Some Books: Susanna Clarke’s ‘Piranesi’


This irregular series began as a conscious decision to re-read certain books I had enjoyed many years ago when borrowed from Didsbury Library in South Manchester, and to consider how well, or otherwise, they stood up to my recollection of them. Since then, it’s expanded beyond the confines of what I read in the Library.
Thanks in large part to chronic fatigue syndrome, it took Susanna Clarke sixteen years to produce a follow-up to the widely-acclaimed and massively successful Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. For some time she was at work on a sequel to that book, which I hope will eventually come to fruition, but after having herself reinvigorated by a visit to the set of the television adaptation, Clarke recovered the urge and ability to write, but chose a simpler story, an idea that pre-dated Strange & Norrell, featuring far fewer characters and requiring little or no research.
The result was Piranesi, published to unanimous acclaim in 2020. I treated myself to the paperback as a self-present for Xmas 2021 but, largely out of a certain trepidation over the mental effort I assumed it would require, not to mention the dozens of other things that occupy my mind in retirement, I did not begin the book until early October 2022, determined to catch up on a small and mixed piles of books I hadn’t opened.
The first thing to say is that Piranesi is incredibly easier to read than Strange & Norrell. It’s told in the first person as a series of journal entries by the title character, who writes in a stiff and formal manner that is nevertheless more open and lucid that the earlier novel. Most of the book takes place in what you would afterwards describe as a ‘fantasy world’, detached from the ‘real world’, which takes the form of an infinite House of rooms and levels, subject to floods and tides that might sweep the unwary away.
There are two principal characters, namely Piranesi and The Other. All other regular occupants of the House are skeletons, each given a descriptive name by Piranesi, who guards, honours and, in an offbeat manner, almost worships them. A character who Piranesi names The Prophet appears once, a mysterious character that both he and The Other name 16 (counting the skeletons but not The Prophet, there are fifteen inhabitants of the House): she comes into the book towards the end and is responsible for precipitating such ending as it has.
Piranesi is nothing like Strange & Norrell. It is shorter and simpler, in its way, and instead of immersing itself deeply in the minutiae of explanation, it uses mystification as its primary tool. We are dropped into a strange and inexplicable environment described by an individual doing strange and mystifying things that are natural to him but inexplicable to us. Description is minimal. We have no idea what is going on, or why, and we have to try to get a handle on things.
As such, this book is much less intimate. I read it in three sessions, the first of which was spent mainly trying to work out not what on Earth was going on but why the book had been written. There seemed to be no point to it. Of course I was merely being impatient, but too much of that section came over as being wilful obscurantism, where the lack of comprehension is more important than anything else.
Though we eventually got an explanation of everything we needed to know – who Piranesi ‘really’ is, where he is, how he got here – that feeling did prevail, and it was compounded for me by Clarke’s decision to remove all her explanations a long psychological way from Piranesi, aka journalist Matthew Rose Sorensen, and the House which had become his natural habitat. The fantasy, whose production and the means of it was left unexplained because no concrete explanation would have been believable, had become his natural home. And because Piranesi neither could, nor did, nor wanted to place the ‘real’ world from where he had originally come on an equal footing with his bizarre House.
All of this is based upon a first reading. At some point I shall re-read the book, this time armed from the outset with the knowledge of everything lying beneath it, and I expect the story to change quite drastically from that new perspective. And I shall need a great deal of time to ponder the implications, not just for Piranesi/Sorensen, of that ending.
Unlike everyone else, I don’t acclaim the book, not on this reading at least. Oh, what a surprise, at odds with everyone else again. But at least I finally got round to reading it.

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