Lawrence Norfolk: John Saturnall’s Feast

Norfolk, Lawrence (2012), John Saturnall’s Feast, Grove Press
ISBN 978-0-8021-2088-5

DSC_0163 So I guess we all have these writers – writers whose every book we read as soon as possible and whose future books we wait for, refresh amazon pages for, look up bookseller news for – or maybe that’s just me. Two of these writers have kept me waiting for an especially long, long time. One is Canadian novelist Rohinton Mistry who hasn’t as much as announced a followup novel to Family Matters (2002), and whose name I punch into Google at least once a month. The other writer is Lawrence Norfolk, who had let 12 years pass between his third novel and John Saturnall’s Feast, which is his fourth. Rumors about Norfolk’s fourth novel had been floating around for years, various titles and plots were offered. As for me, I bought it the instant it was published (or rather it was bought for me; I was hospitalized at the time) and read it within two days of receiving it. And I loved it. This is no hyperbole. I was reading the book carefully, slowly, and loved every minute of the experience. I loved every page of it, loved the way the book looked (the Grove hardcover is such a handsome production…). And yet – after I finished it, it did not give me the frisson of having just read the new novel of a favorite writer which is just as good or better than his previous books. Most of us remember the excitement when Pynchon’s tremendous Against the Day (2006) came out and the goodness, the excellence of the book stayed with you for days – it was not just that a fairly long wait since Mason & Dixon (1997) was finally over, it was also excitement over how good the new book was. Not as good as M&D, but very clearly among his best work. Even the smaller in every way next novel gave me a similar sense (here’s my review of that one). All this is to say that that is how the experience should have been, but it was not. What I found instead was a well executed, very readable, very enjoyable book. As I will point out further down, I think it’s a technical exercise in romanticism. Pretty good. But as a followup to Norfolk’s other work, it was a bit of a disappointment. It’s hard not to recommend it – it’s so much fun to read, especially in winter, but it’s also…not a masterpiece. So you might ask: wait, you’re saying this book is very good – and a disappointment? Yes. Maybe I should explain.

DSC_0206I have to admit to a slight bias here, I guess. Norfolk’s previous three novels are very good. Very, very good. I have reread all three in the past month and they all hold up, even improve on rereading. His debut was Lemprière’s Dictionary, published when its author was a mere 27 years old. On its face, it is a retelling of the creation of John Lemprière’s Classical Dictionary containing a full Account of all the Proper Names mentioned in Ancient Authors, which is a real book, written by a historical person really called John Lemprière who, like Norfolk’s protagonist, came from Jersey. That is where the similarities end. Norfolk’s novel is a historical conspiracy novel that features a cabal of French protestants who are secretly behind the East India Company. It’s a book deeply steeped in myth, visions, and history – but it’s also a book with very odd steampunk underpinnings, with steampunk-like cyborgs (well, kinda) and automatons. All of this is done in a style that is so assured, so clean, that it can carry the complicated plot which teems with characters and descriptions and preposterous ideas and not confuse the reader beyond the intended confusions. It has held up remarkably well, and I strongly recommend you read it – but only in the British edition (the American edition has been mutilated). There has been criticism of its anglocentricity and orientalism, but Norfolk’s main goal is disorientation. The basic idea of historical novels, drawing intellectual connections between then and now, infusing a seemingly fixed situation with understanding, Norfolk sets about unmooring its fundamental pillars.

DSC_0207His second novel, The Pope’s Rhinoceros, basically takes the style and ideas and thrust of the first novel and splashes them over a vastly bigger canvas. Not only does the novel have about double the size of the debut, the same explosion happened to plots and characters. While the debut novel mostly took place in Jersey and London, with small trips to places like La Rochelle in France, the second novel spans across all of Renaissance Europe. I am not even going to attempt to offer a summary, but the novel contains monks traveling through Europe, artists, soldiers, and a mythical sunk city. While the first novel played with myth as an element in disorienting the audience and its protagonist, the second novel makes a full grab for a full religious and mythical framework. Religion, power, sexuality and art were all toys in the manic hands of 27 year old Norfolk, but The Pope’s Rhinoceros feels like the work of someone who thought through the concepts he used in his debut and applied them more deliberately in his second attempt. The Pope’s Rhinoceros, as was Lemprière’s Dictionary, is very well researched but doesn’t care to be accurate about the facts of history (or rather, is intentionally inaccurate). There’s a larger emphasis on myth as compared to steampunk automatons, but the mind is the same, just more mature. It’s a dense novel that frequently seems to just burst with material and descriptions and plot and good god all those characters, but it never really feels self-indulgent. Norfolk has a story to tell and ideas to convey, and everything in The Pope’s Rhinoceros feels absolutely necessary. It’s also really well written.

DSC_0132In his first two novels, Norfolk has developed his own style, highly recognizable, and perfectly adapted to the mad novels it was created for. In his third novel he cut down on the style. In many ways, this is no longer the Norfolk we know. While the first two novels occasionally invited comparison to the intellectual and philosophical romps through history of Umberto Eco’s novels, the new one is nothing like that. The progression from the first two novels seems to be cut short: page count alone seems clear: Lempriere’s Dictionary had about 500 pages, The Pope’s Rhinoceros roughly 900 and the third novel, the severely underrated In The Shape of a Boar, came in at just above 300 pages. Instead of being set in a distant period in England’s past, it’s set in World War II Romania and postwar Europe. For writers mainly associated with a specific setting and writing to transition to a much more modern period or setting can be difficult, even great writers struggle. The British and American sections of Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet, and the entire nonredeemable awfulness that is Rushdie’s Fury can serve as sad examples. Given the history of such ventures, it’s a bit surprising that In The Shape of a Boar is an absolute triumph. It’s split in two parts, the first one is a philological account (with footnotes) of the mythical Calydonian boar hunt. It takes the archival concerns of the first two books, both of which share and foreground a concern with the production of knowledge, and turns it inside out by offering sources in a clipped, but musical account of the myth. There is a third part that returns to the first, but it’s much smaller.

DSC_0130The second part, larger than the first one, is a very thinly veiled account of the life of Paul Celan (with one big deviation) and especially the Goll-Affair that haunted and broke Celan. The book offers us disquisitions on truth and storytelling, it’s an exercise in naming and sourcing; even the philological footnotes are already infiltrated by opinion and doubt. We are asked to transpose the mythical structure on the contemporary events, we are made players in a postmodern game, but unlike the cushy historical fantasy backgrounds of the earlier novels, this one offers us higher stakes. I can’t possibly do justice to the book within this summary, so I won’t attempt it. Suffice to say that at the center of it is a text called “Die Keilerjagd” (“The Boar Hunt”), written by Norfolk’s stand-in for Celan (the poem itself alludes to the Todesfuge via the Goll affair link, and “In Gestalt eines Ebers”, the poem that lent the novel its title). Subsequently, the authenticity, accuracy and plain truth of “Die Keilerjagd” is called into question. The Celan character is not necessarily at the center – it’s really the text and the question of historical truth and representation. The time-lines in Norfolk’s book can be shown to correspond to events in history, which helps read certain events. For Norfolk, this book represents the pinnacle of his achievement to that point. It takes up his concerns with truth, power and myth, with archives, art and vision, and transports them to a different platform, offers them different contexts. It’s a very brave undertaking, breaking with a certain part of his audience, and seemingly breaking with his previous work, but actually, it sharpens it, it re-focuses some concerns in his previous books. In The Shape of a Boar is a surprising step forward, but just as The Pope’s Rhinoceros, it’s also a development of his previous work. It’s stylistically acute, offering a shift even in writing to accommodate the subject matter. With In The Shape of a Boar, Norfolk established himself as a great writer. What would be his next masterpiece? Where would he go next?

DSC_0129Given these expectation on my side and many other readers of his work, when John Saturnall’s Feast came out, a medium-sized, easily read little book that had a small portion of myth, to go with a historical background and an engaging story, previous readers of Norfolk had to feel a bit let down. If you reread the effusive praise I have just offered for his other books, you could claim that I just had unreasonable expectations. That may be so. But I can’t help but feel that this step back is deliberate. In The Shape of a Boar was not as well received as his previous work and it had to have sold much fewer copies. In writing this short, very pretty book, he clearly appealed to the audience of his earlier books, and maybe, after the rumored failure of a much more ambitious project that was abandoned during the 12 years between novels three and four (one of the rumors was based on titbits like this note from a British Council webpage ca. 2006 that said “He is currently working on a new novel, The Levels, about the effect of gravity on human relationships.”), this smaller project helped him center, retool his writing. I don’t know and generally I don’t like this kind of speculation. So let’s move on to the book itself.

DSC_0164What kind of book is John Saturnall’s Feast? Set in the years just before, during and just after Cromwell’s reign, it is a novel about the English countryside. We meet Norfolk’s protagonist in a village in the middle of a green and gorgeous valley. He is the son of a village witch, who watches over a pagan rite of fertility and renewal. Her murder pushes the newly orphaned John Saturnall away from his home and into the kitchen of a manor whose lord, Sir William Fremantle, rules over the valley. With him, Saturnall carries a book of recipes his ancestors have kept and worked with. Saturnall quickly rises within the household due to luck, skill and his preternatural taste that allows him to distinguish all ingredients of a dish. He is tasked to coax Lucretia, the daughter of the house, who is on a hunger strike of sorts, into eating, and what ensues is a beautiful dance of seduction centered around food. As Cromwell takes over the country, the waves of history engulf Fremantle manor as well. Violence, war, religion, love and food spin together, carrying Saturnall through years of upheaval, through love and pain. If this summary sounds a bit bland, I can assure you I am not misrepresenting the book. The slightly mad, disorderly myth that ate at the archives of knowledge in the previous novels is very neatly stowed away here. Its most powerful appearance is early in the novel, in an evocation of the mythical power of nature and pagan rites, of the feasting tables of nature, and the intrusion of the “Priests of Jehova”. But once we enter Fremantle’s manor, it becomes background noise. It’s a means to characterize Saturnall, give him a distinctive motivation that is different from the other workers in the household. It also provides motivation and structure to the book. The book’s handful of characters are odd, but they don’t remind the reader of similar characters in Norfolk’s work – instead we feel like we are looking at a novel whose sense of interiors and history is inspired by Gormenghast without having that novel’s genius.

DSC_0162I’m not trying to be harsh. I really like this book even today and there’s a lot that’s interesting here. The narrow focus on English history allows Norfolk to combine tendencies from mythography and historiography to provide a very strong sense of place, of a profound Englishness. That’s why the recipes he prints at the beginning of every chapter have no real intrigue, they are purely decorative (but beautifully so). Wonderful books like How to cook a Wolf, a cookbook that also reveals the stress of life during hard times, or Günter Grass’ Der Butt, a novel about carnality in the baroque and today, use recipes to add to a story, to offer relevance and substance from a different medium. But for Norfolk the goal is a kind of grand essay on general Englishness, and he marshals an army of details to create this sense of place. This starts with his choice of Cromwell’s time as the setting for the book. In his great study of Cromwell, Christopher Hill has pointed out how much of a role Cromwell plays for the structure of English history, for its development and interpretation. He goes so far as to say that Cromwell in his revolution “combine[s] the roles of Robespierre and Napoleon, of Lenin and Stalin, in theirs.” Norfolk clearly has a strong sense of that. His focus on one rural village evokes no period of literature so much as Romanticism itself. It’s a period novel in a double sense: written about a certain period but also written in the style of a different period. Even the choice of topic might point back to Romanticism, if we remember that one of the most famous manifestos of Romanticism was Hugo’s preface to his play about Cromwell. This book doesn’t play fast and loose with historical facts, it doesn’t offer you facts in the first place. The book itself, in the Grove edition, just adds to this sense. Every chapter is dedicated to a different recipe in the cookbook, offering the recipe and a woodcut-style picture to accompany it. The recipes and chapter beginnings are printed in burgundy ink. It’s just so overwhelmingly pretty. I have included pictures of it somewhere in this review.

DSC_0134And this is why I can’t help but think that its superficial blandness is intentional. It is, as if it was intentionally written and conceived as a romantic period artifact. Even the writing itself, which at times seems a bit sloppy is, I think, intentionally written as a pastiche (not parody) of period writing. The modernity of the language is what allows us to read it as more than parody. I think this book is extremely clever, and a lot of its blandness is intentional, and it’s honestly a fantastic, joyful read, but intentional blandness is still blandness and this book, with all its cleverness and all its formal accomplishments, feels like a step back for a writer that I consider to be vastly underrated. And there’s the distinct possibility that I am reading these accomplishments and this cleverness into a book that doesn’t have it. That is not such a well constructed artifact. However, it is the rest of Norfolk’s work that allows for this reading. If Norfolk really were such a minor writer, Lemprière’s Dictionary would have looked more like Iain Pears’ fun but forgettable Rashomon-in-England fable An Instance of the Fingerpost. But it doesn’t look like that because Norfolk is, indeed, a very good writer, and ultimately, saying that John Saturnall’s Feast is ‘merely’ a great read is burying the lede. In a time of dull but ‘clever’ books written by novelists without a sense of style (Blake Butler’s work comes to mind), such a readable work, with such commitment to sumptuousness and beauty, and written by such a capable hand, is not only rare, it is absolutely laudable. Overall, it’s a bit like comfort food – like a slice of your favorite pizza. If you haven’t had it in a while you’ll absolutely die for a slice. Look, I am waiting for his next book, just as impatiently. But I was also, speaking of Hugo, reminded of this passage in the Préface:

En somme, rien n’est si commun que cette élégance et cette noblesse de convention. Rien de trouvé, rien d’imaginé, rien d’inventé dans ce style. Ce qu’on a vu partout, rhétorique, ampoule, lieux communs[…].

John Saturnall’s Feast is very formulaic, and in danger of meriting such criticism. But compared to other books in the genre, this one is much more competent, much more fluid in the use of myth, and much more aware of the period style it uses and adapts. It feels like a watershed moment for Norfolk. Where does he go next? I can’t honestly wait to find out.

****

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2 thoughts on “Lawrence Norfolk: John Saturnall’s Feast

  1. Saturnall must be a reference to the Saturnalia, particularly given the character’s mother’s a witch. That also fits with the idea of a feast, and based on the one Norfolk I’ve read (The Pope’s Rhinocerous) none of this of course will be accidental.

    Formula and blandness are issues for me, even as you say where they may be intentional. It’s tricky stuff to risk boring or irritating the reader for a wider goal. Nabokov pulls it off in Pnin, but he’s Nabokov of course.

    I wasn’t as taken by Pope as you, though in fairness now I think of it much of the imagery remains vivid which is a good sign. The poets crowding the pope, the cold lakes and shoals of herring. Perhaps it’s grown in memory, some books do.

    Nice use of pictures. It does look beautiful. Nice review too, I did feel I had a good sense of the book, it’s strengths and flaws.

  2. Thank you for your kind words.

    Yes, that is the reference. Not having the book on hand right now I can’t tell you exactly, but the protagonist’s birth name is not Saturnall. It is the saturnalia that gave him his name. The early section on The Feast as a transtemporal ritual goes into this at some length. As I think I said in the review, this is also easily teh best part of the novel.

    And I have great veneration for Norfolk. I tend to assume that he controls/uses everything. I was once at a conference where a speaker spoke ill of Lemprière’s dictionary due to its historical inaccuracies and general historiographic silliness, but Norfolk makes very careful use of his deviations, I think, and in a metaphorical way creates another kind of accuracy. Up until his new novel I truly considered him one of your great writers. This book, fun that it is to read, is a step down.

    One hopes this is a taking of breath, brief respite before tackling another great book. Surely that ominous book “The Levels” has not been wholly lost?🙂

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