Sixteen years ago, Susanna Clarke’s debut novel became a publishing phenomenon. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is an unlikely story of intellectual obsession, set in a Regency England in which the buried powers of English magic are reawoken by two scholar magicians.
The prose style mashes together Jane Austen and Charles Dickens for a tale that ranges across all levels of society as well as to fairyland and the battlefields of the Napoleonic war. The pages crawl with footnotes, one of the title characters doesn’t appear for the first 200 pages and at the end the reader is left hanging. It went on to sell four million copies worldwide and was adapted for a BBC miniseries in 2015.
Neil Gaiman, an early champion, declared it the finest work of English fantasy in 70 years – but he also predicted that it “would be too unusual and strange for the general public”. The long-awaited followup is out this week and, as Clarke admits from her home in Derbyshire, it’s stranger still. “When I finished it I thought: ‘This is so different, I don’t know whether anyone is going to understand it because it’s so peculiar.’”
Piranesi is indeed brilliantly peculiar, and almost impossible to introduce without spoilers, since it subverts expectations throughout. Clarke cautiously describes it as being “about a man who lives in a House in which an Ocean is imprisoned”. To the titular Piranesi, this capital-H House is the whole World, and he is only the 15th person to have lived there.
He explores its immense and endless Halls, lined with massive Statuary; in the lower storeys, the Tide rises and falls, while Clouds float through the upper realms. He is alone but for flocks of birds and the mysterious Other (in one of many drily funny touches that puncture any prog-rock grandiosity, the two meet up “on Tuesdays and Thursdays”). He writes in his journal that “The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.” The novel is visually atmospheric, existentially provoking and profoundly haunting. As Clarke says, “You start with an image or the fragment of a story, something that feels like it has very deep roots into the unconscious, like it is going to connect up with a lot of things.”
What Piranesi is not is the longed-for sequel to JS&MrN. Only months after the publication of her debut, Clarke became ill with what was eventually diagnosed as chronic fatigue syndrome. “I was doing a lot of travelling and promoting and getting on and off aeroplanes – the sort of thing I’d never done before. And then in the spring of 2005 I collapsed, and that was the beginning of it. It’s hard to remember an illness because it’s just a lot of nothing. It’s very hard to make it into a shape.”
Writing became torturous – “all the projects I’ve tried to work on while I was ill kept flowing down a lot of alleys, that was part of the illness” – and the JS&MrN sequel is still “a long way off” completion.
“I think it may be a feature with chronic fatigue that you become incapable of making decisions. I found it impossible to decide between one version of a sentence and another version, but also between having the plot go in this direction and having it go in that direction. Everything became like uncontained bushes, shooting out in all directions. That’s the state that the sequel to Jonathan Strange is in. It’s almost like a forest now.”
An invitation to the set of the miniseries in Yorkshire helped to clear the path. “I was really uncertain about going, I thought it would be too much for me, but I loved it. I’d felt ‘I’m not an author, I’m just this invalid and I have been for years,’ but they treated me as an author and that made me feel it was a possible thing again.”
With “the consciousness of all the years that I hadn’t written and all the projects I hadn’t completed” weighing on her, Clarke decided “to simplify what I was asking of myself”, returning to an old work in progress that was to become Piranesi (“it probably predates JS&MrN”) as a more manageable prospect. “I thought, it doesn’t have hundreds of characters and it won’t require a huge amount of research because I don’t know what research I could do for it.”
These “practical considerations” have given birth to something utterly otherworldly. One hint to the themes lies in the title: Clarke has always been fascinated by the 18th-century Italian artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi and his atmospheric etchings of fictional prisons, shadowy vaults with enormous staircases and impossible geometries.
“Some ideas go into your mind and become part of the furniture,” she says. “I also remember reading in Alan Moore’s Promethea comics that ‘We’ve all had this dream of wandering in a great house’, and I thought yes, I do have that dream quite often! I was trying to conjure up an environment that is quite startling, but at the same time you think, ‘I’ve almost been here before.’”
Other antecedents include Narnia, referenced throughout – Piranesi’s favourite statue is of a faun in the pose of Mr Tumnus – and the short stories of Jorge Luis Borges, particularly his retelling of the minotaur myth in The House of Asterion. “There’s so much of Piranesi in that story that I must have subconsciously remembered … CS Lewis and Borges, not an obvious combination!”
Though Piranesi is so different from JS&MrN in mood and tone, one connection is Clarke’s abiding passion for other worlds, dating back to childhood. “Anyone who’s read Narnia as a child, for whom it is a formative book, constantly is aware that they have that desire – one day, there will be the wardrobe. Something that will take you there. It’s a very old longing in me.”
Born in Nottingham in 1959, the daughter of a Methodist minister, the young Clarke moved between parishes with her family in the north of England and Scotland. “Childhood was quite difficult for me in the way it is for children who are moved from place to place. I had a vivid fantasy life saving me from quite a lot of unhappiness. It wasn’t fantasy about myself or what I was going to do, it was always stories I told myself about characters.” It was a very religious upbringing, and “in a way my love of magic is a reaction to the Methodist church – I like ritual and ceremony, things that were a bit frowned on in my childhood.”
Another shared feature of the novels is a combative relationship between two men exploring the possibilities of the supernatural. In this new book the innocent Piranesi is set against the calculating Other; if reading the novel as a “reflection of this world”, Clarke says, “the divide is between people who see the world for what they can use it for, and the idea that the world is important because it is not human, it’s something we might be part of a community with, rather than just a resource. That is something that Piranesi grasps intuitively – that was very important, something I wanted to say.”
“You are the Beloved Child of the House,” Piranesi tells himself in the novel. “Be comforted.” He endows the objects around him with capitals, Clarke explains, because for him “the world in which he finds himself seems imbued with life – if not conscious, then having a vitality of which he is a part. In the case of the statues, giving him knowledge and teaching him about virtues, almost communing with him. To the Other it’s just a dead empty place and to Piranesi it’s full of ideas and energy, benevolence and kindness.”
The Other is only the latest in a long line of overweening would-be adepts; from JS&MrN, through her short stories and into Piranesi, Clarke returns again and again to the figure of the intellectually arrogant, emotionally stunted scholar magician. “It is wonderful to be able to go into another world, or talk to a fairy. My thing is that you get to this magical otherworldly level through the auspices of magicians, but they always turn out to be human – to have these failings.
“Scholarship was a big thing in my home when I was growing up,” she continues. Her mother and father were both working-class children who made it to Oxford, so “it was held up as this golden city on a hill, that was what you aimed for, but when I got there it didn’t do for me what it had done for my parents. I didn’t do well and I never really felt at home.” Clarke planned to be a journalist and studied PPE, but “it was way too abstract. What I was interested in, though I didn’t know it then, was narrative and people; I should have done history. I wonder if that’s at the back of my mind with all these disappointing scholars.”
She admits, though, that she’s “very fond” of her most fussy, fusty scholar of all, Mr Norrell. “I kind of identify with Norrell. ‘I want to go home and read a book’ is something a lot of writers would understand, rather than go to a party.”
Clarke needed to generate a fair amount of her own intellectual obsession to tell the story of this solitary bibliophile who unleashes forces beyond his control. Her aim in JS&MrN was to write “a book that seemed to have its roots in the English language, and a sort of magic that ultimately had its roots in grey skies and stones and earth and woods. That’s an idea that interests me still – the contrast between the sophisticated human magic and the magic of the natural world.”
She was working full time as an editor at Simon & Schuster in Cambridge for the decade or so it took her to write the novel; she met her partner, the novelist and SF critic Colin Greenland, when she took a course in fantasy literature with him as a way to get to grips with the project. It was a long, difficult process.
“It was partly to do with the scale of it and the amount of research I felt was necessary, but there was also a lack of confidence in myself. I didn’t really think I could do it.” And yet, I point out, you’d chosen to set yourself this immense challenge. “This is a pattern!”
Finding an agent and selling the book to Bloomsbury changed everything, as the publisher was “suddenly enthused in a quite extraordinary way”. The book’s mainstream success was a wonderful surprise; but then, when the time came to write the sequel, “A lack of confidence in myself became replaced by an inability to move on because of illness, and the two sort of mirrored each other in a rather unpleasant way.”
Clarke is now “somewhat better than a few years ago, but often this is hard to remember”. While writing Piranesi, “I was aware that I was a person cut off from the world, bound in one place by illness. Piranesi considers himself very free, but he’s cut off from the rest of humanity.”
Over the years Clarke had also felt “locked away. Unable to work, to be of any relevance. It’s changed with lockdown, but up until now there’s been this strong thing in our culture that you’re important because of what you do. So if you can’t do anything, you have no relevance. That was a very hard thing to deal with for a long time.”
The pandemic, of course, has challenged everyone’s sense of purpose. “The weird thing is that as other people’s lives have closed down, mine has opened up, because suddenly a lot of things are on Zoom and I can talk to people from my sofa. I know other chronically ill people have found the same. Once again you feel in opposition to the world – your experience is different.”
Her illness keeps Clarke at a remove from the landscape that drew her to Derbyshire, but she’s been spending lockdown watching the birds that are such a huge symbolic presence in both novels. “It’s almost like Piranesi is teaching me to be more interested in birds. I end up doing things because I think, ‘This is what Piranesi would want me to do’. He has such a sense of belonging, and that’s very often a thing that’s missing – a sense of absolutely belonging in the place where we find ourselves. I do find him quite helpful.” – Guardian
Piranesi is published by Bloomsbury