Nicholl, Charles 1950-
Nicholl, Charles 1950-
Born 1950, in London, England; married; children. Education: Attended Cambridge University.
Journalist and writer. Worked as a correspondent for Rolling Stone and appeared as himself in the films Much Ado about Something, 2001, and The Real Da Vinci Code, 2005.
Young Writer of the Year Award, Telegraph Magazine, 1972; Nonfiction Gold Dagger Award, Crime Writers' Association, and James Tait Black Memorial Prize, University of Edinburgh, 1992, both for The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe; Hawthornden Prize, and shortlisted for W.H. Smith Literary Award, both 1998, both for Somebody Else: Arthur Rimbaud in Africa, 1880-91; Gulbenkian Award for Best Museum Publication, for Elizabethan Writers.
The Chemical Theatre (literary criticism), Routledge & Kegan Paul (Boston, MA), 1980.
A Cup of News: The Life of Thomas Nashe (biography), Routledge & Kegan Paul (Boston, MA), 1984.
The Fruit Palace, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1985.
Borderlines: A Journey in Thailand and Burma, Secker & Warburg (London, England), 1988, Viking (New York, NY), 1989.
The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe, Harcourt Brace (New York, NY), 1992.
The Creature in the Map: A Journey to El Dorado, Morrow (New York, NY), 1996.
Elizabethan Writers, National Portrait Gallery Publications (London, England), 1997.
Screaming in the Castle, Trafalgar Square (VT), 2000.
Leonardo da Vinci: Flights of the Mind, Viking (New York, NY), 2004.
Contributor to periodicals.
British journalist Charles Nicholl has written a wide range of nonfiction works that blend historical intrigue with arduous adventure. A one-time correspondent for Rolling Stone, the author has admitted to undertaking his quests for nebulous investigations from the most spurious of sources, including a television program and the perusal of a centuries-old map. Much of Nicholl's work has examined the Elizabethan era in England and its acts of treason and treachery among its more tarnished names, but he has also entered South America to interview drug lords and traversed Southeast Asia in search of personal enlightenment.
Nicholl's first work to attract attention was 1980's The Chemical Theatre, an exploration of the relationship between the medieval pseudo-science of alchemy and Elizabethan-era drama. Alchemy, as he explains, was the quest to turn base metals such as lead into more valuable ones like gold. Culling research from books written around 1600 on the craft, Nicholl explores the significant works produced for the stage around the same time and attempts to correlate their elements of plot and character with the principles and nuances of alchemy. The centerpiece of The Chemical Theatre is an examination of the text of William Shakespeare's King Lear, but the works of Ben Jonson and John Donne are also analyzed in a book D.J. Enright of the Listener termed "cogent, comprehensive and relatively readable."
Nicholl's next work, A Cup of News: The Life of Thomas Nashe, was published in 1984. This biography of the Elizabethan literary figure and contemporary of Shakespeare was the first comprehensive look at its subject, largely because of the scarcity of material Nashe left behind when he died. Nicholl profiles the sometimes-maligned figure, one of a group of educated writers known as the University Wits and author of plays, pamphlets, pornography, and anonymous attacks on the Anglican church and its leading figures of the day; Nashe also is credited with having been the author of the first-ever reference guide to Shakespeare. Nicholl's biography analyzes the writer's tumultuous career and contentious personal life before his death at the age of thirty-four, and places Nashe as a likely member of an underground group of Catholic sympathizers of the day. Nicholl, according to Times Literary Supplement contributor Emrys Jones, "brings to Nashe a strong sympathy for one who has often been called the first English journalist; he has done, moreover, a great deal of scholarly preparation." Nevertheless, Jones faulted the author for making what the critic felt were too many conjectures and suppositions about a life that left behind little source material. Sarah Lawson, writing for the New Statesman, asserted that A Cup of News "is not just the definitive biography of Thomas Nashe, but a very readable and highly competent guide to this whole stratum of late Elizabethan literary life."
In the early 1970s Nicholl spent time in Colombia, and later drew upon the experience to write his 1985 treatise on the South American nation's illegal cocaine industry, The Fruit Palace, which was described by London Review of Books contributor Karl Miller as "a triumphant piece of travel writing which is also a comic extravaganza." Nicholl travelled undercover in Colombia, visiting Indian encampments in the mountains where the coca leaves are picked, meeting the chemist who processed the leaves and resulting paste into a more narcotic form, fleeing—when the owner's bodyguard becomes suspicious—from a slaughterhouse where the drug is hidden inside cattle carcasses, and finally alighting at the seaside hideaway of traffickers who eventually realize he is a writer, not the potential buyer from abroad he presented himself to be. In return for his life, the drug lords enlisted Nicholl with the task of smuggling a briefcase full of cocaine onto a Swedish ship. It was one of many perilous situations during Nicholl's 1983 journey through the country chronicled in The Fruit Palace—he also happened to be in the ornate colonial city of Popayan on the day an earthquake leveled it.
In The Fruit Palace, Nicholl is frank about the dangerous situations in which he often found himself, and as New Statesman contributor David Montrose asserted that he "occasionally … appears completely unable to keep other people's business out of his nose." A New Yorker contributor termed the book "a tense adventure in darkness and danger," while New York Times Book Review writer John Hemming called Nicholl's work "one of the most absorbing travel books I have read." Hemming, author of several works on South America, declared that while reading The Fruit Palace "again and again I found myself reminded of sights and smells, heat, boredom, inefficiencies and pretensions of that continent." Hemming added: "This is a brilliant book, informative, well written, and fun to read."
Nicholl again undertook an arduous journey for the writing of Borderlines: A Journey in Thailand and Burma, first published in England in 1988 and the following year in the United States. The trek was inspired by Nicholl's viewing of a program about Buddhist monks on British television, and in 1986 he left for Southeast Asia in a quest to spend time at the Temple of Tupu's Cave, a remote Buddhist sanctum. Borderlines begins with Nicholl's arrival in Bangkok and his impressions of the thriving prostitution and pornography industry there; some of his information was culled from accompanying a German tourist on one of his annual forays.
Other characters in Borderlines, include Katai, a young Thai woman, and Harry, her supposedly gem-smuggling boyfriend. In return for "guarding" Katai when Harry is away on business, this adventurer with a penchant for quoting literature takes Nicholl to the "borderlines" of the title, where Thailand meets Burma and rebel guerrilla groups rule over the poppy fields, the harvest of which is processed into opium. Nicholl does eventually arrive at the Temple of Tupu's Cave for his spiritual rebirth, but the book's strong suit, according to London Review of Books contributor Mark Ford, is the way the author "drifts around purposelessly like any stunned tourist." Ford observed that Nicholl "writes up these rather bleak nonadventures with plenty of snap, crackle and pop, lacing his prose with borrowings from the Beatles, Van Morrison and Bob Dylan."
In 1992 Nicholl again examined unusual events of Elizabethan times in The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe. According to accepted lore, the famed playwright, atheist, raconteur, and possible counterfeiter was murdered in a tavern brawl in 1593. In a book that won both the James Tait Black Award for biography and a Gold Dagger Award from the Crime Writers' Association, Nicholl sets out to prove a more complex theory; specifically, that Marlowe was killed because of his underworld activities. The author posits that the playwright was recruited as an anti-Catholic spy during his student days at Cambridge University, and the argument and scuffle over the bill (the "reckoning" of the title) might not have even occurred at the tavern in question. Through investigations of the men involved, Nicholl reveals the dangerous rivalries between Catholic and Protestant factions in Reformation-era Europe that may have ultimately felled Marlowe.
The Reckoning, in addition to the prestigious awards bestowed upon it, also received extensive coverage and laudatory reviews. Reviewing it for the New York Review of Books, Michael Neill declared that "it would be difficult, even in the lengthiest review, to do justice to the skill with which Nicholl pieces together the fantastically complex jigsaw upon which" his book's final judgment rests. London Review of Books writer Hilary Mantel remarked that "Nicholl writes vividly, without the academic's compulsion to cover his back; but where he is speculating he says so clearly." Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times described The Reckoning as "an adroitly reasoned historical hypothesis … and, in the process, a minutely detailed portrait of the dark side of Elizabethan politics." Los Angeles Times Book Review contributor Christopher Hitchens advised readers that "even if you have no desperate need to re-examine the truth of Marlowe's death in light of a murder mystery, you will discover in these pages a truly Shakespearean cast of pickpockets, boasters, boozers, posturing aristos, false priests and phony judges, official torturers and charming rogues." Hitchens added: "Nicholl's accomplishment is to have wiped away some of the smears and cobwebs, and restored a portrait that has been disfigured for too long."
In his 1996 book The Creature in the Map: A Journey to El Dorado, Nicholl blends the travel chronicles and Elizabethan dramas found behind his past titles into an investigation of the mysterious journey of another adventurer, Sir Walter Raleigh. Raleigh was a confidant, then enemy of Queen Elizabeth I, and an explorer who navigated much of the shores of the New World and in 1595 set out to discover a famed city of gold called El Dorado that was rumored to be located the region now known as Venezuela. The aging Raleigh never found the city, but claimed to have come close in his travelogue of the journey, The Discoverie of the Large, Rich, and Bewtiful Empyre of Guiana.
Inspired by looking at Raleigh's map of the region to retrace the quest, Nicholl set out with a British television crew to re-enact the voyage, and presents his theories of what actually happened in The Creature in the Map. Raleigh, Nicholl asserts, engaged in some treacherous activity on the way, including raiding foreign ships and slaughtering a garrison of Spanish soldiers he and his crew had plied with drink. When he returned to England, he had obtained enough loot to satisfy his expedition's backers, but was executed within a short time anyway. The Creature in the Map also serves as a chronicle of the modern-day adventures Nicholl and his crew encountered in the South American jungle, and, as Stephen Greenblatt professed in his Times Literary Supplement review, the author "has combined his formidable gifts as a travel-writer with his fascination with Elizabethan overreachers to produce an extraordinary, gripping study." Greenblatt went on to note that "with a fine sense of Raleigh's predicament, a healthy scepticism, and an impressive measure of learning and patience, Nicholl untangles the rhetorical web that The Discoverie of Guiana weaves." Writing in the Observer, Patrick French termed Nicholl's tome "a wonderful book," adding: "Like an Elizabethan alchemist, Nicholl takes a trail of phrases, omissions, hints [and] subtleties and distills them into an extraordinarily convincing picture. The Creature in the Map is history at its most creative and beguiling."
In 1997's Elizabethan Writers, Nicholl explores the lives and time period of several authors who wrote dur- ing England's rule by Queen Elizabeth I, such as Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare, to give readers a more comprehensive view of their lives. Elizabethan Writers earned Nicholl the Gulbenkian Award for Best Museum Publication. Also appearing in 1997 was Nicholl's Somebody Else: Arthur Rimbaud in Africa, 1880-1891. The book focuses on the life of Rimbaud, who, as a young French poet penned at age sixteen Une Saison en enfer (known to English-speaking readers as A Season in Hell). Rimbaud would later escape a troubled life in Europe and his disastrous relationship with lover and fellow poet Paul Verlaine, who was married, for a life in Africa. Rimbaud's life in Africa began in 1880, where he worked as a gun runner and a trader, and where he would eventually cease to write poetry. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly maintained that with Somebody Else "Nicholl creates a minor classic of biography and travel," vividly portraying Rimbaud's African surroundings and showing his aim "to use himself up," as he would die in 1891 at the age of thirty-seven. Michael Mewshaw, in a New Statesman review, called the work "an amusing, stylish literary excursion that palls only when Nicholl strains to infuse scenes with bogus significance by tagging on allusions to Cavafy (did the ‘eccentric homosexual’ cross paths with Rimbaud in Alexandria?) and to Van Gogh." Acknowledging the merits of the author's ideas, Mewshaw asserted that Nicholl portrays Rimbaud's true "masterpiece" as being the poet's African travels and experiences rather than his poetry, even though information known on Rimbaud's years in Africa is limited and his poetry writing while there would eventually cease. Mewshaw explained that Nicholl's sources include the author's observations from his own experiences in Africa; information on Rimbaud from other compositions such as letters, business ledgers, and diaries; and the knowledge of Rimbaud's sister Isabelle regarding her brother's life in Africa.
In the biography Leonardo da Vinci: Flights of the Mind, Nicholl tells the life story of the illegitimate child of a peasant girl and a notary who went on to become perhaps the most noted figure of the Renaissance art period. The author writes not only about da Vinci's iconic paintings but also about the times in which the artist lived. He also presents numerous writings from da Vinci's notebooks. "The author's goal is to show not the genius but rather the man, and he does his best to drag Leonardo down to earth," wrote a contributor to the Economist. In his review in the New Statesman, Waldemar Januszczak noted: "Nicholl takes everything seriously—every snippet, every tradition, every speculation—examining and re-examining Leonardo's life in a prodigious display of scholarship. His aim is obviously to provide the definitive modern biography: not an art history book as such, but a resonant uber-life in which not just Leonardo comes to life, but also his contemporaries, his times and his places."
A Publishers Weekly contributor referred to Nicholl's biography of da Vinci as a "penetrating, highly detailed biography, which recognizes da Vinci's ‘mysterious greatness as an artist, scientist and philosopher’ but avoids hagiography." Donna Seaman, writing in Booklist, commented that the author "takes a marvelously fresh and human approach to the fascinating life of Leonardo." A Kirkus Reviews contributor wrote: "Details are compelling in a long book that defies skimming."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, November 1, 2004, Donna Seaman, review of Leonardo da Vinci: Flights of the Mind, p. 461.
Christian Science Monitor, December 21, 2004, Christopher Andreae, review of Leonardo da Vinci.
Economist, December 9, 2004, review of Leonardo da Vinci; December 11, 2004, review of Leonardo da Vinci, p. 81.
Kirkus Reviews, October 1, 2004, review of Leonardo da Vinci, p. 950.
Listener, November 20, 1980, D.J. Enright, review of The Chemical Theatre, p. 698.
London Review of Books, June 25, 1987, Karl Miller, review of The Fruit Palace, p. 25; December 7, 1989, Mark Ford, review of Borderlines: A Journey in Thailand and Burma, p. 21; June 25, 1992, Hilary Mantel, review of The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe, p. 14.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 5, 1994, Christopher Hitchens, review of The Reckoning, p. 8.
New Statesman, May 18, 1984, Sarah Lawson, review of A Cup of News: The Life of Thomas Nashe, p. 26; September 6, 1985, David Montrose, review of The Fruit Palace, p. 26; July 18, 1997, Michael Mewshaw, review of Somebody Else: Arthur Rimbaud in Africa, 1880-91, p. 48; October 4, 2004, Waldemar Januszczak, review of Leonardo da Vinci, p. 50.
New York Review of Books, October 5, 1995, Michael Neill, review of The Reckoning, p. 47.
New York Times, March 4, 1994, Michiko Kakutani, review of The Reckoning, p. C27.
New York Times Book Review, July 6, 1986, John Hemming, review of The Fruit Palace, p. 11; December 5, 2004, David Gelernter, review of Leonardo da Vinci, p. 9.
New Yorker, September 15, 1986, review of The Fruit Palace, p. 120.
Observer, June 18, 1995, Patrick French, review of The Creature in the Map: A Journey to El Dorado, p. 16.
Publishers Weekly, April 26, 1999, review of Somebody Else, p. 63; October 11, 2004, review of Leonardo da Vinci, p. 65.
Spectator, December 4, 2004, David Ekserdjian, review of Leonardo da Vinci, p. 38.
Times Literary Supplement, May 18, 1984, Emrys Jones, review of A Cup of News, p. 540; June 12, 1992, John Bossy, review of The Reckoning, p. 654; August 18, 1995, Stephen Greenblatt, review of The Creature in the Map, p. 3.
Washington Post, November 28, 2004, Alexander Nagel, review of Leonardo da Vinci, p. BW10.
Internet Movie Database,http://www.imdb.com/ (February 9, 2007), information on author's film appearances.
Penguin Web site,http://www.penguin.co.uk/ (February 9, 2007), brief profile of author.