OCTOBER 18, 2020
SUSANNA CLARKE FIRST BURST on the scene with Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell in 2004 on a wave of publicity partly fueled by comparisons with Harry Potter. However, while both stories are set in England and concern magic, the similarities end there: Jonathan Strange presents a complex, dark, and enigmatic world — everything Harry Potter is not. Although it begins with a light satire of English society and academia, Clarke’s epic about English magic escorts the reader on a journey into ever murkier realms of enchantment. There is no comforting magic system to explicate the unknown, and no anointed hero to eradicate the dark.
Clarke’s short stories, showcased in her 2006 collection The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories, deserve equal attention. Without the density that can make Jonathan Strange daunting at times, the tales in The Ladies of Grace Adieu hold the same incantatory enchantment. Clarke stands out as a fantasy writer due to her use of language, which sings from the page. Her sentences conjure magic more effectively than a system ever could.
In Piranesi, Clarke takes a turn away from familiar ground. Instead of an alternate Regency England, Piranesi takes place in the present day — up to the minute, or at least the late 2010s. But while Clarke has always woven mystery into her enchanted worlds, there is perhaps nothing in her creation more mysterious than the House in which the protagonist of Piranesi finds himself. Its vast halls, its teeming ecosystem, and above all, the statues that represent various mythological concepts and figures comprise a universe in miniature.
The plot makes for a separate and more obtrusive mystery than the setting: a man who is clearly from our world lives in the House, with no memory of who he is or how he got there. Piranesi’s only friend is a man he calls “the Other,” who also gave him his name. The Other meets with Piranesi twice a week, asks him questions, and taps out notes on a “shining device” that the reader will instantly identify. It is understood that Piranesi is assisting the Other in his quest for powerful ancient knowledge, which the Other believes the House contains.
Meanwhile, Piranesi spends his days making discoveries about the House and its workings. The House is flooded in places, and it has a system of tides that Piranesi has painstakingly memorized. He has figured out how to survive on dried seaweed and fish, and how to navigate halls so immense and complex that the Other refers to them as a “labyrinth.”
Piranesi is, at first glance, a blank slate, with no past and no name. But, from the beginning, we are introduced to his most predominant qualities: scientific curiosity — that which leads him to explore and catalog his discoveries — and empathy. This last quality is hinted at on the first page, in a description of the statue of a woman carrying a beehive. Of this, Piranesi writes, “One Bee — this always gives me a slight sensation of queasiness — crawls over her left Eye.”
Thus, we gain early insights into his character — and character is essential in this man without a past.
Piranesi’s primary relationship is not with the Other, nor is it with the interloper in the House who arrives to disturb their equanimity. Piranesi’s primary relationship is with the House, and we are soon made aware that this relationship is a spiritual one. He writes, “The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its kindness infinite.”
Spirituality and belief systems are of central importance in Piranesi. This may not come as a surprise to anyone who has noted the epigraph, from C. S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew (the sixth book in his Narnia series), or noted a familiar name in the table of contents — “Ketterley” — which readers of Narnia may recall as the villainous magician who seeks to experiment on his own nephew. Piranesi, we understand immediately, is the subject of an experiment; we are not surprised to learn that the Other’s last name is Ketterley. (This homage is made explicit, since the Other’s father’s name is Andrew Ketterley, the Ketterley of C. S. Lewis fame, hailing from an “old Dorsetshire family” as Lewis’s Andrew Ketterley boasted.) Piranesi’s favorite statue is a faun, and in a dream he sees it in a forest speaking with a young girl. The Narnia references in Piranesi are blatant and, like the lamppost in the winter woods, they guide us toward the book’s larger themes, even as the mystery plot unfolds at a brisk pace.
As Piranesi inadvertently unravels the puzzle around his identity, the backstory unfolds with a slight resemblance to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. A cult of devoted students surrounds a manipulative scholar, a man who surpasses Tartt’s creation both in power and malice; suspected of murder and convicted of kidnapping, he is the sort who speaks fondly of his time in prison. Yet while malice and bad intent are endemic to those who discover and investigate the House for their own purposes, its inherent spiritual value remains unblemished — and is celebrated by Piranesi.
The Other sees the House as a place from which to derive power, but to Piranesi it constitutes the world, possessed of intrinsic meaning. The reader might at first feel condescending toward Piranesi: he doesn’t know his own name, and he doesn’t know about the real world — what can he know? The rational response to Piranesi’s House-centric religion is pity for the man’s naïveté. Even his name, given to him by the Other, encourages us to pity him: the historic Piranesi was an Italian artist best known for his drawings of labyrinths he called “prisons.” From the Other’s point of view, the House is a prison and Piranesi is its pathetic prisoner. In this manner, the Other’s view of Piranesi makes the Other a stand-in for the reader.
Yet there is a beauty, even a nobility, to Piranesi’s spiritual worldview that, with time, resists a condescending response. Rather than an abstract spirituality of the self-righteous or self-absorbed type, Piranesi’s is characterized by the empathy he displays from the start — even toward his most bitter enemies.
In an encounter with someone who received a letter from him in his previous life, Piranesi hears his former self described as “an arrogant little shit.” Even if that characterization is skewed by the unsavory person who utters it, inescapable evidence accumulates over the course of the novel that the House has wrought changes in Piranesi that have made him more outward-looking and kind.
What looks to us like a pitiable imprisonment is, for him, an enriching and endlessly wondrous experience. What might seem like a random and insignificant event — the arrival of an albatross to the House — is for Piranesi a revelation. He describes it thus:
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.
When we see a reference to a cross, we immediately think of Christianity, but Piranesi has revealed earlier in the book that he has no idea why his old journals are labeled “2012” and so forth. (Charmingly, he wonders what happened 2,000 years ago.) The evocation of Christianity in the passage above cannot be coincidence, especially in conjunction with the C. S. Lewis references; yet it seems clear that Christianity is not the end goal of Piranesi’s theological journey.
Ultimately the House seems to represent something equivalent to the platonic ideal of reality for Piranesi. He says, in defense of the House vis-à-vis our world, “You make it sound as if the Statue was somehow inferior to the thing itself. […] I would argue that the Statue is superior to the thing itself, the Statue being perfect, eternal, and not subject to decay.”
In case the above doesn’t make it obvious, Piranesi is a philosophical work. At times it becomes a meditation of sorts on epistemology: Piranesi often has cause to ponder how he acquires knowledge in the House of things that only exist outside it — i.e., things he never sees. And much of the plot involves Piranesi’s collection of clues, as he pieces together the truth of his past. This in turn raises questions of identity: is the person Piranesi was, whom he no longer can remember, still relevant?
Piranesi is a work of intellectual intensity wrapped in a mystery plot, culminating with a cinematic denouement that includes — as it must — a loaded gun. Like a kaleidoscope, Piranesi rewards the reader when turned over in the mind, but also rewards the reader who simply wants to know who Piranesi is, where he came from, and how he came to be a prisoner in that magnificent labyrinth, populated with mythic statues, periodically flooded with tides from nowhere.