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In ‘Piranesi,’ We Are All Willing Prisoners of Our Own Imagination

Susanna Clarke’s first novel since her 2004 debut, ‘Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell,’ is based on the idea of becoming trapped inside our own mind and feeling sustained by its beauty and lonely in its isolation

Bloomsbury Publishing/Ringer illustration

Welcome to Ringer Reads, a semiregular column by Brian Phillips about his favorite books, writers, and various literary happenings.

Every book begins with the question what if, but not every book is immediately identifiable from the what-if that spawned it. Some books, and some types of books, have more memorable what-ifs than others. “What if a man in a bad marriage went back to his hometown after his mother had a stroke?” is a question that could lead to a great realist novel, but as a premise, it feels a little interchangeable; realist novels don’t always depend on memorable starting scenarios. Fantasy, on the other hand—great fantasy novels can almost always be picked out by their what-ifs. What if there were a magic ring that gave an evil being near-unlimited power, and the evil being lost it? What if there were a school where children went to learn magic? What if the back of the closet hid a doorway to another world?

Even by fantasy standards, though, the what-if behind Piranesi, Susanna Clarke’s long-awaited new novel, is a doozy. What if there were a house so large it contained an entire ocean? What if the house—an endless succession of enormous classical halls lined with marble statues, separated by grand staircases and vestibules—was so vast it made it impossible to say how large it was, because no one had ever seen all of it? What if one person set out to explore it?

Piranesi is Clarke’s first novel in 16 years; it’s her first book of any kind in 14. In 2004, her debut novel, the historical fantasy Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell—the story of two would-be magicians in a version of Regency England where magic was once real before mysteriously vanishing from the world—became a hugely unlikely bestseller. The book was long, twisty, playfully erudite, written in an arch-pastiche of Austen and Dickens, and so crammed with footnotes people compared it to Infinite Jest. Multiple publishers rejected it as unmarketable before Bloomsbury saw its potential and offered Clarke a seven-figure advance. It was like a fantasy novel in its own right. What if a mock-academic 19th-century historical tome from an alternate dimension sold millions of copies and inspired a BBC TV adaptation?

Two years later, Clarke published The Ladies of Grace Adieu, a short-story collection set mostly in the same alternate-Napoleonic world as Jonathan Strange. Then she went quiet. Years passed; she published nothing. Among her fans, word gradually spread that she had health problems, that it was unlikely she’d ever write again. Then one day, almost without warning, the complete manuscript of Piranesi appeared in her agent’s inbox. What if a new manuscript from a long-silent writer suddenly appeared, and the manuscript turned out to be one long puzzle?

Piranesi is unlike Jonathan Strange in so many obvious respects that most of the early reviews of the book have spent much of their length marveling at the differences. Piranesi is short where its predecessor was long; it’s economically plotted where its predecessor wandered all over the place; it’s set in a version of the modern day rather than in the past; it’s written in an open and guileless first-person voice rather than in the heavily ironized third-person of Jonathan Strange. More than that, the narrative strategies of the books are opposite. Jonathan Strange playfully teases the reader by piling on so much history that the main story threatens to get lost. Piranesi initially obscures its entire backstory, plunging you right into the middle of a baffling present and asking you to fill in the gaps as it hurtles forward.

Piranesi purports to be the scientific journal of its protagonist, the notebook where he keeps a record of his explorations throughout the House (always capitalized in the novel, like many other words the protagonist deems significant). He goes by “Piranesi” because that is the name given to him by the only other person in the House—who is also, so far as he knows, the only other living person in existence. This well-dressed, elderly man, whom he calls the Other, meets with Piranesi twice a week to discuss the search for the Great and Secret Knowledge, a mysterious power that the Other believes he can obtain from the House.

Piranesi’s narrative marks him immediately as an innocent, a pure soul. “The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite,” he writes. The extreme earnestness of his language, combined with the bizarre situation he inhabits, leads him to employ expressions (“Great and Secret Knowledge”) whose extreme seriousness is often very funny. He does not remember how he came to be in the House. He thinks that perhaps 15 people have existed in the history of the world, because there are two people living now, himself and the Other, and he has found 13 skeletons throughout the House. He visits the skeletons and tends to them with great care. He believes the Other is his dear friend, but the reader, less noble of character than Clarke’s hero, will spot straight away that the Other is cunning, rude, and manipulative. He seems to hold Piranesi in contempt, to see him as a tool to further his own plans for the House.

Unlike the Other, who never ventures beyond a small area, Piranesi loves the House. He views it with religious adoration; he considers himself its beloved child. But almost immediately, troubling mysteries begin to proliferate. Where does the Other disappear to between their meetings? How, when Piranesi reveals that his shoes have disintegrated and he must travel through the house slowly because he is barefoot, does the Other manage to produce a brand-new pair of athletic shoes? Piranesi looks back over his journals and discovers that he has more of them than he remembers, and bafflingly, that the dating system he uses changes midway through. He currently dates his journals with sensible mnemonics like “the year the Albatross came to the South-Western Halls”; but once, for some reason he cannot remember, he dated them with numbers like “2011” and “2012.” The old journals are full of names he doesn’t recognize—a particularly puzzling development, since only 15 people have ever existed in the world—and references to concepts he dimly understands without knowing how, concepts like “university” and “museum” and “journalist.” Has he lost his memory? He thinks perhaps that he was previously insane, though he is sure he is sane now.

The novel, then, unfolds like a puzzle, with new revelations arriving at a steady pace. Slowly—though a little more quickly than Piranesi himself—we deduce what the house is and why he lives in it. (Without spoiling the explanation, I can say it includes some of the most beautiful thinking about magic that I’ve ever encountered in a fantasy novel.) At times, the tick-tick-tick of information makes the plot seem a little too easy. Once Piranesi starts looking into his past, the journey to the solution occasionally seems to be on rails, with new discoveries arriving reliably regardless of what Piranesi does, or whether he does anything at all. In fairness, there’s a kind of classical elegance to this unfolding that echoes the structure of the many-halled House, and if Piranesi seems to make the quest for truth less arduous than a good detective novel, the novel is also required to solve a much knottier mystery. A dead body in a locked room is one thing; 13 dead bodies in a mansion sealed off from reality and containing an indoor sea is something else. And unlike in most detective novels, the answers in Piranesi are every bit as satisfying as the questions.

In any case, the structure of the book’s revelations is also the key to its real wonder, which is the sheer breadth of the story it contains in a tiny space. For all their superficial differences, Piranesi and Jonathan Strange have one deep thing in common: Both novels tell a far larger story than the one they seem to be telling. That is, both novels focus intensely on a single corner of a much larger narrative, so that the story we follow from chapter to chapter is only a piece of the story we eventually manage to fit together. In Jonathan Strange, the story of the rise and fall of English magic and the return of the mysterious Raven King plays out in the margins of the surface tale about two squabbling magicians who think (erroneously) that they are responsible for the return of magic. In Piranesi, the story the protagonist uncovers could easily fill a book the size of Jonathan Strange, but here it is, without ever seeming hurried or compressed, in a slender, 244-page volume that mostly seems to be about something else.

Piranesi and Jonathan Strange have more similarities, in the end, than meets the eye. If a writer can have signature traits after publishing two novels, most of Clarke’s are here: Her sense of the eeriness lurking under high European culture (in Piranesi, a kind of magical Louvre lost in space; in Jonathan Strange, the relationship between wild fairy magic and the highly formal society of the Regency); her use of comically exaggerated stylistic scholasticism; her interest in the dark side of the quest for knowledge, its Faustian pitfalls and temptations; most of all, the sense in her worlds that magic has to exist because pure reason, pushed past a certain point, becomes nonsensical—an instinct she shares with Lewis Carroll, among other writers. But what makes Piranesi feel of a piece with Clarke’s earlier work—what makes it a Susanna Clarke novel—is primarily that obliquity, the sense of a mystery behind the mystery we think we’re solving.

What is Piranesi about? It’s a naïve question, but with a book so teasingly willing to look like allegory, a book stuffed so full of what seem like capital-S symbols, it’s also a natural one. What do the statues represent? What do the albatrosses mean? Some reviewers have tried, inevitably, to connect the book to quarantine: What if there were a house you could never get out of? Unless you live in a billion-square-foot house with a swimming pool that wanders from room to room, though, this seems like a strained reading. So what’s going on here?

I don’t have any definite answers—I hope there aren’t any definite answers—but I can tell you what I’ve been thinking about. First, I thought about imagination. The idea of being trapped in a vast structure full of images of indeterminate significance, simultaneously feeling sustained by its beauty and lonely in its isolation—I don’t know, does that remind you of anything? The experience of dwelling inside your own mind? The title of the novel refers, obviously, to the artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi, famed in the 18th century for his etchings of imaginary prisons. The fictional Piranesi inhabits the ultimate imaginary prison, but instead of feeling trapped by it, he learns to love it, to know its rhythms and beauties and to see it as a beautiful world unto itself. What if the basic impulse behind fantasy novels were a fantasy novel? I thought. Wouldn’t it look a lot like this?

The second thing I thought about, though, was a painting I have hanging above my desk. A copy of a painting, to be precise: a print of a watercolor by J.M.W. Turner, painted in the late 18th century—during the same era when Jonathan Strange takes place, in other words, and not long after the death of Giovanni Piranesi. The painting shows an enormous tree. The tree fills the entire frame, so broad and tall that it seems to exist at the edge of what’s possible. Under the tree, two human figures are sitting, a man and a woman, tiny to the point that they’re barely noticeable. The woman’s dress blends into the colors of the tree; the man’s blue coat suggests that he might be a naval officer. The tree towers silently above them.

I don’t know why, but something in this image has always struck me as almost infinitely mysterious and strange. What does it mean? It says something, I guess, in a Romanticism 101 way, about humanity’s relationship to nature, about the scale of our presence in the world, about beauty and imagination. But as with any image, especially the really good ones, it also can’t be reduced to an idea. It means the things it means, but more than that, it means its own infinitely particular, infinitely arresting self.