In the first book of the Iliad, Nestor, the oldest by a generation of the Achaean chieftains at the siege of Troy, intervenes in the argument between Agamemnon and Achilles, telling them they should listen to him because
You are both younger men than I,
and in my time I struck up with better men than you,
even you, but never once did they make light of me.
I’ve never seen such men, I never will again . . .
men like Pirithous, Dryas, that fine captain,
Caeneus and Exadius, and Polyphemus, royal prince,
and Theseus, Aegeus’ boy, a match for the immortals.
They were the strongest mortals ever bred on earth,
the strongest, and they fought against the strongest too,
shaggy Centaurs, wild brutes of the mountains –
they hacked them down, terrible, deadly work.
And I was in their ranks, fresh out of Pylos,
far away from home – they enlisted me themselves
and I fought on my own, a free lance, single-handed.
And none of the men who walk the earth these days
could battle with those fighters, none, but they,
they took to heart my counsels, marked my words.
The strength of Nestor’s appeal depends on his audience believing what he says about his past to be true, both in the sense that the events he describes took place and that they were as momentous as he claims. Facts are not enough: they need to be significant facts. A story where there is sufficient consensus regarding its significance for its facts (perhaps details would be a better word) to be transcended might be one way to define what constitutes a myth. Nestor mythologises his past in order for its significance to be felt by the younger warriors, even though by doing so he compromises the details and his story’s claim to be factual – not that such considerations would have bothered the Greeks too much. The Iliad exists in an uncertain space on the cusp between myth and literature; or rather it creates literature out of myth, the details making the poem discrete. This process, or a reduced version of it, can be seen at work in a passage in Book 9 of the poem, in which Phoenix, Achilles’ tutor, tries to persuade him to return to battle, and tells him the story of Meleager – or rather a story of Meleager, since it’s unfamiliar from any other source. Phoenix’ account is rife with parallels to Achilles’ position, and is too specific to a single, real (within the context of the poem) situation to be considered as a mythic account at all.
Lawrence Norfolk’s extraordinary new novel is, among many other things, concerned with the complicated relationship between history, myth and literature. It draws on the story of Meleager and the Kalydonian boar, a standard version of which, such as might be found in Ovid or a book of Greek and Roman myths and legends, would go something like this.
Oeneus, King of Kalydon, has omitted to sacrifice to Artemis, the virgin goddess of hunting. To punish him, she sends a huge and ferocious boar to ravage his land. His son, Meleager, summons heroes from all over Greece to help him hunt it down and kill it. The muster includes the likes of Jason (of Golden Fleece and Argonaut fame), Theseus (killer of the Minotaur, dumper of Ariadne) and his best friend Pirithous, Nestor (who later fought at Troy), Peleus (Achilles’ father), Meleager’s uncles and Atalanta, a virgin huntress and the only woman among them. They track the beast through woods and over mountains until they reach the edge of a bog, where their quarry breaks cover. At first the boar has the better of them, wreaking havoc and death among the heroes before taking off for the woods. But then Atalanta draws first blood with her bow – Jason and Theseus have been pretty useless, their javelin throws succeeding only in pruning the trees and killing one of Meleager’s dogs – and Meleager gets to play matador. After the kill he gives the carcass to Atalanta, because she drew first blood, and because he’s fallen for her. His uncles object to this, claiming the prize for themselves, so Meleager, with the short temper that tends to go with being a hero, kills the pair of them. When Meleager was born, the Fates put a log on the fire and said that it and the child would have the same lifespan. His mother, unsurprisingly, doused it and has kept it safe – until her brothers’ bodies are brought to her, when in her grief she kills her son by rekindling the log before taking her own life.
Phoenix’ version dispenses with the whole silly business of the log, telling instead how the argument over the carcass swelled into a full-scale war. Meleager’s side was winning until he got cross with his mother and took up sulking in bed with his wife, Cleopatra (whose name, you’ll notice, is the syllables of ‘Patroclus’ reversed). His fellow citizens, including Cleopatra, pleaded with him to save them, and eventually he did, but too late for them to bother thanking him. Moral: don’t sulk in your tent too long, Achilles.
Part One of In the Shape of a Boar, which occupies the first third of the novel, is ‘The Hunt for the Boar of Kalydon’. It is set in the pre-Homeric era, and opens with the gathering of the heroes.
They come from the cities of Pherae and Phylace on the plain of Thessaly, from Iolcus on the Magnesian coast, Larissa and Titaeron on the banks of the Peneus. They quit Naryx and Trachis and march inland, westward, by way of the tusked peaks of Mount Oeta and the hot basins of Thermopylae . . .
The heroes are the outposts of a shrinking country whose centre is the place of their assembly. They march towards its discovery, each step drawing the ring of the tinchel tighter about the ground where their tracks must meet. They are one another’s quarry in a bloodless, preparatory hunt.
The account carries as ballast a daunting set of footnotes, drawing on a disconcerting array of sources – so far as I can tell, the exhaustive references are all genuine – posing as an attempt at an authorative version of what ‘really’ happened. A mention of ‘thorn bushes’ prompts a footnote, ‘Bacchylides claims these were roses,’ as if there were any way to establish what they were, as if they actually existed. Thirty-five pages in, the footnotes fall away and the story enters the realm of its teller’s imagination. As the hunt draws towards its conclusion, the footnotes return and the story disintegrates into fragments, ending before the kill as the last visible hero, Meilanion, follows Atalanta and Meleager into a cave where the boar is waiting. Meilanion doesn’t figure prominently (if at all) in most versions of the story; in Norfolk’s account he separates himself from the other hunters early on, alternately striking out alone and following his comrades, who are unaware of his presence. He is a shadowy figure, the ‘night-hunter’, and Meleager’s rival for Atalanta. Why he should be given such prominence in the narrative becomes clearer in the light of what follows.
The hero of Part Two – though ‘hero’ is one of many categories the novel calls into question – is Solomon (Sol) Memel, a 20th-century poet whose first and most celebrated work, Die Keilerjagd, ‘The Boar Hunt’, has been translated into at least 17 languages and is studied by every 14-year-old in Germany and most 16-year-olds in France. A reworking of the classical myth of Meleager, it describes Memel’s experiences among Partisans and in a POW camp in Greece during the Second World War, where he ended up after fleeing his home in Nazi-occupied Romania.
There are three narrative strands in the account of Memel’s life. In Paris in the late 1960s, the poet is involved in the making of a film adaptation of Die Keilerjagd directed by Ruth Lackner, a childhood friend who was nearly his lover. This is interwoven with the story of what happened to Sol during the war, beginning with his triangular friendship with Ruth and another boy, Jakob Feuerstein, both of whom he left behind in his flight to Greece.
The third interlaced narrative covers the intervening years and the history of the poem. Die Keilerjagd is first published by a small firm in Vienna in the early 1950s, and only comes to public attention when it is acclaimed by Germany’s pre-eminent critic. Its phenomenal success is later threatened when an unauthorised and heavily annotated edition is brought out by Professor J. Feuerstein of the University of Tel Aviv. Jakob’s extensive footnotes call into question the poem’s authenticity by drawing attention to geographical and other factual inconsistencies and errors in the text: there are no dolphins in the Gulf of Corinth; ‘his apples were unseasonal and the flora of Mount Zygos simply wrong.’ None of this ought to matter, of course: Bohemia has no coast. What is so potentially devastating is the suggestion that Die Keilerjagd’s reputation is based not on its merits as a poem, but on its status as an accurate record of Memel’s experiences in Greece (and elsewhere). The implication is that he is not primarily a poet, but a Jew who has suffered. The danger passes when Feuerstein is shown to have no connection with the University of Tel Aviv and his criticisms are demonstrated to be inaccurate and uninformed. But no answers are given to the question of the importance of authenticity (imagine if Damien Hirst’s shark turned out to be made of plastic). And there is the further matter of the implications for Sol’s relationship with Jakob: friendship, too, is a casualty of war, though it doesn’t usually get much coverage. It is testament to Norfolk’s intelligence and his skill as a novelist that he can combine the abstract questions with the human ones, and that he doesn’t presume to offer any answers or to spell out the ‘issues’.
There are obvious parallels between the footnotes to Part One and Jakob’s annotations to Sol’s poem – of which we aren’t given a single line – but ‘The Hunt for the Boar of Kalydon’ is not Die Keilerjagd: it is set exclusively in antiquity, and there is no mention of Nazis or Greek Partisans or of Thyella, the heroine of Memel’s poem (whose name means ‘storm’ or ‘whirlwind’, though Norfolk is thankfully not the kind of writer to point this out). It is rather a version of the myth that has resonance for the rest of the novel: it would be a prologue, if it weren’t so long. The two narratives feed off each other, Part One a necessary preliminary to Part Two, Part Two pushing retrospectively towards making some sense of Part One. There is also a Part Three, only a page and a half long, called ‘Agrapha’, ‘the unwritten things’, which forms an ambiguous apex where the two kinds of story – myth and history, both fictional – may or may not meet.
The novel is a kaleidoscope of triangles: myth, history, literature; Sol, Jakob, Ruth; Atalanta, Meilanion, Meleager; Sol, Thyella, her lover Xanthos, whose name means ‘yellow’, which associates him with blond Meleager; the three parts of the novel; the three narrative strands in Part Two – but none of these maps neatly onto any of the others, and any hopes for a schematic solution will be frustrated.
The boar itself remains an enigma – a ‘dark saying’, a ‘riddle’ (incidentally, the Greek root of enigma, aivos, is a synonym for mythos; and the rhinoceros in Norfolk’s second novel, The Pope’s Rhinoceros, 1996, is known as the ‘Enigma’ before it arrives in Rome, when no one’s really sure what it is). The hunters never see their quarry, only the signs it leaves behind. And the object of the hunt, in both Part One and Part Two, becomes unclear. Meilanion thinks: ‘And the quarry he pursued, that too was a lie: a shape-shifter. The sons of Thestius were huntsmen who had become the hunted, bait for the boar, who would replace them. They led to the beast, and the beast led further, being the token for the final prize.’ There is a passage, towards the end of Part One, told from the boar’s point of view in the cave, in total darkness. (Parts of The Pope’s Rhinoceros are told from the point of view of a school of herring.) But this is no answer to the riddle of what the boar is: it remains an unanchored metaphor, a tenorless vehicle, a sign rampaging in search of a meaning.
Norfolk is an uncompromising writer, whose remarkable constraint and refusal to explain or condescend can be bewildering: at times reading the novel feels like the sedentary equivalent of Meilanion’s mountain-climbing.
He flexed his knuckles and brought one hand up to join the other. The arch of his right foot tautened and the slack weight of his body hung between these extremities, slung like a carcass from a pole. He could not hold himself here for long. A vague outswelling created an overhang whose brow rolled back out of sight. He thought of the arc his arm must follow and the splayed fingers of his hand, imagining their impact and how his palm would slap the rock and hold. He could not see, or wait any longer. The air burned his throat and smelt of nothing. When his lungs were filled he would push off from his foothold, swing his arm and the ledge would hold him. His chest swelled and tightened, his ribs pressing against the tight membrane of flesh and skin. He launched himself out, swung around and grasped, his fingers searching for the handhold.
As he makes his ascent, Atalanta, Meleager and the other hunters are going up the mountain by an apparently easier route, following the course of a stream through a gorge, when a massive ‘ridge of water rounded the bend ahead, scended against the wall, broke and fell’:
There was nothing in her head except the noise of the flood, which would come as a rampart of liquid mud, bristling with tree trunks and hurling boulders before it, scouring everything in its path. She turned away, pressing her cheek to the rock. She heard the impact of the water as it hit the bend in the canyon. She saw Theseus and Pirithous break away from the hopeless task and sprint for the walls, their weapons scattering about them. She sucked air. Then she saw Idas plant his feet, take hold of Lynceus and lift him, raising him above his head as though he might carry him thus to safety. He stood rooted beneath the weight of his brother, a single pillar supporting the pediment of an impossible temple, refusing flight, but whether in defiance or acceptance of his fate she could not guess and would never know, for at that moment the wave fell upon her and she saw no more.
The first section of the novel is an astonishingly sustained piece of hallucinatory writing, and the distance between the reader and the world of myth is not unlike what it would be were the action taking place underwater, in slow motion, silent – the effect is heightened by the absence of direct speech. Turning to Part Two is like coming up for air. There is even some dry humour.
It begins in a make-up room, where Memel is being prepared for a TV interview with Maximilian Faucher, a 1960s French version of Melvyn Bragg. Memel’s
bloodless face regarded him from the mirror. He recognised the widow’s peak, a drooping around the eyes. An unexceptional mouth set above an unremarkable chin. His face had lengthened in his late teens, when his appearance had been described as poetic by some. Equine, he recalled, by another. You sad horse.
His thirties had rounded him out again and since then this face had been his. Tonight, painted, it would appear on television screens all over the country. Its encrusted forehead would crease with thought. Its grey lips would answer questions. He would wear a clown’s face, drained of colour.
‘I appear to have died,’ he said.
The interview with Faucher is the first that Memel has given for almost twenty years, since he spoke to Walter Reichmann, the critic who made his reputation, to whom at one point he says: ‘If the poem grows “mysterious”, as you say, when it enters the cave then there must exist a mystery to solve. But it is not so.’ And that is the closest the novel comes to an explanation of itself.
Norfolk has always been interested in the intersections between myth and history, and the ways fiction can squeeze itself into the gaps. In his first novel, Lemprière’s Dictionary (1991), the dictionary is conceived by its author’s enemies as part of an elaborate plot to implicate Lemprière in a series of flamboyantly gruesome murders based on classical myths: his father, for example, is killed in the same way as Actaeon. Not much is known about the historical Lemprière, except that he was born on Jersey, educated at Winchester and Oxford, ordained and eventually appointed headmaster of Abingdon School, dying of an apoplexy in London. Norfolk sends the youthful Lemprière straight to London from Jersey in 1787 and embroils him in a global conspiracy orchestrated by the shadowy directorate of the East India Company. An ambitious project, but he pulls it off triumphantly, with a thrillingly implausible plot, an impressive display of learning, and a well-aimed attack on anonymous big business.
In Lemprière’s Dictionary, everything works out in the end: the bad guys get wasted (in a gloriously over the top way) and the good guy gets the girl. In the Shape of a Boar is less assured, and stronger for it; a more serious undertaking, it benefits from a corresponding increase in uncertainty. All the stories end by disappearing into the darkness of the cave where the boar, whatever it might be, is dying. What remains in the traces is a web of ‘competing plausibilities’.
There is another (it would be foolish to say last) twist, going beyond the text, in the relationship between myth, history and literature. Elements of Paul Celan’s life can be found in Memel’s (reviewers’ attention is drawn to this in the press release, but there’s no explicit mention in the novel): the Jewish Romanian background, the consequences of Nazism and the eventual exile in Paris. Above all, perhaps, the recognition, followed by the calumny. In 1960 Celan won the Büchner Prize. Two years later, he was accused of plagiarism by the widow of a former friend, just as Memel is traduced by Jakob. We do not hear what happened to Solomon Memel after 1969; in 1970, Paul Celan drowned himself in the Seine.