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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Currently reading: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

I've just finished reading this huge, generous, intimidating book, which had been sitting on a high shelf to my right, glowering at me, for many, many months. When I opened it, several days ago, I knew very little about Jonathan and Mr Norrell, except for its impressive record of major awards (including a Hugo Award and a World Fantasy Award) and nominations (including appearances on the Booker Prize long list and the Whitbread Award shortlist). I'll now go and read some of what others have said, but meanwhile here are a few first impressions of my own ... made as spoiler-free as possible for those of you who have not read the book but would like to do so.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is set in Europe, mainly England, during a period that is wonderfully familiar to most readers of literary fiction: the first decades of the nineteenth century. Much of the action relates to the war against Napoleon (who knew that magic had such a large role in his downfall?), and the social setting resembles that of a Jane Austen novel. Indeed, many of the book's incidents could be fitted quite seamlessly into one of Austen's narratives. There are also references to the Romantic poets - well, especially Lord Byron, who appears as a minor character. Susanna Clarke also apes the prose style of Jane Austen to an extent, with a similar knowingness and suggestion of detachment.

For most of us - most lovers of English literature - few historical settings are more comfortable than this, which eases the author's task in creating a plausible, detailed, lived-in world where her characters may love, puzzle, strive, and compete with each other for power and glory.

Strive and compete they do. The main characters - the eponymous Jonathan Strange and his tutor, Gilbert Norrell - are magicians, set on reviving the practical use of magic in Britain. As the action begins, we learn that magic has declined in recent centuries and is now studied only in a theoretical and historical way. Apart from Mr Norrell, who soon makes his presence felt, magicians are now more like historians or literary scholars, with no pretensions of commanding supernatural agencies or forces. This changes, as Mr Norrell sets about reviving the practice of magic, though he is an obsessive, fastidious, nervous (not to mention sometimes callous) control freak of a man who wants to do this only on his own narrow terms. He is determined to keep the art of magic to himself as far as possible, and to channel its future development within what he considers safe and acceptable boundaries.

Though Mr Norrell soon gains political influence, things go wrong when he resurrects the dead wife of a benefactor - not understanding the price that he accepts, or foreseeing the misery that he will cause her. When he takes on a brilliant, headstrong pupil, Jonathan Strange, the two of them soon come into philosophical and actual conflict. Meanwhile, there are greater powers at work in the world, operating to undo the happiness of them both.

Despite its enormous length (over 1000 large-format pages), Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell never flags. Somehow the author manages to produce new plot twists every chapter or so, sustaining surprise and suspense to the end (though the ending itself is perhaps a bit soft and whimpery after so much that has gone before). The sense of generosity and solidity is maintained by its aping a form of old-fashioned and over-fussy scholarly biography, complete with frequent footnotes, some of them very long (these typically tell their own diverting stories, peripheral or tangential to the main narrative). Thus, the novel is itself presented as work of theoretical magic, as that is understood within the diegesis; it constructs a history of English magic over the decade or so of the main story, while embedding this in a more elaborate history that covers centuries.

The two main characters appear suitably larger than life, yet also flawed, complex, rather destructive, at times, of themselves and others, and in some ways all-too-recognisable from ordinary experience. The less important characters - some of whom actually become very important indeed as the narrative expands and gels - appear rounded and sympathetic, as they get caught up in magical perils and complicated schemes. Even the small cast of truly villainous men and other beings who plague the rest, bringing trouble and chaos, appear vivid and plausible enough, if not exactly likeable.

For maximum reading pleasure you need to be open to fantasy narratives and preferably familiar with the historical setting, though the latter is not strictly necessary - no particular demands are made on readers' historical knowledge, and what needs to be explained gets covered concisely and effectively.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is pure entertainment, though perhaps with a certain vision of human nature (gentle and compassionate, yet, I think, a little cynical). It is not didactic and does not attempt to be life-changing. No one's values will be transformed, but the book is certainly amusing as well as slyly perceptive. If this sounds like what you want in a novel, go ahead and give it a try. I totally enjoyed it, and am glad I set aside a bit of time for it, at last.

And it need no longer glower at me from its shelf, demanding my attention - that's a relief.

6 comments:

Jamiewrites said...

I love JS & MN; it's close to becoming a 'read once a year' book. I wrote about it in one of my own blog posts a while back.

The way Clarke has managed to fuse Austenesque prose, an astonishingly well-thought-out concept of magic and an even more impressive alternate history of England into a wonderful story is nothing short of stunning.

And I absolutely love the footnotes.

There's been talk of a sequel for a few years now; here's hoping it actually comes about.

Kirth Gersen said...

I absolutely adored this book. The precision of language; wry, irrerevent, and often understated humor; and page-long footnotes reminded me of the very best of the writing produced by Jack Vance (obviously one of my favorites) over his long career.

Spencer Troxell said...

I listened to this big book on audio while I was working my way through college the operation center for a large Cincinnati bank. It left a big impression on me, and made the very (very!) repetitive work I was doing tolerable. For that alone, I'm grateful for it.

Svlad Cjelli said...

Been trying to make people read it for years.

bad Jim said...

Crooked Timber had a seminar on it, with a contribution by the author.

latsot said...

I bought this book when waiting for a delayed plane and didn't notice the three hour wait at all.

Something Russell doesn't mention is the gentle humour in the prose and dialogue. For example, one of the footnotes describes that some well known magical work so incensed Jonathan Strange that he tore his copy up and fed it to a tinker's donkey. The humour here comes from being able to recognise - from the story so far - that this is exactly the sort of thing Strange *would* do. It wouldn't have been funny if it had been included as part of the main story in the same way that telling an anecdote in the pub is sometimes funnier than the event itself.

It reminds me of some of Dickens' humour. In this case, I'm thinking of the passage in A Christmas Carol that describes the Lord Mayor's good humour at Christmas then goes on to compare it with the similar mood of the tailor he recently fined for being "drunk and bloodthirsty in the streets" while his "lean wife and the baby sallied out to buy the beef".

Both are funny because of the playfulness of the language and how the prose seems to get infected with the mood of the protagonists.

This is skilfully done in JSAMN.

I read the book a couple of times and then bought the audiobook too. I'm an audiable subscriber and this MASSIVE TOME counted as one of my monthly credits, so was an amazing bargain. I wonder if they've cottoned on to that yet and split it into volumes? It's very well read indeed and I can't recommend the audio version enough.