All parts of the house are repeated many times, any place is another place. There is no one pool, courtyard, drinking trough, manger; the mangers, drinking troughs, courtyards, pools are fourteen (infinite) in number. The house is the same size as the world; or rather it is the world.
These sentences from “The House of Asterion,” a short story Jorge Luis Borges wrote in 1947, reprinted in English in 1962 in an anthology called Labyrinths, could with minor changes be imperceptibly transplanted into Susanna Clarke’s new novel, Piranesi. And you could just as easily imagine a condensed version of the book (already closer in length to Borges’ stories than to Clarke’s towering 2004 debut) in the Labyrinths collection. For several decades, the fantasy genre has largely confined itself to the young adult readership—with the works of C. S. Lewis, Philip Pullman, J. K. Rowling, Brandon Sanderson and Cornelia Funke—or been absorbed into cinegenic sagas like The Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire. Clarke rewelds the fantastical with the literary and the historical with the kind of flair that, since Borges, only Salman Rushdie has displayed.
Envision a house coterminous with the universe, with an immeasurable succession of halls and floors, the lower ones submerged and the upper clouded, all overpopulated with Latinate marble statues. But this isn’t a study of enclosure and solitude. The eponymous protagonist is nicknamed after Giovanni Battista Piranesi, a Venetian artist whose work includes prints of otherworldly prisons. But the printmaker, architect and antiquarian was also a pioneer of neoclassicism. He was eighteen in 1738, when the excavation of Herculaneum began. In 1740, he arrived in Rome as an apprentice to engraver Giuseppe Vasi. Pompeii was unearthed in 1748. G. B. Piranesi flourished in a milieu of rediscovery and reinterpretation of the Classical worlds of Rome, Greece and Egypt. Clarke’s Piranesi is not a passive recipient of experience, on whom the House is imposed. He is the one who imbues it with meaning: its interpreter and therefore in a sense its creator. He is no more caged in it than we are in the vestibule of our barred spiral galaxy.
The fictional Piranesi counts himself as one of fifteen humans to have verifiably inhabited the world and has contact with only one living other—”the Other.” Yet he’s hardly alone. The limitless lower and upper halls of the House are congested with fish and birds. Some flutter about in the middle halls, too. Episodes involving a family of albatrosses, a clamour of rooks and other avian species make it clear that Piranesi can (or believes he can) communicate with the animal kingdom. Even “the tides themselves are full of movement and power,” he explains, “so that, while they may not exactly be alive, neither are they not-alive.”
The prose of Clarke’s second novel is not suffused by Austen and Dickens—like Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell—but by someone more like Hemingway, whose style Saul Bellow summarises in Dangling Man: “Do you have feelings? There are correct and incorrect ways of indicating them. Do you have an inner life? It is nobody’s business but your own. Do you have emotions? Strangle them.” Like Dangling Man, the novel is a series of journal entries. Unlike Bellow’s Joseph, the diary-keeper is eloquent but not erudite, expressive but not digressive. After a tribulation that must have been exceptionally discomposing, his account reads: “The Roar of the Waves would have made it impossible for us to hear each other and in any case, we had been intent on saving ourselves and each other; we had had no thought for anything else. Now we turned and looked at each other.” The protagonist never behaves out of character. His undistracted narration makes for smooth reading, usually, but bespeaks a psyche that is not especially profound. Piranesi is thirty-five years old, but comes across as a precocious child with a spiritual radius that barely exceeds the nine-hundred-and-sixty consecutive halls of the House he has travelled through in one direction. This is the product of an original sin.
While Clarke has closeted away the puffy accoutrements of the Regency period, she has retained a more subtle vestige of the early nineteenth century: romantic primitivism. Loyal to this anthropologically empty concept of nature’s gentleman (see Kipling’s Mowgli or Tolkien’s Ghân-buri-Ghân or anybody blue in the film Avatar), Clarke’s protagonist is at once intelligent and extraordinarily incurious and unambitious. He is creative enough to invent a calendar: one twelve-month period he calls “the Year I named the Constellations,” others “the Year I counted and named the Dead” and “the Year I discovered the Coral Halls.” He’s a disciplined survivalist and scientist, tracking the tides with an exactitude that allows him to make meteorological predictions. But though he notices the Other’s “shining object,” he never wonders what it is; as he registers the material and colour of the suits and polished shoes in which the Other appears twice a week, it only once occurs to him to ask “why it is that the House gives a greater variety of objects to the Other than to me, providing him with sleeping bags, shoes, plastic bowls, cheese sandwiches, notebooks, slices of Christmas cake, etc., etc., whereas me it only gives fish.” He’s content to think that the world, like a natural command economy, offers to each according to his need. In a work of otherwise refreshing originality, this rationalisation is puzzlingly deficient. At the risk of appearing cynical, the reader must ask how, in a world of two, can relative deprivation not be instinctive?
Wildness, wisdom and innocence are hardly synonymous, but they are coexistent in Piranesi as if the first is pregnant with the other two. Instead of some intuitive Kantian purity or a perfect communion with nature, the more natural psychology of the singular human would be solipsism or perhaps a god complex: “Everything is repeated many times, fourteen times, but two things in the world seem to be repeated only once: above, the intricate sun; below Asterion. Perhaps I have created the stars and the sun and this enormous house, but I no longer remember.” Two of the more endearing childlike traits of the man stand out. The first is his immense capacity for observing the ordinary. In several instances, you may be reminded of an actual prisoner, Camus’ Meursault, scrutinising the minute details of a brick in the wall of his cell. Second, Piranesi sees cosmos in what is surely chaos: “The World feels Complete and Whole, and I, its Child, fit into it seamlessly. Nowhere is there any disjuncture where I ought to remember something but do not, where I ought to understand something but do not.” That enviable skill tends to dissolve in adulthood and is never recovered.
In spectacles like Piranesi, characters can be a distraction from the main act: the world. And Clarke’s labyrinths are as alluring as Borges.’ In this book she does not include footnotes, however—a technique both authors have masterfully used to historically and philosophically substantiate their worlds. Instead, in two short bibliographies in Piranesi’s older journals, Clarke reveals some of the turns she took to arrive at and construct this particular maze. There are real and invented references to J. W. Dunne’s theory of time (roughly, that physical existence operates on one timeline while consciousness operates on a parallel one); the household goddess who inspired autodidact mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan; and Rudolph Steiner (whose esoteric spiritualism—another connection with Bellow—is generously peppered throughout Humboldt’s Gift). There is one citation of a fictitious academic article in a fictitious publication of real playwright J. B. Priestley’s real work. The article is titled “Now, here, now, always”—a line from the final stanza of T. S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding,” a poem about renewal, transformation and the reunion of past and present. Uncredited in the protagonist’s notes is Plato, whom you’ll find in the eternal statues jostling in the halls that depict ideal forms of material realities—some of which the character has seen and some of which he has not. All this makes the House a trifle less mysterious but a lot more captivating.
In 2004, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and in 2005 it won the Hugo, World Fantasy and Mythopoeic awards. It is likely that Piranesi will be similarly festooned, and one shouldn’t preclude the possibility of a film adaptation, improving Clarke’s record to two-for-two following the BBC serialisation of her first novel. Such circumstances of universal distinction would have ensnared another author into at least a trilogy, but Clarke isn’t in the business of self-confinement. Metamorphosis, both as literary theme and personal habit, has the glamour of classical Greece and Rome. Clarke should keep exercising it, especially now in these Years when Everybody Is Writing a Book, the tides of aesthetic novelty are receding and we are most in need of a rediscovery of what is august, enduring and beautiful.
Beautiful write up. As a Borges lover myself, is sounds like a worthwhile read.