Sunday, January 16, 2022

Susanna Clarke, "Piranesi"

I read this book straight through from beginning to end, something I had not done with any other book in years.

I did not expect to like Piranesi. I knew I would read it, because Clarke's other book, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (2004), is for me the most remarkable fantasy novel of the past two decades. Despite its great flaws it lingers in my mind like few other books. 

But descriptions of Piranesi put me off. I like fantasies set in worlds that are vast and rich, and this one is the opposite. In it we meet a man, or at any rate a being that thinks of itself as a man, that calls itself Piranesi even though it knows that is not its name. It resides in a vast labyrinth, a crumbling ruin of an enormous palace, the lower floors washed by the sea, the upper chambers obscured by clouds. All the rooms are full of stone statues, each one unique. So far as it knows, this palace is all there is, and the labyrinth goes on forever. It is full of birds and fish, so Piranesi finds plenty of food, but little else besides the endless stone. Piranesi writes:

I am determined to explore as much of the World as I can in my lifetime. To this end I have travelled 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. I have climbed up to the Upper Halls where Clouds move in slow procession and Statues appear suddenly out of the Mists. I have explored the Drowned Halls where the Dark Waters are carpeted with white water lilies. I have seen the Derelict Halls of the East where Ceilings, Floors — sometimes even Walls! — have collapsed and the dimness is split by shafts of grey Light. 

In all these places I have stood in Doorways and looked ahead. 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.

From the beginning we sense there is something off with Piranesi's mind. First, it has no memories of its youth, yet it believes it is about 35 years old. It knows of many things that do not exist within the Labyrinth. It has clothes and other objects that could not have been made in its world. Its memory is obviously faulty, something of which it is intermittently aware.

The story concerns the unraveling of this mystery. Imagine, if you will, one of those Romantic stories about bold human spirits who push the boundaries of knowledge too far, and do something they should not: Frankenstein, or The Great God Pan. Now imagine it told in reverse. That is Piranesi.

But just as with Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, the plot is not the point of Piranesi. The point is the words, the vast labyrinth of language, and palace built of sentences, paragraphs, and images. For a short book like this one, that is enough for me.

One more example:

An image rises up in my mind. It is the memory of a statue that stands in the nineteenth north-western hall. It is the statue of a man kneeling on his plinth; a sword lies at his side, its blade broken in five pieces. Roundabout lie other broken pieces, the remains of a sphere. The man has used his sword to shatter the sphere because he wanted to understand it, but now he finds that he has destroyed both sphere and sword. This puzzles him, but at the same time part of him refuses to accept that the sphere is broken and worthless. He has picked up some of the fragments and stares at them intently in the hope they they will eventually bring him new knowledge.


David said...

I loved Piranesi, largely because I liked the main character so much. He's got an absolutely inexhaustible supply of curiosity, wonder, ingenuity, and sweetness. And I always got the sense that the lovely descriptions of things came from him, were part of him and what he could see in things, not just Clarke's verbal ability. I knew there were puzzles about him and what was going on, but I never sensed them as things that were "off." My son recommended the book to me, in large part because he so liked the eponymous main character.

John said...

I suppose the question presented at the end is whether Piranesi is a failed, damaged person or a magnificent wonder. You clearly come down on the wonder side. I was ambivalent.

David said...

You may well be right. I thought him such a wonder, I wasn't even aware of the question.

Thomas said...

I read somewhere that Clarke has been mostly housebound for a long time. It was a long time since I read that, so I don’t remember the whys, but it explains the nature of this book in some ways.