23 July 2016

thoughts on susanna clarke.

It's so difficult to tell, sometimes, if one is being spurred to excellence or simply called to break one's staff and drown one's notebooks. It is especially difficult when one is as envious a soul as I—envy's always been my besetting sin, and it's all too easy to imagine myself in Dante's Purgatory with my eyes sewn shut. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell was Susanna Clarke's first novel. Her first—even Will Shakespeare wrote a few crap plays before he managed to turn out Hamlet and Macbeth! (Have you read The Comedy of Errors? There's a reason nobody performs it.) Even Chaucer wrote The Book of the Duchess! (It's not terrible, but... I mean, it's no Parliament of Fowls.) Of course Jonathan Strange took Clarke ten years, and she was in her thirties when she began it, and I am only scarcely nineteen. This is less comfort than you might imagine; I'm as susceptible as anybody to our culture's fetish for precocity.

(Has anybody asked Clarke about her trunk novels, I wonder? I hope she has trunk novels.)

I first read Jonathan Strange when I was about thirteen or fourteen. Too young, I think now, to really appreciate it, although I loved it with a ferocity and spent my NaNoWriMo that year trying without success to imitate it. The years wiped quite a bit of it from my mind, though, leaving only a few details and an overall impression of transformative brilliance. What Jo Walton wrote about it when she first read it was "It's as if we've all been building sandcastles in the shadow of a cliff and suddenly Clarke has raised a great castle out of the sea with a strange light shining through the foam-water windows." It's just like that, which might explain some of the despair it's engendered in me. Someone else's sandcastle may be great, but it's great in a way you can imitate. When somebody makes herself a castle out of the sea, all you can do is stare.

I reread the novel recently because my mother and I finally got round to watching the recent miniseries. Which is beautiful, ably adapted by Peter Harness. (I don't normally notice the names of TV writers, but Harness has done some fabulous writing for Doctor Who these past years, and so I've kept an eye out for him.) Some of the emphases are rather shifted, the story is of course compressed, and I disapprove strongly of the resulting marginalization of Stephen Black who has a great deal more interiority in the book. I'm not entirely certain about the treatment of the gentleman with the thistledown hair either. He was gorgeously unseelie, but I wonder if he didn't lose some of his charm in translation; there's very little here of the character that Arabella sees in the book as a friendly if bonkers acquaintance of the Poles'. On the whole though it captured the feel of the novel better than we had any right to expect, and it's an absolute crime that it's not up for anything in this year's Hugos. Obligatory Hugo head-shaking goes here.

It's tempting to say that everyone who'd like Jonathan Strange has already read it by this point—it's more than ten years old, it won the Hugo and the Mythopoeic and the WFA, and the Locus for best debut, and it was longlisted for the Booker of all things—but that's absurd of course. There are new readers all the time. So: it's a good book, and it's well worth reading even if you've already seen the miniseries, because quite aside from adaptive changes Clarke's prose is a pleasure all its own. I keep thinking that I should share an excerpt to make my point, but it seems that every time I open the book I hit on something that wows me with its elegance or its limpidness or even just its humor.

There's Paris Ormskirk's spell against madness, which Strange uses on George III with mixed success. (And all my love by the way for her utterly sympathetic portrayal of his illness—because besides everything else this is a book about the nature of madness.)
Place the moon at his eyes and her whiteness shall devour the false sights the deceiver has placed there.
Place a swarm of bees at his ears. Bees love truth and will destroy the deceiver's lies.
Place salt in his mouth lest the deceiver attempt to delight him with the taste of honey or disgust him with the taste of ashes.
Nail his hand with an iron nail so that he shall not raise it to do the deceiver's bidding.
Place his heart in a secret place so that all his desires shall be his own and the deceiver shall find no hold there. 

Memorandum. The color red may be found beneficial. 
Which is perfect all the way down to that casually academic memorandum. It's the sort of thing that feels traditional even though it isn't, making it clear that Clarke's spent a lot of time studying Anon's work. Who was it said Anon is the greatest writer who ever lived?

Or there's this long, elegant paragraph describing Norrell's Yorkshire life.
Consider, if you will, a man who sits in his library day after day; a small man of no particular personal attractions. His book is on the table before him. A fresh supply of pens, a knife to cut new nibs, ink, paper, notebooks—all is conveniently to hand. There is always a fire in the room—he cannot do without a fire, he feels the cold. The room changes with the season: he does not. Three tall windows open on a view of English countryside which is tranquil in spring, cheerful in summer, melancholy in autumn and gloomy in winter—just as English landscape should be. But the changing seasons excite no interest in him—he scarcely raises his eyes from the pages of his book. He takes his excercise as all gentlemen do; in dry weather his long walk crosses the park and skirts a little wood; in wet weather there is his short walk in the shrubbery. But he knows very little of shrubbery or park or wood. There is a book waiting for him upon the library table; his eyes fancy they still follow its lines of type, his head still runs upon its argument, his fingers itch to take it up again. He meets his neighbors twice or thrice a quarter—for this is England, where a man's neighbours will never suffer him to live entirely bereft of society, let him be as dry and sour-faced as he may. They pay him visits, leave their cards with his servants, invite him to dine or to dance at assembly-balls. Their intentions are largely charitable—they have a notion that it is bad for a man to be always alone—but they also have some curiosity to discover whether he has changed at all since they last saw him. He has not. He has nothing to say to them and is considered the dullest man in Yorkshire.
Or there's this cutting description of the difference between a butler and a lady, a passage which gets right to the heart of a lot of the novel's concerns.
Curiously, no one noticed that the strange malady that afflicted her ladyship was to a precision the same as that which afflicted Stephen Black. He too complained of feeling tired and cold, and on the rare occasions that either of them said any thing, they both spoke in a low, exhausted manner.

But perhaps it was not so curious. The different styles of life of a lady and a butler tend to obscure any similarities in their situations. A butler has his work and must do it. Unlike Lady Pole, Stephen was not suffered to sit idly by the window, hour after hour, without speaking. Symptoms that were raised to the dignity of an illness in Lady Pole were dismissed as mere low spirits in Stephen.
And then she goes on to Lord Pole's depressive cook welcoming Stephen as "a newcomer to the freemasonry of melancholy," a turn of phrase that made me laugh aloud. This book pretends to be about the Romantic rivalry of two upper-class white men, but in fact much of what's most interesting here is the margins of that story, in many cases the victims of that story, and Clarke knows it. Characters like Childermass and Vinculus, and Stephen Black and Lady Pole and Arabella, are interesting to the reader because Clarke is interested in them.

The accomplishments of the book are perhaps too many to enumerate here. Clarke can do both humor and horror. She can do omniscient point of view the way hardly anybody in fantasy does these days. The novel has just the sort of ending I like best, ending on a moment of ambiguous hope. And, as regards specifically genre-related skills, her most important is that she's mastered the skill of putting in enough magic that the book feels magical, but not so much that the magic ever feels cheap. Wonder pervades everything, but we're still awestruck when Norrell or Strange (usually Strange, let's be honest) pulls off something really audacious.

I think it's down to worldbuilding. The word conjures visions of maps and vowel charts, but that's not the sort of thing I mean here. What I have in mind is more the organically immersive quality of Clarke's writing. It's the creation of not a map but a mindset. She's been noted for her tendency towards footnotes—at least once she sticks an entire short story in one of them. Sometimes the footnotes are citations, giving the impression of Clarke as a magical historian supporting her argument with a quote from a letter, a reference from John Segundus' biography of Strange. Other times they have nothing to do with the main plot; Ann Leckie discusses an early example here. "A digression on a digression," she calls it. "Decoration. Filigree. But there’s more than one kind of efficiency, isn’t there." I know Leckie means to be complimentary, and in fact the piece is a lovely tribute to Clarke, but I wonder if the words "decoration" and "digression" don't mislead slightly. Clarke's great accomplishment is that her "digressions" feel utterly of-a-piece with her narrative; her world feels less built than grown. It's all twined together, and it's this generosity of detail that makes one say—oh, of course it all happened, just like that! The same generosity of detail makes one feel that there must be just as much more she isn't telling us.

Tolkien, God rest his grumpy soul, had no time for the term "willing suspension of disbelief": "what really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful 'sub-creator.' He [sic] makes a secondary world which your mind can enter. [...] The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed." (It's in "On Fairy-Stories," one of my favorite essays of all time.) Jonathan Strange never has this kind of failure. Its world is one that you can live in.

And so here's the part where we bring up Victor Hugo. He gets a lot of stick from today's readers for what one might politely term his interest in everything, his long passages going into loving detail about sewers and soldiers and slang. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a much more tightly focused novel than Les Misérables, of course, and it's quite a bit shorter. Obligatory joke about Napoleon goes here. But as far as I'm concerned that's one of the strengths of Hugo as a writer: he cares about everything. That's because, and I'm sure I'm not the first person to point this out, the hero of Les Misérables is not Valjean, or Javert, or Enjolras, or even poor silly Marius. It's not Fantine or Monseigneur Bienvenue. Hugo's hero is a heroine: she is Patria: Motherland: France. Citizen, my mother is the Republic! And in the shape of his great novel-epic Hugo wants to roll all her strength and all her sweetness up into one ball. It's a love letter to France, at that instant in her history.

Clarke's interest is similarly encompassing, and while Hugo had the advantage of living in the world he wished to capture, she manages to do it with a world that has never existed. That's what I mean by worldbuilding, this seamless capture of an entire country at a particular moment in history. Except, again, it's a moment that never happened in a country—magical England—that doesn't really exist.

It's a neat trick if you can do it. I'd like to learn how.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful insightful post. Keep it up!