Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

What a delightful book! While I must confess that Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell hardly left a deep impression on me, I liked it immensely. The plot wasn’t all that remarkable; rather, it was Clarke’s playful way of stringing words together that had me turning page after page. I thought that her use of archaic spellings was a particularly nice touch. ‘Choose’ was spelt’ chuse’, and ‘show’ as ‘shew’. It was very Dickensian, and I don’t know why that appealed to me, because I absolutely detest Dickens.

To be honest, this was merely another ‘light’ book that I picked up on a whim.  I don’t have all that much to say about it, except that I liked it. Also, normally I walk right away from books like these. Anything to do with enchantment and sorcery and ravens gives me the creeps. But a friend lent me her copy a few weeks back;  it was so fun  that I finished it in two nights, and now I’m back to Cloud Atlas and War and Peace.

I’m not that far into Cloud Atlas; so far, it hasn’t been too horrible (the prose is not as “smug” and “I’m-oh-so-clever” as I expected it to be) but it hasn’t been entirely compelling either. In fact, it’s rather bland so far. The Tolstoy, on the other hand, has taken me completely by surprise. Perhaps it’s the translation? Compared to my ordeal with Constance Garnett’s Anna Karenina, W&P is turning out to be a very nice experience.

» This was my Free book for the 9 Books for 2009 project. For this particular category, we were asked to pick a book that we had somehow acquired for free, whether it be a gift, or a stolen library copy (just joking). I originally planned on reading Winton’s Cloudstreet, but then a friend lent me her copy of this book.

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16 thoughts on “Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

  1. I absolutely love this book to pieces. Clarke does a remarkable job evoking the period with her writing. I’ve known people who are reluctant to try it because of the length, but I think you’re right that it’s a book you can read quickly. I didn’t find it difficult at all.

    1. Hmm yes, it’s a shame that people are intimidated by the size because the writing is very accessible. I forgot to mention this in my post, but I really loved the characters and their names – e.g. Honeyfoot! Another Dickensian touch!

      I suppose in that way it is a remarkable book, because the characterization and style were so well handled that I didn’t really care too much about what I was reading. As I said, I’m not normally into these sorts of ‘magic’ books – with the exception of Harry Potter, of course :)

  2. Ooh I love Dickensian spellings ha ha! I haven’t really thought about reading Jonathan Strage, though it had gotten me curious at one point, but now am putting on the neverending wishlist, thanks!

    Which translation is your W&P?

    1. Claire/Steph – I’m reading the Anthony Briggs, which I think is more of a interpretive translation than some. It’s certainly very modern – something I don’t have a problem with, as long as it stays true to the original in tone. But I so wish I could read in Russian/French so I could judge for myself how decent these translations really are.

      Maybe in the future I’ll try Garnett’s W&P (if she ever did one, that is?). I did kind of like how her translation had a 19th century touch to it. It was more wordy and dense and poetic and rambling and less concise than Brigg’s. Sort of like your Moncrieff Proust experience, I guess :)

  3. I’m with Claire – what W&P translation are you reading?

    I admit we have this book on our shelves, when I bought it in a fit of “this book is like Harry Potter” madness (that never pans out for me). And then I would start to read it, get to page 30, and promptly loose interest and/or fall asleep. So, I still have yet to actually read this sucker. But Tony did, and I think he had much the response that you did, in that he enjoyed it but didn’t find it life changing.

    I will be curious to hear your thoughts on Cloud Atlas. It was selected for my book club a few years ago, and I just could not get into it. I am one of those people who found the writing horrendously florid and overwrought (I felt Mitchell must have written that first section by finding and replacing every word with another more obscure one from his thesaurus). Sometimes I think I should give it another shot, but then I remember how mad those first 20 pages mad me and decide not to reconsider!

    1. Oh, please! (not @ you, of course, I’m ranting at the publisher now) I really hate that every single cover of this book has “HP FOR ADULTS” stamped across it – it’s really nothing at all like Harry Potter (personally, I prefer HP), except that ‘magic’ forms a large part of the story. Hmmm, I think it’s best to approach this book without any expectations or preconceptions whatsoever. It’s sort of like those restaurants you go to only when you’re starving and have no money; where the food only tastes good if you’re absolutely hungry to death. Probably not a flattering analogy, but let’s be honest – Susanna Clarke is no Charles Dickens.

      (I will admit here, humbly, that I do respect CD despite hating his books).

      Hahah, as for Cloud Atlas – I’m still on the first section and I like it a lot! I really like when writers are playful with language, and I suppose it is florid and overwrought and pretentious at times, but I find it hilarious. esp. the dentist guy who collects teeth to take revenge on some aristocrat.

  4. I just gave up on this on on audiobook – not because I didn’t like it, but because I wanted to read the words, not hear them. I need my audiobooks to have a plot that moves along- that’s what makes my time in the gym go by faster. :)

    1. Good idea! I’ve never actually tried audiobooks, so I don’t know what they’re like (except once, I listened to Stephen Fry reading “Harry Potter”, and that was pretty good) but this book should definitely be read, not listened to. Esp. so you can see all the archaic spelling; it’s very fun :)

      Hmmm, I also don’t drive an awful lot, because I live almost an hour away from campus and it’s just easier/cheaper to take the train, but I guess audiobooks would be great to listen to when you’re stuck in traffic, or wherever. Maybe I’ll give them a go someday?

      (Kudos to you to going to the gym. I’ve never stepped in one, and probably never will)

  5. I have this on my shelf, but have so far failed to pick it up. I think the length intimidates me, plus a review I read of it that said it was horrible. But I will read it sometime in the next year or so.

    1. Personally, I enjoy reading other peoples’ thoughts on the books I’ve read, but I never think it a good idea to take those opinions into consideration unless I’ve read the book for myself, and formed my own opinions on it. Because reading is such a subjective thing – or, at least, I find it to be :)
      Anyway, my point is, if it’s the length that intimidates you, you probably should give it a try because the writing itself is very easy to get into! The first few chapters are a bit dry/drab, but it gets better.

  6. I am glad that you enjoyed this book. I haven’t seen a comment from you lately for the 9 for ’09. Welcome back.

    I see you reading list. I am also trying to slog through War and Peace. I am writing everyone’s name down, because I lose track of who is related to whom.

    I am going to check back in to see your thoughts on Cloud Atlas. I’ve reviewed it twice and I think that I need to read it again.

    1. Hey Isabel :)

      Yeah, I went through a bit of a slump, but now that I’ve rediscovered my love for reading, I’ve started getting through my challenges/projects too..
      Oh no! The names are quite confusing, but my Penguin edition has a nifty character list – sorted by family, not alphabetically – and also a brief plot summary by chapter. That’s what keeps me going, I think :)

  7. Oh, I DESPISE Constance Garnett’s work! You’re not alone! (And I love 19th century novels, so it’s not that I can’t handle dense prose.) I just find that she sucks the vitality out of any narrative she attempts to translate. It was discovering how much I dislike her that first clued me into what a tough/important job translators have, back when I discovered Dostoevsky in high school. I know that some people are really attached to hers as the “classic” translations of Russian lit, but…yeah. Glad you’re enjoying your Briggs! :-)

    1. Hmmm, I don’t know if I would say I despise her, but I did struggle through her translation of AK..
      In the end, I liked how it had a 19th century ‘flavour’ to it – like you say, it’s really dense, and rather lyrical too, IMO. Gave it an extra layer. I think she did a good job considering how difficult translating is, and I think I can also appreciate hers as a ‘classic’ translation (albeit not the best)

      BUT, yes! I’m enjoying Briggs, it’s a different type of Tolstoy experience altogether. Wouldn’t say no to another Garnett translation though :)

  8. Teresa’s review got me interested in this book. It does sound fun. I just read my first real Dickens (I think) and I was …. surprised. Oliver Twist was pretty formulaic. I enjoyed it, but….it wasn’t all I expected.

    That’s not true: I’ve read A Christmas Carol and Dicken’s Christmas plays, which I also liked. I think I read A Tale of Two Cities at age 14 but as I don’t remember a single thing, I don’t think that counts.

    1. I’ve attempted Dickens so many times, but have never, ever liked him. I think this has more to do with his writing style, than the content, which is why I was really surprised that I enjoyed the Dickensian tone of this novel!

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