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Piranesi, Susannah Clarke

October 15, 2020

Susanna Clarke’s new novel Piranesi takes its title from the name of an 18th-century artist famous for his etchings of Roman architecture, in particular a series of prints he called “Imaginary Prisons.” Too bad if you don’t like spoilers because the author herself has already told you what’s going on.

As if that isn’t enough, the villain is revealed almost immediately when Piranesi tells readers that “the Other” is interested in “vanquishing Death and becoming immortal,” the typical path to deepest, darkest necromancy. Piranesi himself is revealed to be virtuous when he says that he has no “desire to live forever. The House ordains a certain span for birds and another for men. With this I am content.” Indeed Piranesi is so contented and so utterly lacking in curiosity that readers may wonder if he has suffered some kind of mental damage.

Piranesi’s suffering is clear, especially when he points out that “winter is hard. The cold goes on and on and it is only with difficulty and effort that a person keeps himself warm.” It’s also clear that the Other could make his life a lot easier, as when it suits his own purposes he can bring the starving and barefoot Piranesi a ham and cheese sandwich or a pair of shoes.

Like Robinson Crusoe, Piranesi keeps careful records, and it is from them that we piece together his story. It takes him a long time to understand what is happening, however, as he has to ascribe meaning to words he no longer knows the meaning of: “for example I know that a garden is a place where one can refresh oneself with the sight of plants and trees. But a garden is not a thing that exists in the World.”

When I finally understood that Piranesi had been a person very much like me–a man who was writing a book on “transgressive ideas, in the people who formulate them, and how they are received by the various disciplines—religion, art, literature, science, mathematics and so forth”—it became clear that this was a mystery novel about a kidnapping. And when, right after I found out who Piranesi had been, the man who became the Other asks him “does anyone know you’re here?” the entire mystery is revealed. The rest of the novel, about sixty pages, is devoted to Piranesi’s rescue and the revenge of his House on his captor. He even prophecies the fate of his captor, saying “on Thursday he will watch the Tides pouring in through the Doors and he will scream and scream. And I will laugh and laugh.”

One of Piranesi’s final questions is whether “perhaps even people you like and admire immensely can make you see the World in ways you would rather not.” Certainly this is one effect of reading Susanna Clarke’s novels. There’s something fundamentally cruel at the heart of her plots. In both Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and Piranesi, that cruelty is a result of the characters’ necromantic temptation, the quest for magic at any price, no matter what it costs someone else.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. October 15, 2020 5:09 pm

    I liked your analysis. But did you like it?

    • October 15, 2020 5:56 pm

      I liked it well enough to put up with all the pages of description of the house Piranesi finds himself in. I was glad enough to stick with it to the end, although also glad it’s a fairly short novel.

  2. October 16, 2020 12:48 am

    Kudos for hanging in there.

    • October 16, 2020 10:27 am

      I am definitely not lacking in curiosity, so I usually finish reading something I’ve started.

      • October 16, 2020 3:55 pm

        When I start saying, ‘Oh, for Heavens’ sake!’ or skipping and skimming, I head for the last couple of chapters, skim those, and decide. I rarely go back to finish the middle.

        As I get better as a writer, unfortunately it happens more and more frequently. Bummer.

        But the good stuff is always the good stuff.

  3. October 16, 2020 6:23 am

    I’m looking forward to this even more after reading this and other reviews: I do like explorations of the dark side of human nature and I’ll even put up with long descriptions of rooms! 🙂

    • October 16, 2020 10:28 am

      You will probably love this, then. I hadn’t thought of it as a Halloween read because I am not drawn to the dark and spooky, but it definitely could be.

  4. October 16, 2020 6:47 pm

    I am on the waitlist for this at the library. I hadn’t planned on reading it but got excited about it after reading a blog post on it. Now I am wondering if I should cancel my hold request. Hmmm.

    • October 17, 2020 12:17 pm

      I would not cancel the hold request, but neither would I keep my expectations high. It’s a book worth reading, at least once and especially if you’re more of a fan of dark tales at this time of year.

  5. October 17, 2020 9:39 am

    >There’s something fundamentally cruel at the heart of her plots.

    This is SUCH a great and insightful point. I think what I like about them is the union of like, humor and melancholy, spiked with — yep! — cruelty. It’s a fascinating blend of moods that just really, really works for me.

    • October 17, 2020 12:19 pm

      Interesting; humor, melancholy, and cruelty is not a combination I care for. This explains a few things about how our literary tastes differ (and our very different tastes are why I always like reading what you have to say).

  6. October 18, 2020 8:30 am

    Yes, there is cruelty, but I don’t think Clarke is on the SIDE of cruelty … rather she leads us to notice how it can invade us without our awareness, and how we can counter it with imagination and mental strength. In fact I think that’s the noblest purpose of the art of writing and reading, to help us to exercise such powers of discernment.

    In this book, the narrator has such a hard struggle just to figure out what the hell is going on. That’s how I feel a lot of the time, so I can sympathize.

    I have to read it again to articulate any coherent thoughts about it, but I definitely liked it, and I’m just so glad Clarke is publishing again.

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