Tuesday 3 January 2023

A note on Piranesi by Susanna Clarke (2020)

As may be recalled, I regard Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell as my favourite novel written in the past... oh, fifty years or so. At any rate; I regard it as one of the very best novels I have ever read. And I have read it many times.   

When, after a gap of some fifteen years, SC published a new work; I felt I ought to read it, to give it a chance - even though I could see that it was not the same kind of thing as S&N... not at all. 

I read an extensive excerpt, and could see that Piranesi was written in something like the highly-wrought, formal-symbolic, style that was very fashionable in translations of foreign writers (and by foreign writers using English) some forty to sixty years ago. 

The prose of Piranesi demonstrated neither the confident fluidity and power, nor the sinuous wit, that made Strange and Norrell such a continuous delight. It might as well have been written by someone else altogether.  

Anyway; to overcome the perceived turgidity of style; in late 2020 I finally decided to tackle the audiobook version (which was well performed). 

The day afterwards; I wrote the following in an e-mail (somewhat edited):

My overall evaluation is that Piranesi is an 'interesting' short story that has been pumped-up into a 'novel' (or, at least, that attempt has been made). 

The whole thing fell to pieces at the end in an astonishing way, so terribly inept that I suspect it may have been written (largely) by someone else*

This corresponds with the moral collapse of the book from the sweet innocence of the early chapters, to the sordid references (and actuality) of the late ones. 

It seems obvious that the author had no idea how to finish the book, in any way, at any level - and it just dribbles off into nothing. 

I also listened to an audio podcast interview with Susanna Clark which is linked at the foot of this summary article in the Church Times - about her life since writing Strange and Norrell and the writing of Piranesi.  

It is rather sad altogether. Woman geniuses are apparently always precarious and vulnerable. 

Susanna Clarke must have been a genius when she wrote Strange and Norrell, but apparently is not any more. She seems now to be writing as therapy - at any rate, she is apparently not driven by an inner motivation. 

She has become a liberal artsy Anglican; but, as usual, such insipid pseudo-Christianity is doing no detectable good.

*Note: What I meant by this was that I guessed there had been a large editorial input; to the point of overwhelming the authorial voice. I deplore the modern practice - in the publishing of mainstream as well as genre fiction - of an author almost co-writing a book, as a de facto collaboration with editor/s, beta-readers and other advisors. I believe that this quasi-committee system of authorship diminishes whatever is distinctive about specific authors; and almost completely eliminates any possibility of genius-level work. 


Epimetheus said...

I'm sorry to hear this! Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a yearly read for me, and the conceptual premise of Parenesi as given in the blurb sounded intriguing.

Strange & Norrell is filled with a deep sincere love of Britishness, though Clarke was self-conscious enough to moderate it with Stephen and his perspective. I wonder if political correctness (ethnic self-loathing, traitorous malice) caught up with her in the way it has corrupted so many others.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Epi - I agree with that tremendous feeling of love for England (England specifically, rather than Britain - I would say). Susanna Clarke's volume of short stories - The Ladies of Grace Adieu - has some really excellent stuff in it, and is well worth reading (and re-reading!). Several give more insight into the strange nature of fairies; each quite different from The Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair, but also living in England.