By on January 29th, 2013


A critic once described the painter James Ensor’s inner world as

too redolent of pitiable psychological distortions for me to visit longer than half an hour… I always skipped the fun house when I went to the county fair.        Huntley Dent in The Berkshire Review

Me, I crave the funhouse.  It distorts the familiar into questions you haven’t asked.  Facts that you can’t pin down loom large — or shrink to magic beans.

Lawrence Norfolk’s novel John Saturnall’s Feast has a particular flavor of darkness that I needed to separate from the novel’s succulence.  Norfolk has no problem handling them together — I did.

James Ensor painted the darkness in the menacing faces of The Intrigue.



The Intrigue by James Ensor        via The Berkshire Review


Social masks sitting lopsided on humans who hide incendiary tar pits of malice and fury below.  Human beings eager to bond ids and do harm as a pack.  The House Unamerican Activities Committee.  The Inquisition.  Lynch mobs.  Germany’s Kristallnacht.  Amazing how hard it is to find paintings that conjure this part of human nature.  Not wars (plenty of battle scenes) but the raw face of human hatred unleashed.

The artist Oliver Lutz has made art from a famous lynching photograph.

The original photo was taken on August 9th 1930, on the evening of the lynching of Abram Smith and Thomas Shipp in Marion, Indiana. The photo, which was taken by studio photographer Lawrence Beitler, was printed (and distributed) as a postcard – a common practice in lynching culture of the United States during that period. In the photograph, lynchers and spectators are shown congragated below the two bodies that hung from a tree. Some people looked towards the bodies while smoking (or lighting) cigars, while others posed for the photographer. The rags clenched in the hands of a few, are commonly thought to be the torn remains of the pants of Abram Smith, also a common souvenir practice of that time.


Lynching 1 painting by Oliver Lutz (detail)           This image and the following via Lutz’s website

The entire Lynching 1 painting

Monitor view of the installation Lynching 1

Image of CCTV monitor displaying live surveillance video of the painting (and viewer watching monitor). The bodies of the deceased are only visible to the viewer once s/he looks in the monitor (and inadvertently becomes part of the spectator mob).

The harsh revealing artistry of his brushy paint.  Murderous mobs have ignited like gunpowder and dispersed in wisps throughout humans’ life on Earth.


Gristly images aren’t as disturbing as, say, Goya’s dark paintings.  His Saturn Devouring His Son doesn’t scare me but his Witches’ Sabbath does.

Witches’ Sabbath (The Great He-Goat) by Francisco Goya        via WikiMedia

Jim Jones and his Kool-Aid.  Herr Goebbels of Hitler’s Propaganda Ministry.  You will meet the He-Goat in Norfolk’s book.  He-Goat, She-Goat, Pied Piper of our inward urges to join the dog pack and be off ravening.

It’s striking how difficult it is to find paintings that depict the face of raw violence.    It’s possible that while people are in the frenzy they can’t see what the funhouse mirror does to faces around them.  Or maybe it’s a database blindness, an unwillingness to tag the despicable.  Search for lynching, violent mobs, hatred — you get boxcars of news photographs.  If Rembrandt had ever seen the face of true evil what complicated face would he have left whose eyes would gimlet ours?


In 2011 while the state of Wisconsin was trying to bust the teachers’ unions I happened to read this description of a British pub in a book by the poet Robert Hass:

“…built just before the regency in the year when the first man who tried to organize a craft union among weavers was whipped, drawn, quartered and disemboweled in a public ceremony in London”        via the essay Lowell’s Graveyard, in Twentieth Century Pleasures by Robert Hass

The uproar in the state of Wisconsin made this quote resonate like a gong.  Yet today there is a London Guild of Weavers Spinners and Dyers.  Gauge the above against this from the guild’s current website:

Publicity has always been important for the guild – in the 1980s the British Wool Marketing Board invited the London Guild to try to break the world ‘sheep to shoulder’ record (creating a knitted jersey from a fleece shorn on the spot). This we did successfully, taking 8 minutes off the record.                                    via London Guild of Weavers Spinners and Dyers

 Whipped, drawn, quartered and disemboweled.  A political murder.  The Gestapo, in 17th C. Salem, Massachusetts, hosting a lunch for  top 13th C. Inquisitors.


Look further:

The darkness in literature

  • •  Waiting for the Barbarians, a novel by J. M. Coetzee.  There’s a reason he won a Nobel prize.
  • •  The Lottery, short story by Shirley Jackson.  Different dark, but the very same.

The darkness in news, two commentaries

Twentieth Century Pleasures by Robert Hass

  •  •  In 2011 I wrote Robert Hass asking for the source of his disturbing facts.  If you want to look further: The Making of the English Working Class by E. P. Thompson.   Hass said I think it is in the first chapter — and so it is.  Read it and then thank Hass for his linguistic gifts.
  • •  Hass’s fine book of essays is Twentieth Century Pleasures.



By on January 13th, 2013


Book illustration by Andrew Davidson            via food orleans

Should you choose to partake of Lawrence Norfolk’s new novel  John Saturnall’s Feast, here are a few condiments that may complement the savor.

Bounty.  Look to the Flemish painter Frans Snyders for a voluptuous sense of the makings of a royal feast in the 1600s.  Table-loads of game, fish and fruits.  We live in a supermarket age, vast regimented rows of food in cans. under plastic, boxed.  No aromas, no stenches.  Imagine what it was like in a time when a region’s food poured daily into a lord’s kitchens.  The sprawl it made, the sensations for the nose, the display of Earth’s plentitude.

Four of Snyders’ paintings evoke it for you.


Kitchen Stillife by Frans Snyders      via WikiCommons

Stillife with Pickpocket by Frans Snyders    via The Chawed Rosin


Fishmonger’s by Frans Snyders    via WikiCommons

La Frutera by Frans Snyders     via WikiCommons

 Snyders painted in the same century that Norfolk’s book takes place across the Channel in England.

Frans Snyders …became part of a circle that ultimately included Jacob Jordaens, Jan Brueghel the Elder, and Peter Paul Rubens, helping to establish Antwerp as an artistic center. Prized as the finest animal painter of his day, Snyders had a gift for large, well-balanced compositions. His still lifes usually contain a hint of action, such as a sniffing dog, but above all, they allowed Snyders to display his skill at organizing a rich variety of textures, colors, and shapes. In addition to his own energetic hunting scenes and complex still lifes, Snyders was often employed by his close friend Rubens on the still life and animal sections of Rubens’s paintings. Rubens admired Snyders, but when a patron once confused their work, Rubens reacted sharply: no one could depict dead animals better than Snyders, but for live animals, Rubens was himself the better painter.         Frans Snyders (Getty Museum)


Feast is also about cookery in a day before thermometers and standardized measurements.  Hear the savvy and attunedness  in this recipe:

From John Saturnall’s Feast, page 2

 For more specifics about medieval cookery and for further resources see note about To the King’s Taste below.


The book is a paean to all pleasures of the flesh.  Love and lust are given us without sniggers — no hormonal teenager will bend  page corners.   But sexuality is celebrated as Rodin did in some of his fleshly sculptures.  I choose these two as apt illustrations for the delightful sexuality in this book.

The Kiss by Auguste Rodin       via Turner Contemporary

I Am Beautiful by Auguste Rodin       via


I’ve divided my look at John Saturnall’s Feast into two parts.  I don’t have his aplomb in presenting the ugly with the yummy.

To read Lawrence Norfolk is to read a feast of words.  His historical research is deployed across the pages with gusto, he’s got  a taste for the beauties of English.  He imagines in glorious details and has the writerly skill to draw you into his tale.  His four novels are Lempriere’s DictionaryThe Pope’s Rhinoceros and In the Shape of the Boar.   I’ve started rereading Lempriere just for the fun of it.


look further:

Frans Snyders (1579 – 1657)

To the King’s Taste:  Richard II’s Book of Feasts and Recipes Adapted for Modern Cooking, by Lorna J. Sass.  copyright 1975, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

  • •  Currently available on Amazon for $8.96 used, and new from $78.86 to $2,245.  Or collectible for $100.  Hmmmmm.
  • •  My To the King’s Taste  originally came with a box of typical medieval spices.
  • •  Amazon also has To the Queen’s Taste, Elizabethan Feasts and Recipes Adapted for Modern Cooking.  Also by Sass.

By on December 13th, 2012

The Herring Net by Winslow Homer                    via Wikimedia

In Winslow Homer’s The Herring Net you don’t see the mens’ faces, but their hats take on the wet sheen of fish.  A beautiful passage of painting.  And in all that thunderous sea attention is lavished on the cold reality of toiling humans in its midst.

Homer is among the great American painters.  Look for his compassionate love of humans, his drama, his telling use of light and temperamental seas.


The herrings in the painting are as unalive as the boat.  Props.  They reminded me of an image I’d seen yesterday on the BBC Nature site.  The story is about humpback whales mass feeding on herring in a Norwegian fjord.  The sounds of the breathing humpbacks all over the fjord.

Herrings flee hunting humpback whales near Norway        via BBC Nature

In this photo

“You have no clue where [the whales] are before you see hundreds of scared herrings jumping out of the water, followed by humpbacks with wide open mouths.”                                  via BBC Nature

An eloquent image.  Who knew that panicked fish would fling themselves into thin air?  And in such numbers.

Humpbacks cooperate in hunting and have developed a method of rounding up highly concentrated masses of prey that is called bubble-net feeding. The hunting members of a pod form a circle 10-100 feet (3.1-31 m) across and about 50 feet (15 m) under the water. Then the humpbacks blow a wall of bubbles as they swim to the surface in a spiral path. The cylindrical wall of bubbles makes the trapped krill, plankton, and/or small fish move to the surface of the water in a giant, concentrated mass.               via Enchanted Learning

Humpback whale bubble net seen from above      via Neutrinos for Breakfast

A single humpback making a bubble net      via Neutrinos for Breakfast


But wait, we were talking about herrings.  This animation shows that juvenile herring have a hunting choreography of their own.

Herring Synchropredation animation by Mr Kils       via Wikipedia

Juvenile herring hunt for the very alert and evasive copepods [crustaceans 1-2 millimetres long] in schools: The copepods can sense with their antennae the pressure wave of the approaching herring and react with a fast escape jump.  The length of the jump is quite consistent.  The fish arrange in a grid of this characteristic jumplength.  The copepods can dart for about 80 times before they tire out.  It takes 60 milliseconds to spread out the antennae again, and this timeslot is is utilized by the herring to finally snap a copepod.  A single juvenile herring would never be able to catch a large copepod.                    via Wikipedia

There is an Atlantic herring but it turns out that other species can be meant by the term herring as well. So the sardines you stir into a pasta sauce may not be strictly Clupea harengus but will still taste mighty fine. Herring played a pivotal role in the histories of marine fisheries in Europe, and early in the twentieth century was fundamental to the evolution of fisheries science.  [Wikipedia]
A few weeks ago I wrote a post called Massive Motions about the millions of creatures who migrate seasonally.  I like to think about the amount of energy implicit on our green Earth.  The ergs that life generates daily  here.  Think of the Martian desolation and then think that the impact energy of a small mosquito flying into a wall is about an erg.  Earth has Life and all the ergs that Life entails.  Compare the ill-fated mosquito to a pack of 40-ton humpback whales blasting upwards in a bubble net.  The same whales who migrate 16,000 miles yearly.  Ergs.  By definition life cannot be inert.  To belong on a planet that has life is to exist inside the great pulse where young herring hunt prey in calculated grids and whale round up prey — including herring — in up-swooping spirals.
I’m not daft enough to believe in a bosomy goddess Gaea, but the interconnections of a living planet are profound.  Life creates energy, life expends energy.  Mars is not a roistering world.


Herring Coda for Booklovers

Bookcover of Lawrence Norfolk’s The Pope’s Rhinoceros   via

In this sea a barrel is sinking, and in this barrel is a man.  The barrel is a herring barrel and Lawrence Norfolk’s novel is notable for its herring lore, amongst a hundred other things.  The novel has no easy comparison.   A masterful, boggling, language-loving compendium of such imagination that your inner jaw will drop.  It’s a feast, a romp, a crazy tale.  If you don’t require a quick read treat yourself to this book.

If you need more encouragement, his four historical novels have been translated into 24 languages.  The fourth book, John Saturnall’s Feast, was just released in September.  I hope to find it under the Christmas tree.


look further:

Winslow Homer


Humpback whales

Gaea [I prefer the -ea spelling]
Lawrence Norfolk
  • About Norfolk
  • Lawrence Norfolk: A life in writing  in The Guardian, September 7, 2012
  • per Amazon:  (see the site for embedded links)
  • Lawrence Norfolk (born 1963) is a British novelist known for historical works with complex plots and intricate detail. His novels also feature an unusually large vocabulary.In 1992 he won the Somerset Maugham Award for his first novel, Lemprière’s Dictionary, about events surrounding the publication, in 1788, of John Lemprière’s Bibliotheca Classica on classical mythology and history. The novel starts out as a detective story and mixes historical elements with steampunk-style fiction.It imagines the writing of Lemprière’s dictionary as tied to the founding of the British East India Company and the Siege of La Rochelle generations before; it also visits the Austro-Turkish War.Norfolk based his second novel, The Pope’s Rhinoceros, on the story of an actual animal; see Dürer’s Rhinoceros. Themes in the work include the lost city of Vineta in the Baltic, the sack of Prato, and the Benin bronze-making culture on the river Niger.The third novel, In the Shape of a Boar, juxtaposes the flight of a Bukovina Jew in World War II with the legend of Atalanta in Calydon.