In the Shape of a Boar

As the ancient writers tell it, Artemis had sent a boar ‘of surpassing size and ferocity’ to ravage the kingdom of Kalydon. Called together by Meleager, sixty heroes and one heroine – Atalanta – gathered to track the boar to its lair and kill it. Three and half millennia later, the hunt for the boar of Kalydon will be re-enacted.

In the chaotic last months of the Second World War, a Nazi officer is the quarry and the hunters are Greek partisans. Their witness is a young Romanian Jew, fleeing for his life across Europe. Sol Memel has lost his family and abandoned his lover, Ruth. Finding refuge in the mountains of Greece, his role in the Nazi officer’s killing inspires him to rewrite the ancient myth as a poem. Die Keilerjagd and its author will be acclaimed throughout post-war Europe.

But Sol’s account of the hunt conceals a secret. When Ruth reappears twenty years later to make a film of the poem, Sol finds himself cast as the quarry. Under the camera’s lens, the ghosts of his wartime past are exposed. Behind them stand the ghosts of ancient Greece, the long-dead heroes who know the truth of the hunt for the boar of Kalydon.

“In the Shape of a Boar” tracks a hidden story from pre-Homeric Greece to the darkest events of the twentieth century.


“In the Shape of a Boar” was my third novel. I wanted to ask questions I’d avoided in my previous work. How do we know the facts that come down to us through history? What happens to the events which go unrecorded or leave no trace? Are there kinds of events more prone to erasure than others? The book takes the form of a  circle of commentaries – an event, a myth, an annotation, a poem, a life. Its three sections can be read in any order and the book’s narrative is complete when these commentaries are recollected together. The relation between the fictional Sol Memel and the poet Paul Celan adds another dimension, as do the real-life (or false-life) fabrications of Celan’s enemies. Beyond these lie the ‘disappeared histories’ of Celan’s parents and many millions of others.

Research notes for relations between the different groups of hunters in "In the Shape of a Boar".

The research for “In the Shape of a Boar” began with a reading of Celan’s poetry, in particular with the original poem of the same title, or “In Gestalt eines Ebers”, which appeared in Celan’s collection “Sprachgitter” (1959). The decision to fashion a book from vanished or erased historical materials ramified into several projects, notably the archaeology of the disappeared world of Celan’s and Memel’s youth in pre-War Romania, and of a pre-Homeric boar-hunt through the mountains of Aetolia in Northern Greece. The exaggerated annotation of the narrative of the hunt supplies a babble of witnesses and, although the notes refer to published texts (almost all Greek and Roman), they guarantee no verifiable event. Historical accounts are never quite as stable as we might wish. The region of Greece in which the ancient boar-hunt took place was called Agrapha; its ‘Unwritten’ villages were so poor they were not worth recording for tax purposes. Coincidentally, amongst the authorities cited is Phylarchus of Naucratis who wrote a book called “Agrapha” which means “The Unwritten Stories” (in whose pages presumably were recorded those myths and legends which had not been recorded anywhere else). The text has not survived.

Manuscript page from "In the Shape of a Boar"

Writing “In the Shape of a Boar” posed a number of technical challenges, some of which I documented in an account of its composition written in diary-form for the anthology “Art, not chance.” The MS was reworked several times in order to bring its different parts into harmony with each other. The page opposite is the fifth draft of the first page of the “Paris” section. The novel makes more demands on its readers than any of my other books.



‘Throughout, the book maintains a confidence and poetic cadence that pushes it forward, giving gravity to every event…this new work is a challenging and exhilarating read, matching his first two novels the critically acclaimed Lemprire’s Dictionary and The Pope’s Rhinoceros in intellectual reach, and surpassing them in storytelling passion and intensity’ Publisher’s Weekly Review

 ‘The novel isn’t easy going, but Norfolk blends its disparate elements together with consummate skill…One of the year’s most imaginative and challenging novels.’ Kirkus

‘Ambitious, intelligent, innovative, erudite, elegant, witty, lyrical and serious: it is a triumph for Lawrence Norfolk and a powerful reassertion of the important role of fiction in facing the hideous 20th century events that haunt all our lives.’ The Times

‘It’s an immensely ambitious novel, one which makes most contemporary English fiction look like a game of Scrabble.The Spectator

‘Telling prose of hypnotic sensory immediacy…[A] fiercely brilliant, sustained display of virtuoso writing.’  The Guardian

‘It owes less to Pynchon than to the Nabakov who wrote PALE FIRE. Norfolk’s narrative itself starts to resemble a huntsman, and the chase is certainly a thrilling one, both cunning and beautifully paced. It is a wonderful achievement, as intellectually provocative as it is gripping to read, and it confirms Norfolk’s reputation not only as one of the most exciting novelists around, but also as a writer unafraid to evolve.’  The Literary Review

‘I was entranced by Lawrence Norfolk’s IN THE SHAPE OF A BOAR.’ Independent on Sunday

‘Here is the novelist as narrative archaeologist, a digger for “truth”…consistently engaging…Once again, Norfolk flexes the intellectual muscles that place him among the fittest of contemporary writers…He also displays his talent as a creator of character and plot.’  New Statesman

‘Part PALE FIRE and part MOBY DICK, it is a virtuoso piece of writing, intelligent, luminously written and unshirkingly serious…Norfolk marshals formidable learning in recasting the narrative…This is a marvellous and illuminating book…Many ‘novels of ideas’ are criticised for lacking emotional interest: not so here.’ Scotland on Sunday

‘This novel’s first 100 pages are written with brilliant, relentless intensity…In sweeping spirals, the story returns again and again to the same moment, the mystery of what happened, toward the end of the war, in a dark mountain cave…This extremely ambitious novel works as vivid storytelling – and as a thoughtful examination of the impossibility of truthful storytelling.’ The Independent

‘Norfolk’s IN THE SHAPE OF THE BOAR is astonishing…some of the most glorious writing I’ve read…Extraordinarily fluid, visceral, and sensuous…The prose is brilliantly visual…a remarkably intriguing and clever piece of work…You, too, will have to navigate Norfolk’s exhausting series of narrative twists, and figure out this often-elusive, intellectual thriller…He introduces slippages of period and shifts of era within pages, paragraphs, even within lines, the like of which James Joyce wouldn’t be astonished to have conjured…Norfolk dissolves and cross-fades with words.  He made me work hard, but I was grateful for it.’ Jewish Chronicle

 ‘An enthralling novel…Lawrence Norfolk has constructed a seductive tale out of shadowy uncertainties.’ Times Literary Supplement

‘Britain’s brightest young writer.’ The Guardian 

‘A meticulous blend of Greek myth and wartime mystery; its author has thought deeply about how we know what we do (or if we can know it at all) and his meditations are worth a second and third reading.’ The Times

‘An astonishingly sustained piece of hallucinatory writing’ London Review of Books

‘A startling and moving study of how broken memories seek each other out to reassemble in utterly unpredictable shapes.’ The Independent on Sunday

‘This extremely ambitious novel works as vivid storytelling – and as a thoughtful examination of the impossibility of truthful storytelling.’ The Independent