PIRANESI, the long-awaited second novel by Susanna Clarke, has been published to widespread acclaim and, last month, was shortlisted for the 2020 Costa Book Awards. But Clarke was not sure that it was a book she could write, after struggling for many years with a debilitating illness that took hold after the publication of her bestselling fantasy Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell in 2004.
“I was at a dinner party,” she recalls, “and I fainted. Shortly after that, I became tired all the time, not feeling myself at all, and it was eventually diagnosed as chronic fatigue. I was trying hard to work on the sequel to Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, which I very much wanted to do.
“But one of the problems that you get with chronic fatigue is you’re very likely to get brain fog. And it’s difficult to put ideas together and make decisions, and I eventually realised that it was totally impossible to write a large, complicated novel.”
The illness worsened, and included periods of “quite severe depression”, Clake says. It was not until almost ten years after she first became ill that her confidence started to return. The television series of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell was being filmed, and she was invited to go to Yorkshire to visit the set.
“I found that just wonderful,” she says. “Seeing people doing something creative, particularly something creative with an idea that I’d had, was glorious. They were treating me like I was an author, and I thought, ‘I’m not an author, I’m just this ill woman who’s been ill for a very long time,’ but they didn’t seem to think so. I had got to a point when I was writing a bit more. I thought, ‘Well, maybe I can do this again. Maybe I could try.’
“So, I looked at all the various different projects I’d been working on over the years, and at one which wasn’t at that time called Piranesi, but was this very strange idea that I’d had originally, I think, in my twenties: this idea of about a man who lives in an enormous house, possibly an infinite house in which oceans are imprisoned.
“And I thought, ‘That’s quite a small thing, maybe I can manage to do that.’ So, I concentrated on that project, and managed to finish it, which was astonishing to me and astonishing to my husband.
“Being shortlisted for the Costa is just lovely. When I think about how there was so much lined up against it ever being completed, it is rather wonderful.”
The character Piranesi — when we meet him — finds his identity as a “Beloved Child” of the house he finds himself in. His world is filled with birds, the sea pounds the basement, and there are clouds on the upper levels. A multitude of rooms are filled with fascinating, comforting statues: the Angel Caught on the Rosebush, a Gorilla, the Woman Carrying a Beehive.
Piranesi is content, scientifically curious about the world around him, and filled with awe. This is his response to his current situation; but it becomes clear that there is a threat around him, moving ever closer. Piranesi’s reality and faith in his world are about to be challenged.
CLARKE’s own faith, she says, is real, and has developed over the course of her illness. Her father was a Methodist minister whose tenure changed every four to six years, resulting in house moves for the family.
“The religion of my childhood in many ways did not suit me. I found it quite problematic. I think it was partly to do with the fact we moved from place to place. Everywhere we went, we always seemed to be newcomers.
“I think what happened in the end was that a certain sort of Protestantism got associated in my mind with being quite isolated and quite alienated from the people around me. That has made Christianity, in many ways, quite difficult for me.
“So, it’s very much been a process of trying to overcome that. But when I got ill, I was in Cambridge, and I started attending a church there. It was an Anglican church, and quite different from any church I’d been to before.
“It was very free from dogma: you could tell people that you were struggling with this or that part of doctrine, and nobody would be alarmed, or immediately rush in to correct you. You were allowed to develop at your own pace, and I found this incredibly welcoming. It gave me a space to put my hurt feelings from my childhood aside, and to explore and think, ‘Well, what do I actually think about all these things?’
BBCBertie Carvel as Jonathan Strange and Eddie Marsan as Mr Norrell in the BBC1 adaptation
“I was very lucky to find that church, because I think a church which is secure enough to allow people space to explore without wanting to correct them or to bring them into line is actually quite rare.”
Clarke is now based in Derbyshire, but lockdown has given her the chance to attend a different church in Cambridge via Zoom. “It’s an Anglo-Catholic church, which I personally love. I think God has been pushing me towards this for a while. I feel very at home with the liturgy, and the sense and pace of the services.”
Does Clarke feel that her faith resonates with Piranesi’s almost childlike sense of wonder about his world?
“Piranesi’s connection to his house, to his surroundings, and to the world was very much influenced by Owen Barfield, who is one of the Inklings, who influenced Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. Years ago, in Cambridge, I heard Malcolm Guite give a series of talks on the Inklings, and one was about Owen Barfield, and this struck me very much. One of Barfield’s ideas was that, originally, ancient peoples had a much deeper connection to the world.
“Modern man looks out at the world, but there’s this gap between us and the world, when Barfield’s idea was that ancient peoples felt of themselves as a part of the world. He called it ‘original participation’, and, in Piranesi, one of the things I was trying to do was to describe this as best as I could.
“That was a very deliberate effort on my part, that Piranesi should feel like he perfectly belonged in the world in which he found himself, and that the world was benevolent, and that it really cared for him, and he for it.”
“As to whether I have a faith that is like that, I would say: I wish I did. I remember someone once saying that Christianity was very simple. And I thought, ‘Well, it might have a simplicity, but it’s not a simplicity that, I think, is necessarily easily grasped by human beings.’
“I feel I’m struggling towards faith, a simpler, more childlike faith, but I’m trying to get rid of all the neuroses and the difficulties that have accumulated like barnacles, and scrape them off and get back to simplicity.”
THE Costa Awards, for which Piranesi has been shortlisted in the Best Novel category, recognise the “most enjoyable” books. And joy is certainly a theme that pervades the novel, even amid sadness and cruelty.
“Piranesi finds joy in his connection with the house,” Clarke says. “The house is a place which he thinks is infinitely beautiful. And also infinitely kind to him. But there are dangers there, there are perils. The tides come up — and it is possible, if you don’t understand them the way he does, to get caught by the sea.
“It’s not a terribly easy life. But it is a joyful life. And I am very interested in describing joy. Where does one look in modern culture for joy? If you’re me — Strictly Come Dancing. I had a bout of much more serious illness about four years ago. . . I was in hospital feeling very, very grim, and almost full of a kind of dread.”
What helped was reading novels. Clarke mentions Diana Wynne Jones’s children’s fantasies, but says, “I was also watching a lot of Strictly Come Dancing, because that is a joyful thing.
“It is people dancing, it is people who are who are learning something. I know it’s very formulised; they always say they’re having a wonderful time. But you can tell that at least some of them really do mean it.
“I think joy can be missing from a lot of what we do in church. For me, looking back at C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books — when Aslan arrives, there is so much joy. And yet joy isn’t necessarily something that we associate with God, but, I think, it’s a very important part of being connected to God.
“I know at one time I felt that God was someone who was telling me I wasn’t good enough. I felt that quite strongly, and, for quite a long time, that it was a disapproving presence. Joyfulness is something that I deliberately set out to rediscover.”
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke is published by Bloomsbury at £14.99 in hardback (Church Times Bookshop £13.49).
Listen to the full interview on the Church Times podcast.