Saturday, September 1, 2018

Book Reviews: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell
by Susanna Clarke
Life is too short not to read everything you can. Why wait for one author to complete his magnum opus when the world is crammed with impressive authors. I had heard good things about the Clarke debut novel which was published back in 2004. I didn't purchase the book until early 2016. Obviously I just got around to reading it. I am still working on the estimated two hundred unread books in my library. This book was a serious investment in time. It took me more than a few weeks to finish. My trade softcover edition was just over 800 pages. And there were footnotes. Boy were there footnotes. 

This novel shows Clarke to be an author of both conventional stylings and unique individual ideas. Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell makes definite allusions to her co-national authors who came before her such as the Bronte sisters, Charles Dickens, and above all Jane Austen-at least in tone if not subject. There might be a little Tolkien and Dunsany sprinkled in for flavor.

I thought this book was slow going at first. Like the older British novelists mentioned, Clarke is a very descriptive writer. She transports the reader back to Regency England/Napoleonic Era. She pays immense attention to detail. Some minutiae will be important to later plot twists and turns. The vast majority, however, is only used to set the table. If you are accustomed to writers who employ a curt and concise let's get to the action style, Clarke will either be a breath of fresh air or a struggle. She's built an alternate history that feels very very real.

In the early 1800s the English are in a funk. Napoleon is kicking behind and taking names in his European wars. The King is unfit. And magic is gone. There are still societies of magicians, but they are theoretical magicians. They argue about how magic used to be performed, which magicians had the help of fairies (elves), whatever happened to the greatest magician of them all, John Uskglass, and whether magic should be performed by anyone who's not a Christian English gentleman. But these men can't cast a spell, enchant an item, or do anything magical. They are like people who have purchased expensive guitars, pianos, horns, violins, amps, and music theory books, and who know all of the musician stage flourishes, but who can't play a single note of music.

A society of "magicians" learns that a reclusive gentleman named Gilbert Norrell has claimed to be able to perform magic. When the society demands Norrell explain himself or stop talking nonsense, Norrell wagers that if he can do magic then all of the society's so-called "magicians" must stop calling themselves magicians. 

Thinking that he's just as big of a fraud as they are most of the society's "magicians" take Norrell's wager. They are shocked to learn that Norrell is the real deal. Magic has returned to England. But people wish magic had found a better champion than Norrell. An introverted pedantic fussbudget, Norrell is far less interested in performing magic than he is in ensuring that he is England's only magician and that only his theories on magic are taught. How anyone would teach Norrell's theories is a matter of conjecture as Norrell buys, borrows, or steals any book that teaches or discusses magic for his own library.  Norrell is unwilling to share his books or his knowledge. 

Because the middle aged well-fed Norrell doesn't look like the romantic ideal of a magician, his cautious assistance in the Napoleonic Wars, while effective, doesn't bring him the wider fame he says he doesn't want. Norrell's personality alienates people. Men who are interested in monetizing Norrell's talent (primarily for themselves) attach themselves to Norrell.

Another real magician, Jonathan Strange, appears. Young, dashing, married, and positively extroverted compared to Norrell (though anyone would be), Strange becomes Norrell's pupil. Norrell's pedantic, bossy tendencies and need for acclaim from another magician barely win out over his privacy and unwillingness to share books. Strange later travels to the continent to assist the English Army. Strange wonders if Norrell's obsession with books and magic restrictions make any sense. Strange is less reliant on books. Strange meets and works with people like Mary Shelley. Lord Byron, and Lord Wellington among others. Strange is more approachable than Norrell and more willing to stretch the limits. Relations begin to sour between the two magicians.

Stephen Black, a Jamaican butler for a Norrell patron, is important to the story. An unnamed elf is as well. This fairy, who is only ever known as "the gentleman with the thistledown hair" is one of the best characterizations I've ever seen of the "Fair Folk". Although he may be understood as an antagonist, in some twisted ways he means well to his friends. Usually, Tolkien didn't detail everyday interactions between men and elves (often called Faerie-name being used both for the beings and their homeland) other than to note that the two groups had different fates assigned by God and were further estranged by the lies of the Enemy. 

Dunsany demonstrated the challenges that a human/faerie mixed marriage would cause. Clarke goes further by asking us to consider how little human morality and concerns would mean to beings who are functionally immortal, generally insane or amoral by human standards, and perform magic as casually and as easily as a cow chews cud. This book is an adult fairy tale. I liked Norrell's servant, the independent and sarcastic Childermass, who always knows more than he says. Childermass has his own agenda. 

The book is full of irony (usually gentle, occasionally biting). It might take you some time to get through this book but it's time well spent. Clarke loves the English language. She shows that on every page. Magic aside, Clarke gives us a fascinating look into and commentary on 19th century English mores, class struggles, racial and gender hierarchies, and politics. The heroes and villains aren't necessarily the people you expect. Both Strange and Norrell have moral blind spots. Both are men of their time. People with experience in academia or the corporate world will recognize the passive-aggressive tactics that Norrell and Strange and their various supporters employ against each other. Make sure you read the footnotes.
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