Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

I was looking forward to reading this after it won the Women’s Prize for fiction and having been tempted by her earlier work, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell but put off by the length of it.

Piranesi Winner Susanna ClarkeFantasy isn’t a genre I read very often, but one I have a nostalgic feeling for, having loved it when I was a child. The problem usually being that it becomes harder to evoke the magical feeling that a child’s imagination is capable of creating. However I was willing to try and decided to read it on a day I’d have few interruptions.

I learned after finished it, that the name Piranesi, is likely to have been inspired by the 18th century Italian classical archaeologist, architect and artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1728) and his series of 16 etchings, Carceri d’invenzione or Imaginary Prisons, depicting enormous subterranean vaults with stairs and towers and bas-relief type sculptures.

If Jonathan Strange was a riotous meeting of Austen and Dickens, then Piranesi’s pole stars are Jorge Luis Borges and CS Lewis. “I found Lewis at a very impressionable age and then he sort of organised the inside of my head,” she says. “And that’s just the way it has been ever since.”

Review

Piranesi, the main character of the novel, lives in a house that has walls and multiple levels and statues and tides and fish and the bones of 13 bodies. More than a house, this is his world. Nothing outside this house exists for Piranesi and as we read we slowly begin to imagine it ourselves.

I spent today working at my usual tasks: fishing, gathering seaweed, working on my Catalogue of Statues.

Piranesi is content, though inquisitive. There is only one other person in his world, whom he refers to as The Other. The Other calls him Piranesi.

Since the World began it is certain that there have existed fifteen people. Possibly there have been more; but I am a scientist and I must proceed according to the evidence. Of the fifteen people whose existence is verifiable, only Myself and the Other are living.

It is clear to the reader that Piranesi is more open and honest with The Other than he is with Piranesi. Thus the mystery underlying the story, about who he is and what he is withholding from Piranesi.

Piranesi keeps journals, using his own calendar creation and indexing system. These will help him understand.

The Other believes that there is a Great and Secret Knowledge hidden somewhere in the World that will grant us enormous powers once we have discovered it.

Piranesi CoverDespite Piranesi’s scientific status, he is developing a connection to the World within he lives, in which he is able to ask questions and intuit answers.

The Other warns him about things that may happen and Piranesi has to use what knowledge he has and his developing ability to sense things, to navigate this new situation. To understand messages and develop meaning from his observations that inspire those intuitive nudges.

The warning of the birds – if that was what it was – seemed on the face of it nonsensical, but I decided nonetheless to follow this unusual line of reasoning and see where it took me.

I enjoyed reading it and the slow way that the reader is made to experience something of Piranesi’s own “forgetting”, by only seeing and understanding what is around him, without an appreciation for what exists outside the world, the House, he currently resides in. And his development of that other sense that provides meaning.

This realisation – the realisation of the Insignificance of the Knowledge – came to me in the form of a Revelation. What I mean by this is that I knew it to be true before I understood why or what steps had led me there.

I loved the not knowing, and that process of beginning to understand, the sense of there being an acknowledgment of so much more than what was in the story. Of the natural world, connectedness, a sense of the divine, that all these things are seen as transgressive, the act of forgetting due to rational thought and science becoming the only true authority.

If anything, I felt it stopped short and wondered if this might not have been a longer story, had it been able to develop further, perhaps it reflects the state of where the world is, stuck in this era of rational thought, on the precipice of rediscovering ancient knowledge and intuitive power, of realising who and what we really are, our capacity if we can move beyond the current limitations. I enjoyed it in the moment of reading it, but due to the limitations and sparseness of his world, I’m not sure that it stay long with me.

Further Reading

Guardian Review – Taking on uncanny relevance this year, this austere story of one man’s isolation explores profound questions of freedom by Justine Jordan

Guardian Interview – how the celebration of solitude in Piranesi, grew from her experience of a long illness

12 thoughts on “Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

  1. For some reason (probably also because I was reading this as an e-book), I struggled with it and could not finish it. It does sound a bit like Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude, which I read recently and loved. So maybe I should give it another chance.

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  2. The warning of the birds – if that was what it was – seemed on the face of it nonsensical, but I decided nonetheless to follow this unusual line of reasoning and see where it took me. — loved that.

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    • I purposely read this during the weekend when I could spend more time to try and move it along to the point of clarity, it being a kind of puzzle read that’s worth staying with for a period. It is indeed intriguing Sandra.

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  3. Like you, I enjoyed the fantasy genre in my childhood, but it’s not something I’m particularly drawn to these days. Nevertheless, I am intrigued to try this, especially given the range of reviews. I get the sense that Clarke’s world-building skills are strong, even if she leaves a little too much to the reader’s imagination? It’s a tricky balance to strike, I think…

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    • Yes that’s a very perceptive view you’ve gathered already. I think the fantasy I enjoyed as a child had more adventure and character development, whereas this is more like world building a jigsaw puzzle in isolation, as you begin to understand Piranesi’s world you ask more questions and slowly the revelation.

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  4. One of the things that I remember loving about JS&MrN is the footnotes. I was reading it while travelling a lengthy commute on public transit (which is a recommendation of its own, because I am exceptionally lazy when it comes to hauling books around and have been known to select based on heft and sprawl) and constantly giggling and loudly smirking. You can loudly smirk, as it turns out. Am really looking forward to this one, but haven’t found the right time just yet.

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  5. I agree that the book could have worked better as a longer novel. It felt like the author had this brilliant idea of the world and the man in it oblivious to anything, but did not really develop it much further. I also suspect that we may see in future Piranesi 2.

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