1. Could you tell us the name of a book that you love, and why? Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. There is little room for aesthetic pleasure in academia, or at least you’re not supposed to admit to actually liking a book. But this is a safe space, so I wholeheartedly confess that I. LOVE. THIS. BOOK. Ha! Take that, Ph.D. defense committee.
2. Where were you when you first read, or saw, or heard of this book?
I read this book shortly after it was published in 2004. I had just graduated from college Back East and had moved to Los Angeles without much of a “life plan.” Being lonely in Los Angeles is unlike being lonely anywhere else. It matters little how worthy you think you are; when you first move to LA it can feel like you’ve enrolled in a labyrinthine high school that admits only personal trainers and psychics. Don’t get me wrong—these days I will defend LA against inveterate New Yorkers and superior Northern Californians alike. Over my year-long residency in Santa Monica, I softened my heart toward the strip mall, the Pilates studio, the trophy wife. But those first few months, boy, those were tough.
I read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell that winter, a winter of unabashed sunshine and nights that required only the lightest of cardigans. The story opens with an English winter ancient, nobly cold, and cloaked in hoarfrost. Los Angeles, warm and sunny all year, exists in a perpetual present; all things are bathed in an uncanny ahistorical sheen. England transpires. For all of its brilliantly diverting pseudo-academic footnotes and rational tone, the novel is precipitously poised on the brink of Romanticism, which soothed my undergraduate-English-major soul.
When describing the book, I often have less than a minute to make the sell (if you’re still with me, start your timer), so I say that Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is a book for grownups, steeped in irony and loss and humor. If I’ve hooked the person (or he or she is unfortunate enough to be seated next to me on public transport), I say something about how the story recounts an alternate history of England in the first decades of the 19th century during the Napoleonic wars in which “magic is a respectable profession—no less than Law and a great deal more so than Medicine.” I’m sure to emphasize that this is no Harry Potter and the Tree of Whatever, nor is it just an academic exercise. Yes, this book is deliriously entertaining, but it’s also emotionally and intellectually rewarding. The conversation usually ends when my enthusiasm invades this unfortunate seatmate’s personal space.
3. Did this book influence your own writing, thinking, sense of the world, or work?
As it happened, I moved to England three years after reading JS & MN. I listened to the audiobook on the airplane, nostalgic for a past that wasn’t mine and ready for a future of moors, meadows, and English oaks. It turns out that that stuff really exists. Almost every morning (come rain, snow, or pollen) I walk five minutes from my house to Port Meadow, a 10th-century grazing land that floods in the autumn, freezes over in the winter, and blooms in the spring. I am allergic to nothing in the world save this meadow, but a leaking face is worth the jaunt through time and space. Of course America has its literary landmarks, but the English landscape veritably breathes centuries of legend (which I try to remember when I am stymied by Britain’s bureaucracies, early closing times, and dollar-pound ratios).
I’ve now listened to the audiobook five times, mostly on these walks. The narrator, Simon Prebble, has a voice that sounds the way drinking 50-year-old scotch by the fire after riding one’s strongest and most beloved horse on a fox hunt through one’s ancestral country estate in December might feel.
4. Give us a line or excerpt from the text that intrigues, engages, mystifies, inspires, disgusts, or transforms you. Discuss…
Clarke balances a sincerity of feeling with a dry wit that rivals Jane Austen’s. Here Stephen, a butler enchanted by a wicked fairy known only as “the gentleman with the thistle-down hair,” attempts to maintain his professionalism in the most unnerving of circumstances:
“When he awoke it was dawn. Or something like dawn. The light was watery, dim and incomparably sad. Vast, grey, gloomy hills rose up all around them and in between the hills there was a wide expanse of black bog.
Stephen had never seen a landscape so calculated to reduce the onlooker to utter despair in an instant. “This is one of your kingdoms, I suppose, sir?” he said. “My kingdoms?” exclaimed the gentleman in surprize [sic]. “Oh, no! This is Scotland!””
In another episode, Jonathan Strange visits the mad King George in his palace-turned-prison:
“When asked where the various doors led to, [the King] gave it as his opinion that one door led to America, another Everlasting Perdition and a third might possibly be the way to next Friday.”
In the end, the novel is a love letter to England, in all of its peculiarities of dress, manner, speech, class, weather, and history. The attitude of the British in the 19th century toward the rest of the world might be described as amused condescension; as Clarke writes of an English family abroad in Venice,
“They were excessively pleased with the Campo Santa Maria Formosa. They thought the facades of the houses were magnificent—they could not praise them highly enough. But the sad decay, which buildings, bridges and church all displayed, seemed to charm them even more. They were Englishmen and, to them, the decline of other nations was the most natural thing in the world. They belonged to a race blessed with so sensitive an appreciation of its own talents (and so doubtful an opinion of any body else’s) that they would not have been all surprized [sic] to learn that the Venetians themselves had been entirely ignorant of the merits of their own city—until Englishmen had come to tell them it was delightful.”
Rule Britannia, indeed.
5. Who did you send this book to, why?
I warn you: if you venture within 15 feet of me, I will buy you the audiobook for your unbirthday.
Bio: Rachel Abramowitz’s poems and reviews have appeared in The Oxonian Review, POOL, jubilat, The Colorado Review, and Painted Bride Quarterly, and her chapbook will be published by Tilt Press. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and is slowly pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Oxford.