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Home / Books / “This critique of progress was something I borrowed from CS Lewis” - Susanna Clarke

“This critique of progress was something I borrowed from CS Lewis” - Susanna Clarke

Susanna Clarke talks about her new novel Piranesi, of how her illness curtailed her life and how the lockdown unexpectedly opened it up

books Updated: Sep 20, 2020, 19:24 IST
HT Team
HT Team
Hindustan Times
Author Susanna Clarke
Author Susanna Clarke(Courtesy Bloomsbury)

In the prelude to Piranesi you quote from CS Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew. Like CS Lewis, you conjure a different, parallel world. How much did CS Lewis inspire Piranesi? Can you tell us about some of the other influences for this novel?

The Narnia book which most influenced Piranesi is The Magician’s Nephew. There are two worlds in that book (neither of them Narnia) which have quite strong connections to Piranesi’s reality.

In The Magician’s Nephew one of the worlds the children visit is a very old, dying world called Charn. They spend a long time wandering through the courtyards and halls of a deserted, ruinous palace. Lewis meant this to be an utterly desolate place, literally empty and spiritually empty. But I always rather liked it. I liked the silence and the crumbling architecture and the endless, empty courtyards. There are even statues. I think Piranesi’s world (which he calls the House) owes something to Charn.

For a while, around 2010, I had social agoraphobia. Whenever other people were around me I felt intensely uncomfortable and threatened. It didn’t matter whether they were taking notice of me or not. Fortunately this period didn’t last terribly long. But sometimes when I was walking in a street and there were people near me, I would imagine I was back in the palace of Charn, or a place very like it; and the silence and the solitude calmed me. (I say ‘I imagine I was back in the palace,’ which I suppose suggests that I’ve actually been there, but like many people for whom Narnia was a formative reading experience that’s what it feels like.)

In The Magician’s Nephew there’s also a place called the Woods between the Worlds which has two very striking qualities. The first quality is that some of the people who come there find it a marvellous place. While they are in the Wood they feel part of that reality, part of the richness of the trees growing, part of the quietness and part of the green light. They feel absolutely content and peaceful; they never want to leave. But there are other people who come there and who hate it. They find it a deathly place.

245pp, Rs 699; Bloomsbury
245pp, Rs 699; Bloomsbury

What the second quality of the Woods between the Worlds is, I don’t intend to say, but it has quite an important parallel in Piranesi.

Owen Barfield was a friend of CS Lewis’s, another of the Inklings. He influenced both Lewis and Tolkien. One of Barfield’s ideas was that people in the past related to the world in quite different ways than we do now. Ancient peoples did not feel alienated from their surroundings the way in which we sometimes do. They did not see the world as meaningless; they saw it as a great and sacred drama in which they took part. Barfield called this idea ‘original participation’ and I tried to describe this sort of relationship in Piranesi’s attitude to the House.

In my twenties, I loved the short stories of Jorge Luis Borges. They’re generally very short, very precise and very jewel-like. Some of the worlds he created are strange — worlds that pose philosophical questions and make you think in ways you’ve never thought before. One world, for example, is an endless library (The Library of Babel). So at some point in the 1980s I wrote a few pages about a Borgesian sort of world which consisted of a vast house in which an ocean was imprisoned. Two characters inhabited it; one character understood the house instinctively and could navigate it easily and the other character could only really increase his understanding of the house by studying the first character. So this story has been with me for almost 40 years, but for several decades I couldn’t work out how to write it or what the characters’ story was.

Another Borges story that I particularly loved was The House of Asterion. I don’t believe I’d read it for 20 or 30 years. But when I did read it I was astonished by the way that story and Piranesi echo back and forth. Details I’d entirely forgotten are there in Piranesi. Even sentence structures.

The Borges labyrinth on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice, Italy.
The Borges labyrinth on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice, Italy. ( Shutterstock )

In that vein, it seems like the faun statue in the House is Mr Tumnus from Narnia since Piranesi remembers dreaming of him in the snow with a little girl. Is this right? Do all the statues have specific significance?

The statue of the faun is, of course, an avatar or version of Mr Tumnus from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Mr Tumnus is one of the sweetest of all the characters in the Narnia books. Another statue which harks back to Narnia is the statue of a dog fox teaching two squirrels and two satyrs. Piranesi finds a letter asking for directions to this statue. Exactly who the letter’s from or who it’s addressed to he doesn’t know, but he writes an answer anyway because he’s a very helpful sort of person. The statue reminds me of an incident in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

There’s only one statue in the House which exists in our world and that is the Gorilla. In our world it seems to stand in a garden under a cupola. That’s as much information as I have. I can’t tell you where it is or who made it. I glimpsed it very briefly in an episode of the TV series Endeavour (the episode is called Prey) and I liked it so much I put it in the book.

The statue of an Angel caught on a Rose-bush is a very faint echo of the first novel I tried to write when I was in my twenties. It was about an angel in Liverpool and at one point I remember the angel snagged his jacket on a rose-bush.

Some of the statues are related to tarot images and Le Normand images (which is another family of cards like tarot), but on the whole not many of them have any particular meaning that I can point to. You try to find imagery that resonates in the same way that an image from a dream or from a tarot pack might resonate. You try to choose things that might have different meanings for different people.

Thinking up all the statues was quite hard work. Some months after I finished the book, I went with a friend to see the Christmas decorations at Chatsworth and I realised that Chatsworth is simply stuffed with statuary. And I thought, ‘Why didn’t I just come here, and write down descriptions of all these statues? That would have been so much easier.’

Laurence Arne-Sayles describes himself as an ‘Anamnesiologisist – I study what has been forgotten’. The Other is searching for a Great and Secret Knowledge. He tells Piranesi (page 66) that it is old. That people abandoned it, replacing it with Progress. Do you think our society has lost some understanding of the universe at the expense of progress? Are there particular myths or aspects of scientific discovery that engage you?

In the course of the book one of the characters tells Piranesi about a set of people who were all enamoured with the idea of progress and believed that whatever was new must be superior to what was old. As if merit was a function of chronology! The Other says something similar to Piranesi.

This critique of progress was something I borrowed from CS Lewis and Owen Barfield (a friend of Lewis’s and another Inkling). They called it ‘chronological snobbery’. They pointed out that ideas and philosophies are just as much subject to fashion as everything else. In our modern culture we have a strong, almost unconscious, adherence to the idea of progress; we tend to assume that the ideas that were discussed in the past (but which are no longer current) must have been discredited or else been proved irrelevant. But very often it’s simply that those ideas went out of fashion or the intellectual climate changed. Lewis said that you have to ask if ideas have actually been refuted — and if so who by and was the refutation actually any good?

Piranesi writes ‘The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite’ (page 5) and sees the House as ‘Valuable because it is the House. It is enough in and of Itself’ (page 60). Is he right? (Is the House not a trap that he can’t escape?) What is the role of the House?

The Other desires knowledge from the House because he wants power, while the narrator finds fulfilment in the process of learning and exploration. Why did this contrast speak to you?

For Piranesi, the House is never a trap. It cannot be a trap since there is never a moment when he does not consider himself to be perfectly free. He is free to get food for himself, free to go anywhere he likes, free to write his journals, free to think his thoughts. He has religious obligations (caring for and talking to the Dead) and obligations of friendship (helping the Other with his scientific research, making maps for him, taking photographs for him, etc.), but as far as Piranesi is concerned he has accepted these obligations freely.

What I’m interested in here is the contrasting attitudes of the Other and Piranesi towards the House. The Other is only interested in the House for what it can give him. He sees it as something he can use and exploit: an object. Because he wants something from the House (power) and because he can’t find it, he is endlessly frustrated. So, to him, the House is a dreary place; a great labyrinth full of desolate rooms and statues with bird shit on them. The world is meaningless to him until it gives him what he wants. If it were to give him what he wants, it would immediately become meaningless again, because he would have got what he needed and what remained would be like an empty skin.

Piranesi sees it quite differently. To Piranesi the House (which is the World) is full of meaning; he responds to it, and it responds to him. It is constantly unfolding, showing him new things and filling his eyes with beauty. He wants to know everything he can about the House/World. He is a scientist and he loves being a scientist. If he could he would catalogue every statue, map every hall, take every measurement. But in the end he knows that the House is more than the sum of facts about it. There is knowing facts about the House and then there is something different: knowing the House itself, by which I mean feeling yourself to be part of the House, feeling yourself to be loved by the House, seeing the beauty of the House, communing with the House. And for Piranesi knowing the House itself is more important than knowing facts about the House.

One of the early readers told me he was struck by the fact that Piranesi is fairly sure that his name isn’t really ‘Piranesi’, but he doesn’t make any effort to find out what it is — it’s a question that doesn’t really interest him. What really matters to him is that he is the Beloved Child of the House. He doesn’t need any other identity.

Before sharing his Journals with us, Piranesi addresses The Sixteenth Person ‘Who are You? Who is it that I am writing for?’ (page 12). Who did you have in mind when writing Piranesi?

I don’t really have any sort of reader in mind when writing. The thing is not to write for an imagined person or a real person, the thing is to get the story right (or as right as you can); to find the right characters to serve the purposes of the story; and conversely to find the right story that the characters can tell. That is the thing I am always trying to get right, the story. The story is the plot, yes, but it’s also the events and the characters and the unique atmosphere — the unique taste of that story alone.

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In both novels I’ve written there’s been one character who has turned up and said to me, ‘It’s OK. Relax. I’ve got this.’ In Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell it was Childermass. Whenever he appeared in a scene I felt like he pulled up a chair for me to sit down, made me a cup of tea, and told me he would handle everything. And then he pretty much wrote the scene for me. I loved Childermass. (I still do.) In Piranesi there was a character a little bit like that, but he was a very different person from Childermass and I didn’t exactly love him. It was the Prophet. When the Prophet appeared he waved me airily aside and then just wrote his own dialogue. I had to type really fast to keep up. And when he had finished, he looked round and smiled, like he was saying, ‘That’s the way it’s done.’ And then he strutted off.

And of his journaling, Piranesi says, ‘I do this for two reasons. The first is that Writing inculcates habits of precision and carefulness. The second is to preserve whatever knowledge I possess for you, the Sixteenth Person.’ Do you feel that way about your writing practice? What are your writing practices? How much backstory do you create for a character and what sort of research do you do?

Precision is something that Piranesi names as important in writing, and I would certainly agree with that. In choosing words, in descriptions — whether descriptions of places or people or emotions — you want to be as specific as you’re able.

In creating a piece of fiction I might start with an image and the image itself can be something quite small. CS Lewis said that all of the Narnia books began with the image of a faun in a snowy wood, carrying parcels. Or I might start with a character about which I know very little, just one or two things (for instance that, as a child, he got lost in some Roman ruins). The important thing is that the idea, whatever it is, has roots, that it goes deep down into the imagination, into the unconscious. Because if it has roots, then it will, with a bit of watering and careful pruning, grow into something quite interesting.

As to how much back story I give each character, it varies wildly. For some characters I know pretty much the same as the reader knows and no more. I think this is probably true of Piranesi — he grew up out of the writing and before my eyes — I had had all sorts of wrong ideas about him earlier on. I learnt about him by writing him.

For some of the other characters in the book I know a bit more. But this is mostly because I didn’t realise until quite late on that the story had to be all from Piranesi’s point of view or it wouldn’t work. So some of what I’d intended to write about the other characters ceased to be relevant at that point.

I have an idea which of the Dead is which. So I tend to think ‘Oh, that’s so-and-so,’ whenever Piranesi mentions them. I couldn’t think how this information could ever be discovered by anyone so it couldn’t really go in the book.

You don’t stop thinking about the characters. I have ideas for things Piranesi might say or think, and then I realise that the book is actually printed now, so it’s a bit late.

Piranesi is interested in perfumes and describes them in his precise way. So at one point I sat down and worked out what perfume all the characters wear, including Matthew Rose Sorensen. I have a list. Some of the perfumes are real and some I made up. At the time this seemed like the Most Important Thing To Know. Which seems a bit insane now.

I have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and my energy is badly affected. So I’ve learnt that a very good way to write is to use a Pomodoro or time-boxing system. I use it for other things as well as writing. You set a timer and you work for 25 minutes and then you have a short break. Then you work for another 25 minutes. The work period is called a ‘Pomodoro’ (Italian for tomato), because the guy who invented the system, Francesco Cirillo, first timed his work periods with a kitchen timer in the shape of a tomato. I found it helped me make best use of my limited energy, but perhaps even more than that it also helps get rid of self-imposed pressure and guilt. You can forget about writing a whole novel; you just have to write for 25 minutes. You can forget about all the novels you haven’t written and your complicated emotions about them; you just have to write for 25 minutes.

I write in cafés. Why do writers like cafés so much? Because there’s coffee and croissants and toast. People bring them to you. There’s usually a little bit of background noise which can be helpful (though conversely I also like quiet, empty, early morning cafés.) You’re surrounded by people working, making coffee, tidying up, working on laptops. I like the proximity of people doing their work, of people enjoying working. (I like fiction about people doing their jobs for the same reason — I like procedural detective novels and legal dramas.) I like working in cafés when it’s raining. I love the sound of rain. Working in a café when it’s raining outside is my ideal. I also have apps of café sounds and rain sounds on my laptop. These are useful when I’m at home, but sometimes when I’m in a café and it is actually raining, I’ll still play extra café sounds and extra rain sounds through my headphones. Because you can never have enough.

I also listen to music. In the latter stages of writing I made three Piranesi playlists, to be a sort of soundtrack. I listened to them over and over again as I finished the book. These are the three pieces of music from those playlists which ‘mean’ Piranesi to me.

O Beata Infantia Alio Modo by Hildegard of Bingen, interpreted and performed by Stevie Wishart and Sinfonye and Guy Sigsworth. I just have to hear the opening note (it is a bell-like sound) and the Halls of the House rise up around me.

Zuuenz also by Hildegarde of Bingen, also interpreted and performed by Stevie Wishart and Sinfonye and Guy Sigsworth. Zuuenz is a word which means ‘saint’ in a language that Hildegard made up, for what purpose no one knows.

Wave by David Sylvian. Piranesi is the second novel I have written to Wave (the first was never finished and don’t ask me what it was about because I don’t think I could say). I called one of the sections of Piranesi ‘Wave’ after this track. The song describes an emotion I cannot name.

I am a terrible researcher. Appalling. I pile up books on every subject. I think I need to know everything. If, for example, I realise that the characters possess a number of forks, I can easily get side-tracked into reading a history of forks. It is a real struggle to decide what I actually need, as opposed to what is a fascinating little byway. For Piranesi I read about the history of clouds. I thought I need to know this because there are clouds in the House. As it turned out, it was completely irrelevant. I also read Gary Lachman’s, The Dedalus Book of the 1960s: Turn off your mind. That was much more useful. It described an intellectual landscape where psychedelia, the occult and religion butt up against each other. Very much the sort of place where Laurence Arne-Sayles would feel at home.

At times Piranesi’s naivete is funny and charming, yet by the end of the story, his world view and outlook on happiness made so much sense. How did you balance his innocence and his wisdom so carefully?

The question of balancing innocence and wisdom is an interesting one. It suggests that Piranesi is a mixture of innocence and wisdom. It would be more accurate to say that, viewed one way, he’s all innocence and, viewed another way, he’s all wisdom. He’s either one or the other depending on the context you set him in. He has exactly the knowledge and the skills to live successfully in his particular world. He keeps himself in good health in quite a challenging environment. He is very busy; every day is full of discovery and beauty and meaningful work. No one knows as much about the world as he does. He is the best-informed person in the entire world. (There are only two people.) That’s how he sees himself. But the reader has a different context to place him in, and judged by those lights he’s an innocent, with faulty information. So there are these two lenses that he can be seen through.

I hoped that Piranesi would keep the reader a bit off kilter. I wanted him to challenge the reader’s assumptions. It took me quite a long time to get his character right. I tried out several different versions until I got to who he really is.

Piranesi is content in his confinement. He fishes, he has his journals, is happy to help the Other with his scientific project. Piranesi was thought about and written long before lockdown. What lessons do you think we can learn from Piranesi?

Fictions rise up from God-knows-where. They’re like dreams; they mean different things to different readers (or dreamers). And that, I think, is as it should be. Because of this, I’d be hesitant to talk in terms of lessons; that’s for the reader to work out (or not).

When I became ill my life became severely curtailed. I could go out sometimes, but much of the time I was confined to my house. Lockdown has been pretty easy for me; this is far from the most isolated I’ve been in my life.

As I got towards the end of writing Piranesi I realised that I (a person living a very confined life) was writing a story about a man who couldn’t leave his house; I (a person who of necessity was quite isolated) was writing a story about a man who is alone most of the time, who has only one friend and who makes friends of the Dead and the birds. It might seem a bit preposterous that I didn’t realise until quite late on that this was what I’d done, but the number of things I don’t notice when I’m writing are legion. You’re not really in a noticing frame of mind when you’re writing. You’re attuned to different things.

For some readers Piranesi is confined; for others not. (I’m more on the not side, myself.) I suppose one of the things I was trying to do was to undercut the idea of Piranesi as someone confined, as a victim.

I spent a long time angry at the unfairness of my illness, angry about all that was taken away from me. And a lot was. But how I try to look at it now is that I still have a lot left. As well as a comfortable home and plenty to eat, I still have all of history, all of literature, all of spirituality, all of mathematics, all of art, all of science. And that’s quite a lot really. (To be clear I don’t necessarily do all of those things. Some, such as science or mathematics, are largely a closed book but the point is they’re perfectly available to me.) That’s more how Piranesi thinks. He thinks his life is full of marvellous things.

My aunt was ill for a decade before her death. Her room was small, but there was a tree outside it, just a small, unremarkable tree. When we went to see her she sometimes talked about the tree. After her death I found a diary — just a little thing in which you write appointments. The last thing she wrote was a few days before she died. She was worried about the tree because a wind had come and blown off many of its leaves. The tree, I think, represented the whole of nature to her. And she was still connected to it and to all the seasons through it.

Having said all that, I loved making Piranesi very active. He climbs up walls of statues, fishes in strong tides, goes for long walks in beautiful halls, all things I can’t do or would struggle to do.

One of the bizarre things about lockdown for me has been the way it’s opened my life up at the same time as it closed down other people’s. Gatherings now take place on Zoom... I can take part from my sofa. I’m in regular contact with groups of people I couldn’t have dreamt of before lockdown. When people start to meet again in the real world I shall be happy for them and for all of us, but I expect my world to get a little smaller.

A natural maze: The naked desert in Hoggar, Algeria
A natural maze: The naked desert in Hoggar, Algeria ( Jean -Luc Manaud/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images )

Can you recommend five labyrinths
1. Ursula Le Guin’s The Tombs of Atuan. It’s one of her Earthsea books and contains an underground labyrinth. It’s not a pleasant place, but it is fascinating (plus there’s a map, so you can walk around it by yourself if you like). The protagonist, Arha, must enter the labyrinth in total darkness. Once inside she is allowed to light a lamp or a torch. Like Piranesi, Arha prides herself on her skill in negotiating the labyrinth’s paths. Like Piranesi, there is a question over her real name. Like Piranesi, she faithfully follows rituals, but unlike Piranesi her gods prove false in the end.

2. The House of Asterion, a short story by Jorge Luis Borges contains a labyrinth very closely related to the one in Piranesi. It is quiet and dusty and empty.

3. Laputa: The Castle in the Sky is a Studio Ghibli film by Hayao Miyazaki. This isn’t strictly speaking a labyrinth, it’s an intricate and surreal combination of trees and architecture – and it’s also in the sky. Its ancient robots faithfully tend the birds and the trees and plants in a very Piranesi sort of way.

4. Chatsworth maze. The hedge maze is more or less what you’d expect, rather dusty in summer and worn from all the people’s feet; but the space in which it stands, a great sunken rectangle surrounded by tall trees is very like an impossibly large, sunlit hall.

5. The Mines of Moria from The Lord of the Rings are rather an obvious choice, I suppose, but I do love them in both the book and the film. Moria has all the pleasurable horrors of a labyrinth: a long, walk through the darkness, led by someone who’s forgotten the way, menaced by something people would rather not name, opening out into an ancient, ruined and deserted splendour.

6. The episode of Endeavour which contains the statue of the gorilla also has a hedge maze. It’s an unremarkable maze except for the fact that it contains a very pissed-off tiger. This adds a certain frisson.

What’s currently on your bedside table/‘to be read’ list?
The several wobbly piles of books on my bedside table would, if amalgamated into one pile, be at least as tall as the table itself. They include approximately half of Diana Wynne Jones’s children’s books. I’ve read them all many times. They’re there in case I need quickly to go into one of her many worlds. My favourites are probably The Merlin Conspiracy and Conrad’s Fate.

Also on the bedside table are tiny, tiny things: a tiny wine-coloured bear that a friend gave me when I was in hospital; a tiny Ganesha that a different friend gave me; a tiny, ceramic baby badger which is a) curled up asleep, b) Japanese, c) slightly surreal, d) green. It gives me a peaceful feeling whenever I look at it.

As my brain is so often tired, I do a lot of re-reading. Piled up on the window ledge are about half the Cadfael novels, medieval detective stories by Ellis Peters. Peters is one of two female crime writers I can think of who wrote older women marvellously (the other is Margery Allingham). She not only found older women fascinating, she also found them beautiful and earthy and glamorous. She is an optimistic writer, in love with people. Although Cadfael always solves the murder at the end of the book and restores peace of the community, the background to her books is a vicious civil war in England — so the books are partly about finding peace, beauty and meaning during a time of crisis and shock — which seems pertinent.

Currently I’m reading Mark Vernon’s A Secret History of Christianity, which is about Owen Barfield and his idea of participation: the idea that at some stages humankind has felt much more at one with the world than we do now, as if we were effectively part of the same consciousness. Barfield’s ideas were at the back of my mind as I created Piranesi’s connection to the House, so it would have made sense to read Vernon’s book before I finished writing, but I’m forever doing things in the wrong order.

The books I shall read next are: Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell and The Experience of God by David Bentley Hart, which I’m hoping will be enlightening. I often get God wrong inside my own head.

I also want to re-read Crow by Ted Hughes. In 1975 Hughes went to the Ilkley Literature Festival and read poems from Crow there. And my mother took me to see him. (I don’t think she would have taken me if she’d known what the poems would be like.) I was 15. The memory of him reading is still clear in my mind. I remember he read A Childish Prank. I’m not sure I understood the poems (I’m not sure I understand them now) , but the torrent of images – black and violent and rude and funny and delicate and lovely – came so fast it was like standing under a waterfall. I thought then that Crow was the most extraordinary thing and I still do.

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