Tuesday, June 20, 2006

A Strange World: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell

So this is the adult version of Harry Potter. I don’t think so.
It is a unique work, bordering on genius. And like all works of genius neither easy to read nor comfortable to understand. It reminds me of Munch’s painting The Scream or James Joyce’s book Ulysses. These are iconic works; they are unique, make a statement and are brilliant but who would ever want The Scream facing him on his or her sitting-room wall or feel a desire to keep re-reading Ulysses?
JS and Mr. N is a marvellous work but not pleasurable...at least not for me. I skipped a lot of it as it was far too wordy and I am surprised Ms Suzanne Clarke was able to get away with it for a first novel. I think she floored everyone with the sheer volume of her ramblings.

It is such a Neptunian tale; mists, faeries, shape-changing, magic, other-worlds…it is a labyrinth with all its mazes and twists and turns and paths that lead to nowhere until one stumbles at last on the path that takes one to the dark central figure, the Raven King, who might well be the Minotaur, who knows? I feel I understand the story of the Minotaur far more since reading this book. The Raven King is also a very Arthurian figure too…also Saturn, who is said to be the King of these Isles.
The Raven or Crow is a bird associated since ancient times with the god Saturn. Saturn is embodied too in the element of fear and anxiety that underlies the tale and in the constant wintry landscapes, the snow, the grey mists, the utter dreariness. It is the most colourless story I have ever read and I have here a picture of a landscape that just suits it.

This grey world seems to be the world of borderline consciousness in which one sees strange visions and knows things that are not known in the sharpness of daylight. It is twilight, dawn, the brief moment when all is still and nothing stirs, not a leaf or a branch. We are told that it is auspicious to meditate in this time of utter stillness.

However a book isn’t just written as entertainment. A really brilliant book should be saying something or leaving one altered in some way. I know that I shall always recall this book and it will not be one of those that we read and then forget in a week or two. It isn’t perfect. It really should have been cut down and many of the elaborate footnotes left out. A few brief footnotes would indeed have given the desired illusion of reading an old tome but not so many. At times there is a little too much indebtedness to the speech in Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte or Henry Fielding. But fair enough, the sense of the Georgian period is there without intruding too much. I think it is a work of true magnitude and will become a classic. It is certainly a challenge to Philip Pullman’s work and perhaps in many ways better.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Best Way to be Cool

In hot weather like this what is the best thing to do? Go swimming, lie in a cold bath? No, go to a lovely, cool, old library building. Okay, I know you think this sounds mad but truly, it was the coolest place to be on Thursday.
I rose early, caught the train to Oxford. It's a lovely journey from Malvern and the hedges were full of dog rose and the railway banks white with ox-eye daisies. Once in Oxford I went to the Bodleian and wrestled with admission procedures. Somehow I managed to get my admission form all wrong (who would have thought I was once a civil servant?) but the lady at the desk was very helpful and understanding. Maybe she realised I would have burst into tears if she hadn’t let me go through on a mere technicality as I had ordered lots of marvellous papers in advance which I was longing to look at.
I wasn’t disappointed either. After depositing my bags, I took myself off to the Modern Papers Reading room (pencils only) and was received by a lovely young man called Paul who was on duty that day. He was so helpful and I needed help as I have never been a graduate or student at Oxford and they do have some rather strange ways of cataloguing their stuff. The collections of letters were well wrapped in large grey boxes and I very tenderly and carefully removed them and laid them out. Then I sat in the lovely cool room at my desk and was lost in a world of Victorian painters till lunchtime.
Reading the letters of people like Rossetti, Holman Hunt and Ned Burne Jones is a marvellous experience. Simply to read them in a book (though easier to understand as most of the writing is diabolical, often criss-crossing and weaving all over the pages) is not the same as actually seeing their script, getting a feel of their character from the way they write, the way they space out their letters and how they express themselves. The real letters are filled with the mana of the writer and it made me feel so strange to hold in my hand these epistles from Dante Gabriel himself and see his dark, expressive face in my mind’s eye, feel the movement of the pen as he wrote in large, rapid, bold hand, stretching now and them to the inkpot to replenish the ink.
I look forward to my next visit and to losing myself yet again in this world long gone and yet still so haunting and atmospheric.

Favourite Quotes

  • My home is my retreat and resting place from the wars: I try to keep this corner as a haven against the tempest outside, as I do another corner of my soul. Michelle de Montaigne
  • Happiness is when what you think, what you say and what you do are in harmony: Mahatma Gandhi
  • Friends are people you can be quiet with. Anon.