Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
I am determined to explore as much of the World as I can in my lifetime. To this end I have travelled as far as the Nine-Hundred-and-Sixtieth Hall to the West, the Eight-Hundred-and-Ninetieth Hall to the North and the Seven-Hundred-and-Sixty-Eighth Hall to the South. I have climbed up to the Upper Halls where Clouds move in slow procession and Statues appear suddenly out of the Mists. I have explored the Drowned Halls where the Dark Waters are carpeted with white water lilies. I have seen the Derelict Halls of the East where Ceilings, Floors — sometimes even Walls! — have collapsed and the dimness is split by shafts of grey Light.I can't be alone in having assumed that this book would never happen. Susanna Clarke burst onto the scene in 2004, seemingly out of nowhere, with Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, a veritable brick of a novel that was unlike almost anything that had come before it (or at least immediately before it—Clarke's antecedents go back nearly a century, to Hope Mirrlees and Lord Dunsany). It was followed up, two years later, by a short story collection, and then silence. Given how perfectly-formed, how indisputably itself, Strange & Norrell was, it seemed plausible that Clarke had said all she wanted to say with it. The book stood like an edifice, unassailable and inimitable (and indeed it has had few imitators and successors in the intervening decade and a half).
In all these places I have stood in Doorways and looked ahead. I have never seen any indication that the World was coming to an End, but only the regular progression of Halls and Passageways into the Far Distance.
Now, however, we have Piranesi, which somehow manages, in a swift, sleek 250 pages that flow like water, to make Strange & Norrell seem like merely a preamble. I have no idea if Clarke is now about to embark on the career we all anticipated in the mid-00s (according to this interview, one reason that it failed to materialize at the time was Clarke's years-long struggle with illness), but Piranesi demonstrates, if nothing else, that she is an author of far greater breadth of interest and topic than her debut suggested. The two books clearly draw from the same well (more about this later), but they are also entirely different. Where Strange & Norrell was fussy and full of detail, almost clogged up by the self-important, overbearing personalities of its human and fairy characters, Piranesi is full of echoing silences. It is a novel about alone-ness, its narrator moving through cavernous spaces, regarding deep pools of still waters, communing with animals. Its soundscape is the blowing of the wind, the crashing of the waves, and the cries of birds. Strange & Norrell was a book about men trying to overpower their environment (and being overpowered by it in turn). Piranesi is a book about a man becoming one with his.
Piranesi is the name of our narrator. Or rather, it is the name that he has been given, but which, he continually assures us, is not his own. He doesn't really need a name, because he's one of only two living people in the world (the other is referred to by him merely as The Other). It's a name that is at once a cruel joke—our first hint that something is not right about the person who bestowed it—and a visual hint to readers seeking to picture the novel's setting. Giovanni Battista Piranesi was an 18th century Italian architect and artist known for his engravings of Roman buildings and vistas, and for a series of fantastical engravings called Carceri d'Invenzione—Imaginary Prisons. These engravings depict a vast underground setting full of stairways, columns, arches, and gigantic pieces of machinery. They anticipate Escher, and probably lie at the heart of a lot of modern fantasy art, down to the illustrations in a D&D rulebook.
Piranesi the artist's engravings give us a sense of the space that Piranesi the character moves through—a vast, seemingly endless castle built on an inhuman, illogical scale, a place where, as one character observes, "architecture and oceans were muddled together". But in his own descriptions of the castle (or, as he calls it, the House, and alternately the World, the two being interchangeable in his mind), Piranesi reminds us why his name is poorly chosen. He doesn't see himself as a prisoner, and the House is not his prison. Rather, he sees himself as a scientist and an explorer, the spark of consciousness that can perceive the stark beauty and myriad wonders that the House has in store. "The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite," Piranesi repeatedly tells us. As for himself, he is "the Beloved Child of the House," no name required.
In its opening chapters, Piranesi introduces us to its title character by having him introduce us to his world. Piranesi is an obsessive and meticulous record-keeper, keeping detailed journals of his life and his explorations of the House, which he indexes in a separate notebook. He is occupied by mapping the House's halls, cataloguing its statues, and charting the tides that ebb and flow in its lower halls, sometimes rising and flooding the upper levels. And he has learned how to survive in the house—where to fish for food, how to dry seaweed which he can burn for heat, how to process the scant organic materials available to him into leather or glue. His knowledge of all of these elements of his environment is encyclopedic, his recall immediate.
'Well,' I said, 'suppose you were to name a Hall many days journey from here. Providing that I had visited it before, I could immediately tell you how to get there. I could name every Hall you would need to travel through. I could describe the notable Statues you would see on the Walls, and, with a reasonable degree of accuracy, I could tell you their positions — which Wall they stood against, whether North, South, East or West — and how far along the Wall they stood. I could also enumerate all the...'We, the readers, realize that Piranesi's intimate knowledge of the House—which is almost a sort of communion—has superseded and overwritten his knowledge of himself. He has no memory of arriving at the House, no memory of a life before it. But for Piranesi himself, the House is both a world and a conceptual framework, and so he cannot imagine anything before or outside of it. In one of the book's early chapters he enumerates "all of the people who have ever lived" based on the number of human remains he has found in the House. Later, when he finds documents or has conversations that refer to other people, he tries to match them to one or another of these skeletons, because the idea that there may be other people is foreign to him—since there is no elsewhere, there is nowhere for those other people to be from.
Piranesi's thinking is thus full of lacunae—he recognizes things like gel pens and crisp packets, but doesn't stop to think why. His journals are initially dated 2011 and 2012, and then transition to dates like "the Year I counted and named the Dead" and "the Year the Albatross came to the South-Western Halls". Considering this discrepancy, Piranesi can only observe that the numerical system "strikes me as deeply pedestrian. Also I cannot remember what happened two thousand years ago which made me think that year a good starting point." And yet Piranesi is far from lost. The prevailing mood of his writing is of contentment mingled with energetic determination. His project of mapping and learning the House is, to him, a worthy lifetime's pursuit. His explorations of the House in the book's early chapters include befriending a pair of visiting albatrosses and helping them find material for a nest, discovering a chamber whose statues, when lit by the light of the full moon, form a stirring tableau, and even harrowing escapes such as plummeting through a broken bit of floor only to be caught by the outstretched hand of an enormous statue.
What I found myself thinking of while reading these chapters of Piranesi were computer games. The kind, like Myst and its latter-day spiritual sequel The Witness, in which a nameless, un-individuated player character explores a strange, empty environment, whose appeal is as much the joy and wonder of solitary exploration as it is working out the game's puzzles. (The Witness's setting even includes strange, strikingly lifelike statues.) And also games like Don't Starve, in which the player is transported to a strange, dangerous and seemingly endless world by a malevolent stranger, and must scramble to assemble the means of survival without any hope of rescue, or even of understanding why he has arrived in this world. In both types of games, the pleasure is often simply in the ability to keep going, keep exploring, keep learning the world, without any further objective.
And yet the reader, like the player of these games, can't help but be aware that there is a larger mystery surrounding Piranesi, even if he won't or can't perceive it. This mystery centers, of course, on The Other, the world's other inhabitant. Because our conceptual framework is wider than Piranesi's (and because he is a kind and unworldly person, seemingly incapable of suspicion), we realize what he is incapable of contemplating, that the Other must be moving back and forth between our world and the House. That he is capable of taking Piranesi back with him, but chooses not to for his own reasons. Those reasons are quickly revealed as a search for some secret knowledge that the Other thinks is contained in the House, to which end he dispatches Piranesi to explore and chart it. He provides him with the means of survival, but also lies to him and manipulates him. He's clearly aware that Piranesi's memories and perceptions are addled, but does nothing to jog him out of that state—seems, in fact, to benefit from his confusion.
Around a third of the way into the novel, Clarke begins to unravel her mystery. It's not much of a mystery—most of the pieces are right there in Piranesi's journals, and anyway the reader will have worked out the broad strokes of it already. But when another person appears in the House (making Piranesi a novel-length embodiment of the old joke "the last man on Earth sat alone in a room; there was a knock on the door"), the things he says will be enough to illuminate most readers, if not Piranesi himself. Along the way, Clarke ropes in some beloved fantasy and horror tropes—70s New Age mysticism, cults, academic societies that spring up around charismatic figures, mysterious disappearances, document fragments and bibliographies. (It is also here, however, that Clarke makes her one serious misstep with the novel, imagining as the guru of her mystical cult a predatory upper-class gay man, who uses and discards beautiful young men. It's a pernicious and ugly stereotype that this otherwise gentle novel should have risen above.)
Interesting as all this was, I found myself a little sad that Clarke felt compelled to solve her novel. It seemed to me that it would have been rewarding enough simply to keep exploring the world with Piranesi, who is kind, resourceful, and most of a genuinely enthusiastic explorer, always eager to see what's through the next door. Yes, there were questions raised by his situation, but the further one enmeshed oneself in his point of view, the more those questions seemed beside the point. Piranesi was so comfortable in his environment that it seemed needless to peer beyond it and find out who he was before he came to it, and how that arrival was achieved. When the Other started to warn Piranesi that yet another person might appear in the house, and that this person was their enemy, it felt almost like a loss of innocence, our hero being forcibly entangled in a story that didn't concern him, and could only impinge on his tranquility.
This is, of course, part of the point the novel is making, and one way in which it differs from the games I found myself comparing it to. Exploring Myst island may be a calming, rewarding experience in its own right, but it is also a means to an end. The island, like any environment in a game, is a puzzle to be solved. When the Other treats the House in the same way, however, Piranesi rebels:
I realised that the search for the Knowledge had encouraged us to think of the House as if it were a sort of riddle to be unravelled, a text to be interpreted, and that if ever we discover the Knowledge, then it will be as if the Value has been wrested from the House and all that remains will be mere scenery. ... The House is valuable because it is the House. It is enough in and of itself. It is not a means to an end.And yet Clarke's explication of the House and of Piranesi's presence in it has a similar effect. It makes the house feel like a riddle, not something that is "enough in and of itself". When more sympathetic characters than the Other appear in the House and try to "rescue" Piranesi, he has a similarly hostile reaction to their efforts, and even refuses to leave. This places the reader in a dilemma. We naturally want the mystery to be solved, and the more we learn about the circumstances that brought Piranesi to the House (and the effects that living in the House has on humans, including "amnesia, total mental collapse"), the more obvious it becomes that he should return home. At the same time, Piranesi is so clearly a creature of the House, that something would be lost by removing it from it—lost to him, but also to the House.
The crux of these chapters, then, isn't the unraveling of the House's mysteries. It is in how Piranesi reacts to that unraveling, to the loss of innocence it causes, and to the mature consideration it spurs. It requires him to dismantle and reassemble his worldview, a process that he finds painful and traumatizing, but which he emerges from wiser and stronger. Though the climax of the novel involves a massive flood and acts of violence disturbing the peace of the House, nearly fifty pages remain once these have been attended to. The central question of the book becomes: how does Piranesi relate to the House? Is it a shell to be outgrown and emerged from? A prison to be escaped? Does he even want to leave?
It's easy enough, of course, to read all of this as allegory. The House, for example, might not even exist (when Piranesi describes it to people in our world, they reply that it is "a description of a mental breakdown seen from the inside"). Or the dilemma of leaving it might be an analogy for the loss of childhood innocence, the difficulty of finding your place in the world, the appeal of a solitary existence. Piranesi's bifurcated identity, the self that he had before arriving at the house and the one he developed within it, could be taken as an allegory for self-discovery (Emily VanDerWerff has suggested that the book is "a remarkable metaphor for gender dysphoria"). That Clarke has chosen as her epigraph a quote from The Magician's Nephew also makes the novel a kind of response to that book, in which a selfish scientist uses others to advance his own knowledge (the Other even ends up sharing a last name with Lewis's scientist, and the book contains several other Narnian references). And the specter of C.S. Lewis suggests that the entire novel can be read, like the Narnia books, as a Platonic allegory (Adam Roberts and Camestros Felapton have both written about this reading).
To me, however, these all feel like ways of diminishing the book. Trying, once again, to solve it when it—and the House—are enough in and of themselves. If there's an allegorical reading of the novel, it is, I think, a more subtle one. The principle on which Laurence Arne-Sayles, the guru who originally theorized that the House might exist, had founded his philosophy is the idea that the world was once sapient. That it was cognizant of people and responsive to their emotions and needs. This is how Piranesi relates to the House. He sees himself, and the other living beings within it, as part of a great tapestry of benevolent intention. The house, he tells us, is kind. He, as its inhabitant, is its "Beloved Child". There's never a moment in Piranesi in which this perception is concretely confirmed (or refuted). But at the same time, it's hard to deny Piranesi's contention that the House is a living environment.
How can a man as intelligent as [the Other] say there is nothing living 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!At this point it's also worth observing that while Piranesi calls his world the House, everyone else in the novel calls it the labyrinth—which is, as another character points out, "A symbol of the mingled glory and horror of existence. No one gets out alive." The secret, then, to Piranesi's ability to survive and thrive in the House is that he never sees it as a prison, and never sees himself as something separate from it. Rather, he dedicates himself to it—to exploring its vast reaches, to learning its moods, to fitting himself into its environment.
In the glimpses we see of Piranesi before he becomes Piranesi, we see that he already possessed some of these qualities. He was always a keen observer of his environment ("It was just after four, a cold blue twilight. The afternoon had been stormy and the lights of the cars were pixelated by rain; the pavements collaged with wet black leaves"). It is these skills, we come to understand, that allowed Piranesi to thrive in the House when other explorers of it were driven to madness. His monomaniacal dedication to learning his world—its passageways, its tides, its animal inhabitants—may have overwritten his old memories, but it was also an expression of his truest self, and it allowed him to preserve his sanity. When Piranesi returns to our world, he still interacts with it in the same way he interacted with the House, as a living, sapient environment, benevolent and wise, always giving us exactly the tools we need to comprehend and thrive within it.
It's here that I see the connection to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, the common well from which both novels draw. Laurence Arne-Sayles, who argues that the world used to possess intention and consciousness, sees the loss of that as "an actual, real disenchantment". The end of Strange & Norrell imagines a re-enchantment of the world, the return of that intentionality and consciousness to the natural landscape, to the complete bewilderment of the novel's rational protagonists. In Piranesi, the title character brings that intentionality back with him. Whether it "really" exists in the world (and whether it really existed in the House) is irrelevant. It is the way he chooses to see the world (both worlds), and the way he chooses to live. The magic of Piranesi is in how it places us in that headspace as well. For a while, after turning its last page, it is tempting to look at the world and see the House, an environment in which we can immerse ourselves, and in so doing, be found.