I’ve just read two books, recently released in beautifully tooled hardback. As I was reading them, I’d close them momentarily to gaze on their covers, which become meditative if you let them. The first, Clara and the Sun, is from my all-time favourite author, Nobel Laureate, Zazuo Ishiguro…his ninth book. The other, Piranesi, is only the second novel of an increasing favourite of mine, Susanna Clarke, author of the amazing Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.
Clarke’s story, Piranesi, is a fantasy set in an alternative universe. Ishiguro’s story is almost sci-fi, set in the near-future. Yet, something links these books, unalike though they are. The narrators express themselves with an almost stilted, careful politeness and are both concerned to a high degree with loneliness, and what they can remember.
Although they were only born a few years apart, Clarke and Ishiguro have very different stories. Ishiguro came to England from Japan when he was five. His mother had been in Nagasaki when the atomic bomb was dropped, and was very slightly injured. His father, oceanographer, brought his family to the UK for work.
After university, Clarke worked in publishing, especially editing cookery books, while she secretly began her first novel in her spare time. “I had a kind of waking dream,” she says, “about a man in 18th-century clothes in a place rather like Venice, talking to some English tourists. And I felt strongly that he had some sort of magical background – he'd been dabbling in magic, and something had gone badly wrong.’ She sold the unfinished manuscript to Bloomsbury in early 2003, after two publishers rejected it as unmarketable. Bloomsbury were so sure the novel would be a success that they offered Clarke a £1 million advance. After promoting her book, she fell ill with chronic fatigue syndrome, and it’s taken her a long time to write a second. And, even though Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrel was a huge success, Clarke has not yet fully been given her due, unlike Ishiguro.
Very early on, it because clear that Ishiguro would be a writer. In primary school he recalls creating…a character called Mr. Senior, which was the name of my friend’s scoutmaster. I thought this was a really cool name for a spy. I got into Sherlock Holmes around then in a big way. I’d do a pastiche of a Victorian detective story that began with a client arriving and telling a long story. But a lot of the energy went into decorating our books to look exactly like the paperbacks we saw in the shops—drawing bullet holes on the front and putting quotations from newspapers on the back; “Brilliant, chilling tension.” —Daily Mirror.
As a teenager, Ishiguro describes himself as a… “guitar-playing hippie.” After finishing his degree, he worked with homeless people in London, until…”almost by accident, I came across a little advertisement for a creative-writing M.A. taught by Malcolm Bradbury at the University of East Anglia. Today it’s a famous course, but in those days it was a laughable idea, alarmingly American.” Out of that MA came his first book, A View of Pale Hills, set in Nagasaki.
copyright Andrew Testa
“I tend to write the same book over and over,” Ishiguro admitted in a 2015 interview with the Guardian. On most fronts, his books couldn’t be more different. But there are themes he returns to time and again…how we witness things…perceive things…and how this affects our memory. And then there is this somewhat formal and stilted narrating voice that most of his characters have. For all this to work, he employs ‘unreliable narrators’.
In his second book, Artist in a Floating World, Masuji Ono used to be a respected artist but now the 2ndWW is over, he recalls his past subjectively, ignoring the grim reckoning that has followed the horrors of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Ono’s guilty secrets centre on guilt, and they come to haunt him as he tries to marry off his daughter.
The Remains of the Day (1989) won the Booker Prize and is a glorious film. Lord Darlington’s butler, Stevens, has given his life for ‘the house’, without ever realising…or admitting…two things – that the housekeeper is in love with him, and that he’s been in service to a Nazi sympathizer.
My own early favourite The Unconsoled, baffled some critics who savaged it, but others right described it as ‘a masterpiece’. Written almost in stream of consciouness, it’s the story of a concert pianist who arrives in a foreign city not knowing where he is or what he’s supposed to be doing.
In Never Let Me Go (2005) the narrator is a clone who grows up in a children’s home for clones whose organs will be harvested one day. It’s never clear at what point our narrator realises what her fate is, but she is the most delightful of companions as she unfolds her terrifying story.
Maybe Ishiguro’s seventh novel, The Buried Giant won him his Nobel Prize; it’s a very great book, which I talk about in more detail here.
Finally, we have Klara and the Sun. This elegant, eloquent and intricately controlled novel explores what it means to be an Artificial Friend – a humanoid machine bought by parents to provide companionship for their teenage children, who, having been genetically manipulated, or ‘lifted’ to gain higher intelligence, are lonely home-schoolers who need a friend. Klara is chosen by Josie, who responded badly to being ‘lifted’ and is often seriously ill with something that may kill her as it killed her sister. As before, Ishiguro seeds in hints and clues about the shape of this futuristic world, allowing us to do most of the imagining ourselves. Klara takes it for granted that we’ll understand the odd pixilation she experiences with sight, and the fact she can’t smell…and the fact that some people describe her as no better than a vacuum cleaner. Klara is programmed to want to help, and unlike other AIs in fiction, who rebel, her willingness to help humans is misused in chilling ways.
The New York Times says…I found myself thinking of Thomas Hardy, the way Hardy’s novels, at the end of the 19th century, captured the growing schism between the natural world and the industrialized one. There is no doubt that Ishiguro’s novels will become the sort of classics that Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure have become.
Will Clarke follow those footsteps and continue to bring us remarkable novels with remarkable stories? I've written about the amazing Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell here. And now we have Piranesi, in which the narrator can’t recall his original name. Devoid of reliable memories, he lives in a strange, ocean-washed (and occasionally drowned) stone-built land which consists of miles of empty halls and courtyards. In his journal he writes about a vast array of statuary in the halls, and the fifteen other people who have lived in this world, all of them now reduced to their bones, except his one so-called friend, ‘the Other’, who only visits for an hour twice a week, but brings him surprising gifts such as new shoes and plastic bowls and is the person who has named him 'Piranesi'. This is not a fond naming; Giovanni Battista Piranesi was born in Venice is 1720 and became a classical archaeologist, architect, and artist, famous for his etchings
Work by Piranesi
of fictitious and atmospheric "prisons". So I will call him what he calls himself... The Child of the House He loves his world, and, unlike Klara’s teenaged friend, does not feel at all lonely. In fact, when someone new infiltrates this world, he’s terrified, especially as the Other warns him that this interloper will only bring madness.
I’m going to stop there, before I reveal all the twists and turns of the story. To find out what happens to this Child of the House, and where is is he lives, and how these others are getting into it, you'll have to read this beautiful book.
“Some ideas go into your mind and become part of the furniture,” Clarke says. “Piranesi’s favourite statue is of a faun in the pose of Mr Tumnus. There’s so much of Piranesi in that story that I must have subconsciously remembered …Anyone who’s read Narnia as a child, for whom it is a formative book, constantly is aware that they have that desire – one day, there will be the wardrobe. Something that will take you there. It’s a very old longing in me.”
Piranesi is published by Bloomsbury
Klara and the Sun is published by Faber & Faber