Arts and Wonders, my second novel, was published by Sceptre in 2004.
These are the confessions of Tommaso Grilli – Court Painter to His Imperial Majesty, portraitist to the Duke of Felsengrunde, Founder and Curator of the Library of Arts, dwarf, whoremonger, forger…
The dazzling new novel from the acclaimed author of The Ship of Fools follows its narrator from his unhappy beginnings in Renaissance Florence and an unconventional artistic apprenticeship to his accidental – and brief – life of crime in Prague. Stunted in art as in body, he finds his way to the minor German Dukedom of Felsengrunde. There, as curator and (more often than not) ‘creator’ of the fantastical Library of Arts, he makes himself indispensable to the impoverished duke – with whom his own fortunes will be murderously linked.
An adventure story, a thriller, a picaresque fable, Arts and Wonders evokes the ferment of early modern Europe. Beauty and monstrosity, cruelty and kindness: Tommaso Grilli must encounter them all as he learns, in a lifetime, what it means to be truly human.
“The story of Tommaso Grilli, a dwarf with a prodigious talent for drawing, is bawdy, funny, dirty and gripping… You don’t have to be interested in history or art to love this book – it’s just a darn good yarn.”
Clare Harris, Big Issue Scotland
“Although this book takes you through a dazzling hoop-la of European cities and curious historical characters, it is the language that is most impressive and rich. Sentences are ribbed with astonishing metaphor. Research is lost in poetry and colour. Above all, Norminton had fun writing this book, expressing himself with great flamboyance and feeling for his characters and the worlds they inhabit. Essentially, this is the story of the outsider, one with an eye for irony and a habit of misadventure. It is the kind of book you walk into a bookshop to find and so often don’t – it is artistic and wondrous.”
Monique Roffey, Zembla Magazine
“Arts and Wonders is crowded with figures like the pages of a bestiary… Its determined earthiness is balanced by Gregory Norminton’s expansive prose, his erudite wit and deft orchestration of the phantasmagoria he conjures… Arts and Wonders is a kind of comedy – intensely coloured, ebullient, farcical but ultimately sad, a tissue of vivid imaginings marshalled with skill.”
Matthew Dennison, The Times Literary Supplement
“In rich, ripe, robust prose that neither falters nor cloys, Gregory Norminton’s second novel is a panorama of court and corruption to stand comparison with Michael Moorcock’s Gloriana or even the Titus books of Mervyn Peake. Norminton shares their gift for conveying subtle unease, the hairline crack that will eventually shatter the finest marble… Sardonic, carnal, intellectual, violent, urbane, Arts and Wonders delves straight back to the origins of the novel… [It] is classic picaresque: a meandering chronicle of the fortunes and adversities of a rogue in the service of sundry masters. Only the element of fantasy is absent. Just as Tommaso forswears lying, Norminton deliberately eschews the supernatural. He brings them all in: alchemists, spiritualists, a man with the head of a cockerel and a whole family of werewolves – none of them the slightest bit magical. Nature has wonders enough, he seems to say. The arts that supplement them are an imposture. Any day now the twilight of the conjurors will yield to the dawn of Enlightenment, and the cabinet of marvels give birth to science.”
Colin Greenland, The Guardian
“His debut, The Ship of Fools, was a charming short fable… this second novel sees an author truly grown into his craft. It is assured, ambitious, beautifully written and yet addictive. A big, sweeping, literary, historical novel… A joy to read and highly recommended.”
“Think Rose Tremain’s Night and Silence, with a dash of Andrew Miller’s Ingenious Pain. Think a grotesque Fellini take on Renaissance Florence, with a narrator, Tommaso Grilli, who tells the story of his life from an inauspicious birth through a picaresque plot that takes him on a journey reminiscent of Tom Jones or Don Quixote… A fabulous book, and Gregory Norminton is already a formidable talent.”
The Leeds Guide
Three historical figures who appear in Arts and Wonders: left to right, Petrus Gonsalvus, Emperor Rudolf II, Giuseppe Arcimboldo.
A cabinet of curiosities, by Domenico Remps, circa 1690.
Arts and Wonders continues its predecessor’s engagement with the early history of the novel. If Rabelais is one of the ghostly progenitors of The Ship of Fools, the picaresque novels of the seventeenth century are at the root of Arts and Wonders. So too is the world of the Baroque: the spirit of the Renaissance warping to mannerism. Or Mannerism, if you’re an art historian.
There are many allusions to Italian and German art in the novel, and again the investigative reader might enjoy untangling historical fact from historical fiction. The hero and narrator moves about the margins of European history. On his quest for fame and wealth and meaning, Tommaso meets historical figures, from the painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo to the depressive Emperor Rudolf II. At the heart of the book, however, is the wholly invented Duchy of Felsengrunde, whose degenerate ruler combines those qualities of fantasy and curiosity which helped define the era and lay the foundations for modern science.
None of which should give the impression that Arts and Wonders is a work of history masquerading as fiction. It is entirely the opposite, and pleasure is its purpose.
Look out for the dodo!
Buy the paperback edition of Arts and Wonders here.
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