I wrote this for the TLS blog as a response to the Bad Sex Awards. (Includes a brief definition of Gibbs’s Law of Reversible Similes.)
It’s easy to sneer at the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award – sneering at the sneerers, as it were – but it’s no lie that writing well about sex is difficult, and perhaps more difficult in prose than in poetry. I think there are three main reasons for this. Read on…
One: I have a dysfunctional relationship with books, and authors. And, two: There is no functional relationship available, that I know of.
Take Lawrence Norfolk. I read his first novel, Lemprière’s Dictionary, in paperback, many years ago, and found it exhilaratingly different from my usual run of reading, a historical novel that confidently brushed aside my preconceptions of the genre, that boomed outwards in an explosion of character and description and action in ways I found exhaustingly brilliant. He followed this with a similar historical fantasy, The Pope’s Rhinoceros, which I picked up somewhere along the way, but never read, beyond its barn-storming opening section, beginning: “This sea was once a lake of ice.”
In 2000 his third novel came out, In The Shape of a Boar, and this I read on publication, and was bowled over by it in ways that knocked me a different kind of sideways from his previous books. It was, and is, an unprecedented novel. It comes in three parts, the first a mockery-free mock-epic narrating a boar hunt in Ancient Greece, complete with copious footnotes pointing to sources in the kind of Classical literature of which I knew little but was nonetheless in awe of. The second, and longest, part takes place at the end of the Second World War and treats love and betrayal among Greek partisans tracking down Nazis. It is, to my knowledge, the only remotely modern thing Norfolk has ever written. The book ends with a very short coda that joins the two sections in a way that in Creative Writing class I would have to call ‘thematically’, but that does not go very far at all in explaining how it does it.
This felt like the most exciting contemporary novel I had ever read: unfathomable and yet moving, miles above me in terms of intellect (and seductive because of this) while seeming to offer the possibility of understanding despite this. It reached down, or at least waved, from the heights on which it stood. Continue reading