Lawrence Norfolk Biography
Nationality: British. Born: 1963.
Lemprière's Dictionary. London, Sinclair Stevenson, and New York, Harmony, 1991.
Pope's Rhinoceros. London, Sinclair-Stevenson, 1996; New York, Harmony Books, 1996.
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Lawrence Norfolk's formidable reputation rests upon a small collection of works. The success of Lemprière's Dictionary, an erudite, intricately designed, and densely textured novel, derives chiefly from its pastiche of literary forms and sensibilities even more varied than its range of geographical and temporal settings (from England to India, from 1600 to 1788). Impossible to classify (or summarize), the novel combines numerous genres—Gothic, Victorian, historical, adventure, mystery, detective, political thriller, and quest—in a decidedly postmodern (even postcolonial) way that strongly suggests the influence of writers such as Umberto Eco, Thomas Pynchon, and Peter Ackroyd.
Norfolk's protagonist is John Lemprière, a fictional version of the author of the well-known Classical Dictionary (1788). Building upon the relative dearth of information about the real Lemprière's life, Norfolk fashions his own version (a narrative ploy of considerable thematic import). His Lemprière is a myopic youth whose reading has addled his brain, causing him to see the myths he reads about come to life. Instead of correcting the problem, glasses only enable him to see all the better his father torn apart by his own hunting dogs, in the manner of Actaeon. Himself torn apart by guilt and the desire to solve the family mystery, Lemprière begins his exile/quest. Early in his wanderings, it is suggested that he write a dictionary as a form of therapy. Although it offers him a refuge from a series of baffling mysteries (and thus functions in much the same way the novel itself does for the similarly naive and escapist reader), the dictionary also serves a more sinister purpose. It is the "signed confession" linking its innocent author to a series of myth-inspired murders perpetrated by a shadowy Cabbala. It is this Cabbala, comprising descendants of François Lemprière's former business partners, that the hero believes he is searching out but has in fact been directing his efforts all along.
Norfolk's title recalls other, more famous dictionaries. Unlike Samuel Johnson's (1755), Norfolk's does not attempt to "fix" and "preserve" its subject. Like the Oxford English Dictionary, it is "based upon historical principles" that in the novel are to be understood semiotically rather than scientifically. As Norfolk explains in "Bosnian Alphabet" in the Spring 1993 issue of Granta, a dictionary is a very useful but also highly arbitrary means for organizing chaotic experience. It is also a way to organize a novel, as Walter Abish (Alphabetical Africa) and Milorad Pavic (The Dictionary of the Khazars) have demonstrated. And just as Pavic's novel exists in two forms, male and female, each with its own ending, so does Norfolk's: the longer, denser, more fantastic original English edition and the shorter American, with its greater "forward momentum." Appropriately, Lemprière's Dictionary is filled with twins, metamorphoses, mistaken identities, and deliberate disguises and pretends to be a good many things that it is not, including a historical novel (about the East India Company, England's coming-of-age as a colonial power, the events leading up to the French Revolution, and so on). Even as the details are deployed to create a Jamesian "sense of the past," they also serve as a set of facts, some real, some fictional, whose permutational possibilities allow for a seemingly endless series of rearrangement and reinterpretation, that may be understood as an instance of postmodern play or, more seriously, as Don DeLillo has said of his novel Libra, as a way of thinking about history, including the history of the novel).
Norfolk's novel repeatedly calls attention to the reading process: to how characters read or, more often, misread events and texts, sometimes, as in François's message to his partners still in the besieged city of La Rochelle, with disastrous consequences. The consequences for the novel and its readers are of course quite different, misinterpretation being the engine that drives them both. Reading a novel such as Lemprière's Dictionary becomes at times a highly self-conscious affair. What is said about characters and events often applies equally well to the novel itself. Like the Cabbala, it is "a kind of joke, a huge prank" turned serious; like the rumors of impending massacre, it is something that the reader, like the citizens of La Rochelle, perversely "want to believe." It is as well a bog, a fraud, a game of chess, a conspiracy, a simulacrum (in the Baudrillardian sense, a postmodern image having no antecedent reality). Ultimately it resembles the creation of one of Lemprière's own mythical subjects, the master artificer Daedalus, maker of automata and labyrinths.
The title The Pope's Rhinoceros might seem metaphoric on first glance, but in fact it is quite literal, referring to an unsuccessful attempt by Portuguese explorers of the 16th century to bring a rhinoceros from Africa back to Rome as a gift for Pope Leo X. These facts, however, are merely a point of departure, and from there Norfolk takes readers on a ride that is as complex (in the view of some detractors, overly so) as it is intriguing.
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