Piranesi (2020): Susanna Clarke

★★★★★

Piranesi lives in the House. There is nothing beyond or outside. He has explored with scientific rigour, as far as he can go, diligently mapping his progress. His findings suggest the House is infinite, its upper halls thick with drifting clouds, its lower levels submerged beneath silent waters. Each hall has its own collection of statues, which Piranesi catalogues with earnest devotion. He is entirely alone, save for weekly meetings with the elusive Other, the only other living man in the House. Piranesi likes to believe that they are colleagues, working together for the greater good, but he knows deep in his heart that he and the Other have different ambitions. The Other dreams of discovering some great and terrible knowledge hidden within the House, while Piranesi cares only for the well-being of the House itself, in all its majesty. Susannah Clarke’s long-awaited new novel transports us to an extraordinary world and poses a question: How can we understand and rationalise our world when we can’t escape it? Dream, reality and perception tremble on the brink in one of the most original novels I’ve ever read.

As some of you will be aware, I’ve been thinking about Piranesi (Giovanni Battista, that is) quite a lot recently. I was intrigued by the title of Clarke’s novel, though I never expected it to be historical fiction. On reading it, what I found was a beguiling tribute to the visuals of the real Piranesi’s work: the disproportionately tiny scale of man among the relics of lost ancient creators; the lure of ruins; a fascination with statues; and of course, above all, a love of labyrinths, mazes, multiple levels and unexpected doorways. The images are supremely powerful. Great monoliths of fractured stone; towering halls full of statues; sudden inrushes of floodwater, deadly and immutable. And silence. You think of Piranesi, a tiny figure dwarfed by his surroundings, wandering these endless halls and there is something apocalyptic about it, like the lowest dream-level in Inception, where endless tides crash against the crumbling remnants of a lost city. And Inception is actually one of the best parallels I can think of, for reasons that will become increasingly obvious as you read more of the novel.

Much of the book is dreamlike and tantalising. There isn’t much of a plot at first, but I didn’t miss it much: it makes for the greater contrast when things start to change. The novel takes the form of Piranesi’s journals, and we follow his explorations of the House, his observation of the tides in its eternal basements, and his fascination with the birds he sees on his rounds. It also records his devotion towards the bones of the dead, whom he has found in various places throughout the House. For Piranesi, they are not ghoulish relics but instead a gentle reminder of the transience of life, and a reassurance that others have been here before. Perhaps there are still others, alongside Piranesi and the Other, in one of the far reaches of the House? There’s something hypnotic about these accounts of a pure, repetitive life, and Piranesi himself is charming: a compassionate innocent, devoted to reason. He’s absorbed by the simplest things, and exuberantly grateful for the gifts he occasionally receives from the Other. Yet, one day, a distressing note of disharmony creeps into Piranesi’s life. There is talk of another visitor to the House. Can it be true? Why does the Other appear to be afraid of them? Where have they come from? In which part of the House do they normally live? And why is Piranesi beginning to doubt his own memory? Why do his journals, so faithfully kept, suggest that part of his past is missing? Perhaps, if he can only rediscover what once he knew for certain, he can understand the House and its mysteries once and for all.

Sometimes I’ve read books without being in the right mood for them, but with Piranesi I was in completely the right frame of mind. The House absorbed me, as dizzying as a deserted Gormenghast and as endless as a memory palace. It’s both simple and ferociously conceptual; compassionate and cruel. Reading it feels like dreaming: a delicious dance between austere lucidity and complex psychology. It would be a fruitless exercise to say any more, because I’m not sure that I’m capable of truly capturing its magic and I don’t want to spoil it for anyone. But I can say that this will undoubtedly be one of the strangest, most beautiful and most haunting novels you’ll read all year.

I leave you with Piranesi’s own benediction: ‘May your Paths be safe, your Floors unbroken and may the House fill your eyes with Beauty.’ Luminous, ethereal, and perfect.

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