Thursday, April 13, 2006

Class! Refinement! Enchantment!

As with practically everything I read these days, I don't have a clear memory of when I first heard of "Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell." I think I read a review of the book, perhaps in the New Yorker, but was already familiar with the title and knew that it was about magicians. My biggest impression of it was that it was a book about magicians that was not a fantasy.

I also am not sure why I grabbed this one to read now, out of all the names on my list. I've never read anything else by the author - this is her first novel, and I am not familiar with her short stories or novellas. It might have been because I haven't read any fantasy in a while, and while this isn't a fantasy, it seemed like it combined fantastic elements with a decent literary pedigree. Plus it's encouraging to know that when I'm done reading a fantasy book I'll know everything that happens and not need to plow through another half-dozen books before getting to The Grand Confrontation.

I'm very pleased with the book. It's odd and quirky, but that is due to its anachronistic nature and not because it is avant-garde. I've been trying to think of a suitable metaphor, and have settled upon comparing it to another English export. This book is like an anti-Monty Python. Python takes "high" concepts such as history, philosophy and politics, and brings them down to a silly and disrespectful stew. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (henceforth JS&MR) takes a literary genre which has been widely reviled and is poorly thought of in academia, and uses that raw material to write an elegant, respectful book steeped in the style and settings of 19th century England. In both Python and this book, a great deal of the humor comes from the incongruity between how we expect the subject to be treated and what it actually receives. There are almost no "jokes" in JS&MR, but the entire book is sort of a grand joke, and if you appreciate the humor in a serious treatment of a silly topic, you'll be engaged.

One of the funniest elements of the book comes in its extensive use of footnotes. The narrator pre-supposes a great deal of knowledge from the reader, and casually references past English magicians while explaining more esoteric events. Sometimes the narrator will primly lecture the reader on the qualities of the English; other times an exhaustive footnote explaining a minor incident will spill across two entire pages. It isn't all capricious, though, and as you get further into the book you come to acknowledge that Clarke has created a fully-realized world. By the end you have a very good idea of the personalities and importance of historical figures such as John Uskglass, Martin Pale, Col Tom Blue and more.

The narrative style itself is probably the single biggest factor in determining whether someone will enjoy the book. If you enjoy reading Jane Austen, Emily Bronte, or Henry James you will probably feel at home here. If you choose to view the narration as a mockery of those same authors, you will find the going easy. If you can't stand the thought of reading paragraphs describing how people are dressed, the procedures of making introductions and the difference between country servants and city servants, you won't make it far enough to where the plot kicks into gear. I will say that the opening chapters are probably the driest there are, so if you can read those without squirming you're in good shape.

I want to talk a bit about the themes and the characters. That means it's time for some MINOR SPOILERS.

Any time I read fantasy or science fiction, I'm always thinking, "What does this MEAN?" I love a good yarn and always have, but for some reason I'm not content to just read a good story. I need to link it and connect it to "real" experiences and knowledge. Some part of me thinks that every book is a tool that will help me better understand the world I live in.

When reading the first few chapters of JS&MR, I thought I had an answer: the book was an allegory, with English magic standing in for English literature. This doesn't really hold up under scrutiny, and by the end of the book I'm convinced that Clarke wasn't thinking of this, but still, it's tempting to draw the parallels.

At the beginning of the book, English magic has been dormant for centuries. Oh, there are still people who call themselves magicians, but they are purely theoretical: they study existing magic, and talk about it, and debate the merits of past magicians. None of them actually DOES any magic. Does anyone else here instantly think of academia? A typical English department is filled with professors filled with opinions and theories about nearly every book written in the last two hundred years, but nobody who has actually published a book on their own. In the book everyone bemoans the fact that English magic has declined without actually doing anything about it; in real life, there's a strong sense that English literature has fallen from its peak early in the 20th century, and people would rather talk about that decline than write something which reverses it.

Once Mr. Norrell arrives on the scene, the reaction he inspires also feels quite familiar. I think that there are few things which annoy a certain class of English professors quite so much as living authors. Even though they produce what the professors study, authors who are in a position to dispute and puzzle them are avoided. Similarly, even though Norrell will be doing the first new magic in centuries, he is looked down upon by the magicians who have never done magic; they believe that theoretical magicians have a higher, purer calling than someone who mucks about actually performing magic.

However tempting this interpretation is, it really doesn't hold up through the rest of the book. Doing magic seems very different from writing books, and it's hard to draw more parallels. Besides, magic had completely vanished from England, rather than just grown pale and unpopular. Ultimately I think that Clarke did base the school of magicians on academia, but did not intend a strong parallel between English magic and English literature.

So, what is this book about, then? Just your boring, mundane topics: knowledge, friendship, class, love, ambition, and, of course, the Napoleonic Wars. For me, the most poignant scenes were those showing the relationship between Strange and Norrell. These are two deeply different people who are unable to break away from one another because of their shared passion for magic. This felt very real to me. I've noticed that in my own life, I almost never become good friends with people whose personalities are close to my own; however, I treasure the instant kinship I feel when I find someone who shares my obsessions or can understand my convoluted thoughts regarding literature and technology. I'm not saying this is what the entire book is "about," but in my opinion it is most successful when it examines the way relationships begin and evolve.

I'm going to run down and give my thoughts on a few characters.

Norrell - Remember how I tend to identify myself with fictional characters? I'm afraid that there's a lot of Norrell in me. More so in his mode than his opinions. I'm all for trying new things, forging ahead, and trying risky ventures. However, like Norrell, I'm much more comfortable among books than people, I tend to relate events to other stories I know, and I have an inflated sense of my own importance.

Strange - Definitely the hero of the book. I love the way Clarke drops one or two footnoted references to him long before he appears. The accumulated anticipation probably translates into an elevated regard for him. And he's certainly more exciting than Norrell - the book would have been quite boring without him.

Childermass - I was convinced he was a fairy when we first saw him. Probably one of the more interesting characters in the book, and his role as a dominant servant lets him do things no other character can.

Arabella - What a sweet woman! Extremely realistic, too. She doesn't feel idealized, even in her role as a magician's wife. She's certainly feminine, and also practical and essential to Strange's psyche. One of my favorite passages in the entire book is when Strange is rehearsing his conversation while riding to meet her; I do that all the time, and, like in the book, the actual conversation is never anything like what I have imagined.

Lascelles - At one time I thought he was the best of Norrell's three "friends." I based that mainly on the way he took over the magazine and, you know, actually did something with his life. His eventual fate shows that it is not enough to be active, and a force directed for ill is far worse than someone who does nothing.

Drawlight - Yet another person who I thought was a fairy, simply because "Drawlight" sounds so much like a fairy name. Of all the changes in the book, his transformation may have been the most surprising: from a foppish dilletante to a con artist to a malicious rumor-mongeror to a terrified slave. Each step along the way is surprising yet logical.

Stephen - Interesting. I felt like they spent a lot of time with him in exchange for little payoff in the end. However, I think he may have been a brilliant literary device, because his passages allowed us to see the gentleman with thistle-down hair without switching to his perspective. This helped keep the fascination and threat of the fairy in the foreground for much of the novel while simultaneously keeping him alien and removed. That said, Stephen didn't feel as well-developed as a character, though that's probably the fairy's fault more than the author's. Oh, and I figured out his prophecy the very first time I heard it. (Just about the only prophecy I did get without it being explained in the book, and it's pretty stunning that the fairy couldn't figure it out either.)

The Gentleman - Good villain. Did you notice how every other sentence of his starts with "Oh!" He belongs to the school of villains who are even more chilling because on the surface they appear so cheerful and charming. And in a book that is, frankly, populated mainly by dull and stupid people, it's very hard not to be captivated by the fairy. For much of the book I was in suspense about whether he was malicious or simply capricious, but just before the end they unload enough information about him to firmly convince the reader of his wickedness.

Even the minor characters were well-done, I thought. Though they only receive a few chapters each I was quite impressed with John Segundus, Walter Pole, Lady Pole, the Goodfellows (is that their name? the family in Italy), Strange's manservant, the ministers, Wellington and the King.

When I finished the book I was immediately faced with a question: will there be a sequel? It seems an odd thing to worry about, given that I ostensibly read the book in part because there wouldn't be sequels. Clarke's world is certainly rich enough to support further adventures, most likely a prequel covering the time of the Raven King, or possibly one (and probably just one) sequel to the events here. Still, judging from my impression of her based on this book, I kind of doubt that she will return to this world. In a way she seems too serious an author to build a franchise.

It's a bit of a shame, just because this sort of alternate-world construction can be so entertaining. Too often it's just an excuse for a cheesy video game or worse, but when done well as it is here... wow. I could spend hours projecting along the lines the author has drawn, filling it out for myself. What other countries have magicians? How is their magic different from English magic? Will World War I be different if magicians face one another on the field? Will the Church turn against them? Will magic become so common as to seem boring?

That's all I have to say about this for now. I close with a few questions - if you have read the book and have answers, please share them.


Towards the end of the book, one of the dancers in Lost Hope says that Strange and Norrell are prophesied to fail. What does she mean? As far as I can tell they ultimately succeed. Is the prophecy just wrong? Or is she referring to something else that they attempt?

Is Vinculus really the fairy's greatest enemy? For a while I supposed that they went to the Raven King, who left as soon as they arrived. If it really is Vinculus, why? I can think of four people who were no less important in bringing down the fairy than he, and who certainly played a more active role than he did.

Did Strange give up on trying to consult dead magicians after he was interrupted by Segundus? If so, why? If not, did he have any success? I don't recall anything being written about this between their first meeting and the climax, though I might have glossed over something.

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