“When the Moon rose in the Third Northern Hall I went to the Ninth Vestibule to witness the joining of the Three Tides.”
It is sixteen years since Susanna Clarke published her debut novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell that she had begun writing in 1992. It was longlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2004 and reached No. 3 in the New York Times Bestseller list according to wiki. Containing “an entire fictional corpus of magical scholarship” that book itself could be said to be a life’s work. Indeed it has been reported that Clarke was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome after Johnathan Strange was published (The Guardian 25/11/20), indicative surely of the demands of writing such a work.
But Clarke is back with a new book, Piranesi. A thinner work at 235 pages but no less imaginative or carefully plotted. The writer said:
“It’s a book that I really didn’t know whether I could write or not. There were I suppose a lot of things against it, against the likelihood of it ever being written – after such a long illness.”
(The Guardian ibid)
Only people who do write understand how draining it can be mentally and physically.
But Piranesi has been written and has been shortlisted for the Costa book awards. It is the most extraordinary feat of imagination. I started reading it thinking the usual reviewer-ish thoughts: elegant prose, a good central character, interesting setting. I started off being mildly interested to find out what would happen, but before long I was scrabbling through the pages at 2 am desperate to find out. And who knows whether the opening sentence (quoted above) may come to be one of those that make their way onto a list of ten greatest in years to come. I hope so. Because it’s beautiful.
There are still traces of the philosophy of the original book, the idea that magic is something that once existed in England but has been lost.
“All round me doors into other words began appearing but knew the one I wanted, the one into which everything forgotten flows. The edges of that door were frayed and worn by the passage of old ideas leaving this world.”
From writing to reading and where we store our books, comes an account selling them. The Bookseller’s Tale (Penguin Random House, 2020). a wonderfully unsnobby yet erudite account of Martin Latham’s 35 years as a bookseller in Canterbury.
I particularly liked Latham’s section on comfort books – these are the books most of us actually want to read, rather than the ones we feel we should. Booksellers have a pretty much agreed list of what these are. And as Latham points out, Jacques Derrida’s theories of deconstruction don’t appear. This list of loved books bears no relation to the ‘canon’ of classics beloved of the groves of academe. So which books appear most often on our list of guilty pleasures? Amongst others:
“Cloud Atlas, I Capture the Castle, The Catcher in the Rye, Wide Sargasso Sea, Lord of the Rings, Anne of Green Gables, Harry Potter … Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books.”
There is a splendid story Latham relates as follows:
“A.S. Byatt was an early fan of Terry Pratchett in the days when sci-fi and fantasy rarely intruded into broadsheet book reviews. In 1990 when she excitedly bought the new Discworld book in my Canterbury bookshop she said jokingly, ‘I love Discworld but I can’t been seen buying it in London.”
Question: How many of us did the Marie Kondo thing in our homes, making a serious effort to whittle everything down to the absolute minimum? Quite a lot judging by the number of books the young lady sold. I remember getting rid of quite a few of my books– at least taking them to the charity shop. It didn’t work though. Books just won’t stay reduced in this house. They increase exponentially. I suspect they do in other places too. That’s why we need libraries.
Libraries have exerted a fascination over us for thousands of years. Even people who are not big readers are comforted by the existence of libraries out there somewhere. Libraries inspire their own stories, not least Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose and Carlos Ruaz Zafon’s Shadow of the Wind. These are our storehouses of knowledge, the sum total wisdom handed down from generation to generation. Libraries are the great keepers of our secrets often housed in magnificent (if somewhat eclectic and inconvenient) circumstances.
Sometimes the library we worship is ‘library idea’ rather than real or extant library:
“For much of humanity, especially in the West, the Library of Alexandria has been the founding library myth, the building in which we invest a lot of our library lore. Universal, compendious and cataclysmically burned down by the Romans, or depending on how the West is feeling, Arabs or Jews. The 2019 film Agora starring Rachel Weisz is part of our long mourning and celebration of that library. The story that Homer led Alexander the Great to choose the site for the city of Alexandria in a dream adds to the library’s glamour.”
Finally a quote for feminists:
“Anciently, goddesses were more associated with wisdom than Gods: Saraswati in India; Athena in Greece, Minerva in Rome. It’s as if humanity dimly grasps the fact that, through all the ages of male dominance and male philosphers, women are good at peace and men are good at war: maybe women are onto something.”