Thursday, June 23, 2005

The Return of English Magic

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke, Read by Simon Prebble, Audio Renaissance/Bloomsbury Publishing, 2004

While there are books that are the merest, palest echoes of books that came before them, books that were published more on their ability to attract buyers looking to relive that original magic than on their merits, there is also a situation almost the reverse. A rather light and entertaining book can spawn a reemergence of a genre or type of novel and the fruits of this first book can be far more appetizing, more filling, more promising. The blockbuster success of the Harry Potter franchise (and to some degree the cinematic success of Tolkien’s works) has made prestigious publishers more willing to open the doors to certain kinds of fantasy novels that might have been shunted to the pocket paperback pulp realm. It is entirely likely, too, that many a novel that might not have been finished or even undertaken in a preceding atmosphere of critical, publisher, and public neglect.

And so, as readers, we get to enjoy that succulent bumper crop in Phillip Pullman’s brilliant His Dark Materials trilogy and in Susanna Clarke’s luscious debut novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. This ambitious, nearly 800 page book not only creates strong, vivid characters whose actions flow naturally from their carefully wrought personalities and beliefs, but it does so while cobbling together a variety of real English myths and legends and incorporating them into both an alternate history of England and an unfolding of the new paths of that history as magic returns to the island nation. Let me repeat the salient fact here — this is Clarke’s first novel.

One can only wonder what she’ll do once she gets really good.

The beginning of the book thrusts us into the York society of magicians and the ongoing debate about why magic is no longer practiced, but only studied as an historical artifact. England hasn’t seen a practicing magician in hundreds of years. In its place have sprung up societies of theoretical magicians, historians of the art, who study old spells and chronicles while debating the minutiae of the past. The idea of actually practicing magic is considered poor taste, cousin to prestidigitation and other trickery. In the category of even poorer taste is to be asked why magic is no longer practiced at all. It is simply extinct in these experts eyes and that is all there is to the matter.

Enter into the scene the fusty, vaguely paranoid, closeted practicing magician Mr Norrell. With an odd mission to stamp out all other so-called magicians in England (as well as buy up all volumes on magic of any worth), Norrell challenges the York society by promising to perform an indubitable feat of magic in exchange for all of them resigning and never more declaring themselves magicians. When he makes all the statues in York Cathedral speak, he is launched upon the beginning of his famous career in London. It is this stage of the novel that has induced any number of critics to make rather facile and unlikely comparisons with Jane Austen. (It is my secret belief that many a critic reads the first 100 and last 100 pages of novels of this heft then skim bits and pieces from the middle.)

You may feast upon this description of a party to get a general feel for that kind of society dissection Austen did with such a fine razor that even to this day many miss that she’s mocking:

And how to describe a London party? Candles in lustres of cut-glass are placed everywhere about the house in dazzling profusion; elegant mirrors triple and quadruple the light until night outshines day; many-coloured hot house fruits are piled up in stately pyramids upon white-clothed tables; divine creatures, resplendent with jewels, go about the room in pairs, arm in arm, admired by all who see them. Yet the heat is over-powering, the pressure and noise almost as bad; there is nowhere to sit and scare anywhere to stand. You may see your dearest friend in another part of the room; you may have a world of things to tell him — but how in the world will you ever reach him? If you are fortunate then perhaps you will discover him later in the crush and shake his hand as you are both hurried past each other. Surrounded by cross, hot strangers, your chance of rational conversation is equal to what it would be in an African desert. Your only wish is to preserve your favourite gown from the worst ravages of the crowd. Every body complains of the heat and the suffocation. Every body declares it to be entirely insufferable. But if it is all misery for the guests, then what of the wretchedness of those who have not been invited. Our sufferings are nothing to theirs! And we may well tell each other tomorrow that it was a delightful party.

The rest of the description of this party is given the same lightly jesting anthropological treatment, and the novel further contains at least two romances of the heart in its course, one leading almost to marriage. But after that, the novel is not so much manneristic of a piece with Austen, but more inclined to the best of Dickens. There is, of course, the length, which lends itself to that comparison, then there is the scope of characters (over 100 of them) and the wide-ranging quantity of smaller stories within the larger framework. Dickens managed to set in motion a much larger, much more ambitious project, but his serial publication in periodicals required much shorter-term incident, climax, and resolution. And so Dickens’ novels are often more like a collection of novellas featuring the same characters and bound in chronological order. So too is Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell rich in story while filled with snippets of humor, amusing portraiture, novel excitements, and sociological observation outside the realm of merely marriage and its accoutrements.

It is a treat to see how London society takes to Mr Norrell, which is to say they don’t, because he is so serious and does no spells or curses. In fact, England’s only practicing magician seems to do little in the way of practicing it. Society’s disappointment even extends to his comment, “it looks like it’s going to rain” and then when it doesn’t it is considered quite a poor prophecy. Norrell, on first arriving in London, falls in with a socialite sponge, Mr Drawlight, who latches on to him and uses the city’s curiosity about the magician as his means for getting his supper. In this, Drawlight is assisted by a Mr Lascelles who at first seems the more harmless of the two.

Norrell does ultimately prove himself of use to the government in England’s battle against Napoleon, at one point providing a phantom fleet of hundreds of ships made entirely out of rainwater, not good for fighting but an effective threat when seen from a distance. It is also delicious entertainment to hear the various cabinet members and military commanders discussing what stratagem England and Norrell should employ in defeating the French. Resurrecting Pitt or Lord Nelson are two quite entertaining choices. They give up after deciding upon Pitt when Norrell mentions the length of time lapsed since Pitt’s death and the Admiral’s brother remarks he might have come quite “unraveled.”

After his most celebrated magical feat, the raising of Lady Pole from her recent death (with the help of a malevolent fairy simply called the gentleman with the thistle-down hair), Norrell meets and takes as his pupil the young man Jonathan Strange. Within the first few chapters of their relationship, it is entirely clear that these two will part company. Where Norrell is bookish, conservative, faltering, and orthodox, Strange is intuitive, creative, open-minded, and brave (or as one fairy refers to them Fearful and Arrogant). Norrell is hesitant to lend his books to Strange (he is the possessor of nearly all the worthwhile books on magic) and is clearly keeping secrets from his student, most importantly his dealings with the fairy gentleman. Through Norrell’s work with the government, Strange also becomes involved in the war on the continent. At first it is only through research and the casting of long distance spells of a general nature, though Strange wishes to leave and take a more active role, a move Norrell opposes.

This leads to an amusing turn in which a library of old books is scheduled to come up for auction. Worried that Strange might try to buy some of these, Norrell finally relents and agrees to Strange going to Portugal for the war effort. Norrell gains seven books at the auction, and then Strange, in front of a general, requests forty books from Norrell’s library for study and use for his year of service. As magician to Lord Wellington, Strange makes a heroic name for himself, bullying the French through magic, moving rivers and mountains, causing rain to fall, creating temporary magic roads for the British to march along, and generally fixing any problem the British army might encounter.

The long absence deepens the rift between the two magicians, and upon Strange’s return, Norrell wishes to return to their pupil and master relationship while Strange is filled with a strengthened sense of independence. Their rift leads to a factionalism between their supporters, Strange attempts to publish his own book on magic, Norrell has slanders printed in various magical journals of the day. Eventually on the enchantment away of his wife, Strange leaves England for Italy, intent on pursuing his researches into fairy and the founder of English magic, a shadowy figure known by many names, but primarily John Uskglass or The Raven King.

Part of what makes Clarke’s book so enjoyable is just how unspectacular it is at times. A book of magic, you think, it will be filled with great wizardry and battles and spells and dragons and fairies and such. Instead we are treated to learning about how the house servants of Lady Pole speculate about the black butler under whom they serve; the peculiar economic and political aspects behind organizing and publishing a periodical regarding magic through the publisher of the Edinburgh Review; the fate of England’s second best library on the death of its owner and how Norrell seeks it; the setting up of a house in the city and the differences between city servant and country servant manners; the trials and tribulations of Lord Byron; and so many other things. Instead of writing a fantasy book in which everything in mystical and charged with meaning and hidden power, Clarke has created an England in which magic is a natural part of history and now a modern curiosity. It reads like a real world, but just one with a bit of magic in it. Yes, Lady Pole has come back from the dead — and did you see the gown she wore?

This is one of the novel’s best strengths, the depth to which Clarke has worked to create a world, not a new world in which dragons talk and whole new mythologies are in operation. She has taken on the (I consider) harder task of writing a world very much like ours, but one in which every single consideration is weighed in the scale of the idea that magic once very much existed and played a strong role once upon a time. It’s our world with one or two steps taken to the side. And the challenge of such writing is to fit what we know and expect into a framework that is just a bit off, rather than simply making a whole new frame and putting whatever we want into it. The degree to which she has done this includes frequent references to the past, to various myths and legends that if they aren’t real fairy tales are at least structured with such a fine appreciation for their own peculiar logic that they very well could be.

Part of Clarke’s conceit in the novel is that the book is a work nearly contemporaneous with the events it describes (1806-1817), and she bolsters this with little narrative asides such as “If you are of the opinion, as the lady author of this book is, that…” and with the copious use of footnotes. I worried that the footnotes would be a distraction in the audio production, and sometimes when they come fast and furious after each other, they do chop things up a bit when read. However, occasionally, such as the informative footnote about the fate of Merlin, they are done so straight-facedly that it gives the books’ realism a pip. Occasionally, I got the impression, during scenes where much would be decided, that Clarke perhaps created the footnotes as an authorial stall, dreading the moment of decision so much that she threw up hedge after dodge after dawdle. The quick and abundant footnotes happened often enough in such scenes that I felt confirmed, but reader Simon Prebble was remarkably up to the task.

Prebble, who sounds much like the reader of that other author’s books on English magicians, Jim Dale, has a thrilling baritone and can modify his voice so faintly but so distinctly that at an instant characters are recognized. Lascelles’ laconic drawl, Norrell’s pedantic whine, Strange’s ironic tones, Lord Wellington’s crisp militarism, Scottish publisher John Murray’s purring burr, Lady Pole’s ghostly flatness. He manages all of it and manages to feature so many slight modulations it’s a wonder he doesn’t feature in many one-man shows.

Something else one can take from such a book is a new appreciation for older styles of writing such as Dickens and Austen; you can more easily recollect them as entertainments without their having to be (cue Gielguldian accent) capital-L Literature. People, after the passage of a couple hundred years or so, tend to forget that Chaucer and Shakespeare and Dickens and Austen were considered good fun for nearly every class of reader. Many people tend approach such writing with heavy heart and with brains stuffed with all sorts of flannel and straw of the nature of “what’s good for you,” believing that they should read older works as some kind of tonic or vitamin. Better perhaps, they approach literature of the past as work, a grinding, grueling sort of drudgework, but of the kind that is ennobling and healthmaking. What is lost is the idea that such work is fun.

And above all, Clarke’s novel is fun, the kind of fun that both feels smart in its depth and breadth, while making you feel oddly clever as well. It’s a bit of magic in itself, the kind of old magic people haven’t been practicing much of lately.

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