16 September 2000

The night-hunter

In the Shape of a Boar
by Lawrence Norfolk (Weidenfeld)

Greek heroes, according to Lawrence Norfolk’s astonishing new novel, do not require adverbs. They do not perform an action in one way or another; they either do it, or fail to do it. Such a view is now, as it doubtless was already to Homer’s audiences, an idealistic dream of pure action, of man as his own reliable instrument, unassailed by doubts or contradictory intentions.

The first third of In the Shape of a Boar recounts how the ancient heroes gather in order to hunt the monstrous Boar of Kalydon, a ferocious beast that is ravaging the land because their leader’s father omitted to honour Artemis in his sacrifices. The hunt is much celebrated in Greek art and sculpture. But just as the Odyssey is set at the fraught intersection between the imagined, ancient purity of heroic action and the compromises of modernity – for its hero, the wily Odysseus, is the man who is expert at seeming otherwise than he is – so Norfolk fashions something more doubtful and weirdly compelling from his mythical sources. His heroes track the beast into a terrain where no traces can be left: a (non-canonical) place called Agrapha, “unwritten things”. Its hellish blankness stands, among other things, for the unknowability of unsung lives.

Unknowable, too, are the shapes of the original myths themselves: heroes die in one telling, only to reappear fighting a new enemy in another version. Norfolk floods the first few pages of his account with an ironic surge of scholarly footnotes, tributaries of manifold myth-rivers merging in a wild sea of contradictory meanings. Slowly this babble of papyric voices recedes, drawing the reader in expertly to the potent tug of the main text; eventually the footnotes reappear to trace the ambivalences of the tale’s mysterious end.

Central to Norfolk’s telling is the only woman among the heroes: the virgin huntress Atalanta. She becomes erotically fascinated by their leader, golden-haired Meleager; but they are watched jealously by a third hero, Meilanion. His name is cognate with the Greek for “darkness”: he is the night-hunter; soon he peels off from the throng of heroes and tracks Atalanta and Meleager in bitter silence. The heroes’ number, meanwhile, is reduced by disaster: an ambush in an abandoned city, out of which Norfolk makes a glorious set-piece of clangorous steel and soaking blood; and an inexplicable, sudden flood in a narrow gorge that leaves one hero dying, broken-boned, in a deep rock crevice.

Norfolk forges a tolling prose of hypnotic sensory immediacy. The heroes are at home in their sinews and at one with their wounds. Naming is power, and so great attention is paid to the specific names of grasses, trees and birds. The landscape itself becomes imbued with will: ravines “cut” and hillocks “nudge”; the very water is “devious”; the earth will “accept” some incursions by foot or hand but not others. As the hunt nears its climax the very rocks seem to mock the heroes’ quest.

Norfolk’s boar-hunt is a fiercely brilliant, sustained display of virtuoso writing. The problem with the novel as whole, in fact, is precisely that it is too good. For it ends, at least temporarily, on page 110. What on earth, the exhilarated reader thinks, can follow this? Perhaps nothing can. Certainly what does follow exists in a subordinate imaginative relationship to it.

We fast-wind to Paris in the 1970s, into the company of a middle-aged poet named Solomon Memel. As a Romanian Jew during the second world war, Memel had managed to escape his home-town ghetto and trek over the mountains into Greece, where he was taken in by a group of resistance fighters. After his subsequent internment in a prison camp and repatriation, at the war’s end, to France, Memel achieved fame with a long poem called “The Boar Hunt”. In it he immortalised a female member of the Greek resistance named “Thyella”, figured as a modern-day Atalanta.

Memel’s poem, then, both is and is not the account we have just read; the footnotes that we have just read both are, and are not, the carping emendations and arguments of Memel’s childhood friend Jakob (whom he has not seen since the war), in a scandalous new edition of the poem that claims Solomon could not have witnessed the wartime events he describes. Meanwhile, Solomon is about to meet his other old friend from home, Ruth: she is now a film director, making a bizarre celluloid version of his poem that involves a half-naked man and a woman arguing in a Paris apartment.

Norfolk’s flashbacks to 1940s Romania depict splendidly an atmosphere of rising paranoia and inexorable harm, while the idyllic triumvirate of Solomon, Jakob and Ruth disintegrates into a love triangle of buried jealousies and random spite. Solomon’s trek across the mountains, too, is a masterfully stage-managed whirl of fear and and delirium, injury and sudden action, mimicked in fast-cutting, disassociated scenes. Gone is the singing logic of a purposeful hunt across a living landscape; in its place is a modern mess of horror and confusion.

Though we do not quite know how Ruth and Jakob managed it, all three friends survive the war – so that, it appears, they can end up arguing about history and myth. Ruth and Jakob have researched Solomon’s story and decided that Thyella, his poetic heroine, never existed. And the German officer who claims the place of the boar, a Colonel Eberhardt, is thought “an insignificant desk officer” rather than the monster whom Thyella hunts down in the poem. The point, rather too baldly stated, is that “Our heroes never live the lives we require”. The age of pure action, unwavering purpose is lost; perhaps it never existed.

Solomon’s story never attains any grand resonance: the telling is too hesitantly modern, too neatly open-ended for that. One might read this as a failure, as an author grasping unsuccessfully at big themes on the vine of history; yet it may well be quite deliberate. The time of epic, after all, is over. The attempt to overlay history with an intelligible mythical pattern can only traduce it, even while there is no such recoverable entity as the unvarnished set of facts.

Because of the way this theme is enacted serially in its two halves, In the Shape of a Boar does not, in the end, make for a traditionally satisfying novel. But then satisfaction of a certain low sort can be had anywhere you choose: in any of the wan, half-brained, style-mag sitcom-novels typed out every year by Norfolk’s contemporaries. It is much rarer, and more valuable, to be exasperated by the thrilling ambition of a real writer.