Prizes can be superfluous. I say this because we all know how frustrating they can be, year after year, as debates about the best film, album or book pop up at dinner tables. We know these decisions are subjective, and almost always political, but wait for them anyway because celebrating these achievements makes us happier to be human, if only for a little while until the next shortlist appears.
The Booker Prize longlist will appear this July, and while it will be Earth-shattering only to the rapidly shrinking number of people who still think about literature while the world burns, it is always an announcement that generates more words in opinion pieces than in the actual books the prize is meant to evaluate. I am rooting this year for Hilary Mantel, the English writer who will turn 68 by the time the longlist appears, and whom I hope will win for an unprecedented third time.
This isn’t about gender equality, because that argument will inevitably pop up among talking heads in our TikTok-powered ‘woke generation’. Mantel may be the first woman to receive a Booker twice, but her winning it one more time has nothing to do with her sex and everything to do with the fact that she is a phenomenal writer.
A question that will also be asked by someone, somewhere, is whether a book about the King of England’s chief minister from 1532 to 1540 has any relevance to the world we live in. We are in the middle of a pandemic, the annoying person posing that question will point out, so why should a topic like this matter? Questions like these are almost always raised by those who think of literature as something trapped in resin, to be brought out under a light during moments of leisure when there isn’t anything more constructive to do. The short answer, based on my reading of Mantel’s trilogy — Wolf Hall in 2009, Bring Up the Bodies in 2012, and The Mirror and the Light this year — is that I found little to be more relevant over the past decade.
Let’s put aside the fact that Mantel’s final chapter, a book 8 years in the making, lives up to the hype. It is entertaining and amusing, with accomplished prose of the sort one would expect from a much-lauded writer who has been polishing her craft for over three decades now. Set in Tudor England, her trilogy tracks the astonishing rise and swift fall of Thomas Cromwell, once the most powerful servant of Henry VIII. It features a dizzying cast of characters, from earls and queens to bishops and minstrels, and she juggles their lives, loves, public and private thoughts with the kind of skill that requires years of disciplined training. To read it is to immerse oneself in the intrigues of a long-vanished court, with a front-row seat to what life was like in fifteenth-century England.
What struck me most, aside from the sheer quality of writing, was how Mantel managed to do what only the finest works of art can: Make the ordinary seem magical and recreate a vanished world. The books don’t just take us into the privy council of a powerful man, they also reveal the inner workings of a complicated mind, which is always far more difficult to pull off.
The trilogy is as much about Cromwell as it is about Henry VIII, known more for his six tragic marriages than his role in the Reformation that separated the Church of England from Rome, resulting in his eventual excommunication. As a portrait of this difficult, mercurial ruler, it is impossible to fault Mantel. She manages not only to make Henry seem like flesh and blood again, but also captures the elusive nature of any relationship between powerful employer and strong-willed employee. It is the latter that made me feel, more than anything else, that there were more lessons to be learned here than a semester at any leading business school could provide.
While the first part introduces us to Henry and tracks Cromwell’s path from working-class blacksmith to 1st Earl of Essex, the sequel focuses almost exclusively on the fall of Queen Anne Boleyn. The third instalment documents Henry’s third, fourth and fifth wives — Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, and Catherine Howard, respectively — along with Cromwell’s final four years.
I thought of Cromwell often in the days after I turned the last page. So much of what happened at his time ought to have seemed antiquated. Instead, in my quarantined state, it felt as if little had changed. Around me, debates about the failure of capitalism raged, with reports of how the rich had somehow managed to get richer during the pandemic. There was talk of how the poor didn’t matter, and how decisions made in boardrooms had repercussions that those making them had no inkling of. What struck me most was how Cromwell’s interactions with his King reminded me of innumerable conversations with managers and CEOs over the course of my own career, and how working in the corporate space continued to feel like walking the same tightrope he did in another time and country.
Yes, prizes are superfluous because we all have that favourite piece of art that we thrust upon friends and family with the disclaimer ‘It may not have won anything, but it will change your life.’ We say this because we know how little an award can mean the minute something more serious — like an economic depression — comes along.
I believe prizes act like signposts. They stand up amid a sea of options, asking us to stop and consider something that may be worth our while. Hilary Mantel may not win the Booker. She may even fail to make it to the longlist because disappointments also generate publicity. Irrespective of what happens, I live with the knowledge that I stopped for her trilogy in 2009 and stayed until she finished. 11 years on, I continue to be happy with that decision.
— First published in GQ