There is a growing body of opinion, which is gaining momentum in the right wing press, that the double Booker Prize winning novelist, Hilary Mantel, has gone bonkers. There are those who are prepared to concede—never let it be said that the right wingers cannot be reasonable—that Mantel might still have some links with reality, but (imagine them nodding their heads sadly) the connection is faulty. Mental illness can strike anyone, and being a talented artist does not make you immune from succumbing (it’s a strange word, succumbing; it denotes that it is somehow the fault of the succumbee that they have succumbed, say, to cancer or to alcoholism; and only if they had the strength of the character, more will power, they would have seen the threat off) to mental conditions. Indeed some might argue that being a genius might even make you vulnerable to losing your mind. It is always sad when a once talented artist’s once talented mind disintegrates into lunacy, but these things happen. When the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung analysed James Joyce’s daughter when she was beginning to lose her marbles, Jung felt compelled to diagnose schizophrenia in not just her but also in her father. There was that mathematician—I forget his name; you know whom I mean; the one on whose life the Oscar winning film Beautiful Mind was based—who was an absolute genius and also a schizophrenic. Perhaps these things are related. (I should point out that the reverse is not necessarily true: just because you are a schizophrenic, you are not a genius.)
Is Hilary Mantel a genius? I think she is. And I say this not having read either of her Booker winning novels. A friend of mine told me that Wold Hall, Mantel’s 2009 Booker winner, was one of the worst books she had ever read. (My friend, that is, not Mantel. I do not know what Mantel thought of her own novel, but I doubt very much if she thinks it is one of the worst novels she has read, although I have also read that many authors choose not to read their own novels; so I don’t know.) She could not go beyond the first ten pages, apparently, my friend. However, since my friend’s literary appetite is more than adequately assuaged by the free Waitrose kitchen magazine, I am not sure that her withering verdict of Wolf Hall is necessarily a reflection on the quality of Mantel’s novel. Why do I think Mantel is a genius? I have based my verdict on two (non-Booker winning) novels of Mantel I have read, both of which, I thought, were superb.
So we agree that Mantel is a genius. This, we also agree, makes her more vulnerable to developing a mental illness than Mr. Shabuddhin, who owns a corner-shop round the corner from my flat. Mr. Shah (as he is known in the area) has not written any book to the best of my knowledge. He once told me that he had never read a book in his life, as he could not see the point, and considered the activity to be a waste of his time which he would rather spend in his shop. (Although I have not directly asked him, I don’t think Mr. Shah would consider himself a genius. While there are downsides of not being a genius, if it protects you from going mad, it has got to be regarded as a plus.)
In addition to Mantel’s (deserving) claim to being a genius, are there any other vulnerability factors that make Mantel more prone—than Mr.Shahabuddhin—to succumbing to mental illness? I have heard that those who go doolally are frequently remembered by their friends as always being a bit weird. Is Mantel weird? She might be. I have read a non-fiction book of Mantel entitled Giving Up the Ghost , which I thought was very readable; but I also remember thinking, when I finished it, that, no offence, but the woman was a bit weird. (Mantel describes in the book a childhood experience—which has stayed with her all her life—when she encountered evil in the back-garden of her house; and she is not talking metaphorically).
Who has diagnosed mental illness in Hilary Mantel? A chap called Timothy Bell—who is a Lord—is convinced that Mantel is a dangerous lunatic. Lord Bell—a friend and a former PR advisor to Margaret Thatcher, according to Independent (and to a number of disgraced celebrities, dodgy companies and third world dictators, according to another article in the Guardian) thinks that Mantel should (a) be investigated by the police and (b) see a therapist. Why is Lord Bell moved to suggest such drastic measures? Lord Bell’s (unsolicited) advice to the police (that they should investigate Mantel) and to Mantel (that she should see a therapist) is in response to a short story Mantel published on line in the Guardian this month, entitled The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, which is one of the short-stories which will be published in a compilation at the end of the month (also titled The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher). The short story depicts a scene in which a Scouser (a bit of a regional stereotype here; why couldn’t the would-be assassin be from Berkshire?) enters the house of an ordinary woman whose kitchen window looks on to the back-garden of the hospital where Thatcher has come for a minor procedure on her eye. In an interview given to the Guardian Mantel admitted that she had a “boiling distaste” for Thatcher. The kernel of the story, she also revealed, occurred to her more than thirty years ago when she spotted an unguarded Margaret Thatcher from a window in Windsor and apparently thought that if she (Mantel) were someone else she (Thatcher) would be dead. (In other words Mantel lacked the guts to kill Thatcher or, like Gandhi, decided that violence does not solve anything.) So Thatcher survived (only to succumb to Alzheimer’s decades later, but not before she had brought ruination on working class communities); but it did not stop Mantel from fantasizing about murdering Thatcher, and she decided to sublimate her murderous instinct through the creative avenue open to her. She wrote a story. Mantel said that it took her more than thirty years to complete the story, a case of a very long writer’s block, although we can’t really say that, seeing as the woman published several novels (two of which went on to win the Booker) and non-fiction work in the intervening decades while she was wrestling with the technicalities of the story.
The right wing, Tory-loving, press has gone nuts after the Guardian published the story. Lord Bell felt—and he should know—that the story was “unquestionably in bad taste”. Another Tory MP, Nadine Doris—who I believe has written a novel which she is flogging for 77 p or some such price on Amazon Kindle—is “gutted” and “shocked”. Why? Because the publication of Mantel’s short story is so close to Thatcher’s death. Thatcher, Doris reminds Mantel, still has a living family. Doris concludes—to make this issue absolutely clear—that Mantel’s story has a character, Thatcher, whose demise is so recent. (Would Doris have minded had Mantel waited for ten more years to publish this story? She had waited for thirty years already; would ten more years have been such a disaster?) Another Tory MP, someone called Stewart Jackson, is convinced that Mantel is a weirdo and her “death story” is “sick and deranged”. A Conservative activist called Tim Montgomery is disappointed that the Guardian chose to promote Mantel’s story full of hateful words about Mrs. Thatcher, his hero.
Is writing a short story about a recently diseased former prime minister of the country who—shall we say?—a divisive figure in the history of twentieth century British politics, in which the author depicts a scenario of the impending assassination of the said prime-minister suggestive of a mental illness in the author? Is it a criminal act? That depends, one would assume, on what is written. I read the short-story on line. Now I am no psychiatrist; neither am I columnist in a right wing, Labour-bashing broadsheet; nor a champagne swigging, minority-hating, homophobic Tory supporter; but Mantel’s short story struck me as a very well written piece with glimpses of Mantel’s trade-mark dark humour. You might accuse Mantel of bad taste or of sick mind but not of a criminal act that would have police arrive at your doorsteps with a search warrant for your mind, or social workers and psychiatrists wanting to put you on a community order unless you accepted antipsychotics. Mantel may be ideologically diseased and suffering from incurable hatred of Maggie Thatcher on the dubious grounds that Thatcher was a disaster for the country, but mad and a criminal?
Everybody has a good and bad side. However, when one is judging a dead person, I see no good reason why only the best self-manifestations of the diseased should be the basis of the final judgement.
I am currently in the midst of writing a couple of short stories. The premise of the first one is as follows: David Cameron gets kidnapped by an army of cockroaches which tickles his privates with their hairy legs and giant antennae until he either agrees to recommend the cockroach-chief as the next leader of the Tory party, or dies of laughter-induced exhaustion. The second one, which is still in the conception phase, is an erotic fantasy revolving around the love affair between Teresa May and a giant cucumber. However, I am worried now. I should perhaps wait until Cameron and May are six feet under for twenty years before I attempt to publish it.