Saturday, February 24, 2007

Jonathan Bogart & Susanna Clarke.

It’s amazing how easily two weeks turns into four, innit?

(Innit: British slang representing the typical conversational contraction of “isn’t it,” used fairly capriciously, and lately as a mere filler word, like “like.” I first noticed the word when a character used it to make fun of Cockney speech in one of Lynne Reid Banks’s Indian in the Cupboard books.)

So. Last week I listened to Susanna Clarke’s fantay novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, which is slightly odd because I own the book (bought it — on impulse — the week it came out, and read it right away) and it’s actually within arm’s reach on my shelves as I type this. But I couldn’t read it at work, so the audio version was, all things considered, preferable. On this second pass through the novel, all the things I liked about it were amplified and all the things I didn’t like about it were minimized. It’s still not as monumental a work as its publicity would suggest, and Charlotte Brontë’s complaints about Jane Austen (which I usually roll my eyes at) have weight here — there is a sort of drawing-room (or academic) narrow-mindedness to the prose which prevents the high fantasy and the gothic passions from really taking hold. But then I love that prose. I love Clarke’s way with the subtleties of character and conversation, the fact that she knows her Austen and Trollope, her Thirkell and Heyer, as well as her Grimm and Dunsany and Tolkien and Lewis. It’s one of those books with which I grow annoyed at the insistence of narrative momentum; I’d far rather just revel in the language and the world, without having to bother about the various suspenses and plot mechanisms.

So when I finished it, I naturally had to read the short-story collection The Ladies of Grace Adieu, which I’d also bought as soon as it appeared on the New Fiction table at Borders, but hadn’t yet read. I’m glad I refamiliarized myself with Jonathan Strange first (letting so much time pass between encounters was good; I remembered almost nothing about it, which allowed it to be fresh in my ears), and the Charles Vess illustrations were a pleasant surprise. The stories are very minor works, but still enjoyable (I particularly like the Duke of Wellington one; he’s certainly one of the better characters in the novel), and the collection is a decent taste-whetter for the expected sequel(s) to the debut. I don’t read very much current fiction, let alone current fantasy, so it feels weird to me to be thinking and writing about Susanna Clarke; I don’t really have enough of a grasp on the current scene to be able to place her with any precision in it. But she holds up when compared to all the stuff that obviously inspired her.

Well, not Jane Austen. But then hardly anyone holds up compared to Jane Austen.

‡ ‡ ‡

I don’t know that I’ll be continuing the “29 Songs” series of posts. I’m uncomfortable with what they’ve been so far, and I’m not entirely sure what I want them to be instead. I may simply write about the songs, with no (or less, anyway) autobiographical navel-gazing, and in any case the cutesy third-person conceit will be gone. But we’ll see.

One of my ambitions for this year is to read all the books I own that I haven’t yet read, and in order to convince myself to do it, I intend to jot down my thoughts on them (assuming I have any) here. So we can call The Ladies of Grace Adieu the first in that series. Next up, if I was going through my shelves in order, would be D. H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature. But that sounds really dull just now; again, we’ll have to see.