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'Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell'

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, September 5, 2004; Page BW15


By Susanna Clarke

Illustrations by Portia Rosenberg

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Bloomsbury. 782 pp. $27.95

On the back cover of Susanna Clarke's eagerly anticipated first book, Neil Gaiman calls Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell "the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last seventy years." To set this encomium in perspective, this means that the very well-read creator of The Sandman regards this epic tale of magic in early 19th-century England as a greater achievement than Mervyn Peake's Titus Groan trilogy, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and T.H. White's Once and Future King.

Clearly Gaiman likes this book a whole lot. And so do I, and so will most people. Still, any reader is likely to wonder, "Just what was the finest English novel of the fantastic prior to this one?" If we take "seventy" to mean anything between approximately 67 and 73, my guess would be The Hobbit, which appeared in 1937. Yet Clarke's book isn't at all like Tolkien. Her antiquarian romance more accurately resembles Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum, Lawrence Norfolk's Lempriere's Dictionary and John Crowley's Aegypt sequence -- deeply learned novels that reimagine the nature of history.

For Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is at heart a book about the present's relationship to the past. In its pages Clarke takes the accepted fabric of English culture and inserts just a single new thread: that during the Renaissance, magic actually worked. Alas, the actual ability to perform magic gradually faded away, even as the centuries-long reign of the powerful magician-sovereign of the North -- John Uskglass, the Raven King -- passed into the popular mind as a lost golden age.

By 1806, when Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell opens, all that remains of "English magic" is squabbling groups of antiquarians who collect old spell-books and never seriously attempt to communicate with the Realm of Faerie and who, when they stare in a basin, don't glimpse the future but simply wonder what they've missed. Everything begins to change, however, when a society of "theoretical" magicians in York disturbs the reclusive, self-centered Mr. Norrell, who, it turns out, can really and truly perform "practical" magic. But how unpleasant to know Mr. Norrell! Or so it turns out for the surprised York antiquaries.

Deciding that his time of triumph has come round at last, the fussy Mr. Norrell, in company with his sinister factotum John Childermass, travels to London to offer his services to the government. There he hopes that his wizard skills will help defeat Napoleon, bring luster to himself and inaugurate a new and glorious era in English magic. But to gain the favor of the influential Sir Walter Pole, Mr. Norrell soon finds himself performing just the sort of black magic he has hitherto abjured: After his lordship's beautiful but sickly fiancée dies, he agrees to cast the spells that will allow her to come back from the dead. But to accomplish so difficult a task, Mr. Norrell must summon up the vain, amoral king of Faery -- referred to only as "the gentleman with the thistle-down hair" -- who extorts a singular recompense, one with consequences that will shake both our world and, ultimately, the Other World as well.

Though gripping enough, the overall story line driving Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is fairly conventional -- the fulfillment of a prophecy attributed to the Raven King: "Two magicians will appear in England. The first shall fear me; the second long to behold me. . . ." What makes the novel so impressive, however, is Susanna Clarke's flair for pastiche and her astonishing explanatory footnotes.

Over the course of nearly 800 pages Clarke channels the world of Jane Austen, the Gothic tale, the Silver-Fork Society novel, military adventure à la Bernard Sharpe or Patrick O'Brian, romantic Byronism and Walter Scott's passion for the heroic Northern past. She orchestrates all these fictive elements consummately well, though I wonder if this encyclopedic mirroring of so many Romantic styles and situations doesn't slightly weaken the novel by making it too capacious, too loose and baggy: We never quite know what kind of book we're supposed to settle into, as it constantly shape-shifts from the genteel to the uncanny, from contemporary satire to alternate history, from the macabre to the mythic. Amid so much richness, I occasionally found myself yearning for a somewhat leaner narrative, but other readers may wallow in just this triple-decker plumminess. At any event, here is God's plenty, and there's plenty of it.

If one can raise doubts about Clarke's leisurely pace, there are none about her footnotes: They represent dazzling feats of imaginative scholarship. To gloss the background of English magic, the novel's anonymous narrator provides elaborate mini-essays, relating anecdotes from the lives of semi-legendary magicians, describing strange books and their contents, speculating upon the early years and later fate of the Raven King. Some of these notes are simply wonderful folktales, others recall the gossipy 17th-century style of John Aubrey's Brief Lives, and still others convey the slightly prissy voice of an Oxford don correcting popular misconceptions:

"When people talk of the 'the Other Lands,' they generally have in mind Faerie, or some such other vague notion. For the purposes of general conversation such definitions do very well, but a magician must learn to be more precise. It is well known that the Raven King ruled three kingdoms: the first was the Kingdom of Northern England that encompassed Cumberland, Northumberland, Durham, Yorkshire, Lancashire, Derbyshire and part of Nottinghamshire. The other two were called 'the King's Other Lands.' One was part of Faerie and the other was commonly supposed to be a country on the far side of Hell, sometimes called 'the Bitter Lands.' The King's enemies said that he leased it from Lucifer."

"And part of Nottinghamshire" -- that use of "part" shows real genius.

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