Lawrence Norfolk is the author of three historical novels which have together sold over a million copies and been translated into thirty-four languages.
Born in London in 1963, Norfolk moved with his parents to Iraq in the following year. Evacuated following the Six Day War in 1967, he grew up in the West Country of England. While studying English and American Literature at Kings College, London, he wrote his first novel, "Lemprière’s Dictionary" which was published in 1991. His second, "The Pope’s Rhinoceros" (1996) was written while living in Chicago and his third "In the Shape of a Boar" (2001) on his return to Britain. A large-scale work with the working title "The Levels" was abandoned in 2007. He is currently writing a novel set in seventeenth century England during the Civel War.
He is the winner of the Somerset Maugham Award and the Budapest Festival Prize for Literature and his work has been short-listed for the Impac Prize, the James Tait Black Memorial Award and the Wingate/Jewish Quarterly Prize for Literature. In 1992 he was listed as one of Granta magazine’s Twenty Best of Young British Writers. In the same year he reported on the war in Bosnia for NEWS magazine of Austria.
Lawrence Norfolk’s journalism has appeared in newspapers and magazines throughout Europe and America. In the USA: The Washington Post, Esquire, GQ, Details and National Geographic Adventure. In Europe: The Times (London), The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian; in Germany, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Die Welt; in Denmark, Politiken; in Austria, NEWS magazine, Profil magazine; in Sweden, Göteborgs Posten; in France, Le Figaro. He is a regular contributor to BBC Radio Four’s "Saturday Review" and "Front Row" and BBC Radio Three’s "Nightwaves".
He lives in London with his wife and two sons.
At 45, Lawrence Norfolk is the author of three thick tomes: Lempriere’s Dictionary, The Pope’s Rhinoceros, and In the Shape of a Boar (along with a collaborative “docufiction” called Ott’s Sneeze), which have all garnered high acclaim for their lush, expansive prose rooted as equally in a firmament of gutsy, rollicking diction as in the laborious research that supports them (he has been known to wince when recalling the two years it took to research the elaborate footnotes that ground the classical references in his most recent novel, In the Shape of a Boar). On the face of it, Norfolk’s fiction may not sound like the kind of material that would garner pop culture status on a global scale. And yet in Germany, his sales are not only through the roof, autograph hunters often camp outside his hotel hoping to catch sight of him.
Accolades amass with each new book. Norfolk has been called “the most successful British novelist of his generation” by The Independent, and “Britain’s brightest young writer” by The Guardian. And while it is without a touch of irony (alas) that his “Wikipedia” entry notes that his novels are “known for their unusually large vocabulary,” an off-hand remark from Martin Amis speaks volumes about Norfolk’s rising status: “You know what you’re doing, don’t you?”
Indeed, it might be said, that Lawrence Norfolk is a timely writer who skillfully evades being beholden to his time. His novels are dense histories that grapple with the idea of history itself—The Pope’s Rhinoceros, for instance, starts with a 14,000 year evolutionary history of the Baltic Sea before moving onto the novel’s plot: the scheme of several Baltic Monks to ship a rhinoceros across the Atlantic to a Renaissance Pope—at a moment in history when documenting the present seems perilous. Stephen Colbert has coined the term “truthiness” to describe a spin cycle attitude toward the facts. A critic might use the word “historiographic metafiction” to address Norfolk’s careful attention to the lacunae within so-called recorded history.
Yet perhaps because of his own history—born in London, Norfolk moved with his parents to Iraq and was evacuated following the Six Day War in 1967; more recently, he covered the Kosovo War and was almost killed leaving Bosnia—Norfolk attends to the reference texts that ground his fiction with an almost astonishing solemnity (given the irony that often characterizes contemporary fiction). His method, it would seem, is to showcase not just how history is, but how it also might be, written—and, as such, his novels are saturated with both a responsibility to the truth as it has been documented, as much as to voicing doubts about the rigidity of its interpretation. This is serious, high-wire storifying: gothic in scope, dashingly brave, erudite, and full of marvel. Norfolk brings to bear the writer’s full repertoire of idiomatic inventiveness and philosophical entreaty as he writes on how we tell stories to ourselves about who we have been, which is to say, who we are. As he reflects in In the Shape of a Boar:
“Our memories never tell us the stories we need. Our heroes never live the lives we require. Their acts take place in darkness and silence and their untellable stories rest with them in the cave.”
A.S. Byatt reflects in On Histories and Stories, “novels arise out of the shortcomings of history.” If that is so, it might be said that Lawrence Norfolk is very much a writer of our present doubts.
Please welcome him this evening.