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Lempriere's Dictionary: A Novel

3.69  ·  Rating details ·  915 Ratings  ·  78 Reviews
"An important and inspiring novel."
It is 18th-century London and John Lempriere, a young scholar, is writing a dictionary of classical mythology in an attempt to exorcise the demons raised by his father's violent and bizarre death. While tending to his father's business affairs, Lempriere discovers a 150-year old conspiracy that has kept his family
Paperback, 432 pages
Published August 31st 1993 by Ballantine Books (first published 1991)
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Feb 07, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: modern-lit, read-2017
An extraordinary book in every sense - this one is a challenge both to read and to review. To start, how should we categorise it? It mixes so many genres - historical fiction, fantasy, classical allusions, grand conspiracy thriller, parody and even romance - a real postmodern mash-up.

I first heard of Norfolk several years ago when I read A.S. Byatt's book of literary criticism On Histories and Stories, in which she extolled him as one of the cleverest young writers around. This is probably the
Vit Babenco
Apr 10, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Lawrence Norfolk can make out of history whatever he wants so he turns history into a gloomy phantasmagoria inside his head.
How to make ancient mythology come to pass? As it turns out there is a method but it is fabulously grotesque and ultimately bizarre and ridiculously murderous to boot.
“The elements gathered around him. His father rolling over, one arm held up to ward off dangers that had already passed and in his mind the same scene was unwinding like fine silver wire. The woman with her di
Sep 27, 2007 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Warning: you must have the ability to suspend your disbelief, or better yet turn it off, put it in a box, bury it deep amid the amassed clutter of your long ago forgotten possessions that you had to have but now can't remember why you wanted them in the first place but can't convince yourself to get rid of them in the deep recesses of your attic, to finish reading this novel. Sentences of this misbegotten tale ramble on like so many oddly misdirected thoughts, yet do achieve a certain relevancy ...more
Sep 24, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
One of the most difficult-to-read novels I've ever picked up, I think it's because of a fault in myself and not that of the author. His prose is engaging, mysterious, anthropomorphic, obscure, beautiful, and thorough.

It's a mystery, of course, but what a mystery. Taken simply for its plot alone, this would be a fantastic novel. It spans generations, bodies of water, languages. From Paris brothels to Emperor's castles. It's just neat.

That said, I keep coming back to the language. Lest you think m
Andreas Payer
Nov 11, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I always enjoy a book that makes me go to the dictionary a lot, and in addition to that, I wikipedia-ed many details from this historical fiction. To be engaged by a book outside the confines of the cover is what I always crave, but rarely get. I'm surprised to see so many negative reviews of it online and here on goodreads, reviews that mostly dwell on "difficult" and "long" and "pretentious". True on all accounts, but I don't see why a book can't be those and yet still be fun to read. I'm nowh ...more
Jan 07, 2009 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
I rarely post reviews, but my reaction to this book was so negative that I feel compelled to warn others before they waste their time as I wasted mine. In fairness, I can't comment on the book as a whole, because I lost patience before I had read the first 100 pages. But what pages they were! I felt as though I were mired in quicksand. Norfolk's writing is bloated and dense to the point of nonsense, florid and contrived to the point of pretentiousness. Damn the friend who recommended this book!! ...more
Oct 07, 2009 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Horribly pretentious, badly written and utterly confusing book that I actually had a hard time reading all the long and tedious way to the end.
The story is interesting enough, but it's stuffed too much with pseudo-intellectual sounding passages that have no relevance to anything whatsoever. Norfolk doesn't write too complicated as such, maybe if he didn't find it so necessary to riddle his text with countless important-sounding and long words this would be a better read.
Nice try, but that's just
May 28, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
One of the back cover quotes uses the word "extravaganza" to describe this novel, and that's apt, to describe its ambitious conception, its set-piece scenes, and the tour-de-force paragraphs that go off like fireworks in its exuberant prose. It's a novel that belongs to the genre of... what? Historical, fantasy, supernatural? I'd call it a story of the occult. As if its gradual revelation of a centuries-long conspiracy wasn't enough, the author almost hits us over the head with metaphors of unde ...more
Jan 29, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
In 18th century London, John Lempiere, is furiously researching and writing his dictionary of classical mythology. He is sure that the publication of his definitive study will challenge scholars and make his fortune. His father's brutal murder has made obtaining financial security overwhelmingly important. Papa's death has also brought to light an intriguing and terrifying connection between his family and the all powerful Dutch East India Company. Might John actually be entitled to half of that ...more
Jan 12, 2013 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I really wanted to love this book, it has so many of the elements I usually find irresistible. A book figures prominently and maybe even meta fictionally. A sweeping period of historical time. Secret societies yielding an almost secret history. Intriguing characters. Fabulous voyages. And I can go on...

So why did I only like it? To my taste the writing was more obfuscatory than esthetically necessary and, equally perturbing to one who thinks he's well read, a plethora of references (both directl
Apr 29, 2011 rated it did not like it
Shelves: unfinished, shit-lit
I tried to read this book twice. And both times, I was throughly confused and a little upset that this book didn't really seem to have a plot. The person who wrote the back cover blurb deserves a medal, because he made it seem like this book would be awesome. Mythology, intrigue, and murder is always great. But when the guy goes to a pub in London and is involved in some weird pig worshipping drunkie club for NO APPARENT REASON, I gave up. Even when I was attempting to follow what Norfolk was wr ...more
Jan 15, 2009 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: i-quit
Well I made it through nearly 100 pages (89, to be exact), and I just couldn't do it. Theoretically, judging by the book jacket, this should be an interesting book. Realistically it is nothing more than a self-satisfied upchuck of turgid prose. Perhaps this is a function of the main character, who I neither like nor have any interest in getting to know.
Feb 25, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: british, 2016
I did it!)
Mar 23, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The plotline is serpentine, confusing and I loved it. The characters are colorful, the story held my interest and the writing is entertaining and outrageous.Plenty of historical detail. I enjoyed it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
I'm really trying but finding this a bit of a slog. I'm not sure if it's a matter of mood/"still getting over flu so brain not functioning" thing, or if it's just not my cup of tea.
Update: I gave up. And I feel all the better for it.
Jun 14, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
If this book is for you, you'll love it. If this book is not for you, bye. For those of us who love literary fiction and will indulge its less attractive tendencies, Lempriere's Dictionary is a joy and a gift. Though there is a strong English cultural and historical background, the book fits in best with a Latin American magical realism tradition, with a lot of Umberto Eco's masterpieces mixed in. I went to US public school and needed a good deal of research to understand the rich tableau of ref ...more
Oct 24, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Dense, confusing, frequently over the top in its classical references and illusions, and left with a few loose ends - but all this seems strangely appropriate, based as it is on a famously unreliable and incomplete classical/mythological dictionary. Reminded me of Thomas Pynchon crossed with Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle.

Certainly not just a regular piece of historical fiction, in other words. But I still can't tell if I liked the fantastical elements - or even if I fully understand the plot.
Elena T.
Lawrence Norfolk, inglese, è uno scrittore versatile e multisfaccettato. Già nel suo ultimo romanzo "La grande festa di John Saturnall", se ne ammira la sapiente consapevolezza storica basata su una ricerca costante degli aneddoti del periodo trattato, da donare al contesto un elemento di veridicità unica.

Non poteva essere più lungimirante se già aveva adottato questa tattica di ricerca assidua nel suo primo lavoro, questo romanzo intitolato "La mirabolante avventura di John Lemprière, erudito n
Apparently, "historical conspiracy suspense mystery" is a genre of its own. This book predates The Da Vinci Code by a dozen years, though, and aims for a more eclectic audience. It is erudite, witty, challenging, byzantine, and strange. Really, really strange.

The language is the attraction here. Some parts are a blast to read; but you'll want to keep a dictionary at hand. Norfolk does not aim to make his book easily readable. This doesn't just apply to the vocabulary, either. To understand all o
Dec 30, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Irgendwie schon nach den ersten Seiten ein typischer Norfolk: prall, drall, barock überbordend, rappelvoll mit intelligenten und irren Einfällen ... und schon auf den ersten paar Dutzend Seiten immer wieder dieses Norfolk-Gefühl, dass entweder etwas weniger auch mal mehr wäre oder ich vielleicht doch zu doof bin, alles so zu goutieren wie es vielleicht gedacht ist. Dennoch, tolle Unterhaltung bisher. Auch wenn ich derzeit nicht viel mehr weiß, als dass der junge Lemprière etwas naiv, doch hochge ...more
Nov 27, 2009 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: literature, english
Imagine you are at a party among a group of eccentric academics at, say, King's College, (Lawrence Norfolk's alma mater). The conversation is erudite and fascinating. Your interlocutors demonstrate a remarkably detailed knowledge about everything under the sun.

You are having lots of fun, even though you only understand about a quarter of what is going on. You are very proud to have reached 25% comprehension, but you only managed this consulting Professor Google every 30 second. Part of the prob
Ambitious, overambitious for the storytelling skills of Norfolk. It's a far cry from Eco, the benchmark for historical fiction about conspiracies, secret societies and cabbalists.

In his quest for depth, Norfolk spams the reader with classical motives with only the thinnest justification for their existence. He doesn't shy away from scenes giving us the inner thoughts of Emperor Josef of Austria and Louis XVI, this without any reason other than flavour. To resolve the woven threads, he resorts to
Jul 21, 2011 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Pfoeh, dat was een pittig boek om doorheen te komen. Sommige delen liepen als een trein, andere waren een ware worsteling. Dit laatste is vooral het geval bij de verwijzingen naar de Griekse mythologie, waarbij vooral veel namen voorbij komen, die je als leek niet zo veel verder brengen. Als je hierin echter goed thuis bent, zal het ongetwijfeld een meerwaarde geven aan het boek. Echter denk ik dat het grootste deel van de bevolking dit niet heeft en zal dit alleen maar als dikke stroop werken.

Sumomi (Privater Account)
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Debbie Darwine
This was a difficult book, probably the most difficult to get through that I've ever actually finished. That being said, it was also fascinating, thrilling and ultimately rewarding. I kept both a general dictionary and a dictionary of classical mythology close at hand, and they were used often. Parts of it I had to read aloud, both for the beauty of the language and to aid my understanding--it helped to hear how the sentences were meant to flow. This was my second attempt to finish it (the first ...more
Nov 16, 2016 marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
Seldom have I toyed with the idea of abandoning a book after only 50 pages. My first impression was that it is casually pompuous, gratuitously, even wilfully obscure, full of pretentiously jotted-down bits of erudition, with characters that stretch credibility, and camouflaged shifts in perspective. I love a traditional writing style, long sentences, rare words, hefty tomes, and a text that doesn't give itself up too soon, but this borders on offending one's readership... - I have read on to p. ...more
Nov 19, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I loved this book in an Umberto Eco connects seemingly unassociated historical events, trivia with an ever twisting plot written in richly detailed language that for most of us requires a dictionary for clarity from time to time. It was a tough, long read, but i remember loving it. I recommended it to one friend whom I knew had the stamina and he found it unique and enjoyed it too, but, I admit now, probably nearly 20 years later I remember locations in England and France, feelings, but ...more
Nov 15, 2008 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: no one
A convoluted historical fiction. I loved it the first time I read it. This time, I found it annoying. I amazingly made it past a thoroughly disgusting, long winded, pig roast/bacchanalia scene. At this point, I was not sure I want to continue. I skipped towards the end of the book. I know this book won a prize but I think it is overwritten, purposefully obscure and difficult, and discouraging.

I have read some of the reviews; many taking the blame for not being able to get through it. I am here
May 12, 2016 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I first read this book years and years and years ago and remembered really enjoying it, so I decided to revisit it. This was a mistake. There are some fun ideas in here, and I can kind of see what Norfolk is trying to do with the whole strange literary/historical/fantastical thing, but this book is a total mess. The tone veers wildly from florid pretentiousness to casual jokiness, the characters are all over the place, the plot is all over place, and all the things I remembered loving about the ...more
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Lawrence Norfolk (born 1963) is a British novelist known for historical works with complex plots and intricate detail. His novels are also known for their unusually large vocabulary.

He was born in London but lived in Iraq until 1967 and then in the West Country of England. He read English at King's College London and graduated in 1986. He worked briefly as a teacher and later as a freelance writer
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