Fall 2017–Winter 2018

Sentences / Before She Solidified

Possibly not dead at all

Brian Dillon

“Sentences” is a new column by Brian Dillon each installment of which examines the mechanics and style of a single sentence chosen by the author.

If Diana is present now, it is in what flows and is mutable, what waxes and wanes, what cannot be fixed, measured, confined, is not time-bound and so renders anniversaries obsolete: and therefore, possibly, not dead at all, but slid into the Alma tunnel to re-emerge in the autumn of 1997, collar turned up, long feet like blades carving through the rain.
—Hilary Mantel

Ectoplasmic bride, 29 July 1981.

Of course it is the extravagant image at the end—end of the sentence, end of the essay—that I notice first, that leaves me staring at the screen, scrolling back a little, mouthing the whole thing aloud in wonder. (Also, image-searching the feet of Diana, Princess of Wales: for which feet, no surprise, there exists a certain erotic constituency.) A succession of dumb, literal questions comes to mind. Was it raining in Paris on the night of 30 August, when she died? Not so far as I can discover. Did she have long feet? Apparently so, if this punning headline is to be believed: “Secrets of princess’s size 9½ tootsies show why she falls in love with heels.” Did she care to pop a collar? In the 1980s, obviously; near the end of the decade, on an official visit to Hong Kong, she wore Catherine Walker’s white-pearl-crusted “Elvis Dress,” with its streamlined Vegas collar. None of this will explain the aptness or oddity of Hilary Mantel’s phrase, which concludes “The Princess Myth,” a piece the novelist wrote for the Guardian to mark the twentieth anniversary of Diana’s death. Who or what is this being that is not only mythic but inspires such intense imagery and ripe phrasing?

Mantel has been reflecting on several transformations undergone by Diana: from privileged but unexceptional adolescent to gawped-at, anointed consort; from brittle media darling to panicked media victim, then sleek sad apologist for the lost ones left to perish near the summit of the British state. Most of all, her blessed translation from body to myth and back again. Diana as medieval Assumption, perhaps with her feet still visible as she vanishes into the clouds. In the language Mantel uses for these exaltations (and degradations), Diana is both flesh and abstraction, her story never a simple passage from one state to the next. Consider where the sentence locates, or liberates, its dead princess: “what flows and is mutable, what waxes and wanes, what cannot be fixed, measured, confined”—what is all of that, exactly? Her afterliving image? Or a force more diffuse and general, an energy unleashed at her death?

Something strange, dislocating, happens with the sentence’s medial colon: “and therefore, possibly, not dead at all”—it simply doesn’t flow, grammatically speaking, from the first half of the sentence. Who or what is not dead? Diana, of course. Except, not quite. After the opening clause, she has vanished as subject of the sentence, been subsumed in all that mutability, in the whatness and the plain (it is not so plain) use of the verb to be. So that when she comes together again, condenses into a ghost, we could do with a steadying pronoun: “and therefore, possibly, she is not dead at all….” As it is, one is left a little flummoxed while Mantel abruptly alters her tense with “slid”, and then gives us the amazing, physically precise picture of the living (or living-dead) princess, who has survived the underground ordeal that fate prepared for her and come out sharp and intrepid, as in one of those photos of her advancing, visored, across a minefield.

It’s a vivid but confusing sentence, the culmination of an essay that is all about Diana’s shuttling between icon or caricature and something more elemental, protean, weirder. She is, predictably, a character from fairy tale, a bride captured and encastled, lost among the fragmenting mirrors of her new royal identity. She is like the white goddess described by Robert Graves—a shape-shifter, variously virgin, hag, witch, and weasel. In life, her transformative capacity (or was it only necessity?) was tested most spectacularly on the day of her wedding to Prince Charles. Mantel had already, in an essay for the London Review of Books, considered the protean bodies of the British royal family. Here she is, in a sort of rehearsal for our sentence, recalling the moment in July 1981 that Diana stepped from her carriage at St. Paul’s Cathedral: “An everyday sort of girl had been squashed into the coach, but a goddess came out. She didn’t get out of the coach in any ordinary way: she hatched. The extraordinary dress came first, like a flow of liquid, like ectoplasm emerging from the orifices of a medium. It was a long moment before she solidified.” Like ectoplasm, it’s true: there are press photographs of a faceless Diana, dwarfed by the occult confection of her gown.

Elsewhere in the Guardian essay, Mantel writes: “For some people, being dead is only a relative condition; they wreak more than the living do. After their first rigor, they reshape themselves, taking on a flexibility in public discourse.” Among the things Diana turns into, in other words, is language itself. (“Death is a displaced name for a linguistic predicament,” writes Paul de Man in “Autobiography as De-facement.”) Mantel has a particular skill for describing this language, as well as inventing her own troubled version of it. In an essay on Madonna, published in the London Review of Books in 1992, she concludes: “For anyone who wishes to become an adjective, Madonna is an inspiration.” Diana, however, is subject to no such verbal reduction; the more she was imprisoned in mythology and media, the more something of her seemed to escape, until she became pure image, figure, poetry. (Pure kitsch too, especially in death; but Mantel’s entire brief seems to be to scrape away at the national sentiment around Diana until something harder shows through.)

Mantel, in the LRB again: “She went into the underpass to be reborn, but reborn this time without a physical body: the airy subject of a hundred thousand photographs, a flicker at the corner of the eye, a sigh on the breeze.” It was in this essay that Mantel, to the pretended horror of British tabloid newspapers, referred to Kate Middleton as “a jointed doll on which certain rags are hung.” Of course she did not mean the actual Kate, but the bony phantasm those very papers had helped create. In the same piece, Mantel recalls seeing the Queen at a Buckingham Palace function: “I am ashamed now to say it but I passed my eyes over her as a cannibal views his dinner, my gaze sharp enough to pick the meat off her bones.” Which is precisely how one is meant to look at a monarch: as a real body to be picked clean of regal meaning, butchered neatly into two persons, one actual and one significant.

As a stylist, Mantel is extraordinarily good at the combination of intimacy and detachment such moments demand—and not only when coming across a venerable royal personage at a party. In 2010, she published an essay about a recent experience of surgery. She does not say what the operation was for, but attends, not without some Gothicism, to the grisly aftermath. “Within a few days, the staff are tampering with my spiral binding when the whole wound splits open. Blood clots bubble up from inside me. Over the next hours, days, nurses speak to each other in swift acronyms, or else form sentences you might have heard in Haworth: ‘Her lungs are filling up.’” It takes a special kind of attitude to the human body, including one’s own, and to language, to detach from the wounded, plethoric, congested flesh and start to joke that your (linguistic) predicament is that of a dying Brontë. But this mode of attention, and with it a flamboyant creepiness of metaphor, is frequently to be found in Mantel’s work. There is a short story titled “Comma” that recalls in adulthood the narrator’s excursion to spy on another child, who is disabled or disfigured. In the protagonist’s memory, or imagination, this child, the “comma” of the title, is physically attenuated and faceless: “We saw a blank, we saw a sphere, it was without feature, it was without meaning, and its flesh seemed to run from the bone.” As with the final clause of our sentence, I’m unsure what this last image is supposed to mean—or rather, it summons an image but I cannot quite see it. And I’m not sure I wish to.

There are those who think that is not how a sentence should behave. Mantel, as she tells us in her memoir Giving Up the Ghost, has even pretended to be one of these people, when she is asked for advice about writing: “Plain words on plain paper. Remember what Orwell says, that good prose is like a windowpane. Concentrate on sharpening your memory and peeling your sensibility. Cut every page you write by at least one third. Stop constructing those piffling little similes of yours. Work out what it is you want to say. Then say it in the most direct and vigorous way you can. Eat meat. Drink blood. Give up your social life and don’t think you can have friends. Rise in the quiet hours of the night and prick your fingertips, and use the blood for ink; that will cure you of persiflage!” Not only does Mantel never take her own advice—“Persiflage is my nom de guerre”—but she has not even followed it in this passage of stern counsel. Never mind the pricking of thumbs and drinking blood; at “peeling your sensibility” we’re already inside Mantel’s peculiar image-repertoire.

Let’s hear the sentence again, the perfectly weighted parallelism of its first half, the curious grammar of the second—for the first time, I have started to hear “slid” as a past participle, as if she had been slid into the tunnel. “If Diana is present now, it is in what flows and is mutable, what waxes and wanes, what cannot be fixed, measured, confined, is not time-bound and so renders anniversaries obsolete: and therefore, possibly, not dead at all, but slid into the Alma tunnel to re-emerge in the autumn of 1997, collar turned up, long feet like blades carving through the rain.” Is that persiflage, or a strange kind of precision? Some readers thought they knew. Four months after “The Princess Myth” appeared, the London Times published a list of the “best literary quotes of 2017”—if we’re being pedantic, by “quotes” they meant “quotations.” The final sentence of Mantel’s essay appeared under the heading “Top pseud.” The use of the prefix “pseudo” as a noun, describing a fake, affected, or pretentious person, may be traced to the pages of the Times itself, in 1829. The derivative “pseud” seems first to have been used in the mid-1950s, by Richard Ingrams, future editor of the satirical magazine Private Eye, which popularized the usage with its weekly assemblage of offending quotations, “Pseud’s Corner.” It is probably not unfair to say that use of the word “pseud” now marks one out as a particular type of older English male: privately educated but intolerant of intellectuals, materially well off but distrustful of extravagance or novelty in art or literature. This includes metaphor. Mantel’s sentence marks her out, despite her prizewinning historical fiction, and regardless of her elevation to Dame Commander of the British Empire in 2015, as not one of us.

A brief coda concerning the contemporary fate of a sentence, our sentence. “The Princess Myth” appeared in the Guardian on Saturday, 26 August 2017. Like any article in a prominent newspaper, it was swiftly republished by news-aggregating websites. On the 28th, one such site, so I discovered in the course of research, posted a brutally garbled version of the essay, all of its syntax and punctuation intact, but word choices randomly botched with bad synonyms. Thus: “If Diana is present now, it is in what floods and is mutable, what waxes and decreases, what cannot to be all right, quantified, detained, is not time-bound and so yields anniversaries antiquated: and therefore, maybe, not dead at all, but slithered into the Alma tunnel to re-emerge in the autumn of 1997, collar turned up, long feet like blades engraving through the torrent.” Here is Mantel’s sentence defaced, become a pseudo-sentence, while its subject finally gives up her status as human child and takes to the waters and the wild—“slithered”—where she carves, engraves, writes herself at last.

Brian Dillon is UK editor of Cabinet and teaches writing at the Royal College of Art, London. The US edition of his most recent book, Essayism (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017), will be published by New York Review Books in September 2018. His books include The Great Explosion (Penguin, 2015) and Objects in This Mirror (Sternberg Press, 2014). He is working on a book about sentences, and a collection of essays on contemporary art and literature.

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