Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi: Some Initial Reflections

The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.” ~ Piranesi, pg. 5

I warn the reader that, although I will try not to give overt spoilers—except to name a certain character, a name which we learn part way through the book—it is impossible not to discuss Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi without risking that the very ideas brought up might constitute spoilers in some way. So, perhaps these reflections are better saved for a post-reading discussion. (And I use the words “discuss” and “reflections” because I cannot possibly review a book by Clarke. One simply follows her along the mysterious paths that she lights for us.)

Giovanni Battista Piranesi

In that spirit, imagine a House—rather, a vast and ancient Temple, or many together, filled with every sort of Statue, Plinth, Apse, Hall and Vestibule, with enormous Windows letting in the light of the Sun, Moon, and Stars—of seemingly endless proportions spanning outward in the directions of the compass, made of three levels. The first, the “Lower Halls,” is the “Domain of the Tides,” and ocean waters are trapped and surging there, as well as all forms of sea life. The “Upper Halls” are the “Domain of the Clouds”–the heavens. Between them, hearkening to Tolkien’s Middle Earth, are the “Middle Halls,” which are “the Domain of birds and of men. The Beautiful Orderliness of the House is what gives us Life” (6-7).

The lone inhabitant of the House—if we don’t count the mysterious “Other” who appears for a meeting on Tuesdays and Fridays, nor the bones of the thirteen Dead—is a man called Piranesi, though he suspects that this is not his real name. We come to know the House through his eyes, recorded in these journal entries as he meticulously keeps track of and cares for the objects in the crumbling halls and tries to survive by his wits and the opportunities the House provides—mostly fish and seaweed for nourishment, and the occasional “multivitamins” provided by the Other.

Photo by Simon King on Unsplash

The event around which this year’s calendar of entries revolves is the appearance of an albatross in the South-Western Halls. Piranesi sacrifices his own comfort and his very material for kindling to make sure that the albatross and his mate have a comfortable place to rest: “But what is a few days of feeling cold compared to a new albatross in the World?” (32) Of course, a live albatross is a good omen to sailors, a sign of a wind picking up, wind that will soon set a becalmed ship in motion.

This Other gathers data from, and about, this Piranesi who is living a solitary existence in the mysterious Halls, and engages him to venture further up and further in, to use a Lewis reference. Piranesi collects data for the Other, whose aim is to harness a Secret Knowledge that he believes was possessed by the ancients, and long forgotten. The Other himself remains always other—he is analyzing from the outside, he is unoriginal, he has no care or concern for the House itself. In fact, he avoids it as much as possible; according to him, the longer a time one spends in this House, the more one is likely to go “mad.” The Other calls this world a “labyrinth” rather than a House—in contrast to Piranesi’s evident love for it—wherein he baffles over how to call upon some powerful force in order to access the Knowledge, for at heart he believes that “there isn’t anything powerful. There isn’t even anything alive. Just endless dreary rooms all the same, full of decaying figures covered with bird shit” (47).

There is an innocence, a reverence, in Piranesi, shown even by his frequent capitalizing of the first letter of many names of things and ideas, hearkening back to the Romantic Poets. He cares for the Houses’ Dead, although as far as he is aware he has never known them, arranging their bones and keeping them in their right place, and bringing them offerings of food and flowers. He speaks to the birds, the Moon, and the Stars. (The Other has no love for birds—an obvious sign of disapproval in a Clarkean world, I believe.) Piranesi is part of the world; an active participant. We soon come to learn that Piranesi’s is a vastly different approach to exploration and to “science,” if you will—or magic—to that of the Other. Whereas the Other is interested in harnessing the “Secret Knowledge” and using it to bend the will of “lesser minds” to his own, Piranesi sees his task in a different light: “As a scientist and an explorer I have a duty to bear witness to the Splendours of the World” (6).

Giovanni Battista Piranesi

Piranesi comes in time to realize that the Other is not as he seems, nor that he himself is exactly as he thought himself to be. This is part of the puzzle of the story: how did Piranesi end up in this labyrinthine world, a world echoing the etchings of the “Imaginary Prisons” of the Italian artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi? There are hints that the “normal” world, such as we know it, of modern day cell phones (the “shining device” of the Other) and cars and diesel and tarmacs, exists somewhere close at hand, like a shell surrounding the mysterious House, though Piranesi himself is hardly aware of it, and can hardly conceive the idea that more than sixteen or so exist in the World.

Owen Barfield, Saving the Appearances

It is the simple, intelligent, and enthusiastic wonder of the narrator that drives the story forward. We are instantly on his side. There is along with his notable reverence also a dogged self-sufficiency, and an almost heartbreaking loneliness—a loneliness he is only half-aware of, as he doesn’t seem to know what he is missing when he speaks to the Dead for his sole company, or runs into the arms of one of the Statues, as though it intended to comfort him. But there is much to envy: his stance towards the World – or the House, “since the two are for all practical purposes identical” (11-12), is one of connection, wonder and reverence, of friendly communion with it and all creatures and things in it. “When night fell, I listened to the Songs that the Moon and Stars were singing and I sang with them” (70-71). Here there is an echo of Owen Barfield’s “original participation” in his mind-bending and important work, Saving the Appearances, which this novel has made me want to return to after many years. In so many ways, have we, too, become “the Other” from our own world, from Nature, from the Heavens, from our own Dead and recollections of the past? Perhaps, even from ourselves? There is a negative aspect to this “evolution of consciousness” that comes with so-called “progress.”

As the mystery of the novel unfolds, and unfolds at a taut, compelling pace, we soon learn that the name of the mysterious “Other” is Valentine Ketterley, and it is more than hinted at that he is a descendant of the same “uncle” Andrew Ketterley, the antagonistic “magician” in the prequel to Lewis’ Narnia books. (I say prequel, but I’m of the opinion that one should read them as originally published, and not read the prequel first – however, I am happy to debate this!) An overt reference to The Magician’s Nephew is in the first of the two quotes that comprise Piranesi’s epigraph: “I am the great scholar, the magician, the adept, who is doing the experiment. Of course I need subjects to do it on.” And it is no coincidence that Piranesi’s favorite Statue in the House is a Faun; Piranesi even “dreamt of him once; he was standing in a snowy forest and speaking to a female child” (16). I couldn’t help delight also in various other hommages to the Inklings and related persons, slipped in unobtrusively: journal index references to Barfield and Steiner; the publisher of Laurence Arne-Sayles’ books being Allen and Unwin, the publishers of J.R.R. Tolkien. (Yes, I even looked up the names of Arne-Sayles’ works, so convinced was I that I just might find them in the labyrinths of Google data.)

Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash

I wondered going into this reading whether or not it was in the same “world” as that of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. I feel that though there are no characters who overlap, as we are in two very different time periods, I can venture an emphatic yes. There is magic here, too, and strange paths to be trod, “on the other side of the rain”; and a sense of the Secret Knowledge now lost. And as in Strange and Norrell, there is a connection between magic and traveling upon the ancient paths with madness.

But as to the madness: perhaps the motive of one’s actions is key, and the position one has towards the House, and “Knowledge”–if such a thing exists in the way Ketterley is seeking for it. Perhaps the severity of the madness that is supposed to ensue is in direct correlation to the approach of inflexibility and domination one takes in venturing along these roads. One can show reverence, wonder, gratitude, love and friendship; or one can see knowledge and the world and one’s fellow beings as if from the outside, an I-It rather than I-Thou stance. The Other studies Piranesi like a rat in a maze, and Piranesi is merely useful to him.

The Wood Between the Worlds, “The Magician’s Nephew”

I read this book twice in quick succession, because it was all I could do at first to get a foothold in this world. I started with the audiobook, read beautifully by Chiwetel Ejiofor, and when I was about halfway through it, restarted it in hardcopy—while still continuing the audiobook at a separate time—fearing I had missed crucial information at the beginning.
Now, it seems to me that it can be read on any number of levels: the House is truly another World; the House is the World; the House is the soul, like Teresa of Avila’s “interior castle.” If the House is the World, we might compare the allegory to one that C.S. Lewis was fascinated by: Plato’s allegory of the cave. Its prisoners mistake the shadows they see on the wall for the real. Lewis uses this in The Silver Chair. The Other might be likened to the Emerald Witch, who tries to convince her prisoners that what is seen in the underground is the real: “When you try to think out clearly what this sun must be, you cannot tell me. You can only tell me it is like the lamp. Your sun is a dream; and there is nothing in that dream that was not copied from the lamp. The lamp is the real thing; the sun is but a tale…”

And yet…and yet, the House is beautiful. One might say it gives us, in its “Mercies,” the idea of something beyond it, which its beauty represents:

One day I rose early, and went to the Forty-Third Vestibule. The Halls that I passed through were grey and dim, with just a suggestion of Light in the Windows—the idea of Light, more than Light itself” (28).

In the Ninth Vestibule there is the Statue of a Gardener digging and in the Nineteenth South-Eastern Hall there is a Statue of a different Gardener pruning a Rose Bush. It is from these things that I deduce the idea of a garden. I do not believe this happens by accident. This is how the House places new ideas gently and naturally into the Minds of Men. This is how the House increases my understanding” (121).

This aspect of it is also Lewisian; of one thing giving us an “inkling,” so to speak, of another greater reality. Such was perhaps the feeling he related in Surprised by Joy when, as a small boy in Belfast, Lewis glimpsed what he later considered to be “the first beauty I ever knew”: seeing his brother Warnie’s toy garden that he had created on the lid of a biscuit box. (Is it a coincidence that one of the House’s Dead is known as the “Biscuit-Box Man”?) “As long as I live,” continues Lewis, “my imagination of Paradise will retain something of my brother’s toy garden.”

The World might be the House and the House the World. If so, I wonder, who among the novel’s characters is really “mad,” in the end?

As stated at the beginning, I don’t think I could ever “review” a book by Susanna Clarke, neither now nor later, neither in this world nor any other. To think of “reviewing” or “critiquing” in the traditional sense makes me laugh–to think of discussing the merits of her book or its shortcomings, comparing it in its success to other authors. It would never do, anyway, as one can only refer to the Inklings for anything like a just comparison. In her, the Inklings live on.

No, in my mind she can only be followed, as one would a magician, to strange paths and Other Worlds. The magic is in her words as she compels us to participate, and to wonder. I think of her in something of the way our protagonist thinks of Raphael, “represented by a statue in an antechamber that lies between the forty-fifth and the sixty-second northern halls. This statue shows a figure walking forward, holding a lantern [….] one gets the sense of a huge darkness surrounding her; above all I get the sense that she is alone, perhaps by choice or perhaps because no one else was courageous enough to follow her into the darkness” (242). And where in this world or any other is she taking us? Does it matter entirely, if you trust the Guide? Perhaps I’d venture to say, as Childermass said of the two magicians who were to restore Magic to England—and by implication, to the World: “Wherever magicians used to go. Behind the sky. On the other side of the rain.”

The Impact of Dickens: An International Conference

It was a joy to drop in this morning on the opening of the Zoom-based international conference on The Impact of Dickens, which will continue today and tomorrow, and to hear the introduction by the delightful Pete Orford, and that of Ian Dickens, the great-great-grandson of the great man.

Before getting ready for work, I was able to view a good portion of the first panel, including Katie Bell‘s presentation on the impact of Dickens on the southern gothic novelist and short story writer, Flannery O’Connor. She pointed out that the dark humor of both Dickens and O’Connor depends on “a delicate balance of comedy, violence and freakery.” I particularly loved not only the references of both O’Connor and Dickens to Cervantes, but the insight that both Dickens and O’Connor share the association of intense pain and violence with that of grace and redemption. Bell also draws attention to the fascination of both authors with characters who have physical–or even moral–impairments, and their proximity (whether because of or in spite of such characteristics) to the intersection of grace and redemption.

The one question I did pose before the first panel commenced was whether the presentations would be available for viewing later, as time off work was impossible during this difficult time in our wildfire-consumed southern Oregon. It sounds as though it may well be available, as it is certainly being recorded, so any who are interested might want to just keep an eye on the facebook page and the Dickens Fellowship website. Here’s hoping…

But for now, I leave the conference with reluctance, to get ready for work. Alas, yes, the work must go on. (Like Mr. Pancks, “What else am I made for?”) Have a happy Thursday, everyone!

Fulfilling Little Nell’s Wish During Quarantine

Our state, Oregon, went into full lockdown in the middle of March this year, and has been in the gradual reopening process over the past months. As I’m among those who was never able to work remotely, working as I do with superheroic adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities (or, different-abilities!) in a group home setting, I’ve not been able to focus as much time and energy on writing and on research as I’d like. However, I have been delving into a big Dickens readathon ~ or, perhaps more appropriately, re-readathon.

I’ve recently started the renowned Dickens biography by Michael Slater, having wanted to read it for a long time, only halted by my intense attachment to the Peter Ackroyd biography. I’ve also been rereading ~ or relistening to audiobooks of ~ his novels. One of those has been The Old Curiosity Shop, which I hadn’t read in years. I love the atmosphere, although it’s never been among my top favorites; however, during one of my walks with my brother, I was very much struck again by how applicable Dickens is, even to seemingly disconnected parts of life.

My brother, looking at the vista from one of the cemetery trails

One of our favorite places to walk is the picturesque, historic little town of Jacksonville, Oregon, about 30 minutes away from Ashland, and home to a number just shy of 3,000 residents, but with, at least in pre-Covid days, a relatively hopping little tourist economy, between its old-West downtown flavor and historic homes, surrounding woods and trails, the supposedly-haunted Jacksonville Inn, and the renowned Britt Festival in the summer.

The historic Jacksonville Cemetery is a beautiful place for a walk ~ at least, when it isn’t too hot, because it tends to have spots of intense sun, and a few too many inclines for some of us in the heat. We’ve walked there often over the years, but our walk only a couple of weeks into the strict lockdown last March was particularly memorable.

Although I didn’t take pictures to speak of at the time ~ those in this post were primarily taken since ~ I recall in those first weeks of total quarantine, when we could only go out for essential needs, or to walk, for example, that I was inspired by the quiet, social-distanced, but active presence of people at the cemetery…walking, visiting the graves of loved ones, or simply sitting under the shade of trees to read and nap. I don’t recall having seen so many people there before, although there were no gatherings, or anything else that went against the lockdown regulations. If there is one thing that, just perhaps, we might see more of in a time of shutdown and pandemic, is a beautiful sort of connection to the earth, to family, and to those who have gone before us.

I kept thinking of Little Nell’s lament, when beautifying the little churchyard late in the novel, of the many graves that go unvisited, as though forgotten. She finally opens up about her thoughts to the kind schoolmaster:

“I rather grieve–I do rather grieve to think,” said the child, bursting into tears, “that those who die about us, are so soon forgotten.”

“And do you think,” said the schoolmaster, marking the glance she had thrown around, “that an unvisited grave, a withered tree, a faded flower or two, are tokens of forgetfulness or cold neglect? Do you think there are no deeds, far away from here, in which these dead may be best remembered? Nell, Nell, there may be people busy in the world, at this instant, in whose good actions and good thoughts these very graves–neglected as they look to us–are the chief instruments.”

“Tell me no more,” said the child quickly. “Tell me no more. I feel, I know it. How could I be unmindful of it, when I thought of you?”

“There is nothing,” cried her friend, “no, nothing innocent or good, that dies, and is forgotten. Let us hold to that faith, or none. An infant, a prattling child, dying in its cradle, will live again in the better thoughts of those who loved it, and will play its part, through them, in the redeeming actions of the world, though its body be burnt to ashes or drowned in the deepest sea. There is not an angel added to the Host of Heaven but does its blessed work on earth in those that loved it here. Forgotten! oh, if the good deeds of human creatures could be traced to their source, how beautiful would even death appear; for how much charity, mercy, and purified affection, would be seen to have their growth in dusty graves!”

~ Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop, Chapter 54

So, of course, the schoolmaster is right ~ it is our deeds, and our lives, by which we best remember those who have gone before. Who knows what hidden sparks of life, what dreams and moments of even heroic virtue, might have been inspired by one who died long ago? But still, I understand little Nell’s lament, and it is the peculiar sadness of the cemetery: not so much that it is a place to house the dead, but the broader fear that they are forgotten by the living. We know this isn’t so, but we are connected inextricably to the tangible. Fresh flowers left at a grave site; grass freshly mown and earth recently weeded; little pebbles left like secret messages at a headstone.

One might see it as “morbid,” perhaps, to keep part of one’s focus on the memory of the deceased; but I think there are few things that more awaken us to the living world around us, than the memory of those who are still so alive to us in a more profound way, although not physically present to our senses.

Perhaps for many of the visitors, like my brother and me, many were just in the cemetery for a beautiful walk, or somewhere to read with a vista of the surrounding town and hills, and not specifically to visit the grave of a loved one. But one can’t help but remember one’s own loved ones in such a setting, and one’s connection to the earth. Was it just my imagination, or had the quiet cemetery never seemed so full of life, and active memory, as it had during those early days of quarantine? I hope that those goods that have come from this time of universal lockdown are not too soon forgotten.

A Victober for John Henry Newman

“The heart is a secret with its Maker; no one on earth can hope to get at it or to touch it.”

John Henry Newman

Reading challenges have not often been on my to-do list, even though I can see how they could be great opportunities to find inspiration from others doing something similar. It’s entertaining and inspiring to see the different takes and offshoots from each challenge, and perhaps–just perhaps–one will find the Holy Grail: a real gem of a book that you otherwise might never have found.

While doing my own prep for NaNoWriMo this year–or was I just YT surfing?–I stumbled across a Booktuber who mentioned her participation in “Victober” this year. I’d heard the term before but had forgotten about it. It has been going for the past few years, and is hosted by four Booktubers, with the intention of focusing on Victorian literature during the month of October. Each comes up with a particular “challenge” for those participating, as well as a group challenge.

As if I needed any excuse to read more Victorian lit, but…

Okay, it is too much fun to resist. To some degree, I’ll be doing my own thing with the Victober challenge. For one, mine definitely has a theme, and I’m not sure how common this is. For a while now I’ve been wanting to dip back into the life and writings of John Henry Newman, and now seems the perfect time, as a kind of celebration of his upcoming canonization on October 13th. So, although not all of the books I’ve chosen relate to Newman, there is definitely a recurring theme.

St. Mary the Virgin, Oxford

John Henry Newman, Anglican priest and Oxford intellectual who converted to Roman Catholicism in 1845, is one of the towering intellects in the history of the Church and of western literature, and a master of English prose. Newman’s life spanned almost the entirety of the Victorian period. His conversion from Anglicanism was one of the great scandals of his day, as he was such an influential figure among the Anglican faithful who flocked to his sermons, and was among the leaders of the Oxford Movement, which was intended to bring Anglicanism back to her Catholic roots and sacramentality. Interestingly, the more Newman plunged into the readings of the Church Fathers and into history, the more he became convinced that the church of Christ and of truth was to be found in the very Roman Catholicism that he had throughout his life been taught to treat with suspicion or reprehension. The decision to finally “cross the Tiber” came after a long and arduous time of soul-searching, intellectual rigor, and prayer. He knew that by taking this step, his influence would be completely undercut. He would lose friends, and hurt his family. (One of the reasons that I love John Henry Newman so much is his great capacity for friendship, and the value he places on friendship.) Such a conversion would not be seen as so earth-shattering now; but at the time, the bias against “popery” and “Romanism” was so strong in England that it was tantamount to a treasonous act.

“Newman’s Pulpit,” St. Mary the Virgin, Oxford

The richness of Newman’s life and thought has led to a vast number of conversions, and his influence on the understanding of doctrine and also of the importance of the laity in the life of the church are among the reasons he has been called “the Father of the Second Vatican Council.”

In 2016, my mom and I, and two of my siblings, had taken a 20-year-in-the-making trip to England, with the heart of our stay being the 3 nights in Oxford, where we were able to visit St. Mary the Virgin and “Newman’s pulpit” where he preached the great Anglican sermons that were so beloved; and to nearby Littlemore, where he went on a kind of 3-year retreat after the censure of Tract 90, in order to pray and study and reflect on his position in the Anglican church and his leanings toward Rome. Our stop to Littlemore, and to his room and the little chapel where I held his Rosary for a few minutes, were easily the most moving and memorable moments of the whole England trip for me.

A little Littlemore collage. (My mom Debra is on the right, touching Newman’s writing desk. Here he wrote “An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine.” This desk was also used as a makeshift altar for his first mass as a Roman Catholic. He was received into the Church by Fr. Dominic Barberi.

But, back to Victober. Here is a list of the challenges from the four hosts (click here for a link to the challenge video on the “Books and Things” page–she includes links to the rest of the hosts), along with an addition of my own:

  • Challenge #1: A book written by a female author (with a bonus if the author is unfamiliar to you).
  • Challenge #2: Reread a Victorian book.
  • Challenge #3: Read a Victorian book under 250 pages and/or over 500 pages.
  • Challenge #4: Read an underrated book published in the same year as your favorite Victorian book.
  • General challenge: Read by candlelight, for at least some of a book.
  • My own challenge: Read a book (not necessarily published during the period) about a favorite Victorian figure.

For Challenge #1, I decided to read Charlotte Yonge’s The Heir of Redclyffe, published in 1853, a novel which is not greatly remembered now, but which was very popular in its day. (And yes, I do get the “bonus” because CY is not an author I’ve read before!) Focusing on the spiritual struggle of the main character, Guy Morville, the novel lifts up the virtues of self-sacrifice and piety and was very influential. The connection to Newman here is that Yonge, like Newman, fell under the influence of John Keble; Yonge has been called “the novelist of the Oxford Movement.” (Warning: Don’t read the introduction by Barbara Dennis if you don’t want spoilers! I had to stop reading the introduction almost instantly. I really want to read Dennis’ biography of Yonge at some point, but here Dennis continues the tradition which is a pet peeve of mine: in so many summaries or introductions of Victorian novels, or even on the back covers, the endings are constantly spoiled. And with no “spoiler alert” warnings! This pet peeve deserves a whole separate blog post of its own. Do they think that we either: 1. Already know the ending? or, 2. Don’t care about knowing the ending ahead of time, as though we are merely studying it for a class and not reading it for fun, as a good story that we want to be surprised by? Either way, I find it infuriating.)

For Challenge #2, I’ll cheat a bit, since it won’t be a full re-read. I had started Newman’s An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent–usually just referred to as A Grammar of Assent–some time ago, but with school and work challenges, it fell by the wayside. So, in honor of the month and the theme, I will read/re-read it. It sounds like a daunting one, yes, and it’s certainly above me intellectually, but it is such an important work that I want to tackle it.

I’m combining Challenges #3, #4, and the Group Challenge in one book that is not Newman-related: It is a short novella (hence fulfilling the #3 requirement) and published in 1859, the year of my favorite novel’s publication (Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities), fulfilling the #4 requirement. It is a George Eliot novella called The Lifted Veil, which sounds rather gothic–hence, it will be the perfect book to read at least partially by candlelight! I found a kindle version for free on Amazon.

For my final challenge, I’m also somewhat cheating, as I’m continuing a book rather than starting it during the month of October. It’s the first volume of Meriol Trevor’s biography of John Henry Newman, called The Pillar of the Cloud.

There are so many other books, Newman related and otherwise, that I’d like to read soon, but I’d better keep my Victober choices to those I’ve mentioned, since I also have other books on the immediately-to-be-read list, such as a reread of The Hobbit as the first of our reads for a newly-created local book group focusing on the works of the Inklings. (Of course, Oxford-based as the Inklings are, there is even a tangential connection to Newman there!)

So, in the midst of our other family and work duties, here’s to a month of snatching, when one can, a few cozy hours with a blanket and a hot drink, curled up with a good Victorian read. And just as Newman proposed a toast “to conscience first,” I propose a toast to John Henry himself, for the world would be a far poorer place without his great mind and influence.