Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Susanna Clarke: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

What can one possibly say?

Perhaps only that Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is an awesome piece of work. You may find a book that you enjoy more, and which you consider more memorable -- those things are a matter of taste and temperament. But you will not, in these ten years or more, come across a more impressive work of sustained imagination and narrative power.

Further superlatives are unnecessary.

I think I must have had an argument with a large book when I was very young. Perhaps a big thick book fell on my head when I was in my pram. In any event I have been resistant to the things ever since. When faced with a slab of bound paper three inches thick (which is what Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is), my heart sinks. I usually avoid them.

However, in the case of Susanna Clarke's book I somehow felt an obligation to have a look at it, to see what all the fuss was about.

And fuss there was. I deliberately have not reminded myself of the details, before writing this, but I began to hear about this book before it was published: as did everyone else with even one ear to the ground. I dare say that Bloomsbury, the UK publisher, paid a substantial sum for it, and in such cases there is always early drum-beating. And, as in all such cases, I remained profoundly sceptical.

When the book was published (at the end of September 2004) I don't think I read any of the reviews or accompanying interviews. If a big sum of money has been paid in advance, it is inevitably the case that there will be many reviews and interviews. They are no guarantee of anything. But I did, eventually, reserve the book at my local library and recently a copy turned up.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a work of fantasy. It is a story about two magicians, Strange and Norrell, and it belongs in the tradition of Tolkien, Pratchett, and a hundred others. It is set about two hundred years ago, at the time of the Napoleonic wars; the action takes place mostly in England. And, as with all such stories, it is perhaps helpful to think of it taking place in a parallel universe.

If any of the above makes you think that the book is not for you... Well, you may be right. But at least give it a try. I doubt that you will feel that your time has been wasted.

You probably have no further need of my comments, but here, for the record, are a few thoughts as they occurred to me while I was reading.

The author occasionally makes use of some unorthodox spellings: scissars for scissors; any one instead of anyone; chuse for choose, and so on. In other writers this might seem a boring affectation, but somehow, in this book, it feels quite right.

As mentioned above, the book is fearful long. And the pace is leisurely. But while, at some early stages of my reading, I thought that I would eventually have to say that the book is too long for its effects, I soon abandoned that heresy. True, economy of effect is not one of Susanna Clarke's virtues. But why worry about economy when you have the power to give the reader a full account, and still hold that reader to the page?

We discern early on that Mr Norrell is far from being a typical hero or protagonist. It is quite difficult to admire him, or to sympathise with his plight. In other hands this would be a serious shortcoming; but with Susanna Clarke in charge it is somehow not a problem. This, I think, is one measure of her formidable talent and skill.

Mr Strange does not appear for some time -- over a hundred pages in -- and he too is definitely a hero with some limitations.

The book is by no means without humour, albeit somewhat black.

Jonathan Strange is perhaps a little slow on the uptake in realising that he has a powerful enemy (the man with the thistle-down hair). But this is, I suppose, Strange's tragic flaw.

In the past, having an elegant prose style was considered a great virtue in a writer. This circumstance led to much straining after effect and originality, to no one's advantage. Susanna Clarke, however, manages to write in an elegant style without the slightest sign of effort and no self-consciousness whatever.

Finally, one of the marvellous things about this book, to me, is that it is all about England. Of course, Americans and Australians et cetera might not be too keen on that, but you guys will just have to force yourselves to read it.

The physical design and layout of the book, by the way, are as good as they possibly could be, given its great length.

I deliberately wrote all the above before venturing on to Google to find out what others might have said.

The first site that came up on my search appears to be a reasonably official one: in any event there is lots of good stuff on it. I particularly enjoyed the account of the author's shortcomings which is allegedly written by Mr Strange himself -- an amusing little conceit, as I believe the literary people say.

From the publisher's biography of the author I learn that she is Oxford-educated (I would have expected no less) and seems to have worked in UK publishing. Which, I must say, is something not to be sneezed at if you are a would-be writer. (See the penultimate paragraph of my post of 25 February.) She has previously published a number of short stories, which I will now try to trace.

The official site also offers an interview with the author, in which she reveals that she is a fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. So am I, after a fashion. I once saw an episode in which Buffy said to her Mom, 'Mom, I'm a vampire slayer, and that's all there is to it.' I admire writers who can produce a line like that, and get the producer/director to film it.

The interview reveals something that I had already picked up from elsewhere, namely that this novel took ten years to write. I am not remotely surprised, and one can only admire the discipline, the stamina, and the determination which kept her going. Only if you've done the job yourself, I suspect, do you really appreciate what is involved.

The site also offers lots of reviews, should you be interested.

Enough said, I hope.


Anonymous said...

Boring! B-oring! Boring!

You think Martin Amis is tedious, and you managed this superfatted slab of self-regard?

Anonymous said...

I agree: this book is so B-O-R-I-N-G it made me want to cry sometimes. I gave up before reaching page 200. Sometimes while reading I thought: "Oh, God, please kill me right now", so bored I was. It is pretentious, has no humor at all, although the author tries sometimes to be "witty". A complete waste of paper, in my opinion. Don't waste time reading this stupid book. Buy Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, you would be much better.

Anonymous said...

It amuses me that the posters who didn't like this book are unwilling to identify themselves ;)

I admit I found it an effort to get into at first - the hardback doesn't exactly lend itself to throwing into your bag as you head for work! - but it was most certainly worth the effort.

If you want popcorn novels, there are plenty in the shops. But like a box of Belgian truffles, some books are worth lingering over...

Otto said...

Really boring. I love great, substantious books, not only "popcorn novels". I have read Thomas Mann, Joyce, Tolstoi, Dostoievsky, Dante, Milton. Not exactly "popcorn"... :)
But this is book, oh well... Nothing substantial here, not even near a "box of bubble gum", so don't try to compare a box of Belgian truffles with this book. If you like to spend many hours reading a book where nothing interesting happens, and one of the main characters only appears after page 300, give it a try. Size is not the problem here - this books is tedious. Really - it is.