I was going to start this review of Piranesi (2020) by Susanna Clarke by stating that I was of two minds on the novel and then noting that this was both appropriate and also strong praise. Appropriate because the book is in many ways of the mind, and is as well of two worlds. Strong praise because my two minds were “I loved it” followed by “I liked it.” But then I thought more about it, and I decided my minds were really “I loved it,” “I liked it,” then “I loved it” again. But I could work with that, because really, the book functions on more than two levels. But then I thought about my reading some more, and I decided that my mind now was simply, singularly, “it’s brilliant.” Which is still, granted, strong praise, but no longer neatly appropriate. Worse, it’s also dully predictable. Because when the writer is the author of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, one of the greatest novels of the last 50 years1 (go ahead, fight me on that; I dare you), “brilliant” is presumed. So yes. Ho hum. Piranesi is brilliant. Go figure.
We’re introduced to the strange world of the novel through the eyes of the titular character, a sweet innocent who wanders the labyrinthine halls of the House, a gigantic structure seemingly without end, filled with countless rooms, stairways, hallways, and alcoves, each of these themselves filled with countless statues, many of which Piranesi catalogs for us in the journal entries that make up this gem of a novel. Piranesi has explored the House:
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 … the Upper Halls where Clouds move in slow procession and statues appear suddenly out of the Mists … the Drowned Halls the Dark Waters are carpeted with white water lilies … [and] the Derelict Halls of the East where Ceilings, Floors — sometimes even Walls! — have collapsed and the dimness is split by shafts of grey light.
And in all this exploration, he tells us, “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.” Nor has he seen any other living person, save one (more on the Other, as he calls him, later), though there have been, he is certain, 15 people “whose existence is verifiable”: himself, the Other, and those 13 others whose remains he has found and cared for over the years, amongst them The Biscuit-Box Man, The Concealed Person, and The Folded-Up Child. He also imagines a 16th person: “And You … that I am writing for.”
Honestly, I could keep quoting Piranesi at length, just as I could have easily read many, many more pages of his days spent fishing, gathering sea weed, avoiding the tides that sweep through the lower halls, observing the albatrosses or other birds, cataloging each and every statues (his great project). I fell in love immediately with the character, the narrative voice, and the setting and could have happily stayed with them alone for the books slim 250 or so pages. Which is both appropriate and great praise (hey look, I did get to use that phrase!). Great praise because, well, I didn’t want to leave, so skillfully did Clarke immerse me in her world and character. And appropriate because …
Hmm. Because. And here’s the rub in reviewing a novel like Piranesi. Because we do eventually leave, but why and how are part of a continually unfolding mystery that makes up much of the story. A mystery I don’t want to spoil even if it isn’t all that hard to guess at. And even if Clarke herself offers up a major hint in her epigraphs and her names, not to mention the trail of breadcrumbs she lays out so delicately and precisely for us.
So I’ll just note a few plot points, because this either all becomes clear to Piranesi early on, or to the reader, who is often a few steps ahead of him thanks to our jaded natures. One is that Piranesi is not his real name, something he himself senses though he doesn’t know why (those gaps in his memory are one aspect of the mystery). Another is that The Other, whom he assumes is his friend, is not, though it takes our narrator far more time than the typical reader to realize this, thanks to lines like this:
The Other believes that there is a Great and Secret Knowledge hidden somewhere in the World that will grant us enormous powers … that might include the following: Vanquishing Death and becoming immortal … dominating lesser intellects and bending them to our will
To Piranesi, this is just the subject of their twice-weekly meetings on Tuesdays and Fridays. The reader will, of course, see this goal in a far less mundane fashion. Part of the underlying tension, therefore, is the reader’s concern that Piranesi see what we do before it’s too late. But that’s all I will say about plot and the mystery that gradually develops within it.
Which isn’t to say there’s nothing else to talk about. Because Piranesi is much more than a well-plotted story. I noted above it works on multiple levels, including the metaphoric. But here again I find myself loath to unpack too much of that. Partly because I don’t want to spoil the reader’s own blooming understanding and partly because to explain, to analyze, is in some ways to take apart and thus destroy what is so lovely. This was, in fact, some of the reason my original view was that I first loved Piranesi then liked it, because as we moved away from the ineffable beauty of the House and into the more realistic “explanations” of things, I felt a sense of loss, a whittling away of wonder and beauty. Of course, this is part of the point. Clarke is already lighting the way to this realization when she has Piranesi come to his own epiphany that:
the search for the Knowledge has 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 … [but] The House is valuable because it is the House. It is enough in and of itself.
You can catch a glimpse in that quote of one of the ways the novel works with Piranesi’s reference to the House as a “text.” If the House is a story, then Piranesi is the reader wandering within its pages, a reader utterly immersed in, locked into its narrative. This is absolutely one way to read this book, and this reading offers up a host of questions. But it is not the only way to read the novel. Because if one does what Piranesi warns us against, if one “interprets” and “unravels” the text by, say, recalling (or looking up) what that Narnia epigraph is about, and recalling (or looking up), where the names of the characters come from, then Piranesi can be read as something far less benign (if that’s even the correct word in this creation) than a “reader.” After all, we have another word for a person “locked into” a structure. And don’t get me even started on the “Plato” reading of this text.
The questions that arise from these multiple readings, which lead to questions about our own way of living — our own movements through a House of Wonder we perhaps don’t take the time to not only appreciate but worship, a House we perhaps too often think of as something else — the lack of ready answers, the way the story progresses into something bittersweet and open-ended, even contradictory, all of this, in addition to the gorgeous imagery, the can’t-help-but-root-for main character, the clever allusions, and the intricate precision of the craft involved in creating a multi-layered work that is both incredibly dense and incredibly airy, is what makes Piranesi, yes, brilliant. I can’t wait to reread this book. I can’t wait to teach this book. And because it isn’t a doorstopper like Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, I can do both easily enough. And will.
1 See what I did here? Referenced Jonathan Strange and then put in a footnote. Because the footnotes are just one of the many glorious elements of that novel. And if you don’t know that, you should stop reading this and start reading that, because really, it’s far more rewarding than reading a review. It’s also, like Piranesi, brilliant. But in a completely different way. Why are you still here?
I have to say I was a smidgen disappointed to get to the end of Piranesi and not have seen a single footnote (I’m quite fond of all of the quasi-scholarly, tongue-in-cheek footnotes in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell). But that was my only disappointment with this transcendent novel. Susanna Clarke’s talent is displayed here in a new and almost entirely different way than it was in Jonathan Strange.
Piranesi, who narrates this story through his journal entries, is the sole living inhabitant of a labyrinthine, half-ruined building he calls the House. He also calls it the World, which in a very real sense it is for him: he has no memory of living anywhere except in the House, which is an endless series of halls and vestibules, with no entrances or exits, where ocean waves and floods beset the lower levels but also provide him with life-preserving food, tools, and fuel. It’s reminiscent of Jorge Luis Borges’ Library of Babel, except with awe-inspiring statues in every room rather than (near)infinite books, as well as Borges’ “The House of Asterion.” Piranesi has found a baker’s dozen of human skeletons in the House, which he religiously cares for, but the only other living person he has seen there is the man he calls the Other, who visits with him briefly twice a week and irritably quizzes him on his explorations of the House.
To paraphrase Winston Churchill, Piranesi — the character as well as the book itself — is a riddle (who is he?), wrapped in a mystery (why is he in the House, and what does the Other have to do with it?), inside an enigma (what is the House?). I felt compelled to pencil notes in the margins of my brand-new hardcover copy of Piranesi (“Minotaurs!”) and mark key passages. Note-taking did have the benefit of slowing me down and making me think more deeply about the layered mysteries, the symbols and allusions and ironies. Piranesi’s and (when it’s revealed) the Other’s names, like Clarke’s suggestive epigraphs at the beginning of the novel, are clues that readers may or may not want to pursue before getting deeper into the book. (I would absolutely love to be a student in Bill’s class on Piranesi!)
For as Bill comments, there’s a delight in simply inhabiting the House with Piranesi. It’s a beautifully described world, and Piranesi is a wonderful companion, brimful with good-hearted innocence, trust, and a joyous sense of wonder. His harmony with nature and his selflessness are inspiring, as when he gives up a large chunk of his precious store of dried seaweed (which is both food and fuel to him) so that a pair of albatrosses can build a nest.
It approximated to three days’ fuel. This was no insignificant amount and I knew that I might be colder because I had given it away. But what is a few days of feeling cold compared to a new albatross in the World?
To get too caught up in the details and the whys and hows of the ever-present, looming mysteries is to risk diluting the ability to immerse yourself in Piranesi’s hauntingly beautiful life and world. When the answers begin to be disclosed, it’s fascinating but at the same time a dose of the mundane, bringing the ineffable, at least partially, down to earth. The latter part of the book shifts tone to more of a suspense novel, with some heart-pounding moments of tension and danger. But then, there’s a marvelous ending that brings us full circle, back to that initial sense of wonder and awe.
In my mind are all the tides, their seasons, their ebbs and their flows. In my mind are all the halls, the endless procession of them, the intricate pathways. … The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.
It’s a testament to the power of Clarke’s storytelling that those lines almost brought me to tears. Piranesi is an extraordinary and thoughtful novel with radiant writing, illuminating our own lives.
I thought I had only one subject to bring up about Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi, but it turns out I have two, because I do want to comment on the lack of footnotes. Both Bill and Tadiana commented on them, and certainly Clarke brought fiction-footnotes back into style with Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. But Clarke knows how to use text to tell a story, and footnotes here would have been a misstep. The character of Piranesi does write his journal in a unique fashion, but it is his unique fashion. He’s a writer of lists and a bestower of Irregular Capitalization, and that is what fits this story. There is none of the intellectual and emotional distance footnotes convey — instead Piranesi’s very words on the page carry enthusiasm, reverence and caring.
It’s rare for an ending to be truly, deeply satisfying, and Piranesi’s is, leaving me with a question I’m still gnawing on. It’s not a loose end or an unraveling plot thread; it’s a question that goes to the philosophical heart of the story, I think.
Without committing spoilers, I’ll say that Piranesi’s relationship to the House, the labyrinth world, changes him, or more accurately, has changed him. As we read, we figure out that Piranesi relates to the labyrinth world differently than others have. Bill points out that our innocent, exuberant narrator comments that the Other sees the world as a text, a book to be deciphered. The key difference between Piranesi and other visitors is that he does value this world as a world. That makes more sense after you’re read the book. (At least, I hope it does.)
In the final pages, I found myself wondering what kind of transformation Piranesi had undergone. Was it a true conversion/adaptation, changing to thrive in the House? Or did the House act as a crucible, and was Piranesi’s change more of a refinement, sloughing off ideas, mannerisms, constructs that had accreted over the “true self” of this character?
Piranesi is more than an innocent narrator. He is respectful of life, especially the birds he shares much of his time with. He is generous and caring. In a lot of modern fiction, especially genre fiction, an innocent character who discovers they’ve been duped becomes bitter or vengeful. Piranesi does not lose himself, once he discovers the truth.
So, did the world “create” him, or did it simply “release” him from a carapace of coping mechanisms to become his true self? I go back and forth on that, and that is one more great pleasure of this book.