by Susanna Clarke,
Bloomsbury Publishing 2020
I am the Beloved Child of the House …
How else to describe this novel than as labyrinthine? Not only is it set in a physical maze-like structure but its narrator must, like Theseus, thread a path through confusing and sometimes conflicting revelations about who he is, what he’s doing there, and why his memory seems to be faulty.
He is named Piranesi by a colleague whom he thinks of as the Other, an older male who appears occasionally — usually twice a week — for an hour or so at a time, but otherwise his curious life is bound up with the House, with the seasonal tides that wash through some of its rooms, and with his journals in which, like a good scientist, he has been recording his explorations and annotating his observations.
But all is not well in the House: it is crumbling, worn away from the tides and the storms that invade the House; and when talk turns to death and killing Piranesi starts to realise that all he has taken for granted is based on uncertain, maybe even mendacious foundations.
This is a novel to read and appreciate and love without the irritation of a gauche reviewer revealing its secrets. So the best way, I think, to describe this jewel of a book is to use allusion, which is entirely fitting for a novel iself built on allusion. Think of it, say, as an Advent Calendar, in which one must open each box in the correct sequence till the final reveal, or as a pack of Tarot cards laid out one by one in a divinatory spread.
So one clue is provided by an epitaph quoting from C S Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew; another hint comes from the sobriquet Piranesi, historically a Renaissance polymath who famously produced a series of fantasy architectural designs of carceri — prisons — reminiscent of Escher’s impossible drawimgs; and the House’s cyclopean façades with their massive mythical and allegorical statues brings to mind the classic ars memoriae in which classical architectural niches are imagined as sequentially filled with mnemonic objects to aid recall of stories and rhetorical arguments.
Visually, though, what mostly springs to my mind are those wonderful Renaissance theatre sets which gave the illusion of never-ending halls and corridors, with daylight stealing in from a never quite visible sky. Into the House’s innumerable halls and vestibules Piranesi encounters birds and fishes and shells … and the bones of dead people. What does it all mean? Is Piranesi merely a lone player on a vast stage, fated to write his soliloquys in his journal because there is no audience?
Susanna Clarke has concocted for us a wonderful draught, with mysterious and subtle undertones to savour, to imbibe, to become intoxicated by. The guileless language that pervades the text is deliberately shorn of most adjectives and of adverbs to suggest Piranesi’s innocence; the capitalisation of certain nouns evokes the language of the Age of Enlightenment; the inclusion of academic references familiar from Clarke’s previous novels is intended to suggest Piranesi’s own scholarly leanings; the mention of plastic objects, for example, and the shining device consulted by the Other together impose cognitive dissonance when we consider Piranesi’s Robinson Crusoe existence.
Piranesi is a literary reliquary in which secrets have been deposited; its outside appearance is magnificent to behold, its contents delightful to contemplate; I shall hold it long in my memory.
The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.
I’ve tried to make this review as spoiler-free as possible; there will however be further discussion in a follow-up post in which I inevitably will give the game away