Toppling Maggie: a blown-up photo of Thatcher is taken down at the end of the Conservative Party Conference, 2 October. Photo: Getty
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Darkly humorous vision: Hilary Mantel’s “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher”

The conceit of this book’s title story has prompted calls for Mantel’s head – but how well would Wolf Hall have gone down at the court of Henry VIII?

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher
Hilary Mantel
Fourth Estate, 256pp, £14.99

It begins and ends with an open door. In the first story of Hilary Mantel’s blistering new collection, the narrator allows Ijaz, a salesman, into her apartment to use her phone. It is June 1983 and she is living in Jeddah with her husband, who works as a geologist. She is confined within the prison walls of her home, for this is Saudi Arabia; she is hoping her book might be published. (Readers who know something of Mantel’s life might see parallels with the author’s. Indeed, “Sorry to Disturb” was first published in the London Review of Books – under the title “Someone to Disturb” – as “a memoir”. Here those words have been excised.)

Ijaz makes his phone call but he returns and returns again. The narrator is drawn unwillingly into his life. He adds to a sense of oppression and menace present in all of these stories. Those who leave Jeddah are “escapees”, cockroaches scuttle in the shower, wardrobes disassemble themselves overnight and the narrator notes in her diary: “Execution dream again.”

And so, at the end of this collection – but just two months later, for the date is 6 August 1983 – another narrator lets another stranger over her threshold. She thinks he has come to fix her boiler; instead, he has come with a gun to assassinate the prime minister as she leaves a hospital in Windsor after an eye operation. As in “Sorry to Disturb”, reality and fiction blur. The website of the Margaret Thatcher Foundation will inform you that “MT left Windsor for Chequers at 1045” after being discharged from the Princess Christian’s Hospital. Mantel’s story – chatty, convincing, all the more sinister for that – reminds us simply, “History could always have been otherwise.”

The assassin’s rifle is called “the widow­maker”. Mantel always has her eye to its sight. Her elevation, in recent years, to the status of national treasure has obscured the dark, mordant humour of her vision. The conceit of this book’s title story has prompted calls for her head – Tim Bell, Thatcher’s former PR man, barked, “Surely the police should investigate” – which might cause some readers to smile, wondering how Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies would have gone down at the court of Henry VIII.

The ten stories that make up this collection have as their common thread the ability to measure the distance – it’s very small indeed – between our supposedly civilised daily behaviour and the darkest recesses of the human soul. In Mantel’s worlds, desire, or its opposite, is made manifest in the poltergeist movement of furniture, or, as in “Terminus”, a father’s ghost glimpsed on a train bound for Waterloo. That story, the shortest in the book, asks baldly how we can tell the living from the dead. You will never see rush hour in the same way again: “For how many of those surging thousands are solid, and how many of these assumptions are tricks of the light? How many, I ask you, are connected at all points, how many are utterly and convincingly in the state they purport to be: which is, alive?”

Sometimes her writing has this incantatory hauteur. It is blended with piercingly accurate descriptions (“the horse-chestnut whiff of nocturnal emissions”) and zinging juxtapositions (in the final story, the narrator wonders whether the gunman’s pockets are crammed with “assassin’s requisites”).

Collections of stories don’t always succeed as unified works. One of the pleasures of this book is its sense of wholeness, achieved even though all except the title story have been published before, one (“Harley Street”) as long ago as 1993. Like her novel Beyond Black, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher has an acid grip. The spirits that informed her haunting memoir, Giving Up the Ghost, have their echo here, too. Mantel has the ability to make the reader complicit with the narrator’s voice, whispering in her ear. This is especially disturbing in “Winter Break” – its ending made this particular reader jump out of her skin.

The most ordinary things take a strange turn: hanging fly strips are “a glazed yellow studded plump with prey”; a bed of geraniums is “so scarlet – as if the earth had bled through the pavements”. The dark humour of “How Shall I Know You?” takes the itinerant life of a moderately successful writer and makes it both funny (“. . . for sure A S Byatt would have managed it better”) and weirdly, indefinably creepy.

Mantel’s narrators are not comfortable companions: so much the better. They made me recall the time when a journalist got herself into hot water with Claire Messud. They were discussing Messud’s novel The Woman Upstairs and its character Nora Eldridge. Remarking that Nora’s outlook was “unbearably grim”, the journalist asked: “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you?” Messud’s reply was bracingly blunt. “For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp?”

The correct question to ask about fiction, Messud said, was not whether its characters were “likeable” but whether they were “alive”. Mantel’s characters are certainly that, even if they are haunted, like the reader, by the bleak and bitter spirits that live at the edge of our sight.

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, ISIS vs The World

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Essayism is ultimately about how literature can make a difference

Brian Dillon’s study of the essay is a beautiful and elegiac volume – having read it, I re-read it.

It is somewhat unseemly for a critic to confess that their immediate reaction to a book is one of unremitting envy. But Brian Dillon’s study of the essay is so careful and precise in its reading of a constellation of authors – Derrida and Barthes, Didion and Sontag, Browne and Burton, Woolf and Carlos Williams, Cioran and Perec – that my overall feeling was jealousy.

Dillon is a writer on art and culture and a tutor at the Royal College of Art, and the author of an award-winning memoir from 2005, In The Dark Room, about losing both his parents in his youth. A remarkable meditation on memory, it shares with his other work – an examination of hypochondria, Tormented Hope, and his writing on the cultural significance of ruins – a wide and nimble range of reference as well as a sense of personal grief and literary anomie.

 In Essayism, Dillon deals, with a kind of weary shrug, with the etymology of “essay”. But more than just sauntering through “attempt”, “try” and “test”, he digs much deeper: from essayer he goes to examen, the needle of a scale, an image of control. The essay is both a proposition and the judge of it. What truly comes across in this book is that the essay may well be a sally against the subject, but what is tried, in the final reckoning, are the authors themselves. And, of course, found wanting, in both senses of the word. The essay, in Dillon’s account, is both erotic and absent, lapidary and profuse, and is at its best when always concerned with its own realisation of its inherent sense of failure. Before this discussion of etymology, though, comes a bravura cadenza of topics, placed to make us realise the essay is never about what it claims to be at all.

The close readings of various essayists are counterpointed by chapters headed “On Consolation”. This is some of Dillon’s most autobiographical writing to date. In Essayism he both excoriates and exorcises, using the essay as a flail and a balm. In other
essayists he finds mirrors of his own joys and despairs, particularly in a wonderful piece about Cyril Connolly, which deserves commendation simply for not mentioning the pram in the hall.

Essaysism resists defining its subject. As the critic David Shields has said, you don’t have a drawer labelled “non-socks”; and “non-fiction” is a singularly slippery notion. Dillon’s “essays” range from aphorism to such glorious sprawls as Robert Burton’s 17th-century treatise The Anatomy of Melancholy. Some are journalistic, others are philosophic. To an extent, it is the very fluidity that Dillon admires; but above all he claims to admire style, and he is exceptionally good at defining the styles he likes. He reads more into the placing of a comma in a piece by Elizabeth Hardwick than most critics might find in the whole of her work.

This neatness, as it were, typifies the book. It is about noticing, and scrutinising, and reflecting. He has a keen ear for when a sentence has a word that is somehow out of key – “porcupine”, “broccoli” – yet possesses a strange beauty.

The book shifts into a higher gear when Dillon writes about his own depression. There is never a moment where he asks the reader to feel sorry for him. There is a steeliness in his descriptions of the nebulous haze that anti-depressants led him into; a stoic willingness to face one’s own sadness. Books, and the tiny curlicues of beauty he notes in them, were a kind of redemptive force for Dillon, far more so than Prozac. That at one point he found consolation in the pages of the NME is remarkable.

His account of depression is reflected in thinking about the essay. Is it something composed of fragments and shards? Is it a coolly organised progression? Is it about confession? Is it about concealment? The book’s excellence lies in the way these paradoxes are held suspended.

It seems churlish to mention omissions, but I do so because I would like to read what Brian Dillon would have to say about figures such as William Hazlitt, Richard Steele, Matthew Arnold or Iain Sinclair (perhaps our most essayistic novelist). And Dillon’s assertion about the absence of a literature of sickness is unjustifiable if one considers Thomas Mann, Knut Hamsun, Céline. His canon is, as all are, arbitrary: they are the pieces of writing that mattered to him when they mattered most.

The book, ultimately, is about how literature can make a difference. It is a beautiful and elegiac volume. I can give no greater compliment than to say that having read it, I re-read it. 

Essayism
Brian Dillon
Fitzcarraldo Editions, 228pp, £10.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder