Saturday, December 4

Susanna Clarke: ‘I really had stopped thinking of myself as a writer’ | Susanna clarke

Susanna Clarke’s theme is magic and her own story is magic too. Seventeen years after his best-seller and genre-breaking Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell about two rival magicians (Neil Gaiman declared it to be “hands down” the best English fantasy novel of the last 70 years), it has won the female award for her second novel Piranesi.

An otherworldly study of loneliness, celebrating the everyday comforts and comfort of nature, Piranesi appeared with astonishing timing just as we were beginning to emerge from a period of all too real isolation.

“It is just fabulous. I haven’t processed it at all, ”says the author from a London hotel room, after the ceremony (one of the first post-closing publishing campaigns) the night before. But not for Clarke, the traditional watery-eyed morning-after interview. “We got to the hotel and drank chamomile tea and threw ourselves off.”

As he explained in an emotional acceptance speech, this was a book he thought he would never be able to write. Six months after Jonathan Strange was published in 2004, when he was 44 years old, he passed out at a dinner party and has not recovered since. “After writing about a woman with a 19th century illness, it seemed that I myself fell prey to a 19th century illness,” she says. Don’t write about fairies. They do not like it “.

Eventually, she was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, which at worst left her confined and depressed. “Sometimes I felt like life stretched out ahead, but I was a bit blank and that was pretty scary.”

An invitation to the set of the BBC miniseries for Jonathan Strange in 2015 gave him the impetus to start writing again. “I had really stopped thinking of myself as a writer,” she says. “It all seemed so far and away, like something that happened to someone else.”

Piranesi is not the long-awaited sequel; Although slimmer and quieter than Jonathan Strange, it is equally inventive, immersive, and difficult to pin down. The title is reminiscent of the 18th-century Italian artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi, whose Escher-style prints of Imaginary Prisons, with their formal elegance and impossible architecture, spaces at once cavernous and claustrophobic, evoke the haunting novel feel of the collision. of recognizable and unreal worlds.

If Jonathan Strange was a wild reunion of Austen and Dickens, then Piranesi’s pole stars are Jorge Luis Borges and CS Lewis. “I found Lewis at a very impressionable age and then he organized the inside of my head,” he says. “And that’s how it has been ever since.”

Our narrator Piranesi lives in a large house that contains an ocean. He spends his days wandering its endless corridors, communicating with birds and writing his diaries (a kind of pandemic diary prototype). He is not unhappy. In fact, it may be an advertisement for modern mindfulness, a kind of radiant yogi with fish bones in his hair. “The world feels whole and complete, and I, her Child, fit the bill.” The reader, like Piranesi, becomes an enchanted captive in Clarke’s deliquescent and dreamlike world.

Susanna Clarke accepting the 2021 female award for Piranesi
Susanna Clarke accepting the 2021 female award for Piranesi. Photograph: Ian West / PA

Then there is that other house with many rooms: Christian symbolism runs alongside Borgesian labyrinths and countless nods to Narnia, like the statues lining the corridors. Clarke is the daughter of a Methodist minister, after all.

While the author says she did not intend to write a Lewis-style Christian allegory, Piranesi clearly invites interpretation. Is it a novel about writing a novel? A meditation on art? A metaphor for a chronic illness? A warning about colonization? Who is the mysterious “Other”? Who is Piranesi? About us?

Naturally, Clarke resists explanations, but will say that with the character of Piranesi he set out to create an alternative to the modern psyche, “where we feel that we are locked in our consciousness, inside our heads and the world is something alien and out there “, Explain. “I wanted to describe someone who is almost in communion with his world all the time.”

The novel’s seed was sown many years ago, after Clarke took an evening class on the stories of Borges, “a rather eccentric group of people, somewhere in East London,” when he was in his twenties and working in a editorial. He wrote a short sketch – “five, six, seven pages, typewritten” – that would become Piranesi. “I really had no idea how to write this story,” he says now. “So I would keep it with me and look at it every now and then.”

When he got sick, of the many unfinished projects on his laptop, Piranesi was the one that felt “most manageable” and, unlike Jonathan Strange, required little research (he read a book about clouds). If his illness influences the novel, it is in a positive way, he says. “It was the growing feeling that just because you are physically confined you don’t need to live an impoverished life.”

He tells the story of his aunt, who had a heart condition that caused her to spend the last 10 to 15 years of her life unable to stand up for fear of dying. Clarke received a small diary that her aunt kept detailing the minor changes to the tree outside her bedroom window. “Just because you are in a room does not mean that you are necessarily disconnected from the world,” he says. “That was something that I think fueled Piranesi.”

As often in his life, he found himself “at an angle to everyone else,” during the confinement, when instead of closing, “the world just opened up,” he says. “Suddenly all my friends were on my computer and I didn’t have to get up from the couch.”

Did the timely resonance of your novel catch your attention? “People have found echoes of the confinement in many books,” he says. “It says something about literature.” As for her, after feeling very angry for a long time, she has made “a kind of peace” with her condition.

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