Are there ghosts? To steal us away, to cast curses, to defile our bloodlines? Let’s say yes. We have artists, don’t we? Sensitive types, are fragile and regressive. The best of them seem to touch each other, things otherlandishness, of being. Perhaps a small part of their humanity is being negotiated without their knowledge. A pink finger. Left eye ball. That’s why they don’t travel around the world like the rest of us. During those church times when they are seen leaving their homes, they wash the grass – literally floating – across the road. Whatever you do, don’t hurt the ghosts, or you’ll scare them. Just look at what happened to Susanna Clarke.
In 2004, Clarke published what can only be described as his first dispatch from the land of Faerie. Ten years in the making and 846 (footnote!) pages long, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is ethnography, lore. It seems that it was there, to England, in the time of Napoleon, when those two famous magicians, Norrell’s book and his privileged student of Strange, entered into mysterious powers to impress the politicians, moved the hills -great, and defeat the French. That’s not how it happens, you say? Why, yes it is. You just haven’t read his hidden story.
Subsequent events only prove Clarke’s preternatural pedigree. After publication, in 2006, of Women of Grace Adieu and Other StoriesA collection of fairy tales written around the same time, and in the same world, as Strange & Norrell, Clarke went poof. Yummy. Far, far. For 14 years. The official story of a debilitating mental illness-housebound, unable to write-but clearly his ghost patrons have come for him, to reclaim their erstwhile princess. Or else they meant to punish Clarke for his crime, for spilling their precious secrets, by giving away his beautiful brain. Something like that. The ways and motives of the Fae are little known to common people.
If this strikes you as cutesy, tidy, annoying, even a little disturbing, romantic or romantic in what seems like a moment of great suffering for Clarke and her loved ones, consider their own words. “It was as if he had been taken to the land of Faerie, as if he had been taken away from us,” said Editor Clarke. New York Magazine. Clarke himself, in a rare interview, told The New Yorker“You really shouldn’t annoy fairies, either writeabout them—they don’t like you very much.” Given that Clarke had unleashed a second spell from Faerie, called Piranesiwhich plunges far deeper Strange & Norrell ever made into the forbidden wall from which the mad and mortal among us are forever barred, perhaps there is no better explanation. Clarke has been there and back again.
Inside Strange & Norrell, Clarke talks about the various ways in which a serving soul can reach the realm of the spirits, which is difficult, “beyond the sky” and “on the other side of the rain.” Mirror helps, if you know the enchantment; if you don’t, make friends with the evil ghost king who wants your heart. Whatever it takes, because Faerie is the well of magic, magic which seems to have trickled out of England times in the 1500s.
Three centuries later, Gilbert Norrell twisted, shook, and shrank, to bring it back. “To bring back,” as he likes to put it, “English magic.” An obsessive-compulsive hoarder of arcane spellbooks, he only gets the know-how, until a countrywoman asks for her dissolute boyfriend to shape up and find a job. Now Jonathan Strange became England’s second working magician. He and Norrell pass through the stages of friendship and enmity and finally settle on something like independence. Elder and upstart, conservative and liberal, scholar and researcher, solitary and lover — they are your classic dyad, two halves making a whole.
One irksome point of contention between these boys: Norrell won’t give Stranger instructions to Faerie, so Stranger must hack together a DIY solution. It’s not pretty, this process, because it just makes the old cat lady shrink into the essence of her madness. Taste something that cannot be said, but if the ghosts are “ignoble” by human standards, strange reasons, then to reach them one must agree, as possible, on their level. In the end, Clarke’s book is not about restoring English magic. It is about restoring English madness.
Madness, for Clarke as for many of his fellow ghosts over the ages, offers certain compensations. Clarke wrote: “It is already well known that when astrologers hide themselves from public view, they are often understood by fools.” (The stranger discovers this when the King of England, blind and hostile, talks to the ghost king without warning.) He adds, “The ancient lawmen, “regarded madmen as seers and prophets, and listened to their voices too. close attention.” For all its sufferings, madness has awakened in its sufferers the gift of ghostly sight, access to deeper truths obscured by centuries of human toil and industry.
The only possible conclusion is: Clarke is learning from experience. There is something inside Strange & Norrell no normie can know, like the pots of ingredients of sorrow-pigment (“the tears of good hungry spinsters, who must live a long life of impeccable virtue and die without ever having a day of true happiness”) . Or the meaning of a flower on one’s lips. Or the way a fairy sublimely sings. Clarke wrote: “The world is never silent, but it is just waiting for someone to speak to it in a language it understands.” “In the fairy song the earth knows the names by which it calls itself.” Here is a writer who is at his absolute best when it comes to uttering the highest follies. If not the very defense of madness, Strange & Norrell is controversial for at least some of you in today’s world. More freakiness. More ghosts. When Stranger quaffs a safe titration of his crazy potion, he doesn’t crack up. Instead, he traveled inside: “He found that he didn’t care about magic anymore. Doors slammed in his mind and he wandered into rooms and doorways in his body that he hadn’t visited in years.”
This was to be what Clarke would do, in the extra years he spent thinking, and then writing, Piranesi.
Magic has long been destroyed
Giovanni Battista Piranesi was an Italian artist of the mid-18th century, best known for his black-and-white, proto-Escherian etchings of fantastical buildings, particularly his own. Prisons series. Clarke must be a fan. He mentions Piranesi in both Strange & Norrell we had Ladies of Grace Adieu, and Piranesi’s publications are glimpsed in the 2015 BBC adaptation of the former. His work conjures the giddy terror that is caught in a good maze, like Norrell’s haunted manor, or the land of Faerie.
The Piranesi of Clarke’s new novel, its protagonist and main character, is not an artist, but a person trapped in an infinite megastructure. It is fantastic and terrible, Piranesi calls it “The House” but also, at times, “The World,” “since both are for all practical purposes,” he said. One is made to think of Jorge Luis Borges, who must be Clarke’s fairy godfather. Like the House, there are Borges’ labyrinths ab aeterno and that, for all practical purposes, the world.
Piranesi is not the real name of the legend; that’s just what his handler, known as the Other, calls him. As far as we can tell, Piranesi and Other are the only residents of the House. It means only two people in the whole world. The house has everything they know: rooms with endless profits and dry water that washes them periodically. This is not, in other words, the Europe of the 19th century Strange & Norrell (even if it, too, involves male fates). In fact, Home is not of this world at all. Even if we meet it is not actually a ghost PiranesiIt must be to another earthly kingdom that these souls have been driven away.
Piranesi is a mystery, a mystery of the mind, a way for Clarke to communicate the unspoken. What is this place? Why did Piranesi, surprised and innocent, become there? Reading it, one can’t help but imagine its origins in Clarke’s physical world, the years he spent sick, dissociating, wandering the rooms and hallways, Stranger-like, inside his head. “The Labyrinth plays tricks on the mind,” Another said to Piranesi. “If you’re not careful you can get rid of all your people.” verb of destruction, cut out. Something a ghost could do, come to think of it, with an unimaginable level of immunity. What Clarke must have felt, indeed, throughout those ten years—including in a private lockup, always at the close mercy of his blade.
After all that Clarke has endured, one might expect him to hate ghosts, to make these creatures, the savage creatures, and the madness for which they are metaphors, his ultimate enemy. You will not. He refused. Because to do so would be to lose: yourself and everything else. As the tragedy of Piranesi’s circumstances unfolded, he held fast to the light, the treasures he acquired along the way. Because he knows the miracles that the mad do, those whose name they speak blasphemy, and that amazes them. “Magic is long gone in these islands,” as Jonathan Strange once lamented, speaking of his world and ours. To which he may have added, as Clarke writes in Piranesi: “Once upon a time, men and women could transform themselves into eagles and fly far. They spoke to rivers and mountains and received wisdom from them. They felt a star change in their own hearts.”
That Susanna Clarke had done and felt such things, these changes and interactions, fell somewhere in the realm of absolute truth. Blessed One, he had performed miracles long since lost, and had lived, more amazingly, to tell the tale. With great effort, he has not chosen his personality and returned to this world, our Earth, so that the rest of us can know his burden. Welcome back, Night Fairy, if only for a spell! We appreciate you, yes, but we mourn you a little, too—that you must work hard to be human.
This is the first story wired.com.
Image listing by Amazon/Bloomsbury