Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (2004) by Susanna Clarke

JonathanStrange2Nikki at Book Punks recently did an interesting post about books that break books. In other words, books that are so good that no other book can ever be enjoyed again. Book Breakers. Story Smashers. Reader Eradicators.

My book breaking moment—a definitive moment in my life— occurred a little over a decade ago. I came upon it during a, at the time, typical aimless dance of bookstore aisle gazing, common to the unobsessed lay readers of the book world. Usually dissatisfying results, but this time… there it was. Eggshell-colored cover. Black typewriter font. Simple. Minimal. Zero hot chicks with guns.

What can I say? It caught my eye. So I took it home with me.

I would love to say that I was immediately whisked into a world of wizardry and wonder, where I engorged myself on the text in a weekend, and then called in sick on Monday because my brain was still spinning, but that’s not how it happened.

It sat by my bed for months. I read a little some nights. It was cute. Dry.

But then, at some point, it went from bedraggling to bedazzling. I couldn’t put it down. I LIVED IN IT. I caught on to what Clarke was doing and she opened my eyes to what fiction could do. I wasn’t able to enjoy another SF novel for another TEN WHOLE YEARS.

Clarke didn’t just break books for me. She murdered them.

***

It’s the 19th century, Napoleon is still rampaging Europe, and Mr. Norrell is the only practical magician in England. Norrell hoards all of the magical texts, expels all other magicians from the discipline, and takes on one special pupil, Jonathan Strange, with whom he is eager to share his knowledge. But Jonathan’s innate talent and Norrell’s intellectual jealousies result in a contentious partnership that impacts England’s tenuous magical future.

***

He hardly ever spoke of magic, and when he did it was like a history lesson and no one could bear to listen to him. [p. 1]

JonathanStrange1The entire book is an inside joke. Read some historical research– any era will do– just to get the feel of the scholarly voice. Then read Austen. Read Scott. Read Byron and Shelley. If they aren’t your style, you probably won’t like this. If they are your style, and you can’t take a joke, you might not like this. But, if you’re versed in Regency-era literature to the point where you think it could use a good Regency-style throttling, then Susanna Clarke is your woman.

Roll call. Who’s up for a mocking?

Scholars:

‘It presupposes that magicians have some sort of duty to do magic – which is clearly nonsense. You would not, I imagine, suggest that it is the task of botanists to devise more flowers? Or that astronomers should labour to rearrange the stars? Magicians, Mr. Segundus, study magic which was done long ago. Why should any one expect more?’ [4]

(Having just returned from a scholarly conference related to a topic of which I am a general practitioner, I find much humor in this.)

Classism:

Mr. Lascelles whispered to Mr. Drawlight that he had not realized before that doing kind actions would not lead to his being addressed in such familiar terms by so many low people – it was most unpleasant – he would take care to do no more. [97]

Gentlemen:

And being a man – and a clever one – and forty-two years old, he naturally had a great deal of information and a great many opinions upon almost every subject you care to mention, which he was eager to communicate to a lovely woman of nineteen – all of which, he thought, she could not fail but to find quite enthralling. [103]

Gentlemanly problem-solving:

Clearly the first thing to be done was to bring back Lord Nelson from the dead. [105]

The Disingenuous Hangers-on:

…he shut his mouth again and assumed a supercilious expression; this he wore for the remainder of the night, as if he regularly attended houses where young ladies were raised from the dead and considered this particular example to have been, upon the whole, a rather dull affair. [96]

It’s funny, but it’s also a criticism of patriotism, patriarchy, imperialism, and academia. A dissection of the roles of gentleman and sycophant. A reverent mocking of Brit lit.

And it’s about the power of books. Book hoarding. Book murder.

***

Rereads are interesting experiences. Not only am I analyzing the novel, but I’m also analyzing myself as a younger reader. The second time around was a lot more hilarious than I remember, and darker than I remember. I’d forgotten the parts about Italy. I’d forgotten about the madness and the murders. For some reason, I remembered Arabella Strange as a much stronger and effectual character, which, to my disappointment, was not as apparent this second time. This, of course, says more about my growth as a reader than it does about the book.

JonathanStrange3Interestingly, Clarke contends that the narrator of this novel is an omniscient female, a direct contradiction of my own interpretation. I’ve always disliked the title of the novel: first, we don’t even meet Jonathan Strange until the middle of the book, and two, it encompasses much more than just these two dudes doing magic. Clarke reinvents history. It ripples into the future. The novel itself feels male, stuffy, much like the old fogey scholars who drive the opening chapters. For this reason, this novel should be called The History of the Restoration of English Magic by John Segundus. To me, John Segundus, the only theoretical scholar of magic for most of the novel, is the narrator of this tale. Even the audio version utilizes a male narrator.

Speaking of, this particular reread was mostly a listen, and the exceptionally delightful audio version—I JUST HAPPEN TO LIKE BRITISH NARRATORS, K—is awesome. Highly recommended for those who might balk at the nearly thousand pages of Austenian prose and subtle British funnyisms.

Clarke is a master of voice, pastiche, purpose, and humor. Still, after a second read, I can think of no one who matches her skill. She is a slow writer. It took her ten years to write this, and we’ve yet to see a follow-up. Much like slow cooking, her method enriches the experience with more than a slap of words on a page. She takes time to make it perfect.

But that’s why Clarke is a book breaker. She’s a book murderer.

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. [329]

Ah, but Clarke is no gentleman, and she kills all other magic fantasy novels dead.

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28 thoughts on “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (2004) by Susanna Clarke

  1. wildbilbo says:

    Great review – more for the TBR wall! I’ll check that Bookpunks post too – I’m not sure I can think of a book that’s broken other books for me…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. wildbilbo says:

    Reblogged this on Uncertain Tales and commented:
    This is a great review (the ‘inside joke’ analysis is the sort of deep reading I want to develop myself).

    A great book review blog for those of a sci-fi inclination. I don’t always agree with what’s said, but it’s always insightful (also I’m frequently wrong about many things – just ask my wife!).

    Liked by 1 person

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Thanks, KT!

      “I don’t always agree with what’s said…” It seems like I always come with that disclaimer. And I’m okay with that.

      Liked by 1 person

      • wildbilbo says:

        Caveat stemming principally from ‘Dune’ related differences of opinion 🙂

        Like

      • fromcouchtomoon says:

        Ah, I thought it was more like, “This train wreck is fun to read sometimes.” Just wait til I go off on the Moties in an upcoming post!

        Anyway, it’s not an uncommon comment. And you are in the majority opinion on Dune, and I know I’m a freak for being bored with it. Although,she thought, perhaps my intolerance for overdone internal monologue caused me to pick too hard on the popular sand opera.

        Like

  3. It’s on my list. So you’re saying it’s kinda good or something?

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Rabindranauth says:

    And now I want to re-read it. Sigh.

    Liked by 1 person

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Me too! It’s something to keep by the bed and read a few pages each night for the rest of my life… that is, if I didn’t already have this Poul Anderson to finish, and this Iron Council, and some Leiber, and crap, I’ve got this Niven post to write…

      Like

      • Rabindranauth says:

        Them feels. I’ve got Angela Carter and Cat Valente keeping me busy, a Discworld buddyread on Wednesday, I can’t decide if to read Gormenghast, Iron Council or The Worm Ouroboros, and I’m considering starting it but reading a few pages now and then like you suggest >_> Ugh.

        Like

        • fromcouchtomoon says:

          Angela Carter and Cat Valente. Your book pairings are about as odd as mine.

          Speaking of Iron Council, we were talking about you on Twitter the other day. Nikki is reading it, too. We figured you were probably already finished with it. Expect to be COWED! (Because that’s his word of choice in this one.)

          Like

          • Rabindranauth says:

            Reading has been very sex drenched lately, between finally finishing Dhalgren and then diving headlong into Valente’s Palimpsest and Carter’s Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman.

            Sounds like I’m lagging behind! Lol, guess this means I’ll have to start reading Iron Council next!

            Liked by 1 person

          • Yes Iron Council Iron Council! The more people to make fun of his weird choice of repetative SAT vocab because they are experiencing it simultaneously the better!

            I made it past the halfway mark yesterday, to hijack this comment thread and make it about WHAT IM READING BECAUSE SO THERE (well, youre reading it too, so) and was so proud. Because I hit the slow bit. Anyway.

            So that Jonathan Strange eh?

            Liked by 1 person

  5. I feel like this review is the perfect guide for how to read this.

    1. Read some regency stuff to get into the mode.

    2. Be prepared for having been totally mislead by the title.

    3. Probably listen to it instead of reading words.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Joseph Nebus says:

    This has been one of those books I intend reading sometime but never quite do. I must admit the line about “a magician might but a gentleman never could” bumps it up higher in my queue.

    Like

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      That’s probably the most famous line from the book, but it’s full of that gentlemanly attitude. If you like that, you’ll love this.

      Like

  7. This has been on my TBR for about 10 years. I even have a proof copy! I started reading it just after my oldest son was born, and it was too hard. I’ve never made it back.

    Jo Walton raves about it in What Makes This Book so Great, which propelled it back into my consciousness. As another 8 books made into the house today, I’m not sure when I’ll get to it. Maybe when all the boys have left home!

    Like

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      It’ll still be there in 18 years, but if you get really curious, I highly recommend the audio book, which might make the first “old dudes talking about history” part more entertaining.

      I also hear the BBC is filming a TV adaptation set to premiere this year. I might actually sacrifice some of my reading time for that one.

      Like

  8. I read this a skrillion years ago, kind of moderately liked it, but now I want to revisit it as an adult. Or at least, as a real adult, not just an early twenties pretend adult.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. […] Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (2004) by Susanna Clarke– A reread! Although Jonathan Strange has been recently dislodged by my new favorite novel, The Years of Rice and Salt (2002) by Kim Stanley Robinson, it withstood the test of time (and manic reading). Funnier and darker the second time, but just as magical. I highly recommend the audio book! […]

    Like

  10. […] Clarke won my heart long before I had even heard of the Hugo Awards, and, upon reread, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell—  despite having a title I can never remember– maintains its status as one of the […]

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  11. […] Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (2004) by Susanna Clarke, narrated by Simon Prebble […]

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