“The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.”
Perhaps all of us carry in our hearts and minds an ideal place, one that we just have to close our eyes to access; a refuge, a safe place, a place of serenity. I often thought of mine, while reading Susanna Clarke’s beautiful new novel, Piranesi. In it, the titular character, a man with a past he can’t recall, lives in an immeasurably infinite "House". It’s a House of seemingly endless levels that stretch out in all directions, galleries following vestibules following great halls that seemingly encompass an entire world. It’s a House that holds the sea, regular in its tides; a House where birds live, as do fish; a House that rises up to unimagined heights lost in clouds and mist. Outside the House are huge courtyards and, up in the sky, the sun, moon and the stars. Inside the House are statues.
Every room and every hall, from the submerged ones to those up in the clouds, teem with marble statues: of people, of objects; of mythical creatures like fauns and minotaurs and titans; of everyday scenes like a woman holding a beehive; of children and kings and explorers. And among them lives Piranesi. He suspects that this isn’t his real name, but he accepts it all the same. Once a week, he meets the only other denizen of the House, who he calls the Other, a fussy, middle-aged man who appears to be an academic.
The rest of the time, Piranesi leads a contented life, exploring the halls, fishing and collecting seaweed for his meals, talking to birds, measuring and cataloguing the tides, and maintaining his journal. He considers himself a scientist, and he applies himself to his journaling with unerring regularity, starting them with precise days and dates like “Entry for the twenty-ninth day of the fifth month in the year the albatross came to the south-western halls.” Piranesi considers himself a child of the House, which holds and loves everything within it. Into this quiet life of observation and contemplation, one day, comes a crisis: an inkling of other worlds, of other people.
It’s difficult to write a wholly sympathetic character, one who contains no shades of grey, who is open and accepting, compassionate and understanding, at all times. Clarke, however, succeeds spectacularly in doing so, by infusing Piranesi with a sense of wonder. If the House is the world, then Piranesi is its explorer. It may have existed before him and it might outlast him, but Piranesi also, in a way, creates the House by observing it, by inhabiting it. Since he suspects that the House is infinite, it’s impossible for him to feel bored, since there’s a something new to discover every time he goes walking from the hall in which he makes his home. Just as the House contains Piranesi, he too encompasses the House.
It is impossible to read the book without thinking of Clarke’s own circumstance. The best-selling English writer of the Hugo Award-winning Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2004) has been suffering from an unnamed, chronic illness for over a decade, one that leaves her exhausted most of the time. Among other symptoms, she also suffers from migraines and acute photosensitivity. Ever since the massive success of Strange & Norrell, and a book of short stories set in the same world, The Ladies of Grace Adieu (2006), Clarke has lived her life away from the limelight, in the privacy of a cottage in Cambridge, with her husband as her companion and carer. Her illness also left her unable to write for long stretches, and Piranesi often feels like a depiction of her own confinement, as well as an act of catharsis.
There’s an easily detectable influence of C S Lewis’s Narnia books on Piranesi, primarily in the form of a bread-crumb line of imagery strewn across the book. But, in its essence, the novel is distinctly Borgesian. Jorge Luis Borges’s vision of a house that is also a perfectly-contained universe is a palpable presence in Piranesi, especially his short story The Library of Babel, from Ficciones (1944). That story’s marvellous construction of an infinite library that contains every known and imagined book, tended to by Librarians who love to travel its never-ending halls, is a clear literary ancestor of Piranesi.
In fact, Clarke acknowledges this in a recent New Yorker profile: over 30 years ago, she first had the seed of the idea that became Piranesi, of “two people living in a gigantic house ‘with tides flowing through it’” after taking a night class on the fiction of Borges. But I was also reminded of other thematic siblings, like Neil Gaiman’s "Soft Places" from his Sandman books, liminal but infinite spaces that exist between different worlds and universes—places where different realities converge, spaces where the travellers between worlds can rest and share their stories.
One can only try and indirectly describe the world of Piranesi with these comparisons, though, because Clark’s book and its world is a layered creation that resists easy interpretation. It is a novel that is meant to be read slowly, and savoured. At one level, its plot is a mystery story, a puzzle piece of letters and journal entries, books, signs and portents. It contains some action and adventure as well, but that and all the other plot points, exist to bolster the stillness at the heart of the novel.
Just as the House is infinite, so is Piranesi’s existence an infinite present tense. The future is just the present that’s yet to happen, while the past is mysterious and tenuous. At its core, the marvellous Piranesi is concerned with ontology; it dwells on the nature of time, space, reality and personhood. But it’s also a story about finding refuge: in ideas, in people or in an immeasurably beautiful house brimming with statues and infinite kindness.