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52 Books #4: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

January 31, 2011

Too hefty to read in the bath, too big to read on public transport – Jonathan Clarke and Mr Norrell (Bloomsbury), Susanna Clarke’s faux-nineteenth century novel of magicians in Regency England is simply, at 1006 pages, too big. (I should have shelled out for the box set whose format mimics the triple-decker Victorians as much as the text does – much more manageable.)

The Strange and Norrell of the title are magicians – the last two magicians in England. Norrell is a fusty, rather bumptious academic who busies himself buying up every book on magic both to boost his own learning and to ensure nobody else has access to the texts. His sometime apprentice and later rival, Strange, is the young turk of the magic world, a dynamic young man who believes spells are for casting, not simply studying. The pair are for a while the darlings of London society, Norrell especially for his part in aiding the British military in its war on Napoleon; by the end of the book, magic has once again come into disrepute and its practitioners are treated with suspicion.

Clarke tells her story in a brisk, sometimes overly chirpy style (minor variant spellings familiar from Jane Austen, such as ‘chuse’ or ‘surprize’ point to pastiche, but the text avoids cleaving too closely to a nineteenth-century voice, and is fresh and uncomplicated throughout. There are bounteous footnotes, which summarise books of spells, magicians, rites and fables; occasionally, as when the word ‘clout’ has to be glossed in a footnote as a Yorkshire word for ‘cloth’, one feels they’re an unnecessary affectation. More irritating is the fact that a book so big and confident builds its scenes around the visual and doesn’t find room for much interiority or psychological insight. When Norrell’s manservant Childermass is attacked by a rival and his face cut open from eyesocket to the side of his mouth, the text shies away from giving Childermass much more than a feeling of mild inconvenience (magic sees that the wound is quickly healed, but that’s no excuse for skirting the horror in a strong and obviously visual scene). When Strange is told towards the book’s end that his (presumed dead) wife still lives, Norrell — and through him Clarke — conveniently elects not to question how this makes his friend feel, thus sidestepping all that tedious emotional insight stuff of which, frankly, this book needs rather more.

It’s not quite that Clarke has an eye on the film rights, I don’t think (pity the job of the screenplay writer trying to adapt this book back to a manageable length), it’s more that she’s simply more interested in keeping the story going forward, as well as probably being well aware of the wordcount her novel is reaching. (This emphasis on the superficial or visual also means, as a sidenote, that the various murky illustrations which pepper the book are as unecessary as they are ugly.)

I think that the reason Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell disappoints too is that – unlike such bricklike literary works of recent years as DeLillo’s Underworld, Pynchon’s Against the Day or Bolaño’s 2666 – this is one story, told in the right order, in the same voice throughout. The three examples I cite above, admittedly books by more ‘experimental’ or even ‘postmodern’ writers, embrace wide dissonances of tone, plot, and form, whereas JS&MR is just one big long yarn. The tone, meanwhile, which is a little too bouncy and upbeat for much of the time, also stands in the way of Clarke’s book being as immersive as the nineteenth-century blockbusters she obviously draws on. There’s also the problem that, in hindsight, not a massive amount seems to actually happen in this book: Norrell yields to training up Strange as an apprentice; the two fall out; one of Norrell’s initial acts of fearsome magic allows for the entry of the book’s villain, a nameless fairy gentleman, who sets about drawing some dark consequences from the two magicians’ spells – all this well-constructed plot stuff takes nine hundred pages to unfold, without much in the way of urgency, in meandering style; I was frequently, to my shame, rather bored in the reading of this novel, whose workmanlike prose doesn’t compensate for the longueurs in the story it’s telling. On the other hand, the last hundred pages, as a sort of masterplan designed by neither of the magicians starts to come together, tension does gather, and a series of highly memorable and bizarre images (the aforementioned facial wound; a man tattooed head to foot with the text of an esoteric book even Mr Norrell has never located; a pillar of starry dark which stretches, day and night, to the sky over the house where Strange, kneedeep in dark mystical investigations, is sequestered) lend the book some very necessary drive. What one feels on finishing a book so big shouldn’t be relief, but that was my first reaction, followed very quickly by a wish that the condensation of imagery and urgency that characterises the last part of the book had been applied to its preceding nine-tenths.

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