One of the stories in Julian Barnes’s A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters is about an isolated young woman who flees to a remote island because she fears that a nuclear war is imminent. Every night, she has nightmares of being confined in a room where strangers ask uncomfortable questions about her past. What is real and what is not slowly unravels during the course of the telling.
This story is what one is reminded of at the start of Susanna Clarke’s haunting and atmospheric Piranesi, her first novel since the fantastical Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell which was published 16 years ago. In style and vision, though, it turns out to be extremely different from Barnes’s work.
The historical Piranesi was an influential eighteenth-century Italian architect and artist known for his etchings of Roman ruins. Among his many admirers was M.C. Escher; there are clear resonances, in fact, between the former’s ‘Imaginary Prisons’ and the latter’s ‘Relativity’, both featuring labyrinthine spaces with infinite passageways.
It’s fitting, then, that this is the name of the titular character of Clarke’s novel. It is set in a series of interlinked galleries that also happen to be more than a little Borgesian. The fictional Piranesi is trapped in this universe of endless halls filled with massive statues and subject to oceanic tides.
Is this an extended metaphor, a post-apocalyptic fantasy, or a disturbing solipsistic vision? Our guide throughout the book is the naive and trusting narrator who slowly comes to terms with an unfamiliar world. The strangeness of his surroundings is vividly conveyed and the mind’s eye is kept busy throughout. With many novels, there is a tendency for the middle to sag somewhat; in this one, the narrative thread is taut from first to last.
Piranesi has regular meetings with a person he refers to as the Other, who asks him about his explorations and sends him on further missions. The Other also issues advice and ominous warnings which Piranesi takes heed of and incorporates into his routine.
The rest of his time is spent in catching fish, going on long walks through endless hallways, and navigating rising tides. He examines the magnificent statues (“the Gorilla, the Young Boy playing the Cymbals, the Woman carrying a Beehive, the Elephant carrying a Castle, the Faun, the Two Kings playing Chess”), and cares for the skeletal remains he comes across (“the Biscuit-Box Man, the Fish-Leather Man, the Concealed Person, the People of the Alcove and the Folded-Up Child”).
Piranesi’s frame of mind for the most part is calm and even stoic. “The House is valuable because it is the House,” he feels. “It is enough in and of Itself. It is not the means to an end.” Not for him the striving, the accomplishments, and the quest for progress of the outside world.
In his actions, he can be viewed as akin to the Minotaur in The House of Asterion, the short story by Borges which Clarke has said was somewhere at the back of her mind: “Sometimes I run like a charging ram through the halls of stone until I tumble dizzily to the ground; sometimes I crouch in the shadow of a wellhead or at a corner in one of the corridors and pretend I am being hunted.”
Piranesi sees himself as a natural extension, or even a creation, of the immense dwelling he inhabits. As he puts it: “The Beautiful Orderliness of the House is what gives us Life.” He regularly writes of his experiences in his journals, and it is when he decides to go through some of his earlier, indexed entries that he senses glimmers of what is actually going on.
In time, he also comes across other characters who offer him further strands of knowledge that he has to piece together. To say more would be to spoil the architecture of the book for those who have yet to read it. It moves beyond binaries of utopia and dystopia, of realism and fantasy.
Within these pages are layers of philosophy, critiques of rationality, and questions about solitude and the way we fashion our sense of self. With its eccentricity, its compelling readability, and its ability to reach a satisfying conclusion, Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi
is quite simply among the more captivating novels of the quarantined year that we have just lived through.