Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell fans, it's a good fall.
Are there fairies? Stealing from us, casting curses, defiling our bloodlines? We say yes. We have artists, don't we? Sensitive guys, so fragile and withdrawn. The best of them seem to be touched by an otherness, an otherness of being. Perhaps a small part of their humanity was negotiated without their knowledge. A little finger. A left eyeball. So they don't pound the world very loudly like the rest of us. On the rare occasion they leave their homes, they flicker along the way. Whatever you do, don't scare the fairies or you will scare them off. Just look at what happened to Susanna Clarke.
In 2004, Clarke released what can only be described as their first broadcast from the land of fairies. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell were ten years in the making and 846 (footnotes!) Pages long. It was as if she had been in England at the time of Napoleon when these two notorious magicians, the bookworm Norrell and his cheeky student Strange, seized unearthly powers to impress politicians, move mountains and defeat the French. That's not how it happened, you say Yes that's it. You just haven't read your hidden story.
The following events only proved Clarke's supernatural pedigree. After the 2006 release of The Ladies of Grace Adieu and other stories, a collection of fairy tales written around the same time and in the same world as Strange & Norrell, Clarke got fucked up. Yumpy. Far far away. Since 14 years. The official story was a debilitating insanity-home-bound, unable to write-but obviously her fairy patrons had come to win back her former princess. Or they wanted to punish Clarke for betraying her, for spilling her precious secrets, by confusing her beautiful brain. Something like that. The ways and reasons of the Fae are little known to the people.
If this strikes you as cute, neat, annoying, or even a bit disturbing, a romanticization or fantasy of what sounds like a period of immense torture to Clarke and loved ones, consider your own words. "It was like being captured in the land of fairies, like being taken from us," Clarke's editor told New Yorker magazine. Clarke himself said in a rare interview to The New Yorker, "You really shouldn't annoy or write about fairies – they don't like it very much." Given that Clarke has now released a second show by Faerie called Piranesi, which delves much deeper than Strange & Norrell ever into the forbidden fortresses from which the foolish and mortal among us are forever excluded, perhaps there is no better explanation . Clarke was actually there and back again.
In Strange & Norrell, Clarke shares the various ways an enterprising soul could make it into the fairy tale kingdom that is difficult to find “behind heaven” and “on the other side of the rain”. Mirrors help when you know the enchantment; If you don't, you will be making friends with an evil king of the fairies who desires your soul. Whatever it takes, because faerie is the source of magic, magic that seems to have trickled out of England sometime in the 16th century.
Three centuries later, Gilbert Norrell, confused and less amused, curls up to bring it back. "To restore", as he likes to put it, "English magic". As an obsessive-compulsive hoarder of arcane magic books, he alone has the know-how until a young country woman demands that her determined friend form him and find a job. Jonathan Strange becomes England's second magician. He and Norrell go through stages of friendship and hostility, and eventually choose something like frenemyship. Elders and upstart, conservative and liberal, scholar and seeker, loner and lover – they are your classic dyad, two halves form a whole.
One annoying point of contention between these guys: Norrell isn't going to give Faerie strange instructions, so Strange has to hack together a DIY solution. It's not a nice process, because it's about cooking a seedy old cat lady into the essence of her madman. Tastes something unspeakable, but if fairies are "barely healthy" by human standards, strange reasons, then to reach them you have to be at their level, so to speak. In the end, Clarke's book really isn't about restoring English magic. It's about restoring the English madness.
The insanity, for Clarke, as for so many of her fairy colleagues over time, gives certain compensations. "It used to be known that madmen could often see them when they were hiding from their eyes," writes Clarke. (Strangely discovers this when the King of England, blind and wacky, talks effortlessly to the Fairy King.) The magicians of the old days, she adds, "viewed madmen as seers and prophets and listened to their forays with the utmost attention." In spite of all its agony, madness awakens in its sufferers the gift of fairy vision, access to the deepest truths obscured by centuries of manic work and industry.
The only possible conclusion is: Clarke writes from experience. There are things in Strange & Norrell that no Normie could know about, like the secret ingredient of pitiful pigment (“the tears of the maids of a good family who lead a long life of impeccable virtue and die without ever a day of true happiness to have had"). ). Or the meaning of a rose on your lips. Or how a fairy sings sublime. "The world is not stupid at all, it is just waiting for someone to speak in a language they understand," writes Clarke. "In the fairy song, the earth recognized the names by which she called herself." Here is a writer who is clearest precisely when she is articulating the highest madness. Strange & Norrell makes an argument in favor of at least a little more of that in the modern world, if not entirely a defense of insanity. Even more madness. More fairy. If Strange does a safer titration of his crazy potion, he won't cause any problems. Instead, he travels inward: “He found that magic was no longer so important to him. Doors slammed in his head and he went into rooms and corridors that he hadn't visited in years. "
This was supposed to be exactly what Clarke would do during the confused years of thinking about Piranesi and then writing.
Magic long died out
Giovanni Battista Piranesi was a mid-18th century Italian artist best known for his black and white Proto-Escher etchings of fantastic architectures, particularly his Prisons series. Clarke must be a fan. She mentions Piranesi in both Strange & Norrell and Ladies of Grace Adieu, and Piranesi prints can be seen in the 2015 BBC adaptation of the former. His work conjures up the dizzying horror of being trapped in a good labyrinth, like Norrell's winding mansion or the land of the fairies.
Amazon / Bloomsbury
The new novel by Piranesi of Clarke, its narrator and main character, is not an artist, but he is a man trapped in an infinite mega-structure. Piranesi is fabulous and scary and calls it "the house", but sometimes "the world" – "since the two are practically all the same," he says. You have to think of Jorge Luis Borges, who must be Clarke's fairy godfather. Like the house, Borges' labyrinths ab aeterno also exist and, for all practical purposes, are the universe.
Piranesi is not the narrator's real name. that is what his caretaker calls him, who is known as the other. As far as we can tell, Piranesi and the other are the only residents of the house. That is, the only two people in the whole world. The house is everything they know: its endless, statuary-strewn rooms and the pelagic waters that regularly overflow them. In other words, this is not Strange & Norrell's Europe in the 19th century (even if it is a male dyad). In fact, the house is not of this earth at all. Although we do not meet any real fairies in Piranesi, these souls must have been banished to their otherworldly realm.
Piranesi is a mystery, a mystery of the mind, a way for Clarke to communicate the incommunicable. What kind of place is that? Why is Piranesi stuck there, so amazed and innocent? Reading it, one can only imagine where it came from in Clarke's life, how many years she had been sick, separated, wandered the rooms and hallways, strange as in her head. "The labyrinth plays tricks on the mind," says the other to Piranesi. "If you're not careful, it can destroy your entire personality." A devastating verb, unpick. Something a fairy could do with a scalpel of unimaginable delicacy. What Clarke would surely have felt throughout the decade in private lock, always at the intimate mercy of his blade.
After all that Clarke has endured, one might expect her to hate fairy guts to turn these vindictive, tyrannical creatures and the madness for which they are metaphors into the ultimate enemy. She won't. She refuses. Because doing this would mean losing: yourself and everything else. As the tragedy of the circumstances of Piranesi unfolds, he clings to the brightness, the treasures he acquired along the way. Because he knows the miracles that madness makes, whose names are capricious and puzzled. "Magic has long since died out on these islands," complained Jonathan Strange once, speaking of both his and our world. To this he could have added, as Clarke writes in Piranesi: “In the past, men and women could turn into eagles and fly huge distances. They communicated with rivers and mountains and received wisdom from them. They felt the stars spin in their own mind. "
That Susanna Clarke did and felt such things, these twists and turns and communions, falls somewhere within the realm of absolute truth. As a blessed being, she performed the long-lost miracles and lived even more miraculously to tell the story. With a great effort, she lifted her personality and returned to this world, our earth, so that the rest of us would know her exquisite burden. Welcome back, Fairy Mistress, if only for a moment! We are grateful to you, oh yes, but we also mourn you a little – that you have to work so hard to be human.
This story first appeared on wired.com.