Ceci N’est Pas Un Symbole

Susannah Clarke, whose Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is currently on the bestseller lists, is interviewed over at the Sunday Herald. She says she started the book in 1993, before the magician craze had bloomed into the phenomenon it is today. Now that the book is out, readers, critics, and judges often wonder about the story’s deeper meaning.

‘For some people,’ sighs Clarke, ‘it’s not enough that a book is just a story, particularly a long book. I wouldn’t say there are no themes in it, but I wasn’t particularly conscious of them, and they weren’t the reason for writing. The reason was to tell the story.
‘I had this kind of discussion about a year ago on a hiking trip with some friends. Someone was asking me what the message, or the idea of the book was. I said, it’s a narr-ative, I’m a narrative writer, it’s just a story. He said yes, but it’s about magicians and what do you think of them, and I said no, really, it’s a story. He couldn’t quite get this.’

Clarke’s comments reminded me of similar ones by Zadie Smith a couple of years ago. When asked about the significance of a character’s hat in a short story she wrote, declared, “I have a hat like that in life, and I’m not sure what it means to me. I’m dreaming of a sort of writing where hats just come and go across the border without having to show their papers or reveal the purpose of their visit.” Of course, it’s natural for critics to look for symbols in stories, but it’s also refreshing when people admit that there wasn’t a conscious choice. Sometimes it’s liberating to just write without worrying about what it all means.