Archive for Susanna Clarke

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell [BBC One]

Posted in Books, pictures, Travel with tags , , , , , , , on March 18, 2017 by xi'an

After discussing Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell with David Frazier in Banff, where I spotted him reading this fabulous book, I went for a look at the series BBC One made out of this great novel. And got so hooked to it that I binge-watched the whole series of 7 episodes over three days..! I am utterly impressed at the BBC investing so much into this show, rendering most of the spirit of the book and not only the magical theatrics. The complex [and nasty] personality of Mr Norrell and his petit-bourgeois quest of respectability is beautifully exposed, leading him to lie and steal and come close to murder [directly or by proxy], in a pre-Victorian and anti-Romantic urge to get away from magical things from the past, “more than 300 years ago”. While Jonathan Strange’s own Romantic inclinations are obvious, including the compulsory  travel to Venezia [even though the BBC could only afford Croatia, it seems!] The series actually made clear some points I had missed in the novel, presumably by rushing through it, like the substitution of Strange’s wife by the moss-oak doppelganger created by the fairy king. The enslavement of Stephen,  servant of Lord Pole and once and future king by the same fairy is also superbly rendered.

While not everything in the series is perfect, with in particular the large scale outdoor scenes being too close to a video-game rendering (as in the battle of Waterloo that boils down to a backyard brawl!), the overall quality of the show [the Frenchmen there parlent vraiment français, with no accent!] and adhesion to the spirit of Susanna Clarke’s novel make it an example of the tradition of excellence of the BBC. (I just wonder at the perspective of a newcomer who would watch the series with no prior exposure to the book!)

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 12, 2016 by xi'an

I do not remember precisely for which reason I bought this book but it is most likely because the book popped up in a list of suggested books on a Amazon page. And I certainly feel grateful for the suggestion as this is one of the best books I read in the past years. And not just the best fantasy or the best Gothic book, clearly.

Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell was published in 2004 and it soon got high-ranked in most best-seller lists, winning the same year both the Hugo and the Locus prizes. But, once again, while it caters to my tastes in fantasy literature, I find the book spans much more, recreating an alternative 19th Century literature where fairies and magic plays a role in the Napoleonic Wars, including Waterloo. The tone and style are reminders of Dickens, the Brontës, and Austen, but also Gothic 19th Century masters, like Ann Radcliffe, Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley. Even the grammar is modified into archaic or pseudo-archaic versions. But more importantly and enticingly the beautiful style reproduces some of the light irony of Dickens about the author and the characters themselves. Utterly enjoyable!

The story itself is about a new era of English magic launched by the two characters on the cover, after centuries of musty study of magic without the power or the will of practising any form of magic. (The book enjoys close to 200 footnotes documenting the history of magic in the past centuries, in a pastiche of scholarly works of older days.) While those two characters can manage incredible feats, they seem to have a rather empirical knowledge of the nature of magic and of what they can do about the ancient magicians of the fairy kingdoms that border Northern England. There is no indication in the book that magical abilities are found in other nations, which is most advantageous when fighting the French! A central axis of the plot is the opposition between Norrell and Strange, the former hoping to take complete control of English magic (and buying any book related to the topic to secure them in a private library), the later freely dispensing his art and taking students in. They also clash about the position to take about the fairy or Raven King, John Uskglass, from excluding him from the modern era to acknowledging his essential role in the existence of English magic. They separate and start fighting one another through books and newspaper articles, Strange leaving for Venezia after loosing his wife. Eventually, they have to reunite to fight the Raven King together and save Strange’s wife, even though the final outcome is somewhat and pleasantly unexpected. (Mind this is a crude summary for a novel of more than 1,000 pages!)

While it seems the author is preparing a sequel, the book stands quite well by itself and I feel another book is somewhat unnecessary: Dickens did not write a sequel to David Copperfield or another perspective on (the Gothic) Great Expectations. But in any case Susanna Clarke wrote there a masterpiece a feat that I hope she can repeat in the future with an altogether book. (And while I liked very much the Quincunx for similar reasons, I deem Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell to be far far superior in its recreation of Victorian Gothic!)