Saturday, June 16, 2007

Review: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

If you met somebody who was able to imitate Lucille Ball - acting as her television character from I Love Lucy - perfectly, you might think it was a good party trick. If you ran into a group of, say, fifty of them, you might think that they had all mistaken the trick for the party. You just might think they were a little nuts.
This is a ten-minute joke that's used in passing in 2001 film Rat Race, where one of the characters, marooned in the Arizona Desert somewhere, suddenly finds himself driving a bus full of Lucille Balls, including one male impersonator, all screaming and sobbing in the patented Lucy manner at every curve and pot hole in the road; pretty soon he's driven absolutely batty by them all.

In Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, a mock-19th century novel about magic, Sussana Clarke seems to be attempting a similar trick, by writing the novel in imitation Jane Austen. It's an odd affectation at first; she seems to have a fondness for using spellings such as 'sopha' or 'surprize' and dwelling upon country societies of magicians who don't practice magic at all. She is not evidently troubled by the lack of plot, unfolding the novel in as leisurely a pace as possible: one hundred and fifty pages in, probably no more than two or three significant plot events have taken place. One of the title characters, Jonathan Strange, is not introduced for two hundred pages!

This novel, you must understand, is eight hundred pages long. It looks impressive to carry around, and holds newspapers down in an even more impressive fashion, but after a while it begins to weigh on you. So by the time I'd conquered the first hundred pages, and discovered not a great deal of significance, I was beginning to go just a little batty.

But in a way, the leisurely pace of the 19th century novel, or a 19th-century style novel, anyway, has its own pleasures, and I persevered for the sheer pleasure of the prose. As it turned out, the Austen-like language was just the first in a series of tricks that Susanna Clarke pulls on her readers; as the novel slowly unfolded, so in came a whole host of other characters. May Ms Clarke present: acerbic, unliked, kindly, forty-one, fat, unmarried and, worst of all, progressive Sir Walter Pole, the politician; Lady Pole, his sickly wife, perpetually ailing with a mysterious illness; Stephen Black, Sir Walter Pole's servant of African ancestry who becomes affected with Lady Pole's illness as a result, simply, of being in the wrong place at the right time; and, above all, the strange, bitter, contrary Mr Norrell, ambitious magician on the make in London, and his student and friend, Jonathan Strange. In a similar manner to these characters gradually being introduced to our imagination, so to do two fops of the unctuous and toadying kinds - the wolfish Mr Drawlight and his companion Lascelles - insinuate their way into Mr Norrell's presence, introducing him to London society.

Then there were the footnotes. Like hat- and coat-racks, colons, and square numbers, footnotes amuse me; the more detailed, the better. You get all the amusement of reading without the dreadful sense of responsibility you sometimes get halfway through, say, an eight-hundred page novel. They are the most pleasant sort of distraction. Anyway, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell had plenty of footnotes, and they I'll be dashed if they weren't both pleasant and distracting. They often concern the characters and their history, but as the magical plot develop, they describe minor points of magical history, or give us long folk-stories about magic rings, or reference various acts of magic by the characters, or describe some historical context for the actions of the characters. The Austen-like voice suddenly becomes the voice of a nameless historical and biographical researcher into the lives of the characters.

The plot is something like this: after causing of the break up of a Yorkshire society of magicians, Mr Norrell decides that he is undoubtedly the Greatest Magician of the Age, and hurries to London to press his advantage amongst London society. At first he has no success, but then hearing that a prominent character's new wife has just died - a wife who was to help that character pay off a large family debt - he determines to raise the wife from the dead. He performs this act by doing an unsavoury deal with a supernatural creature who, for the rest of the novels, proceeds to insinuate himself into the lives of the other characters in cruel, although not deliberately malicious, ways. The ambition of Norrell is therefore satisfied but is also the cause of much of the disasters that are to befall characters in later chapters.
All this is related by the nameless historian in a cool, sardonic tone, as if he or she were relating a country novel of manners. Things change somewhat with the introduction of Jonathan Strange into the novel; by the middle of the second volume, he finds himself on the continent amidst the Napoleonic wars, and performs a series of increasingly bizarre magical tricks on the French at the bequest of Lord Wellington. The novel reaches absurd heights with successive accounts of rivers, mountains, and towns which have been moved by Strange in order to assist Lord Wellington, all neatly footnoted and explained by the chronicler in a simple, matter of fact manner.
And if, at these moments, the book reads more like an account of wonders and miracles - perhaps most like medieval texts and histories - the text has a muted and mournful force of its own when it describes the wretched lives of the characters who have been kidnapped by fairies. Gigantic houses with empty halls are described, and vast stone bridges, and glittering balls that never stop. One of the characters, Arabella Strange, says:

But it seems to me that the artist loves buildings and blue skies more than people. He has made them so small, so insignificant! Among so many marble palaces and bridges they seem almost lost. Do you not think so?'

The conversation holds more significance than she knows. So, you see, I gradually became accustomed to the tricks that Clarke pulled on her readers, and grew to enjoy them, though not quite expecting all of them. In the end, I didn't mind the fact that she pulled fast ones on me, just the fact that the fast ones tended to last two hundred pages!


Browsing around on the net afterwards, I found two reviews which seemed to criticise Clarke for the 19th-century-style prose. Actually, with some reservations, I think Clarke's prose was magnificently handled, with the exception of the last hundred pages when events rapidly fall over one another and she enters, rather too enthusiastically, into the minds of her characters. Her intent is obviously to move from a detached, objective novel to a more involved, stream-of-consciousness style novel, though things just get crazy in a couple of chapters towards the end. It's not the imitation Jane Austen that baulks - Austen was perfectly able to convey character and plot development in a few short lines - it's the imitation Tolkien.


Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell: a damn good book, even if it took some time to get going!


TimT said...

I hope y'all appreciate my strategic deployment of the word 'dashed' there, to dashed good effect, even if I do say so myself.

nailpolishblues said...

I enjoyed it when I read it but it didn't stick with me at all - if you know what I mean? I've never desired to reread it or recommend it either. Pity, because it was something I really wanted to read and I remember the reviews being very good.

TimT said...

I find that most books I read I can remember details immediately afterwards, but they quickly become lost in my subconscious. Then they will resurface at odd and sometimes inconvenient moments.

Personally, I think Clarke could have dropped a lot of the frab-jab about this Raven King character and the book would have been no worse for wear, probably more memorable.

Tim said...

As I think I mentioned elsewhere, I started to read it but felt it dragged on too much. But this is a dashed good review.

nailpolishblues said...

I forget everything almost immediately. It makes my conversation terribly irritating.

Steve said...

Good review Tim, even though it has convinced me not to read it.

TimT said...

Each to their own, I guess, though I didn't mean my comments about the slowness of the opening section to put anybody off reading it!

Eleanor Bloom said...

Hi. I enjoyed that review too.

I read this last year whilst on a trip away. I enjoyed it, but it was a bit long - mayhap she was a little self-indulgent in enjoying her clever prose. I think I liked the *idea* of it more than the book itself.
Although I do rather like a nice thick tome I didn't bother bringing it back home with me. As was said above, it wasn't worth a reread - esp. at that length!

Karen said...

My copy is such a doorstopper that the cover has already come off, even though I haven't read it!

I'm always fascinated by the extensive use of footnotes in fiction. It tends to be done by people with academic backgrounds (which I think is the case with Clarke). I haven't read anything contemporary where it's quite worked, although you do make this sound like the exception.

Apologies for not commenting upon your adept deployment of "dashed" earlier.

(I just discovered that Google Books lets you download things which are obviously out of copyright in pdf format. This pleases me very much).

TimT said...

Well, dash it all, Karen, that's not a problem! It is a capital book!

I removed my cover a few days after buying. I was carrying it around so much it was starting to become frayed.

I like footnotes because they allow me to indulge my occasional habit of talking in non-sequiturs and the like.

Karen said...

Gosh, there's a fantastic piece by someone very famous on footnotes and I can't remember what it is- you know how you get a vague association which doesn't quite come out? I will let you know if it surfaces properly.

I think my cover was gone when I fished it out of the bargain bin- the black cover (I think there are two). This is my very favourite doorstop- it's always on the floor and marked at intervals with cat hair, but only because I look at it so much. It's a similar experience to read- references and cross-references.

I've never been a big footnote writer,largely because I don't want to break the flow, but I can understand the urge to do it in fiction- because the research trail is such a large part of it and the connections that come up almost accidently are the really exciting thing.

TimT said...

In the case of Clarke, I'm not sure if the footnotes reflect research so much as an urge to Make Stuff Up.

This is a wonderful trend in modern fiction and I encourage it with all my heart!

Karen said...

Oh, I misunderstood. I thought you meant that she has footnotes referring the reader to historical events or references she has incorporated into the fiction.

TimT said...

Put it this way: they're footnotes of real historical events that never happened.

Karen said...

Have you read this? It gives you the footnotes plus experiments with typography! I read about a third of it a few years ago, but then I had to stop because I was busy with something else and I'm yet to pick it up again. But it is fun- the way the notes send you foraging all around the book itself.

TimT said...

Sounds like an academic choose your own adventure... I'm a little sceptical about the idea, but hey, if Edward Packard can make a whole publishing empire out of the concept for kids, perhaps others can make a go of it as well.

Karen said...

The "Choose Your Own Adventure" comparison isn't wrong, but the choosing is of a more sophisticated, interpretative sort. I do like the idea of the reader being involved in the "construction" of the book and it changes how you relate to the characters in a particularly interesting way.

So there, Mr. Grumpy Spoilsport!

Ampersand Duck said...

I had to buy that book when it first came out, and spent AGES deciding between the black or the white cover like the shallow missie I am...

I've read it twice now, the second time with no less a tangle of frustration and enjoyment than the first reading. The footnotes *are* great. I'll wait another five years and read it again, because it's the sort of book you can do that with and it will still be fairly fresh.

I enjoyed the mental leap you gave me between baulk and Tolkien at the end there. I'm sitting here chanting "baulkin' at Tolkien" like a schoolkid. Onya!

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