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.

The encounter with the albatross is one of the more dramatic episodes that occur within the House. In the “the very depths of Winter” the narrator describes the following:

I saw a vision! In the dim Air above the grey Waves hung a white, shining cross. Its whiteness was a blazing whiteness; it far outshone the Wall of Statues behind it. It was beautiful but I did not understand it. The next moment brought enlightenment of a sort: it was not a cross at all but something vast and white, which glided rapidly towards me on the Wind. What could it be? It must be a bird, but if I could see it at such a great distance, then it must be a bird of much greater size than the birds I was accustomed to. It swept on, coming directly towards me. I spread my arms in answer to its spread wings, as if I was going to embrace it. I spoke out loud. Welcome! Welcome! Welcome! was what I think I meant to say, but the Wind took my breath from me and all I could manage was: ‘Come! Come! Come!’ The bird sailed across the heaving Waves, never once beating its wings. With great skill and ease it tipped itself slightly sideways to pass through the Doorway that separated us. Its wingspan surpassed even the width of the Door. I knew what it was! An albatross!

The most famous albatross in literature is Coleridge’s and it has been interpreted in Christological terms plenty of times (go ahead and Google it). The narrator in Piranesi collides with the albatross in an ecstatic embrace rather than killing it, but the participatory vision the The Rime of the Ancient Mariner lands on (“He prayeth best, who loveth best / All things both great and small; / For the dear God who loveth us, / He made and loveth all”) also finds echoes in Piranesi and the narrator’s experience of the House (the final line of the novel: “The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.”).

But, given all the Narnia connections, there is a more immediate reference available, which is the scene in Voyage of the Dawn Treader when Prince Caspian’s ship has blundered into a zone of absolute darkness. The crew has lost all hope of escape when:

Lucy looked along the beam [of light] and presently saw something in it. At first it looked like a cross, then it looked like an aeroplane, then it looked like a kite, and at last with a whirring of wings it was right overhead and was an albatross. It circled three times round the mast and then perched for an instant on the crest of the gilded dragon at the prow. It called out in a strong sweet voice what seemed to be words though no one understood them. After that it spread its wings, rose, and began to fly slowly ahead, bearing a little to starboard. Drinian steered after it not doubting that it offered good guidance. But no one but Lucy knew that as it circled the mast it had whispered to her, “Courage, dear heart,” and the voice, she felt sure, was Aslan’s, and with the voice a delicious smell breathed in her face.

That the albatross is functioning as some sort of Christological symbol in Piranesi seems clear to me. In addition to the “white shining cross” description mentioned above, the narrator describes how the “In the Air he was a miraculous being – a Heavenly Being – but on the Stones of the Pavement he was mortal and subject to the same embarrassments and clumsiness as other mortals.” It does not seem much of a stretch to hear a resonance with the doctrine of the incarnation and Philippians 2 here. Physically, the back of the albatrosses’ dark wings are both marked by a single white star (and if the potential connections between Jesus of Nazareth and distinctive marks on the back of one’s hands, er, wings, are unclear, then I refer you to the past 1500 years of western visual art). It seems to me that Aslan has shown up within the windswept halls of the House.

But, it’s not totally clear what it means that Aslan has shown up. After the initial ecstatic encounter, the narrator gives up some of his own precious dried seaweed (his source of fuel in the winter months) to help the albatross and his mate build a nest (the presence of a mate complicates the Christological symbolism a little, but I think the symbolism is mostly found in the moment of encounter). But, the albatross does not speak, and does not show up again in the story, beyond becoming a marker of for the year in which the events of the narrative unfold, as mentioned. The albatross’s arrival is clearly a significant moment in the world of the House, but its meaning remains obscure.

In terms of the narrative, outside of any potential symbolism, the episode with the albatross illustrates the narrator’s relationship to the world of the House, which is one of exuberant openness (so, I agree with Alan Jacobs’s comment here that there is a buffered/porous self thing going on here, but I read it in the opposite direction he does). And, perhaps that’s all this is – a way to show the narrator’s relationship to his world, with some Christological symbols thrown in to set off some sparks of recognition in nerds like me – another Narnian Easter egg.

With the Dawn Treader reference though, I can’t help but think that there is room for a little more interpretation. In the Dawn Treader episode Aslan arrives in the form of the albatross to lead the trapped ship out of the darkness. There is nothing so direct in Piranesi but, it does seem significant to me that it is only after the encounter with the albatross that the narrator begins to more intentionally investigate his past and his relationship with the House and the Other. The final result of these investigations is a return to our world – with the help of the angelically named Raphael (a name which means something like “God has healed”).

The albatross pushes the narrator out of the world of the House and back towards … well, I want to say the “real world” here, but that’s not quite right. The House is clearly “real.” I think instead it is better to say that it pushes the narrator back to the world of the living, because despite its stately beauty, the House is a world of the dead and lifeless. In another Magician’s Nephew reference, it most resembles the dead world of Charn, with its hall of statues and silence (and it is Jadis, the White Witch, who turns living things into statues in the Narnia stories). While the narrator has come to love the House, finding its “Kindness infinite,” that judgment does not strike me as entirely reliable. The House in the end seems relatively indifferent, its Tides rise and fall without care for what might lie in their path.

So, in my reading, the albatross episode, with its ecstatic embrace, is a shock back towards the world of life – messy, noisy, and chaotic as it might be. This is, I think, a deeply Christian message. A retreat into a world of fixed symbolism, of impressive but lifeless representations of belief, is not an option for the Christian because of what God has done in Christ. To quote one of my favorite Bonhoeffer passages, from his Ethics:

Just as God’s love entered the world, thereby submitting to the misunderstanding and ambiguity that characterize everything worldly, so also Christian love does not exist anywhere but in the worldly, in an infinite variety of concrete worldly action, and subject to misunderstanding and condemnation. Every attempt to portray a Christianity of ‘pure’ love purged of worldly ‘impurities’ is a false purism and perfectionism that scorns God’s becoming human and falls prey to the fate of all ideologies. God was not too pure to enter the world.

Maybe.

Where Lewis is relatively direct in his use of Christian imagery (when Aslan tells the children that he is known by a different name in our world, he appears as a lamb, just in case anyone might miss the point), Clarke is very much not, and things remain ambiguous. I think this is probably on purpose – the book intentionally invites a wide range of readings (the House is literally a hall of silent images). But, given that Narnia forms some significant part of the fictional DNA, it would be strange if there was no Christian element at all.

And, given the world Clarke has created, atmospheric and austere, what would it look like if Aslan did show up in the mysterious House? While the novel is a sort of improvisational riff on Narnia, it is not a straightforward extension of the world of Lewis’s children’s stories. A talking animal or a cup of tea with a faun would not fit. That when Aslan does show up, if indeed he does, he does so as an albatross and not as a statue with the other figures from fiction, nature, and mythology seems to be another nudge in a Christian direction. “Why child,” Aslan might ask, “Would you expect to find me among the statues? Why do you seek the living among the dead?”