I have just begun reading Susanna Clarke’s weighty novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. I mean “weighty” in the literal, physical sense: I am finding this 1,000-page wonder, a book I did not believe could be written in this century, a difficult one to hold comfortably while reading in bed! But it is also weighty both in its material–a Regency-era fantasy presenting an alternative world not far off our own maps–and its impact. Incredibly, it was longlisted for the 2004 Man Booker Prize; less surprising, it won the 2005 Hugo Award for Best Novel, as well as the World Fantasy Award, the Locus, and the Mythopoeic Award for Adult Lit. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is one of the books of the decade.
And I am enjoying it. True, I have needed supplementary physiotherapy to adjust for the weight of the tome. But I am pleased to finally get to Strange & Norrell, which has been tempting me for years.
Besides the desire for a SHANWAR 2021 read, part of my reason for pulling Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell off the bookshelf now is because Clarke has recently published Piranesi, a dramatic fantasy experiment in fiction. I had heard that there is a significant connection to C.S. Lewis’ Narnian prequel, The Magician’s Nephew. This novel has been noted for its fantastic evocation by J.K. Rowling, and continues to fascinate readers and writers alike. A quote from Uncle Andrew is also the epigraph to Piranesi, inviting us to think about the possible links between these two fantastic worlds.
Because I study literature and the spiritual life, someone recently sent me an interview with Susanna Clarke by Sarah Lothian of the Church Times. Lothian notes the importance of The Magician’s Nephew for its ability to help her think about difficult questions of life. While it seems that no doubt The Magician’s Nephew is worth reading with Piranesi, it is actually Owen Barfield who seems to be the most important influence behind the new novel. Barfield’s philosophical treatments of the evolution of language–captured in philosophical books like Poetic Diction and Saving the Appearance, or more popularly in things like History in English Words–is one of the critical unseen realities that binds together the work of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. It also seems to be the core material for a literary experiment by one of the 21st-century’s most important speculative fiction writers, Susanna Clarke.
This note remains just a teaser, as it will take me weeks to read Strange & Norrell before I finally get to Piranesi. However, I thought it was worth sharing the Church Times interview. This podcast is actually quite lovely as a whole. Clarke talks about Owen Barfield’s work about 30 minutes in, with an intentional nod to Lewis, Tolkien, and the Inklings and a thanks to Malcolm Guite. But beyond these literary Inklings’ links, it is a winsome conversation about Clarke’s own faith journey, as well as a cautious invitation to a childlike faith and a robust invitation to consider religious joy.
You can find the podcast here or click below.