The madness of Susanna Clarke, fairy princess
Do fairies exist? To steal us away, to cast curses, to impurify our bloodlines? Lets say yes. We have artists, dont we? Sensitive types, so fragile and retreating. The best of them seem touched by an otherness, an otherlandishness, of being. Maybe a small part of their humanity was bargained away without their knowing. A pinky finger. A left eyeball. Thats why they dont stomp through the world as the rest of us do, very loudly. On those rare occasions when theyre seen to leave their homes, they sort of flicker—fairly float—across the way. Whatever you do, dont startle the fairy-people, or youll scare them off. Just look at what befell Susanna Clarke.
In 2004, Clarke published what can only be described as her first dispatch from the land of Faerie. Ten years in the making and 846 (footnoted!) pages long, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell was ethnography, lore. It was as if shed been there, to England, at the time of Napoleon, when those two infamous magicians, the bookworm Norrell and his perky pupil Strange, tapped into unearthly powers to impress politicians, move mountains, and defeat the French. Thats not how it happened, you say? Why, yes it is. You simply havent read your hidden history.
The events that followed only proved Clarkes preternatural pedigree. After the publication, in 2006, 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 went poof. Yumpy. Far, far away. For 14 years. The official story was debilitating mental illness—housebound, couldnt write—but clearly her fairy patrons had come for her, to reclaim their erstwhile princess. Or else they meant to punish Clarke for her betrayal, for spilling their precious secrets, by enfuzzing her beautiful brain. Something like that. The ways and reasons of the Fae are little known to common folk.
If this strikes you as cutesy, tidy, annoying, even a bit disturbing, a romanticization or fancification of what sounds like a period of immense torture for Clarke and her loved ones, consider their own words. “It was as though shed been captured into the land of Faerie, as if she had been taken away from us,” Clarkes editor told New York magazine. Clarke herself, in a rare interview, told The New Yorker, “You really shouldnt annoy fairies, or writeabout them—they dont like it very much.” Given that Clarke has now released a second dispatch from Faerie, called Piranesi, which plunges far deeper than Strange & Norrell ever did into those forbidden fortresses from which the un-mad and mortal among us are forever barred, perhaps theres no better explanation. Clarke has indeed been there and back again.
In Strange & Norrell, Clarke reports on the various ways an enterprising soul might make it to the fairy realm, which is located, difficultly, “behind the sky” and “on the other side of the rain.” Mirrors help, if you know the enchantment; if you dont, make friends with an evil fairy king who desires your soul. Whatever it takes, because Faerie is the wellspring of magic, magic which seems to have trickled out of England sometime in the 1500s.
Three centuries later, Gilbert Norrell rolls up, bewigged and less than bemused, to bring it back. “To restore,” as he likes to put it, “English magic.” An obsessive-compulsive hoarder of arcane spellbooks, he alone possesses the know-how, until a young country woman demands of her dissolute boyfriend that he shape up and find a job. Thus Jonathan Strange becomes Englands second working magician. He and Norrell pass through stages of friendship and enemyship and eventually settle on something like frenemyship. Elder and upstart, conservative and liberal, scholar and seeker, loner and lover—theyre your classic dyad, two halves making a whole.
One irksome point of contention between these boys: Norrell wont give Strange directions to Faerie, so Strange must hack together a DIY solution. Its not pretty, this process, for it involves cooking a decrepit old cat lady down into the essence of her crazy. Tastes something unspeakable, but if fairies are “barely sane” by human standards, Strange reasons, then to reach them one must get, as it were, on their level. In the end, Clarkes book really isnt about the restoration of English magic. Its about the restoration of English madness.
Madness, for Clarke as for so many of her fellow fairy-folk over the ages, confers certain compensations. “It used to be well known that when fairies hid themselves from general sight,” Clarke writes, “lunatics were often able to perceive them.” (Strange discovers this when the King of England, blind and batshit, makes effortless conversation with the fairy king.) The olden-time mages, she adds, “regarded madmen as seers and prophets and listened to their ramblings with the closest attention.” For all its agonies, madness awakens in its sufferers the gift of fairy sight, access to those deepest truths covered up by centuries of mannish toil and industry.
The only possible conclusion is: Clarke is writing from experience. Theres stuff in Strange & Norrell no normie could know, like the secret ingredient of regret-colored pigment (“the tears of spinsters of good family, who must live long lives of impeccable virtue and die without ever having had a day of true happiness”). Or the meaning of a rose at ones lips. Or the way a fairy sublimely sings. “The world is not dumb at all, but merely waiting for someone to speak to it in a language it understands,” Clarke writes. “In the fairys song the earth recognized the names by which it called itself.” Heres a writer who is at her most lucid precisely when shes articulating the highest insanities. If not quite a defense of madness, Strange & Norrell is an argument for at least a little more of it in the modern world. More freakiness. More fairyness. When Strange quaffs a safer titration of his crazy potion, he doesnt crack up. Instead, he journeys within: “He found that he no longer cared very much about magic. Doors slammed in his mind and he went wandering off into rooms and hallways inside himself that he had not visited in years.”
This was to be the very thing Clarke would do, in the addled years spent thinking about, and then writing, Piranesi.
Magic has long been extinct
Giovanni Battista Piranesi was a mid-18th-century Italian artist, best known for his black-and-white, proto-Escherian etchings of fantastical 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 are glimpsed in the 2015 BBC adaptation of the former. His work conjures the giddy terror of being caught in a good maze, like Norrells twisting manor, or the land of Faerie.
The Piranesi of Clarkes new novel, its narrator and main character, is not an artist, but he is a man trapped in an infinite megastructure. Fabulous and frightening, Piranesi calls it “the House” but also, at times, “the World”—“since the two are for all practical purposes identicRead More – Source