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08 February 2005
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
"Can a magician kill a man by magic?" Lord Wellington asked Strange. Strange frowned. He seemed to dislike the question. "I suppose a magician might," he admitted, "but a gentleman never could."


I finished this book a while back and have been ruminating over a review of it since that time. Alas, Christmas and then illness have kept me from it until now.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is, I think, a book that a fair number of people could not read, yet one which everyone ought to. Frankly, Susanna Clarke's style and her pacing of the narrative might drive a certain type of reader to drink. On the other hand, I believe it may be the singularly most brilliant piece of fiction written in this modern age. In fact, if one did not know otherwise, one might well assume the book was written around the time the story is set (the narrator's certainly determined to convince us of this)--during and just after the Napoleonic Wars. Much like Patrick O'Brian's works, Clarke manages to write as if she belongs to the period. Indeed, she even takes it a step further and narrates as if she's laying out an actual history from the time--complete with footnotes. And so the story has the distinct feel of a classic work of literature, rather than a contemporary piece of fiction wrought with angst, or dystopian visions of society, or blatherings about whatever feelings the author feels he needs to get out into the open.

Synopsis time. The story begins in England in 1806, where magic has become naught but a study. Magicians are historians who read about the great magicians of the past, and talk about various theories of magic. Magic, once great and pervasive in the country, has become a curious scholarly profession. There are, in fact, no longer practical magicians but only theoretical magicians. With one exception--Mr Gilbert Norrell, who not only understands the mechanics of magic, and has read nearly everything ever written on it, but can also use magic. Even more, he has ambition. He wants nothing less than to bring true magic back to England. And yet, he is forever timid and tied to his books. Though he makes a name for himself quickly by serving the government, it is not until he meets Jonathan Strange and takes him on as a pupil that the resurrection of English magic becomes a possibility. For Strange has no such shyness. He is creative and curious and quick of wit. What's more, he is a man of society much unlike Norrell, the recluse and misanthrope. Inevitably, the two magicians become rivals.

Sounds all very simple, does it not? It isn't. That is the mere surface--the set-up, if you will. This is a fantasy that eschews the overtly fantastical in favour of societal comedy. One of the most important facets to Strange's character is that he is ever a gentleman. And Clarke has a keen understanding of the way in which British society of the time worked. There are sweet and virtuous ladies, gentleman, cads, social climbers, befuddled, yet genuinely good men; there is tragedy, romance, war, mystery, and yes, magic. Clarke weaves her tale more in the vein of Jane Austen than Terry Brooks (no slight to Mister Brooks--I've not read any of his works, and have heard they're quite good; he was just the best example of high magical fantasy I could think of off the top of my head). Indeed, the same could be said of Patrick O'Brian's stories. Strange & Norrell is, in fact, so rich and complex, one can barely begin to describe it and do it any sort of justice.

But in the end, as terrific as the story itself is, it's Clarke's style that really sells the book. It is not an easy read. Anyone who has felt as though they'd never finish the first hundred pages of Fellowship of the Ring will find themselves in familiar waters here. Clarke's manner is exceeding dry. Much like a history text, actually. The footnotes continue that illusion--and illusion it is. In the middle of a somewhat academic-sounding bit of text, Clarke will use an unexpected turn of phrase, or will describe a scene using such gorgeous and evocative language, it captures the reader's imagination before he even knows what's going on. The history falls away like dead leaves, the fiction having crept up behind to take you in its thrall. The footnotes, too, change as the story progresses, becoming less background information, and supporting documentation, and more a proper part of the story. All of this, I think, serves to transform the story from history to myth, yet without removing it from its historical context. The story becomes very much like Thomas Mallory's Morte D'Arthur in this respect; that story believes in Arthur and his knights as historical fact, despite the fantastical elements that abound. In Strange & Norrell, historical figures such as Lord Wellington and Lord Byron are every bit as important as the main characters. As with Mallory's work, the lines between fiction and history are blurred. The result is a myth that rings true.

Clarke also tends toward several elements in her writing which have become taboo in today's fiction market. For one thing, there's the length. Strange & Norrell is her first book and stands at 782 pages of rather small typeface--something I have read time and again will not get one published. I have no word count for it, but it is plainly longer than the 100,000 average of today's standards. I reckon it puts the 185,000 of my novel to shame (which gives me quite the measure of hope, I might add). Also, the narrator has no qualms about addressing the reader, or in other ways pointing toward the fact that one is reading a story. For instance, in this footnote she says:
Of course, it may be objected that Wellington himself was Irish, but a patriotic English pen does not stoop to answer such quibbling.

These sorts of interjections, too, are often touted as verboten. One final thing I'll mention here is that Strange is not even introduced until nearly two hundred pages into the story. I reckon she'd give most creative writing gurus an apoplexy.

What Clarke does, I think, is write a wonderful story which also happens to be literature. Modern writers of literature (not popular fiction, mind you) set out to write "literature." I don't think they succeed. They may be lauded by critics, but when have critics ever had a clue? No, they write maudlin, or angry, or dystopic treatises masquerading as stories, but they do not write literature. The writers of the classical works--Dickens, Dostoevsky, Austen, Shakespeare--it was not their goal to write literature. They wrote good stories--and often ones that played about in the basic questions of life and the world without pontificating on the answers (or their versions thereof). And in time, their works became literature. As, I suspect, will Strange & Norrell.

I could go on (though I'm sure I've gone on long enough). There are many, many story threads or elements I've glossed over or neglected. The book is thesis-worthy, actually, though I'd never inflict that upon it. But I shall leave off, and say only this: if you have a great love of good stories--heck, if you're only mildly interested--find a copy of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and read it. Susanna Clarke has done something magical here. She's written one of the best books of our time.

*Many thanks to kashi for our conversations on the book. They helped immensely in putting my thoughts in order.

**Please note that unless something strikes my fancy today, this'll be my last post until the Lenten Season is done. I should be back on or around the 28th of March.
Jelly Pinched Wolf   8:01 AM
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03 February 2005
New Blog
Added a new blog to the Catholic links section.

Looks like Doubleshot Thoughts has been around since November, and has already linked to me here. Alas, I had no clue until today and could not return the link. But then, I've clearly not been as attentive to my blog of late as I should have been. This will change! Well, except during Lent, of course.

Anyway, Katie looks like a good addition to the Catholic blogosphere, so I encourage everyone to check out her blog.
Jelly Pinched Wolf   4:45 PM
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Melancholy Me
Nifty Medieval Personality test
here.

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You are a "nervous" Melancholic, with an abundance of black bile. Melancholics are characterized by the element of Earth, the season of Autumn, middle-aged adulthood, the color blue, and the characteristics of "Cold" and "Dry." Famous Melancholics include St. John of the Cross, St. John the Divine, St. Francis, and St. Catherine of Siena. If you were living in the Age of Faith, perfect career choices for you would be contemplative religious, theologian, artist, or writer.


Lots more info on the Melancholic here, and there're links to the other three personality types at the bottom.

Enjoy!

Via Basia Me, Catholica Sum
Jelly Pinched Wolf   3:23 PM
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02 February 2005
End of a Season
Today marks the
Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, or Candlemas. On the old calendar, it meant the end of the Christmas season, and since we've always got a soft spot for more traditional things, kashi and I have kept the decorations up until now. Of course, if kashi had her way, the lights would be up year round, but so far I've stood firm on keeping them only between the Memorial of St. Nicholas and Candlemas (though admittedly, I may not actually get around to it until the weekend).

A good day for prayer celebrating Christ as the light of the world. And while you're praying and lighting candles, you may want to keep His Holiness, Pope John Paul II in mind, as he struggles with a "respiratory crisis"*.

* Via Catholic Ragemonkey. Links also on De Fidei Oboedientia, Shrine of the Holy Whapping, and Summa Mamas.
Jelly Pinched Wolf   10:20 AM
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Fare Thee Well
Having received word that friend Goof Troop Ag has taken down her blog, The Doppler Effect, due to reasons of time (it being a terrible distraction, which I can understand completely), I thought I'd take a moment to bid a fond farewell. Of course, we've all had occasion to reconsider the usefulness of the blog (or at least the comments function). Some of us keep pushing on, some take a deep breath and find a bit of sanity again. But when all it has become is a great sucker of time, it really is best just to walk away.

We'll miss you, GTA.
Jelly Pinched Wolf   7:49 AM
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01 February 2005
I'd Rather Play a Game of Solitaire
I've been re-watching some of my old favourite movies lately, only to discover they're not as good as they once were. Or at least that my tastes have changed in recent years more than I'd thought. Last month, I showed kashi Tim Burton's Batman, which she'd never seen. I still enjoyed it somewhat, but was mostly bored by it. It's possible I've just been spoiled by the X-Men movies, but Batman seemed to lack something essential which I had hitherto not realised was needed.

By the same token, we had a group of friends over last weekend for a showing of The Manchurian Candidate (the original John Frankenheimer film) and Three Days of the Condor. Candidate has held up just fine. It's still a darn good story of Cold War paranoia and fear with great acting and top-notch direction. Condor, however, proved very disappointing. On my last viewing, I am certain I could not have found fault with it (well, maybe the atrocious seventies clothing). But now, it just falls flat. Besides being terribly boring (not a good direction for a conspiracy/ suspense film to take), the story had more holes than a Light Bright board, the love scene was not only completely unnecessary, but also badly filmed, and on top of that, I found the ostensible villains of the film to be more engaging and sympathetic than Condor, the Robert Redford character.

For those who've not seen it, a brief synopsis: Condor works for the CIA reading books. He and his department mates read everything published in the world, and search for possible hidden codes. Condor, it seems, is a little too good at his job and discovers the presence of a secret agency within the CIA which has its own agenda. While out getting lunch for his co-workers one day, Condor returns to find them all dead. Luckily for him, he has a habit of breaking the rules and ignoring security and so he wasn't with them when it happened. The rest of the film is him trying to figure out what's going on and stay alive.

Except that blind luck and pleasant activities like kidnapping are what actually get him from scene to scene. He shows little intelligence, and little simple competence. And not much of what happens in the meantime is all that interesting or exciting. If the suspense of the film rests on whether or not Redford's going to tie up Faye Dunaway, then the film is lacking. And while Condor seems likeable enough in the first five minutes or so, he certainly does not do well under pressure. He spends the rest of the film being something of an obnoxious, self-righteous jerk. How's that for a protagonist?

As I mentioned earlier, I actually found myself rooting for those trying to kill Condor. Sure, most of them were just government bureaucrats playing games, but at least they had ambition. (On a similar note, kashi found herself giving a hearty huzzah to the purported bad guys in Enemy of the State, with Will Smith and Gene Hackman. Why? Because they were well-dressed, shaven, and clean, and their agenda was the protection of the State Alas, their means were flawed--hence the bad guy status.)

Of course, I was not entirely disappointed by the movie. He may be the only untarnished element left, but the assassin character, Joubert (played beautifully by Max von Sydow), is still perfectly enjoyable. He has no real allegiance but to himself. He is amused by the power games going on around him, and is even willing to tip his hat to Condor when he thwarts Joubert's attempts to kill the hapless agent. Not, I believe, because Condor outwitted him (and given Condor's track record, I think it'd be nigh impossible for him to outwit Joubert), but simply because Condor escaped him. One easily gets the sense that few, if any, escape the assassin. He's just that good. And so even if it's dumb luck that keeps saving Condor, Joubert is a man who can respect those who give him the slip. Also, it probably makes the hunt a bit more interesting. And when the film has ended, Joubert's the only real winner. Condor must forever fear for his life. Those CIA members involved in the secret organisation must scramble to cover up the embarrassing debacle, and may well be exposed by Condor's bumbling actions. And Joubert? Well, he'll just keep being available to whomever is willing to pay for his services. And maybe spend a couple months in Europe.

Ultimately, Three Days of the Condor felt like it was pulling in too many directions at once. It ought to be a rousing suspense story, but it tries too hard to be a serious drama, with IMPORTANT things to say. And then there's the boredom, and that grates on my nerves more than just about anything lately. Annoy me, unsettle me, or even insult me--but don't bore me. I don't have the time for it. And really, if you want a film with government conspiracies, political machinations, and assassination, you can't go wrong with the original Manchurian Candidate. Condor as it turns out, just doesn't fly anymore.
Jelly Pinched Wolf   7:51 AM
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