The new novel by British author Lawrence Norfolk will hit our bookshops this autumn. John Saturnall’s Feast (Bloomsbury) is an English Civil War tale that weaves history with myth to tell a story of superstition, war and love.
It is, as Norfolk remarks with evident glee, a ‘very English book’ and his first to be set in England. That such ‘Englishness’ is worth pointing out of a British author based in London betrays some of the fascinating aspects of Norfolk’s literary status – that he feels as close, if not closer, to continental Europe as to the UK and the US; that his literary counterparts are themselves at home in Germany and Denmark, not Islington; and that as a writer and a reader he is at home in a literature defined as ‘European’.
The idea of being ‘at home’ in a language, in particular when there is no geographical homeland to speak of, is central to the poetry and thought of the post-Holocaust poet Paul Celan, who always wrote in his mother tongue of German despite never living in Germany. This comparison is fitting, given that Celan is one of Norfolk’s favourite writers and an inspiration behind his third novel, In the Shape of a Boar (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2000). In this text, Norfolk takes the bones of Celan’s biography and combines it with his ‘other great obsession’, classical myth, to produce an intricate and beautifully composed novel that circles around the relationship between history, mythology, poetry and reality.
Norfolk came to Celan’s poetry (in English translation) when, as a seventeen-year-old, he sought to satisfy his ‘craving for difficulty’ in literature, moving from James Joyce through T.S. Eliot and then discovering Celan. This encounter reflects Norfolk’s broader relationship with literature; he seeks engaging books that promise to be interesting, regardless of their origin or tradition.
As a result, Norfolk’s literary upbringing and his access to the books that have influenced his own writing have relied on good literary translation. ‘Landlocked in English’, Norfolk has learnt German well enough to talk to friends there, but he remarks that his true appreciation of German literature relies on translations into English:
‘I remember starting to read Thomas Brussig’s Helden wie wir in German. I understood what was happening, but I just didn’t find it funny – nothing’s funny if you’re looking up every seventh word and trying to work out whether it’s accusative or not. So then I switched to the English and it’s hilarious …’
Brussig and other German authors, like Norfolk’s close friend Ingo Schulze or Hans-Ulrich Treichel, thus demonstrate ‘what we think of as the great oxymoron of our times – that German literature is funny!’ When Norfolk read out English extracts from Treichel’s novel Der Verlorene as part of an event at the Southbank Centre in London, the largely English audience were ‘rolling in the aisles’ at the comic passages.
Around the time that Norfolk first discovered Celan, he also began to read the works of Günter Grass. Taking a circuitous route through his oeuvre, he started with The Flounder, before taking in The Tin Drum and Dog Years. He describes reading these books as ‘an eye-opener’, realising that Grass was developing a new way of perceiving and articulating the world and its absurdities, which was also evident in the writings of Gabriel García Márquez: ‘That idiom, that wide-eyed look at history. A seam of surrealism in reality.’
Moving further back, Norfolk took in Thomas Mann as part of his reading around European modernism, but initially missed Austrian great Robert Musil – until a new English edition was published, and he finally tackled The Man without Qualities through a transatlantic correspondence, exchanging letters with a friend in America:
‘You had to – there was no other way to do it! I was struck by this extreme technical modernity. It was genuinely experimental, you felt as if Musil was deciding how to do it as he went along.’
Romantic poet Friedrich Hölderlin forms part of Norfolk’s German canon, too. Following a recommendation to read an essay by Jacques Derrida which deals with Hölderlin’s poem ‘The Ister’, Norfolk (‘happily’) did not find the essay but sought out the poem instead – and that poem stayed with him: ‘You could read this poem your whole life.’
These figures line up alongside others – Thomas Pynchon, Umberto Eco – to populate Norfolk’s literary canon, one which is decidedly transnational. His particular inclination towards the German language and contemporary German literature has developed in part through his experiences of being published in Germany – where his books are huge bestsellers and where ‘the business of translating a work of literature from one language to another is taken more seriously than anywhere else.’ And translation should, Norfolk remarks, be taken that seriously:
‘It matters, it really matters. I mean, you don’t take a lowresolution photo of a Picasso and say, “That’ll do.”.’
Norfolk’s novels fly off the shelves in Germany; he gives readings to packed venues – even standing on a stepladder in a bookshop doorway at one reading, to speak both to those crammed inside and those spilling out onto the street – and he remarks on the ‘enduring seriousness in reception’ of literature there. The German rights to John Saturnall’s Feast were bought in early 2009 by Knaus, an imprint of Random House and publisher of all Norfolk’s books in the German language; so this ‘English’ book will ensure that the symbiotic relationship between Norfolk’s writing and German literature continues and develops new forms.