Cover of book: Piranesi

Susanna Clarke

It might seem peculiar to describe Piranesi as “shapely”, but it’s the first word that occurs to me. Every section, every sentence, is pleasing to the eye and ear and mind. It’s the pleasure you feel holding a perfectly balanced tool that has been made by a master craftsman, how it sits with a satisfying weight in the hand. Susanna Clarke’s new book is, in a very tactile sense, an enchanting work.

This is Clarke’s long-anticipated second novel, published 16 years after her mega-hit Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. (The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories, published in 2006, is a collection of short stories, many written earlier than Jonathan Strange.) At first glance, Piranesi seems a very different beast to the alternative Regency England – rendered in a meticulous pastiche of 19th-century English prose – that characterises Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell; but it is very definitely a product of the same mind.

Clarke’s eponymous hero lives in almost complete solitude, far from the densely peopled universe of Jonathan Strange. Piranesi’s world is an infinite Borgesian house, and his life’s work is mapping its halls. He records his discoveries in his journal, using his own calendar: the first entry records “the First Day of the Fifth Month in the Year the Albatross came to the South-Western Halls”.

Despite the obvious differences, there are profound continuities with Clarke’s earlier work, not least her ability to forge her own style of English out of a bricolage of antecedents. In this case they include C. S. Lewis, Jorge Luis Borges, scholarly essays on the occult revival of the 1970s and detective novels. And here I find myself pausing: “pastiche” – with its implication of mere derivativeness – seems too dismissive a word for the kind of invention that makes Clarke’s writing so powerfully immersive.

Clarke shares with the best fantasists – indeed, the best writers – the ability to create imaginative worlds that a reader can invest with the perplexing intimacy of realness. Piranesi’s careful descriptions of the myriad statues and rooms, the mundane details of his daily life – fishing or gathering mussels, his invented rituals for the dead, how he collects water – are compelling in themselves, luminous with the awe that he brings to everything he contemplates.

Piranesi also shares with Jonathan Strange a preoccupation with the ethics of magic – which is to say, the ethics of human manipulation of natural forces. One of its epigraphs is from Lewis’s Narnia prequel, 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.” Magicians, Lewis tells us, are selfish, small-minded and manipulative, because they are interested only in power.

As both Lewis and Clarke suggest, this desire for power comes with a terrifying diminution in the faculties of perception. Just as Piranesi’s world bears a strong resemblance to Charn, that lifeless world of empty buildings and statuary encountered in Lewis’s story, so Andrew Ketterley – Lewis’s vulgar, comically bourgeois magician – is echoed in the Other, the only other living human being Piranesi encounters. He is also, tellingly, named Ketterley.

For Piranesi, the world he lives in is more than sufficient to his aesthetic, intellectual and physical needs. The basement halls are washed with oceanic tides, which provide him with food. Other halls may be full of clouds, or exist in a state of collapse, or house nesting albatrosses. All of them are peopled with statues, which he inscribes with meanings and, very often, love. “Is it disrespectful to the House,” he asks himself at one point, “to love some Statues more than others? … It is my belief that the House itself loves and blesses equally everything that it has created.”

The Other is a visitor from a different world, although at first Piranesi doesn’t know this. He wears contemporary clothes and uses an object that we recognise as a smartphone. He is wholly uninterested in the halls that fill Piranesi with delight: for him, they are “just endless dreary rooms all the same, full of decaying figures covered with bird shit”.

Piranesi’s world is only interesting to the Other because he believes it holds the key to a “Great and Secret Knowledge” that will give him enormous powers, including immortality and “dominating lesser intellects”. Piranesi is a willing helper in the Other’s searches and rituals, but increasingly he comes to believe that there is no Great and Secret Knowledge, and that, even if there were, it wouldn’t interest him. The meaning of the world exists in itself.

It’s not irrelevant that these halls also bear a strong resemblance to the architectural mnemonics that Frances A. Yates describes in The Art of Memory; Piranesi is, among many other things, a contemplation of memory itself. Piranesi’s world is like the imagined buildings that ancient rhetoriticians used as memory devices, but here they are unmoored from their referents: his recall of every detail of the halls he passes through is perfect, but whatever they might signify is completely lost.

This weirdly gentle sense of alienation is a large part of the book’s charm, but it’s also unsettling. Piranesi tells a cruel story and describes many privations, yet its narrator is constantly filled with wonder. What looks like imprisonment and loneliness to others is for him freedom and miraculously rich solitude. As the world opens up its cynicisms and crimes, he absorbs their lessons without ever losing his essential innocence, which is neither foolish nor simple. But as with any enchantment, Piranesi’s wonder has its price. He has almost no identity: even his name isn’t his own.

Its intricate interiorities make Piranesi a perfect read for this moment, when many of us might be considering how the world is not an object to be used but a miracle to be loved. Perhaps more than anything, it’s a parable about the difference between the individualised ego, which Piranesi lacks utterly, and the self as a larger, more permeable, more harmonious way of being. “The Beauty of the House is immeasurable,” Piranesi tells us, as his world expands into our own, “its Kindness infinite.”

Alison Croggon

Bloomsbury, 272pp, $27.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 10, 2020 as "Susanna Clarke, Piranesi".

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Reviewer: Alison Croggon

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