Reviewed: Susanna Clarke, Piranesi, Bloomsbury, 2020
It’s been 16 years since English novelist Susanna Clarke’s hit debut, the genre-busting doorstopper Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Evoking the voices of Austen and Chesterton, Clarke constructed a Regency-era Britain simmering with prophecies, wizardly rivalries, terrible curses and faerie balls—transforming the fantastical into something mundane, textured, lived-in. But it isn’t Clarke’s meticulous world-building that has stayed with me. What lingers is her canny understanding of human nature: the tensions between the provincial and the cosmopolitan, Strange’s soul-eating void of grief, and the feeling of total isolation experienced by Stephen Black and Lady Pole, who were enchanted to stay silent about their nightly torture.
These piercing depictions of pain, identity and loss of agency are spiritually echoed in Piranesi, Clarke’s second novel. At first blush, fans of Jonathan Strange may be confounded by the stark differences between the two books—Piranesi is lean and epistolary, confined to the diary entries of its titular narrator. While its predecessors (Clarke published a short-story collection, The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories, two years after Jonathan Strange) conjured up familiar and bustling locales from London past, Piranesi takes place in a desolate liminal space, with no clear connection to reality.
All Piranesi remembers or knows is that he lives in ‘the House’, a Borgesian superstructure of tiered halls and vestibules. He has no memory of who he is or how he got there. As far as he knows, there is no exit. The House is populated by titanic, classical statues: minotaurs, women holding beehives, angels with their wings caught in rosebushes. Apart from Piranesi, his companion ‘The Other’ and the skeletal remains of 13 other humanoid figures, people don’t appear to exist. Instead there are schools of fish and various types of birds. A tumultuous ocean is contained in the lower halls, which sometimes sends its tides crashing into the central halls where Piranesi sleeps.
Piranesi refers to the House as ‘the World’ but this world is not the one we know. And yet it is familiar, triggering the same feeling of vertigo one feels viewing the architectural dreamscapes of M.C. Escher, or the atmospheric prison etchings of Giovanni Battista Piranesi (our narrator’s namesake). These off-kilter spaces, filled with fog, storms and yawning canyons, are initially mystifying in their strangeness—and doubly so because of Piranesi’s immense love of each facet. ‘The Beauty of the House is immeasurable,’ he writes, ‘its Kindness infinite.’
Eventually, clues emerge that unveil the mystery of the House, and Piranesi himself. The Other speaks and dresses like a modern-day Englishman, while Piranesi only wears clothes fashioned out of fish leather, or gifted to him by The Other. Visitors start popping up, and one of them scrawls messages on the House’s walls. Piranesi sees that one of his older diaries ‘was originally labelled November 2012, but this has been crossed out at some point and relabelled Thirtieth Day in the Twelfth Month in the Year of Weeping and Wailing’. He finds old scraps of paper in the other halls, scribbled with violent fantasies. ‘This was the writing of a very angry and unhappy person,’ Piranesi notes. Like the characters of Jonathan Strange, it becomes clear our narrator is someone who has experienced pain but lacks the tools to express it.
Piranesi is a remarkable book for many reasons. Clarke illustrates the sublime scale of the House in brisk, compulsively readable prose, all while doling out page-turning thrills as the complex mysteries begin to unspool. Chiefly, however, the story succeeds as an intimate character study of how trauma annihilates the self, and how we quarantine away suffering in order to cope. Gerald Bruns in On Ceasing to Be Human posits that much of Western literature is about the human struggle to maintain a coherent identity: ‘The “I”—the logical subject, the disengaged punctual ego exercising or trying for self-possession and rational control—the “I” is always in danger of being lost or overtaken and must struggle to preserve its integrity.’ Violence, abuse, a loss of control or purpose are such dangers—but Piranesi has fully transcended them by forgetting his past, anchored by the assertion that he is merely a ‘Beloved Child of the House’.
In this sense, Clarke’s Piranesi echoes the characters of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, whom Bruns describes as ‘porous and exposed, liable at any moment to be rinsed like a washcloth by whatever surrounds it’. Like Arethusa, who transforms into a spring to avoid rape, and Daphne, who shifts into a laurel tree to escape Apollo’s advances, Piranesi is a creature of the in-between—or as Bruns has noted, ‘not sealed off from whatever is not itself but is open to invasion from the other’. These characters retain traces of their past selves, but have foregone a coherent sense of self in the present; they are free from trauma but are also unmoored from what formerly defined them.
Like Piranesi, I’ve spent the past year mostly confined, and the year before that reeling from trauma. During this period, my sense of certainty has degraded, my idea of who I am is even more fragmented and nebulous. To adapt, I’ve defined myself by recording the minutiae of the everyday: the yowl of an alley cat, my sister’s jokes, the way sunlight strikes my bedside table at precisely 7 am. It was a singular comfort to pick up a book that feels simultaneously removed from our world and emotionally prescient; to follow a character that gives shape to his confusion and disorientation through writing, just as I do.
In Piranesi, Clarke makes it so that the narrator notes down every fleeting thought or observation in his journals: daily activities, discoveries that hint at the House’s origins and, most importantly, his enduring wonder for the World around him—for the signs of life and beauty that help him bear his loneliness, pain and confusion. At one point, The Other calls the House decaying and lifeless, to which Piranesi responds:
How can a man as intelligent as him say there is nothing alive in the House? The Lower Halls are full of sea creatures and vegetation, many of them very beautiful and very strange. The Tides themselves are full of movement and power so that, while they may not exactly be alive, neither are they not-alive. In the Middle Halls are birds and men. The droppings (of which he complains) are signs of Life! Nor is he correct to say that the Halls are all the same. They vary a great deal in the style of their Columns, Pilasters, Niches, Apses, Pediments etc., as well as in the number of their Doors and Windows. Every Hall has its Statues and all the Statues are unique.
Unlike many first-person narrators in literature, Clarke introduces Piranesi into the narrative as someone with a serene lack of ego. He reveres the House as he adapts to its whims, embodying Ovid’s non-egocentric anthropology, where there is little demarcation between the self, nature and the divine. This is in stark contrast to the way modern Western societies understand and construct identity. In this way, Piranesi is antithetical to The Other, who seeks to plunder the House and wield its ‘enormous Powers’. He views Piranesi and the House only via their utility, reflecting a kind of bourgeois self-centredness that Clarke alludes to in the novel’s epigraph (from C.S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew): ‘I am the great scholar, the magician, the adept, who is doing the experiment. Of course I need subjects to do it on.’
Despite this conflict, Piranesi provides help to The Other, because he believes humans owe each other patience and generosity. (‘I thought that it was unkind to punish him for something he cannot help,’ he reflects after they have a disagreement. ‘It is not his fault that he does not see things the way I do.’) He helps birds build their nests, and sees beauty in the harshest aspects of nature. During bitter winters, he writes: ‘the wind blew through the little voids and crevices of the Statues and caused them to sing and whistle in surprising ways; I had never known the Statues to have voices before and it made me laugh for sheer delight’. The House, initially depicted as austere, slowly opens up through our narrator’s eyes. Reading the book amid a pandemic, I found Piranesi’s appreciation for the quotidian timely and heartrending—I was right alongside him, basking in the tiny excitements of existence. I sank into the cosy rhythm of his days, where he threads his hair with seashells and coral beads, and perches on statues to hunt for dinner. I rejoiced when he found interesting fish bones or conversed with a new bird; just as I imagined he would probably rejoice in the pot of tea I brewed while scrambling through his words.
In my favourite scene, Piranesi sees an albatross fly through the house, and finds himself consumed by surprise and joy. As the great bird sails towards him, he is arrested by a thought: ‘Perhaps the albatross and I were destined to merge and the two of us would become another order of being entirely … this thought both excited and frightened me, but still I remained, arms outstretched.’ As the barriers between Piranesi and the albatross grew porous, so did the boundary between myself and the novel—like the character, I felt the powerful need to transcend myself. Later on, the albatross will simply fly over Piranesi, and he will return to the agonising work of piecing together who he once was; in that moment, however, I basked in the exhilaration, and allowed the House to ‘fill [my] eyes with Beauty’.
Claire Cao is a freelance writer from Western Sydney. You can read her work in Kill Your Darlings, the Lifted Brow, SBS Life, the Big Issue and Cordite Poetry Review.