The Passage of Power, the fourth volume in Robert Caro’s magisterial, ongoing biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson, is a journey through the terrain that Johnson strode: the land of power.
Especially noteworthy—thrilling, really—is Caro’s acount of Johnson’s first hundred days in office, when he took John F. Kennedy’s legislative program, much of it stalled, and used his brutal genius to ram it through Congress: Medicare, the War on Poverty, and, his crowning achievement, the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
I had always considered Caro’s volumes, especially this one, to be the final word on the subject of power. Recently, though, I read another book which, though not surpassing it, must at least be given equal space on the shelf. The curious thing is that it’s a novel—and this novel, like the Caro books, is about a character too big to be contained in a single volume.
The book is Bring Up the Bodies, the second of three historical novels in the Wolf Hall Trilogy, Hilary Mantel’s books on Thomas Cromwell, the political mastermind behind King Henry VIII of England. Mantel, who died in September 1922, won numerous awards for the series, including two Booker Prizes.
Caro’s book, because it is nonfiction, depicts mostly words and actions; Mantel’s story, as fiction, is able to go beyond the outer world and dive deep into the thoughts and feelings of Cromwell—or, rather, of the fictional character she has created from the available strands of history.
Mantel’s Cromwell, son of a drunken butcher, has engineered a remarkable rise to become the king’s chief advisor. He eats, drinks, and breathes power, and, while not exactly likable, he is relatable, and certainly compelling. We observe from the inside as he weighs, measures, and calculates his every action for its effect on power, much as LBJ must have done. In fact, one might almost say that Mantel’s Cromwell isn’t so much similar to Caro’s LBJ as he is a fictional extension of him.
Both books are brilliantly written, each quite differently and each perfectly matched to its purpose. Caro is the ultimate journalist, marshaling and narrating the details of his legendary research; Mantel is the ultimate novelist, combining meaning and beauty in a style that is breathtaking.
In fact, I would say that in terms of the sheer elegance and, yes, power of Hilary Mantel’s writing, the first two books in her trilogy may be the finest novels I’ve encountered. I eagerly look forward to reading the third.