Sunday 28 June 2015

Re-read: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

I've recently re-posted the featurette / review I wrote about Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell when the book was first published.

Now that the TV series is being broadcast, I have re-read the book, and found myself re-reviewing it in my mind. The review may contain some spoilers. It certainly goes into plot details that take hundreds of pages to occur.

I'm quite enjoying the TV series - but, in a rare and unique example, I find myself preferring it to the book.

Let's recap the story: English magic is gone. A mysterious Raven King has ruled over the North of England for several hundred years in the dark ages, but he has left, presumably to one of his other two kingdoms (one in Faerie and one in Hell). Since he left, magic has declined, and ultimately, disappeared. By the start of the novel, it is the subject of English heritage societies and eccentrics, who debate theoretical magic (the practical kind no longer works).

Enter Mr Norrell. Having accumulated an enviable library of books of magic, he is visited by two members of such a society, and stuns them by telling them he can perform practical magic. When asked for proof by the society, he insists that, if he succeeds, they must disband the society and no longer call themselves magicians of any kind. All but one agree to his wager, and are thus disbanded when he makes statues in York cathedral come to life and talk.

On advice from his servant Childermass, Mr Norrell moves to London to effect the revival of English magic and to make it respectable again. There, he associates with gossips and parasites (Drawlight and Lascelles) and struggles to find a way to be taken seriously by the government, which is involved in a bitter campaign against Napoleon on the Iberian peninsula. A breakthrough occurs when he brings back to life the young betrothed of a minister after her death from an illness - probably tuberculosis. To do so, he employs the Gentleman With Thistle Down Hair - a fairy lord - and bargains away half her life in return for the half she gets to live in England..

As you can tell from the summary so far, Jonathan Strange makes a fairly late entry. In fact, his entry into the book is brought about only after Norrell feuds with scam artist 'magician' Vinculus and has him driven out of London - except Vinculus keeps going on about a prophecy, and delivering parts of the prophecy to people.

Jonathan Strange, meanwhile, is a bit of a fop, stumbling into magic and marriage more or less by luck (and thanks to the timely death of his hated father). It's Vinculus who sets him on the path to becoming a magician - but despite that, Strange has paid no attention to the details of the prophecy, only the bit telling him he would become a magician. Once pursuing magic, he apprentices to Mr Norrell (much to the horror of his entourage) and develops his own style.

Norrell is an academic, studied magician, learning from books and pursuing an agenda of decrying old magic. He's a miser, hoarding books and keeping them hidden, and a spiteful man. Strange is an intuitive, showy magician and a bit of a socialite. They contrast.

It takes more than a quarter of the book before Mr Strange arrives, and much, much longer for a through-line to establish itself in the plot. Strange goes to war. Norrell stays at home. Grand magic happens, and quiet magic. Footnote upon footnote establishes a kind of academic tone. Without the doings of the Gentleman with Thistle Down Hair, there would be no singular plotline at all - and for most of the book, he is being ignored by the magicians.

Unfortunately, the book is actually fairly boring despite a dry wit in its narrative style. I remember the first time I read it, in a rush to finish it before interviewing the author: I was exasperated but I put this down to the hurry I was in. Turns out it wasn't that - the book is genuinely lacking drive. Once it establishes plot momentum (and an antagonist), it still takes huge amounts of time and circuitous events and diversions for the plot to move on. In many ways, these people are blundering along, only resolving certain matters through luck, coincidence and prophecy. (And I have opinions about prophecies in literature).

The real heroes of the book are neither Norrell nor Strange. Annabelle Strange, John Segundus, Stephen Black and Childermass are all much more likeable characters. Strange is not too bad - except he pays so little attention to the important things, and can be such a shallow flake, that he is quite maddening. For much of his time in Italy, I wanted to strangle him. Norrell is a petty, mean little man, utterly heartless and without a soul.

Towards the end of the book, Strange's wife refers to a feud between Strange and Norrell as being just their way. She seems to see them as closer to each other than to anyone else, and the book implies as much. However, whenever we see them together, there is no warmth between them. We are told, from time to time, how they miss being able to discuss things with each other, but we never witness any rewarding interactions between them. Strange and Norrell have no chemistry, their bromance is so off-the-page that I don't see it being possible at all. It's not like Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser in Lankhmar, or any master-student relationship I've come across. There is such distance between them that their missing each other is inconceivable, that their feuding never feels like any minor tiff or any functional relationship at all.

There is little warmth in this novel. Strange and his wife have occasional moments, but other than that, this is a novel where few characters seem capable of feeling love. It is a cold, distant, passion-less story. Perhaps this is a result of its temporal setting - but I'm pretty sure Jane Austen novels, which this occasionally gets compared to, are not bereft of characters capable of feeling affection.

Perhaps that is why the TV show feels somehow more rewarding. There is more emotion on screen. Some of the more random plotlines are tidied up in ways that fit perfectly. (Just as the Watchmen movie tidied up the Watchmen comic book in a much more rewarding way). The Gentleman with Thistle Down Hair is more consistent in the show than he is in the book, and the sound effects of straining wood are perfectly atmospheric for the magic. Segundus and Honeyfoot get more agency than they do in the novel. I don't know what I would think of it if I had not read the book, but watching it after reading the novel is very rewarding - it brings it to life and tidies it up in a way that is perfectly complementary.

On the whole, I'd recommend the TV series more than the novel.

Rating: 3/5

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