The Ship of Fools, my first novel, was published by Sceptre in 2002.
A foul-mouthed drunkard, a prudish nun, a jester, a glutton and a monk of dubious learning – these are some of the crew aboard THE SHIP OF FOOLS, a vessel becalmed in purgatorial waters. Dimly aware of their predicament, they must tell tales to keep from perceiving it.
A gargantuan nymphomaniac sets out on an odyssey to find her mother. A prince appoints a servant to be his whipping-boy. A wandering minstrel stops at nothing to protect a garden from starving orphans, and a novice enters a labyrinthine world of murder and intrigue…
Bawdy, generously peopled and endlessly inventive, THE SHIP OF FOOLS is a rich treasure chest of a novel, marking the debut of a formidable writing talent.
“A remarkable achievement.”
Hal Jensen, The Times Literary Supplement
“A glorious, ribald chunk of wit and erudition, sparkling with creativity and bursting with rude life… His language, too, is some of the most keenly pleasurable that I have read: it foams from the page as delightfully as cold beer on a summer’s day.”
Chris Power, The Times
“Pure entertainment. Finishing it, one has the contented sensation of having completed a beautifully painted and crafted jigsaw of a thousand pieces.”
Alice Thompson, Scotland on Sunday
“They are dark fables, placed more-or-less in the Low Countries, in a plague-ridden, superstition-fuelled late Middle Ages, filtered through the worldly assuredness of a 21st century mind. Though they are often funny, and some are deliciously rude, at the heart of many of them is empty sacrifice or aching lack of fulfilment: the servant who suffers for his selfish prince, the accursed girl yielding to an unwelcome lover… ‘The Penitent Drunkard’s Tale’ [tells] of a novice inventor who finds intrigue and murder among his brethren. This gives the book the closest thing it has to a hero, and allows Norminton to flex his considerable storytelling powers in a tale of dazzling twists and turns echoing Borges and Umberto Eco.”
Susan Mansfield, The Scotsman
The Ship of Fools is based on this painting (left) by Hieronymus Bosch, now on display at the Louvre. Figuratively speaking, it is the painting ‘brought to life’. (Click on the image to see a larger version of it.)
This is not the only connection with Flemish art. The novel is full of nods to the works of Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder. I have always been fascinated by these two artists, and the meeting in their art of a medieval mindset with the Humanism of what we now call the Renaissance. Francois Rabelais, who was born while Bosch still lived and died sixteen years before Bruegel, preserved the essence of this transition in his proto-novels, Gargantua and Pantagruel. Rabelais’ is the third spirit presiding over my novel.
The narrative use made of Bosch’s eponymous painting is obvious, but many of the inner stories also allude to paintings. Recognising such borrowings is hardly essential to a reading of the book, but it might be fun to discover them, and here are a few to get the reader started…
The art of trepanning, or removing a section of the skull to relieve pressure on the brain, seems to have been practised by humans for thousands of years. In the late Middle Ages, the procedure was a measure of last resort in attempting to treat madness.
(Below) Dulle Griet, usually translated as ‘Mad Meg’, is a folkloric Flemish scold who leads an army of women to pillage Hell. Griet makes an appearance in Belcula’s story. (Click for a larger version.)
(Below) Bruegel’s extraordinary vision of the Tower of Babel finds its way into the longest section of the novel… (Click for a larger version.)
Walter S. Gibson has written books on Bosch and Bruegel. Both are published by Thames & Hudson as part of their ‘World of Art’ series. Gibson’s Hieronymus Bosch (1973) served amply for my purposes. I thoroughly recommend these low-priced books.
For larger-scale reproductions of Bruegel’s paintings, try Bruegel by Keith Roberts (Phaidon, 1971). You’ll find Dulle Griet (‘The Drinking Woman’s Tale’), ‘Haymaking’ (‘The Nun’s Tale’) and ‘The Tower of Babel’.
For Francois Rabelais, to whom ‘The Drinking Woman’s Tale’ is greatly indebted, Wordsworth Press publish Gargantua and Pantagruel for the price of a pint in a trendy London bar. J.M. Cohen gives a modern translation in Penguin Classics. Ideally, seek the pungent and rather unfaithful seventeenth century translation by Sir Thomas Urquhart (some of whose, now antique, neologisms I borrowed) in Gargantua and Pantagruel, published in hardcover by the Everyman Library. I found a 1930s pocket-sized edition in a second-hand bookshop in Beverley.
The complete works of Rabelais are available in French (including Le Tiers Livre and Le Quart Livre) from Folio. Editions du Seuil publish parallel text editions (i.e. original and modern French) in paperback.
The Ship of Fools on Kindle: Available soon