why not?
—Michelle de Kretser, author of “Winter Term”
Middle-grade children’s literature consists of books intended to teach children something, most of which are boring, and books children actually like, most of which are bad. Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising sequence, which was published from 1965 to 1977, is neither. I reencountered these books, which I loved as a boy, a couple of weeks ago, when my ten-year-old daughter finally turned to them, having plowed through everything else lumped under the heading, “If you liked Harry Potter, you might also like …” In one sense Cooper’s series is typical middle-grade fantasy: kid wizard, prophecy, evildoers, Gandalf figure. In a larger sense, however, her books rewrote the formula before there was even a formula to be written. The boy wizard isn’t always central. The Gandalf figure is rather grim. Children are major actors, but the events depend on adult frailties like thwarted lust, and the characters’ faults and virtues are tangled together: when a boy hero named Bran is treated like an outsider, he resents that treatment but also grows vain about it, such that another boy thinks of Bran’s face as showing “shadows of crafty arrogance” and wishes it were otherwise. My daughter’s favorite book is the third one, Greenwitch, about a strange creature created by an ancient harvest ritual that works all too well. “What I like,” she told me, “is that everything isn’t just about the people, instead it’s about this mysterious force nobody can control and nobody really understands.” There are worse ways to think about the world, or about the world of books.
—David Orr, author of “The New You”
At school, Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety was recommended by the history teacher I, a hateful teenager, liked least (pedantic; prone to raptures over seemingly arcane points of fact). He proclaimed it the best book we could read on the French Revolution; since it was the only novel on the list, I opened it anyway, and was reluctantly entranced. (Robespierre, self-conscious, trying to muster something better than his usual thin, cold smile for Danton—“But it was the only one available to his face.”) Mantel’s imagination was uncannily sinuous: it seemed she could absorb and reinvent her revolutionaries without bending or avoiding any of the established facts, and dance her way through the countless disputed ones. By the time of Wolf Hall, she could conjure a Thomas Cromwell faithful to the historical record whose thoughts ran quick and vital, with no whiff of the antique. Those intricately researched and constructed books are animated throughout by the thrill it evidently gave Mantel to inhabit a mind like Cromwell’s—to imagine its unusual intelligence, the dark jokes it might tell itself even in extremis. There’s a moment when our man, believing he may die, is reluctant to give confession, to relinquish those sins “that others have not even found the opportunity of committing … they’re mine.” He goes on: “Besides, when I come to judgment I mean to come with a memorandum in my hand: I shall say to my Maker, I have fifty items here, possibly more.”
—Lidija Haas, deputy editor
Hilary Mantel’s Giving Up the Ghost is one of my favorite memoirs—a book about illness without sentimentality, let alone self-pity; about the supernatural, without the woo-woo; about motherhood without children:
You come to this place, midlife. You don’t know how you got here, but suddenly you’re staring fifty in the face. When you turn and look back down the years, you glimpse the ghosts of other lives you might have led. All your houses are haunted by the person you might have been. The wraiths and phantoms creep under your carpets and between the warp and weft of your curtains, they lurk in wardrobes and lie flat under drawer liners. You think of the children you might have had but didn’t. When the midwife says, “It’s a boy,” where does the girl go? When you think you’re pregnant, and you’re not, what happens to that child that has already formed in your mind? You keep it filed in a drawer of your consciousness, like a short story that wouldn’t work after the opening lines.
—Emily Stokes, editor
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