The Year of the Albatross

I’m exploring the misty halls of Susanna Clarke’s (excellent) Piranesi below. While I think what follows is mostly spoiler free (especially if you’ve read the novel’s epigraph, and say, the first 5-10 pages), if you are especially spoiler averse, you may not want to continue.

To keep track of time, the narrator of Susanna Clarke’s novel, Piranesi, uses a personal calendar arranged around events that have occurred in his life while living in the (literally) otherworldly House. Wandering among the statues and birds that fill the halls of the House the narrator keeps a series of indexed journals. On an early volume, “November 2012” has been crossed out and is instead referred to as a “The Year of Weeping and Wailing.” The subsequent year is the “Year I discovered the Coral Halls,” followed by the “Year I named the Constellations” and so on. The year in which the events in the story mostly take place is the “Year the Albatross came to the South-Western Halls.”

The use of this idiosyncratic calendar is an early clue for the reader seeking to unravel the mystery of the House and its occupants, but it is also one of the ways in which the strangeness of the world of the House is created. Each journal entry that makes up the book is marked by the date stamp of “the X day of the Y month of the Year the Albatross came to the South-Western Halls”, reminding the reader that we are in the world of the House (at the end of the book, the entries return to a standard calendar).

The repeated mention of the albatross as a date marker almost makes it invisible to the reader. But, maybe I am getting a little bit ahead of myself. One of the other things readers will note are the many references and allusions to C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia stories. There are numerous connections to The Magician’s Nephew from the epigraph onward. For The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe fans, the narrator describes his favorite statue early in the book: a faun with his finger pressed to his lips (“I dreamt of him once; he was standing in a snowy forest and speaking to a female child”). It is not for nothing that one of the entries in the index of the narrator’s journal is “Outsider literature, see Fan fiction” (although the allusions and references aren’t all straightforward: Clarke gives some of C.S. Lewis’s thoughts on “chronological snobbery” to one of the story’s villains, for example).

All this to say a reader could be forgiven for expecting a statue of a great lion to appear at any moment among the collection of animals, people, and mythical figures that fill the house. And yet no lion appears (although there is an impressive gorilla). But, just because there is no statue of a lion does not mean that C.S. Lewis’s Aslan (known by another name in our world, as he tells the children in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader) is entirely absent. So, back to the albatross.

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Blogging in Pandemic-time

In October 1939, C.S. Lewis delivered a sermon to Oxford students titled, “Learning in War-time” (which, it would probably be better if you skip the rest of this and just go read it instead – you can find various bootleg copies online, or in the collection of essays titled, The Weight of Glory). As the “normal” of everyday life seems to dissolve hour by hour and the various consequences of a global pandemic come into focus, I found myself revisiting Lewis’s address recently. Likely I’m joining a multitude of other readerly and writerly types who feel useless in the face of charts tracking terrifying exponential curves. What good is literature and the arts in the face of an implacable world-eating virus? I am finding it hard to focus on my normal, routine tasks and responsibilities, drawn repeatedly to various online dashboards and live update news feeds. This isn’t my usual mode of operation – I usually don’t find it that difficult to unplug, but this, this has been hard to ignore.

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Reading as Vice

[C.S.] Lewis was already acquiring the skill and taste to claim, one day, the mantle of twentieth-century heir to Samuel Johnson, the most widely read man in eighteenth-century England. To generations of students, astonished by his prodigious literary memory, he would give this simple counsel: “The great thing is to be always reading, but never to get bored – treat it not like work, more as a vice!”

From, The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings by Philip and Carol Zaleski.