by Margaret Atwood
Nan A. TaleseBuy at Powell’s »
March 15, 2010
Pitting Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel Wolf Hall against Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou’s graphic novel is like matching a champion prizefighter against a world-class sumo wrestler. Novel against graphic novel, the individual strengths and finesses of each book make for a classic bout, but only one will be on its feet at the end.
Wolf Hall captures the chaos of Henry VIII’s court through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, a man of less-than-noble birth who grew to be counselor to cardinals and kings. As Henry VIII fights to have his marriage to Katherine annulled so that he can marry Anne Boleyn, Thomas works every angle possible to make that happen. Cromwell’s allegiance is to England, and his manipulation of Henry’s court is nothing less than masterful.
The scope of Wolf Hall is immense. Mantel introduces dozens of characters of importance and breathes life into each. Her characters all have agendas, and their interactions with each other weave a story that is as mesmerizing as it is clever. Historical fiction usually bores me, especially when it covers events I am familiar with, but Wolf Hall held me rapt from the first page until the last. Thomas Cromwell is as strong and unforgettable protagonist as I have read in years.
Logicomix is also historical, examining the life of the mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell. The graphic novel follows Russell’s studies from his rough upbringing by his grandparents to his college studies to his adult life as a scholar. Russell’s esoteric personal life is also brought to life, and his accomplishments are shown beside his greatest fears, as well as the roots of his anti-war stances.
Where Logicomix excels is at demystifying Bertrand Russell and his beliefs. Mathematical and philosophical theory are simply explained, especially when Russell finds constraints in the language of mathematics and attempts to redefine those terms through logic theory and philosophy. Most surprisingly, the beliefs of Wittgenstein, an associate of Russell’s, are explained with incredible clarity in Logicomix. This is a book of big ideas, but explained so that non-philosophers and mathematicians can understand them (without ever talking down to the reader). The author and illustrators place themselves in the book at different times to expound upon or illustrate a particular theory, a plot device that works exceptionally well.
The similarities of these books are obvious. Both are well-told fictionalized stories of historical figures, and are riveting reads that I could not put down. In their own genres, they rank among the best books I have read in years. However, at the end of the fight, only one can go home a winner, and I have to choose Wolf Hall. The complexity of the novel combined with Mantel’s storytelling grace nudges it beyond Logicomix.
David Gutowski runs the popular music and culture blog Largehearted Boy. Known connections to this year’s contenders: The following authors have participated in my blog’s Book Notes series for their books: Bill Cotter, Victor LaValle, and John Wray.