Sunday, February 19, 2012

Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (2004)

As you may or may not recall, this book's publication back in 2004 was hailed as something of an event.  I was not inclined to be interested in it, however: a fantasy-historical novel about English magic in the early nineteenth century, written in some sorta faux-Regency register?  Nothing sounded more unbearable.  Also, I seem to recall that we were given to know that Clarke had written the manuscript longhand--whatever works for you, of course, but a book in which the fact was felt to be useful publicity didn't sound like something I'd want to read.

Well, but after I was reminded by Miéville and Harrison how awesome fantasy can be, I just somehow ended up picking up Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell in spite of my misgivings.  And I was wrong; it's not without it's problems, but on balance, it's a cool book.

About that "faux-Regency tone," first of all: well, that would be overstating it.  It's definitely written in such a way as to suggest the early nineteenth century, but it's not overbearing, and it's certainly not trying to exactly reproduce the exact language of a novel of the time.  It merely suggests, and it does it with an impressive level of authorial control and consistency.  So no problems there.

Describing the plot of the thing is not such an easy task.  So the idea is that England has a rich and storied magical history, but for the past few centuries, magic has been lost.  But there's this middle-aged fellow named Gilbert Norrell who apparently has figured out shit, and eventually comes to public attention.  Then there's this younger, married fellow, Jonathan Strange, who also comes to be studying magic, and as it transpires, Norrell, takes him as a student--only they conflict a fair bit, as Norrell, partially from excessive timidity and partially from egoïsm, only wants to do so much with magic, and (in spite of a supposed desire to restore magic to its central place in English life) goes out of his way to prevent other people from learning anything about it.  Whereas Strange wants to go all-out.  The basic thrust of the novel springs from their conflict, and the mystery surrounding an ancient, shadowy ruler named John Uskglass, the Raven King, said to be the original source of all English magic.  There are also a whole bunch of auxiliary characters, the most important being Stephen Black, an African servant (not, in this case, a euphemism for "slave") and a cruel and capricious faerie known only as "the gentleman with thistle-down hair," who takes an impulsive, and unwanted, liking to him.

The pace of the book is not fast.  It is necessary to become acclimated to the more nineteenth-century sense of pacing.  It does a good job of creating its own world, however; there's a whole magical history of England, complete with a whole bunch of eminent magicians, that is quite evocative.  Also, a whole bunch of footnotes, some of them quite long: nothing like Infinite Jest's monstrous, twelve-page endnotes, but still very substantial.  These generally add to the book by sheer accretion of detail about the world and its history.  There's a real sense of this sort of Lord-Dunsany-esque sense of the wild, untamed supernatural that sometimes comes across.

Not to say that the book has no flaws.  The title characters, for instance, are not as well-drawn as they might be.  Although Norrell is certainly meant to have his flaws, I really don't think he's meant to come across quite so thoroughly as an insufferably pompous, self-serving jerk.  Strange is a little better, but he's substantially a cipher, and his relationship with his wife--which is something that certain plot points heavily hinge upon--is underdeveloped to say the least.  And their ultimate fate seems more determined by the idea that this is the sort of thing that happens with magicians in a story like this rather than any real narrative logic.  Furthermore, the backstory is a little muddled: why did magic just disappear?  It really doesn't seem as though it can be all that difficult, given that Strange initially picks it up more or less as a lark, and is soon performing--with, apparently, no great effort--godlike feats like transporting an entire city from Europe to North America.  Are we really meant to think that literally everyone just got bored of it?  Really, now.  There is a certain lack of believability here.

Still a fine book, though.  The individual characters aren't really the point, so there's no use getting too hung up on them.   Supposedly, Clarke is working on a follow-up featuring characters "a bit further down the social scale."  Good idea--the current novel mostly elides issues of class.  I'll certainly read it, if it ever comes to exist.


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