Feb 24, 2005

`Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell'

Just a few days before flying to Malaysia I bought and read, in three days, Susanna Clarke’s 800-page debut novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (see Amazon.com). Where to begin? Well, let me start with the back cover blurb. Basically it talks about the two magicians who appear in England to revive English magic. It talks about Mr Norrell as a reclusive scholar-type with an aversion to hazardous forms of magic. And of Jonathan Strange as a wild magician almost on the brink, one who is ready to try anything to gain fame and power.

It couldn’t be more wrong.


‘Two magicians will appear in England. One will fear me. The other will long to behold me.’ – prophecy by the Raven King, from back cover

Only someone who has read the book can understand how much the characters have been misinterpreted by the marketers. In the book, Mr Norrell has an aversion to any type of publicity and a dislike for any magic he didn’t personally sanction. Clarke writes of him destroying would-be magicians by forbidding them from performing magic, and censoring any writings on magic – even going as far as to magically vanish books of magic right out of people’s homes to keep the public from reading them.

Strange on the other hand is presented as a very likeable character, a gentleman to the bone. Here’s something I roughly remember from the book:

‘Wellington asked Strange, “Could a magician kill people with magic?”

‘Strange frowned. “I suppose a magician could. But a gentleman never would.” ’

Strange is blessed with an unparalleled talent for magic. He discovers magic as a profession quite by accident (seemingly). Unbelieving, he goes with the flow and discovers that things happen at his command that have not happened for hundreds of years. He comes into contact with, and works with, Norrell. Yet the world he enters is unexplored and disquieting, unlike Norrell’s world of ‘safe English magic’. Strange has premonitions of things going on that are just beyond his level of awareness.

Things continue. Both magicians grow in power and renown, Strange more so than Norrell, because of his willingness to aid his country’s war machine abroad. He practices magic on very large scales – rearranging the Spanish countryside.

After the war his wife dies in very mysterious and troubling circumstances. He is a broken man, although he tries not to show it very much. All he has left is magic. And the magic is growing stronger within him every day, as he immerses himself within it. He picks up more strange vibes, premonitions, insights. He goes to Venice and finds it, too, steeped in magic. In Venice Clarke describes one of the most memorable scenes I’ve ever read in a book. It involves trees, lots of trees. Read the book!

Strange discovers that his wife is not dead, but has been enchanted away by a suave, fun-loving and cruel fairy. After this, he throws all caution to the wind and distills all the knowledge he has gained in his years as a magician into a way to access the fairy country, Faerie. He uses madness, his own madness, as a tool to contact ‘the gentleman’, as the fairy is called. So desperate, and yet hanging on by a thread, he manages to save his wife, and at the same time, with Norrell’s help, revive English magic – as part of a spell worked long ago by the Raven King himself.

In the end, the eye of the beholder beholds the eye of the beheld. But you have to read the book to understand this!

He doesn’t emerge unscathed – the conflict leaves him literally in eternal night, which he and Norrell carry with them wherever they go. Clarke ends the book on an open note, as if indicating more adventures (and hopefully more books) to come.

One recurring theme I noticed in the book was the English’s unwillingness to accept magical causes for something, even though they know that magic is possible and even likely with Strange and Norrell having opened the doors to it. Strange himself is guilty of this before his wife dies. I think her death teaches him a lesson – if anything that could be explained at all by magic, it probably is magic. Cruel way to learn, and cruel lesson, but this is not an innocent book.

Feb 9, 2005

University, and some books

AFTER a long time of hither and thither, I've finally bought the ticket. I am definitely going to Malaysia to study in Monash University. The student pass they have sent me will see me through Dhaka's airport and on to Kuala Lumpur, where I will be given a visa.

I've finished, within the last few days, Jean P. Sasson's Princess and Daughters of Arabia. The former was excellent. I found the book, of all places, in my grandfather's bookshelf. I've known of it for a long time, but for some reason or the other always passed over it, looking for interesting books. But....

I really like learning about things which have always been shrouded in mystery, and the book felt like a frank confession of Saudi royal life behind the veil. `Sultana' and Sasson's voices both felt sincere, and I identified with the princess. I have very strong and conflicting ideas about freedom and laissez-faire and non-violence and the fair treatment of minorities -- among other things. I love to see them echoed in other people.

Daughters was not as original -- and understandably so. Still highly readable, though. I'll never tire of Sultana's opinions and thoughts, partly because they're so much my own. I'm waiting for my brother to buy the next in the series, Desert Royal. (I'm currently broke -- in Bangladesh taka, anyway.) Then again, I'll probably be in Malaysia by the time he gets around to it.

I'm currently reading The Da Vinci Code. Another excellent book. Symbology; hidden meanings in famous artworks; secret societies; radical theories about Christianity -- it's all there and it's exactly my kind of brainy thriller. I can't wait to finish it, but am loath to at the same time -- because a book like this is hard to find.

Reading the book, I couldn't help comparing it to another radical book I've read recently -- Anne Rice's Memnoch the Devil. That book was about the vampire Lestat's quest for redemption, but also about the struggle between God and the Devil, apparently called Memnoch by himself and Satan (among other names) by everyone else. In it, Memnoch explained to Lestat an alternate, and shocking, view of creation and mankind and Christianity's history.The parts all fit cleverly, and the wheel turns. It left me genuinely frightened (not from the religious repercussions -- I'm secular -- but from the general atmosphere created in the book. Yes, it was that good).

Another thing which I've been exploring is a certain similarity of themes between the Princess books and The Da Vinci Code. In the former, Sultana has the feeling that many problems in the world are caused by male domination over women, which is unnatural. In the latter, much is made of the natural duality and equality of man and woman, and the subversion of that natural order in the modern world, and the resulting pain and misery. Almost uncanny.