Monday, June 25, 2007

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (quotes)

I recently had the oppurtunity to read the novel "Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell" by Susanna Clarke. The favorable reviews and the fact that this won the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award (for Adult Literature) apart, I decided to read it because I just cannot keep off fantasy books - talk of sorcery, magic, swords and dragons, and I am in. Another old habit that would die hard, if at all.

Susanna Clarke chooses a style of writing thats in line with the backdrop of the book : the novel is set in the England of 1800, and is about the attempts of two magicians to restore English magic to its former glory. Small surprise then that "old" period English is used- with words like Shewed (showed), Stopt (stopped), Scissars (scissors), Expence (expense), Headach (headache) making a liberal presence.

Much of the novel carries itself at a leisurely pace, punctuated with a fair share of thrilling moments. The author has a gift of prose that stands to her advantage in a novel like this, serving to create a much needed atmosphere of casual magic. And, of course, there are places where Clarke’s prose additionally decorates the story, bringing to life the parts that are meant to stand out.

Some of my most memorable lines from the novel are:

Childermass was one of those uncomfortable class of men whose birth is lowly and who are destined all their lives to serve their betters, but whose clever brains and quick abilities make them wish for recognition and rewards far beyond their reach. Sometimes, by some strange combination of happy circumstances, these men find their own path to greatness, but more often the thought of what might have been turns them sour; they become unwilling servants and perform their tasks no better - or worse – than their less able fellows. They become insolent, lose their places and end badly.

After two hours it stopped raining and in the same moment the spell broke, which Peroquet and the Admiral and Captain Jumeau knew by a curious twist of their senses, as if they had tasted a string quartet, or been, for a moment, deafened by the sight of colour blue.

She was always very ready to smile and, since a smile is the most becoming ornament that any lady can wear, she had been known on occasion to outshine women who were acknowledged beauties in three counties.

Under other circumstances she would have been puzzled to know what to say to a man of the world like Jonathan Strange, but happily his father had just died and that provided a subject.

“Can a magician kill a man by magic?” Lord Wellington asked Strange. Strange frowned. He seemed to dislike the question. “I suppose a magician might,” he admitted, “but a gentleman never could.”

“All of Man’s works, all his cities, all his empires, all his monuments will one day crumble to dust. Even the houses of my own dear readers must – though it be for just one day, one hour – be ruined and become houses where the stones are mortared with moonlight, windowed with starlight and furnished with the dusty wind. It is said in that day, in that hour, our houses will become possessions of the Raven King…”

“… I am rather of the opinion that in England a gentleman’s dreams are his own private concern. I fancy there is a law to that effect and, if there is not, why, Parliament should certainly be made to pass one immediately! It ill becomes another man to invite himself into them.”

“… Soldiers, I am sorry to say, steal everything.” He thought for a moment and then added, “Or at least ours do.”

“… The French mayn’t pass here. Why, sir! A beetle mayn’t pass unless that beetle has a paper with Lord Wellington’s writing on it!...”

But from the first moment of his entering the house Strange found himself subject to that peculiarly uncomfortable Natural Law which states that whenever a person arrives at a place where he is not known, then wherever he stands he is sure to be in the way.

“My admiration does not lessen my hatred one whit!”

“Well, I suppose one ought not to employ a magician and then complain that he does not behave like other people,” said Wellington.

“Dear God!!” cried Fitzroy Somerset, “What language is that?”
“I believe it is one of the dialects of Hell,” said Strange.
“Is it indeed?” said Somerset. “Well, that is remarkable.”
“They have learnt it very quickly,” said Lord Wellington, “They have been dead only three days.” He approved of people doing things promptly and in a businesslike fashion.

All magicians lie and this one more than most, Vinculus had said.

“Means?” said Stephen. “That is an odd word to use. Yet it is true – skin can mean a great deal. Mine means that any man can strike me in a public place and never fear the consequences. It means that my friends do not always like to be seen with me in the street. It means that no matter how many books I read, or languages I master, I will never be anything but a curiosity – like a talking pig or a mathematical horse.”

“It is these black clothes,” said Strange. “I am like a leftover piece of funeral, condemned to walk about the Town, frightening people into thinking of their own mortality.”

Most of us are naturally inclined to struggle against the restrictions our friends and family impose upon us, but if we are so unfortunate as to lose a loved one, what a difference then! Then the restriction becomes a sacred trust.

“We will know them as we know other men,” he declared, “by the fruits they bear.”

The sunlight was cold and clear as the note struck by a knife on a fine wine-glass.

Though all the houses of Venice are strange and old, those of the Ghetto seemed particularly so – as if queerness and ancientness were two of the commodities this mercantile people dealt in and they had constructed their houses out of them. Though all streets of Venice are melancholy, these streets had a melancholy that was quite distinct – as if Jewish sadness and Gentile sadness were made up according to different recipes.

“…With the ashes that were her screams and the pearls that were her bones and the counterpane that was her gown and the magical essence of her kiss, I was able to divine your name - …”

These are the customary three elements of a traditional English summoning spell. The envoy finds the person summoned, the path brings him to the summoner and the handsel (or gift) binds him to come. (I like this one because this represents sound communication principles :) - AG)

The ashes, the pearls, the counterpane and the kiss.

Of these, the last one – “Ashes, Pearls, the Counterpane and the Kiss”- appeals to me the most. This is the title of a chapter in the book. In which, the Elf-king of the Kingdom Of Lost Hope proudly regales Stephen (a character whom the Elf King admires a lot) with an account of his investigations carried out to find out Stephens' original name . The King is a misanthrope, and Stephen discovers much to his horror, but sadly not to his surprise, that the kings' quest, funded with his hatred for mankind, has woven a wake of innocent deaths.

A cursory glance at the words, hint at a romantic allusion ( or at any rate a positive/beautiful feeling), but a moment's thought sets them into their proper context and brings to mind the deaths so casually scribed by their speaker. Apparently for his love (of Stephen): a cause much ill justified for the price it has entailed. In effect, to me,they are almost like a painfully beautiful picture on a wall that hides an ugly gash underneath. Or like a simulacrum of the many contrasts of life itself.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Thoughts during coffee

I am thinking these thoughts as I have my coffee in the office canteen on an evening. Incomplete thoughts that stay but a moment (and give me enough reason to post) :

(1) The news declares that inflation is down at 5.06%. I start thinking of things that have usually been known (or are expected) to show an upward trend. Inflation? No. Population... hmm..probably in India. Entropy/chaos - yes. Entropy seems such an intangible concept. I wonder whether it can be correlated to a "materialistic" quantity. Say, if I land upon earth 500 years hence, would I be able to remark that the entropy of the universe has increased by
k.(p)^α , where p = population of the SomeCountry ??

We know that entropy increases. Does the rate of its increase increase? How about the rate of rate of rate its increase? Does the universe have a limit to the number of times you can say "rate of " before the final "rate" becomes a constant?

Interesting question thats pops up in my mind - suppose I had 'x' number of men and 'x' number of women to start with. And I mandate that every couple has one child. I also assume that the society is monoandrous and monogamous. So the next generation has x/2 people, the next has x/4 ... and the population dies out eventually? Why would some governments want that - ha!

(2) The last few days have been easy for me (at office)

(3) The furniture, the lighting around, the various counters in the canteen are not unlike other canteens/joints that I see these days. Things have become so impersonally utilatirian that it is difficult to note the "personality" of something expressed in its existence. Like the Irani coffeehouses in Mumbai. One CCD (cafe Coffee Day) outlet is same as others. Good or bad?

(4) The canteen used to have an interesting arrangement of water coolers previously. By a wall, they had a table on which fresh glasses were placed. A water cooler sat to its right. Another water cooler sat to the right of the first one. And finally, we had another table with fresh glasses placed on it. The arrangement may be pictured as below:

1st table with glasses -- water cooler -- water cooler -- 2nd table with glasses

I had often wondered whther I could roughly estimate the no. of left handed people in the office by counting the glasses used from the first table. But, then there would be so much 'noise' in the (hypothetical) experiment:
(a) Used glasses are replaced with fresh ones periodically
(b) During peak hours people choose to drink from a particular cooler based on the queue in
front of it.
(c) I dont know whether everyone comes to the canteen for food

(5) Mamihlapinatapai- beautiful Yaghan word, meaning

"a look shared by two people with each wishing that the other will initiate something that both desire but which neither one wants to start "

I wonder how they missed out on it in English - a commonplace phenomenon (and a practical example of deadlocks).
Interesting the Yaghan language is considered to be a 'language isolate' i.e. a language which hasn't been proved to have descended from any other.

(6) Amruth and I were chatting the other day. I told him that 'Mamihlapinatapai', 'chathuringmes', 'Jabberwocky' were 3 unusual words that I had come across in the most unexpected of sources.

(7) Read the following lines:

You are the fairest of your sex,
Let me be your hero;
I love you as much as 1 over x,
As x tends to zero.

The last word postively takes the cake...

End of coffee.