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”. Continued →