TIME presented its annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world, from artists and leaders to pioneers, titans and icons, just last month. And guess what?? ... two fiction authors made the cut: Hilary Mantel and George Saunders. Here's just a brief description in honor of them Has anyone ever read any of their books?
Hilary Mantel is a novelist of great power, wit and intelligence, one of the finest now writing in England. Her early novels were hideously funny accounts of professional families with lives verging on dysfunction. Even darker themes followed, the brilliant Beyond Black presenting a female medium beset by real fiends. Mantel’s Catholic education set her moral compass, and her experience of living in Africa and then Saudi Arabia opened up new areas of darkness in her always fierce imagination. Her memoir, Giving Up the Ghost, is as remarkable as her fiction.
Unlike most historical novelists, she writes without sentimentality. Her two hefty volumes on Thomas Cromwell, brutal adviser to King Henry VIII — the King who destroyed the English monasteries and beheaded two of his six wives — have captured the British reading public and carried off all the prizes with the vigor of the narrative and minutely evoked detail of Cromwell’s day-to-day life. Amazingly, she makes a man renowned for nastiness into a sympathetic hero.
For more than a decade, George Saunders has been the best short-story writer in English — not “one of,” not “arguably,” but the Best.
In my favorite stories (“Tenth of December” or “The Falls” or “The Red Bow”), some goofy, tormented guy tries to rise up to carve out justice on a heroic scale. Picture a knight in cardboard breastplate and tinfoil helmet wielding a toilet plunger. These guys are wholly loseresque except for a sudden lunge at saving — often against unbearable physical or spiritual odds — some very broken human units. All this plus laugh-out-loud wisecracks.
We hired George to teach writing at Syracuse University 17 years back, and he brings to class a similarly humble urge to serve. Blond and slim, with the bristly mustache of a Russian cavalry officer, he’s open to every student’s effort, however far-fetched. Both with his own characters and with teaching, he claims, modestly, “I just let everybody do what they want.”
Which happens to be what everybody needs. George’s work is a stiff tonic for the vapid agony of contemporary living — great art from the greatest guy.