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7:09pm on Sunday, 20th November, 2005:



I finally finished reading Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Well, I had to do something during all those long waits between Civ4 moves.

I won't be buying it for my friends.

It has a prophecy in it. When books have prephecies in them, one of three things happen:
1) The prophecy comes true in a strange and unusual way.
2) The prophecy isn't the full prophecy. There's another prophecy which prophecises a way out.
3) The prophecy is absolutely clear, and what happens happens exactly as advertised.

This book is class 3). It was obvious when the prophecy was made that it was always going to come true, so the book's ending was pretty well given away. Why keep reading? Ah, because the story isn't actually a the full story, it's an allegory.

That's the theory, anyway.

If JS&MN is an allegory, though, I'm missing the symbolism. It doesn't seem to be religious, it doesn't seem to be historical, it doesn't seem to be philosophical or political. I suppose it could be a commentary on the Age of Enlightenment or the Industrial Revolution, but it's not so in allegrocial form. Central characters, such as the gentleman with the thistle down hair, and important statements, such as the Darkness, should be hugely important references to something else, but what? I really don't know. I'm normally very good at picking up allegories. If it is an allegory, it's either a well-hidden one or it talks about something personal that I haven't myself experienced.

I'm therefore flummoxed. If it's not a straight, plot-driven novel, and it's not an allegory, what could it be?

I get the feeling that the main reason people rave about it is for the sheer joy of reading it. They like they ideas, the wry asides, the tales in the footnotes, the meticulous research, the well-realised world, the comedy of manners, the empathy they feel with the all-3D characters, the sense of Englishness it projects. The story is, in this sense, not entirely relevant; people want to know how the characters react to it, not what it is itself.

I read a lot of Chekhov in my youth, and I do appreciate this kind of writing-as-painting. I just didn't appreciate it here, though. It may work for many people, but unfortunately I'm not one of them. The narrative voice was what did for me — it was just too contrived.

I'm glad I read it, but even gladder that I've finished reading it.

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Copyright © 2005 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).