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.”