Piranesi by Susanna Clarke


This evening I finished reading Piranesi, Susanna Clarke’s new novel. When I closed the book it was dark outside and I needed to turn the light on in the living room. Shadows formed in the corners of the room and I was certain I perceived vague pathways forming, brief glimpses of other places. Other worlds. Perhaps I imagined this. I found it difficult to bring my thoughts about the ending of the novel in some way that they converged into a significant form. I needed to prepare supper and had a number of tasks required for work tomorrow. I told Alice that I had finished reading the novel.

“Was it as good as you expected?” she asked.

“Yes, but I’m not sure what I make of it,” I told her. I didn’t tell her how eerie and unsettling (in a good way, of course) I found the experience of reading the novel.

At the heart of Piranesi is a debate about identity. Who is the protagonist living in the House, the fantastical labyrinth of rooms filled with statues through flooded by the sea in its lower levels? Is he Piranesi, named after the Italian artist by The Other, the only other living person? Is he Matthew Rose Sorensen, the missing young academic? Or someone else entirely? It’s fascinating how Clarke presents Identity in such a detached manner (so much so that the only way characters later in the novel can comprehend the protagonist and his experiences is through the lens of mental health). His memory is broken and, as the novel progresses, he finds there are things he has recorded in his journal (and obviously done) that seem to have happened to someone else. This puzzle drives a great deal of the novel. Equally fascinating, is the manner in which the protagonist later interprets our world through comparisons with the statues of the House (there’s something thoroughly Platonic working through the novel).

Like everyone else I imagine, I was disappointed to discover that Clarke hadn’t written a direct follow-up of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, her Regency-era magical first novel. Yet Piranesi is in many respects far superior as a work of Literature. It reminds me of a powerful mix of Borges, Calvino and Eco. Once the defamiliarisation of The House is overcome, the novel seems to be about the consequences of members of a group of occultist academics who revive an ancient – magical – way of understanding our world on an unsuspecting man. Clarke has publically spoken about her admiration for C.S. Lewis’ Charn, an empty world of the Narnia novels. One of the delights of reading Piranesi is the Weird, uncanny setting of the House itself.

The novel is constructed as a series of journal entries by the protagonist. According to the account of the novel’s genesis provided by Clarke , her long-term illness prevented her from working on a sustained novel and the best she could do was write short fragments in short bursts. The results are short, carefully-styled chapters in which the protagonist precisely describes the House and interprets meaning gained from things like the behaviour of birds or weather patterns. Dare I say that it has a decidedly post-modern character?

I loved the novel. Still I found the ending difficult and somewhat tragic (I’m not sure why). There’s something about the change in tone once the protagonist understands that our world exists as something beyond the House. At the end he walks through a snow-covered British city in winter and (I infer) perceives the House as being present. The final words of the novel are compelling:

“The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its kindness infinite.”

I’m typing this before bed and my thoughts are muddled. Someone has left the stair light on and is moving about upstairs. I can hear rain falling outside but when I look out the windows all is darkness.