Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi

Susanna Clarke, Piranesi (Bloomsbury 2020)

I tend to think of every book I read as a stand-alone experience, but that’s almost certainly nonsense. With Piranesi I have been acutely aware that like it or not I was reading it with other books in mind. I can think of three.

First, and least significantly, there’s David Mitchell’s Utopia Avenue which I’d read immediately before beginning Piranesi (blog post to come in early February). Mitchell is quoted on the back cover of this book: ‘What a world Susanna Clarke conjures into being.’ So I was led to expect something of the interplay of different realities that I loved in Mitchell’s book.

The opening pages of Piranesi, in which the protagonist lives in a labyrinthine House that he perceives to be the whole world, sent my mind hurtling back to the short stories of Jorge Luis Borges. When I was at university in the 1970s, poet Martin Johnston was a huge Borges fan and a super spreader of enthusiasm for his short fictions. I was one of the many infected. More than one Borges story involves a labyrinth – ‘The Library of Babel‘, for example, imagines a universe consisting of a vast library of interconnected hexagonal rooms containing all the books every written. It’s as if Susanna Clarke had become fascinated by a Borgesian image, in which statues, an infinite number of them, line the walls of an infinite number of hallways, vestibules, and rooms. The protagonist-narrator, named Piranesi, though he assures us that is not his real name, writes with a kind of Borgesian abstraction – though where Borges’ narrators are conducting thought experiments (‘what if there was a library that …’), it’s clear from the start that for Piranesi there’s no scholarly or ironic distance.

Entry for the first day of the fifth month in the year the albatross came to the south western halls
When the Moon rose in the Third Northern Hall I went to the Ninth Vestibule to witness the joining of three Tides. This is something that happens only once every eight years.

It’s many years since I read any Borges, but I was immediately in familiar, though eerie, territory.

But this is a novel. One begins to want explanations. We meet a man who Piranesi thinks is the only other living human, whom he calls the Other. (Piranesi’s idiosyncratic use of initial capitals is only part of the general strangeness.) The Other has a shiny object that we suspect is a smart phone, and there are other clues that he has a life outside the House. Piranesi actually overhears a snippet of conversation that sounds to the reader as if it comes from a contemporary street on the other side of an invisible wall, but to Piranesi is meaningless and fails to inspire curiosity. A trajectory is established: Piranesi is going to find out what’s going on …

Progress is slow, and I might have lost confidence altogether if I hadn’t read Joanna Clarke’s first novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (2004 – before I started blogging about my reading). This is a vast, slow-moving story of magic in Regency England, not big on thrills and spills, though the Battle of Waterloo, suitably magicked, features. I have a lasting impression of being immersed in a meticulously created world where magic is part of the texture of life. I would have been surprised if in Piranesi the ‘real world’ outside the House wasn’t revealed to be both recognisably mundane and weirdly fantastical.

I got what I was expecting. The explanation of the nature of the House is only slightly more complex and plausible than Dr Who’s ‘timey-wimey stuff‘, but who really ever cares about such explanations – it’s a fantasy novel, for goodness sake! The history that Piranesi gradually uncovers, on the other hand, is full of intellectual intrigue, complex relationships, and general creep-you-out-ness; and the big climax (foreshadowed in the opening lines I quoted above) kept me reading well past bedtime. (Incidentally, ‘timey-wimey stuff’ gets a mention in a document that Piranesi discovers, and which is incomprehensible to him.)

While Piranesi is looking for the truth of his history, readers (this one, anyhow) are hoping the book will unfold something of what it is about that infinite House filled with statues that captured Susanna Clarke’s imagination, and for that matter ours. I don’t want to reduce the book to an allegory: I’m happy for it to be a story about a house full of statues and nasty magic. But I did find myself brooding on echo chambers and half-overheard conversations about Baudrillard. From Wikipedia: ‘Baudrillard claims that our current society has replaced all reality and meaning with symbols and signs, and that human experience is a simulation of reality.’ With that kind of thinking in mind, Piranesi’s struggle stirs in readers’ minds our own struggles to reach past the simulacra, dogmas and fairytales have been given since childhood, to an independent relationship with the real world. At least that’s where it took me, and it was fun being taken.

5 responses to “Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi

  1. LOL what a perfect expression: “a super spreader of enthusiasm”!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a fabulous review Jonathan. I had been feeling rather ambivalent about reading this, but you’ve now sparked my interest. A lot.

    Liked by 1 person

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