26 April 1996

Horn of plenty

Interviewing Lawrence Norfolk

There are rats in Lawrence Norfolk’s new book. Infesting the topographically unpredictable buildings of 16th-century Rome, they consciously plan and execute sanguinary wars of espionage and repulse. There are herring, too, swimming about in the depths and dumbly curious at the periodical tributes – animals, ships, sometimes a whole city – that humans cast down to them. There is even a deliberating ant.

Such virtuosic anthropomorphisms abound in The Pope’s Rhinoceros, furnishing both wry counterpoint to the human drama, and a visceral narrative bedrock. “I think most literary urges are really very primitive,” Norfolk explains. “And if you’ve got animals, you can’t have nebulous, nuanced desires to move the story on – they eat, they fuck, they shit. If you can root your action to those three really basic things, you’ve got a pretty unassailable story to tell.” He does. The Pope’s Rhinoceros is a gargantuan, dazzling fable, based on the true story of how the Portuguese captured a rhinoceros for the pleasure-loving Pope Leo, only for their ship to be wrecked off the coast of Italy. It is even better than his debut, the Augustan-steampunk classical-mythology conspiracy-thriller, Lemprière’s Dictionary, published when he was an unknown 27-year-old. It won the 1992 Somerset Maugham Award and went on to sell half a million copies worldwide. Given the prospect of interviewing such an author, it is tempting just to invite him to compile his own version of Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo, and fill in the blanks under “Why I Am So Clever” and “Why I Write Such Good Books”.

In person, however, Norfolk is an unassuming, slight figure, looking much younger than his 32 years. Disarmingly, almost the first thing he says, once installed behind a cappuccino, is: “As a child, I didn’t want to be a writer.” And he launches fluidly into the story of how he almost didn’t become one. While at King’s College, London, writing a PhD thesis on John Ashbery, Norfolk was set the task of finding a literary agent by his girlfriend – who insisted, pace her beau, that Norfolk did want to be a writer.

So he accosted an agent at the London Book Fair in 1989, forced upon her a one-page outline of Lemprière’s Dictionary, and then ambled off. He was about three paces from the exit when the agent shouted after him – Norfolk had omitted to write down his name, address and telephone number. “And that’s how it started,” he grins, “a series of accidents, misapprehensions, mistakes, and lots of luck.” Norfolk was born in London in 1963, but his family moved to Iraq, where his father, a civil engineer, built harbours and bridges, “most of which have since been blown up by the Americans, with cruise missiles”. They were then evacuated after the Six Day War in 1967 – “it was fairly traumatic and we lost everything” – and settled in Bath. Lawrence’s parents later divorced, and he left home at 18 to read English at King’s. (He currently lives in Chicago with his wife, Vineeta, a research scientist.) It wasn’t a settled childhood. “For a long time I thought it didn’t touch me at all,” Norfolk remembers, “but then, when I think about the fights I got into, even as a seven-year-old – other kids in hospital, if not me . . . ” He tails off.

He laughs, however, at his “literary hard-man” reputation, which is predicated upon the time he slapped “some asshole” from the art world, who was drunk and haranguing him in the Groucho. “I did say: “Look, shut up, shut up, because I don’t know who you are and I don’t care.” And he kept on and on and I thumped him and he left. So that was all right.” The unmistakable impression, as Norfolk goes on to chatter about his love of skydiving (“the point is to get beyond that – without being too karmic about it”) and his time spent reporting for Austrian News in Bosnia in 1993 (“a kind of adventure”), is of a diamond-hard confidence beneath the modest exterior.

Confidence is a prerequisite for spending four years writing a novel – Lemprière’s Dictionary – that you’re not sure anyone is going to read. Norfolk chuckles at the unlikelihood of his success: “It’s 500 pages long, dense with classical allusions, and it’s got no sex – of course it’s gonna be an international bestseller!” Lemprière, though, isn’t forbiddingly highbrow, even given the splashes of unadulterated Latin. There’s a fantastical sub-plot, for example, about 200-year-old cyborgs: “I was a bit unsure about those elements,” he offers. “But the 18th century viewed machines differently – there weren’t many negative connotations about. It was like when nuclear power came out and it was “We’re all going to have free electricity” – yet machines were being introduced forcibly into people’s lives, so it wasn’t hard to make that explicit.”

Norfolk hadn’t yet read William Gibson, but admits to stealing from The Terminator, an appeal to “pop-culture sensibility”. Mention of Asterix and Obelix as comic models for the heroes in The Pope’s Rhinoceros elicits more nods. “It’s a completely vulgar device. I’m always ready to junk the literary in the interests of having a reasonably good time.” Time, then, while we’re discussing such ludic propensities, to invoke delicately the spectre of Umberto Eco. Norfolk’s response, interestingly, is a kind of angular, dismayed crumple, accompanied by two words: “Oh, Christ.” Norfolk once did a French television interview for Nulle Part Ailleurs, when “some French asshole”, who had read neither Lemprière nor The Name of the Rose, insisted on drawing a comparison. Norfolk, riled, just pretended not to know who Eco was for five minutes, until co-presenter Antoine de Caunes pointed out to his benighted colleague the nature of “humeur Anglaise”.

“It doesn’t play at the level of the text,” says Norfolk now of the inevitable Eco-link. “I’ve had it with Eco.” Unlike the humourless Milanese, indeed, Norfolk knows exactly what to do with his research. He discusses his debt to Thomas Pynchon: “The technical thing of how to write prose with a lot of hard information in it. You have to turn description into a story; having a set of characters who are mouthpieces for theories is disastrous.” Norfolk has also mapped research’s limits. “What it smells like, what it tastes like – that’s the hard stuff to get. You get to a certain point with the research and you know everything there is to know. Anything beyond that, you’re free.”

He felt a particular affinity with the period in which Lemprière is set: “There’s a similarity between the end of the 18th century and the end of the 20th, in that there’s an odd mixture of viciousness and good manners. I think that’s abroad at the moment…” Norfolk himself is an odd mixture of diffidence and rollicking eloquence – he speaks in fluent periods, weaving locutions like “transatlantic décallage” or, punningly, “Anti-Geist’, lightning-fast. But he plays down his language skills – while admitting that he spoke Arabic and Welsh during his childhood, he says dismissively of what he now knows: “French, German, English, a bit of Latin, that’s it.” He’ll discuss politely, at a pinch, living writers he likes, such as Amis, Barnes, McEwan, Rushdie, de Bernières, before the Norfolkian independence kicks in again. “But as to what use they are to me, I don’t know. Any of them.” He gets more animated on Beethoven and Bach, and the music he listens to while writing: Led Zeppelin, Pearl Jam, Pavement, Tom Waits, Nick Cave – a list which, given the breathlessly weird contours of his prose, makes reassuring sense.

Norfolk already has a couple of new ideas for books. His eyes glint happily as he reveals that one might be “sort of about boar hunting and German philosophy”. The explanation of such an improbable link runs thus. Norfolk was intrigued, while staying in a French chateau last year, to hear the villagers extolling the virtues of the boar-hunting life. They all loved their boar hunting, yet only one person in recent memory had actually caught one, the boars proving too elusive. “It’s like German philosophy,” Norfolk insists, with infectious logic. “It has an object, it has an end, people pursue it single-mindedly all their lives… no boar!” A pause. “That’s the problem, you know: lack of boars.”