Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell – Susanna Clarke
I first attempted to read this book on holiday in November 2005 when the book had recently come out in paperback. Alas, the length of the book – some 1,000 pages in that edition – plus the counter-attractions of the beach bars of Goa meant that I didn’t finish it – and the curiously heavy paper on which it is printed meant I couldn’t be arsed to lug it around in my briefcase on my return. And so it languished unfinished on my bookshelf.
The recent brave, fatally flawed and ultimately doomed adaptation by the Beeb prompted me to revisit the book and pace length an electronic version of the opus overcame my previous objections to reading it on the hoof. Despite an almost insufferably slow first part in which the pompous and unappealingly authoritarian Norrell takes centre stage I finished it and found the last couple of hundred pages were such that I could scarcely put the book down.
Set in the first two decades of the 19th century the book deals with an attempt to reintroduce magic into England, the consequences of Norrell’s faustian pact with the man with the thistle-down hair, the schism between Norrell and the far more talented and adventurous Strange and the ultimate battle for supremacy between the English magicians and the Faerie kingdom. There are many highways and byways along the journey – too many, frankly, which run the risk of losing the reader – and characters by the bucket load, many of whom are barely essential to keep the story moving. And the plot is so clunky at times that the reader is several paces ahead of the author – never a good sign.
Set firmly in the English fantasy novel genre there are many echoes of Mervyn Peake but Clarke also sees herself as Jane Austen reincarnated or at least a parodist of Hampshire’s finest. The style is often tongue in cheek, amusing (rather than laugh out loud) in places and is a comedy of manners in part. Her sprinkling of archaic spellings is an irksome attempt to root the book in the period but if you are going to do it you may as well go the whole hog a la Thomas Pynchon in Mason and Dixon or not at all.
As irksome is Clarke’s sprinkling of the text with long footnotes, giving the impression that she is desperate to find an outlet for all the research into magic, its history and literature but for the reader they are a distraction from the text at best or something to ignore at worst. Flann O’Brien was the master of using footnotes in a novel and they often contained as much if not more comedic value than the main text itself. Clarke could have been better advised to study how he used them.
If there is a hero in the book, then it is Jonathan Strange and his character is probably the one that is most sympathetically painted. But we are asked to believe that he transformed himself from a dilettante student of magic to the pre-eminent practitioner with nary a word of explanation as to how this came about.
And despite the light and humorous feel to the book it is essentially a dark tale of despair. The practice of magic is like an addiction and takes the practitioner to the edge of madness – the only rational explanation for dragging Lord Byron into the latter stages of the book is to make this point – and the ultimate goal of the magician’s craft, the Faerie kingdom, is really the worst nightmare that Kafka could have concocted – full of despair and folk trapped on an endless treadmill of balls and parades.
Despite its many failings this book is a tour-de-force with many observations and scenes which make perseverance worthwhile and, on the whole, I enjoyed it. I couldn’t wholeheartedly recommend it, though.