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.

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