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Susanna Clarke: 'I Was Cut Off From The World, Bound In One Place By Illness'

Tuesday 15 September 2020


From The Guardian:


Susanna Clarke
Susanna Clarke, at her home in the Peak district.
(Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian)

Susanna Clarke: ‘I was cut off from the world, bound in one place by illness’

By Justine Jordan
Saturday 12 September 2020
© 2020 Guardian News & Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. (modern)

Her debut, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, sold 4m copies - 16 years on, Clarke has written a second novel. She talks about chronic fatigue syndrome.

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 4m 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 appears on 15 September, 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.”


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