I first read Susanna Clarke in my senior year of undergrad. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell was a new release, and I decided I could not wait for the paperback edition to read it: I lugged that fat hardback around for two weeks as I slowly worked my way through it, savoring it, never wanting it to end, which I suspect is how many of us who read it felt. Clarke created a world that felt so real, right down to the prose style, that the book felt like a dispatch from a foreign land at times. It was thrilling, and I could not wait for another novel from this writer.
But of course, waiting is exactly what we’ve had to do (though we were briefly sated with the short story collection The Ladies of Grace Adieu and then again with a TV adaptation of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell). Clarke fell ill, and fifteen years passed in which she was probably far more frustrated by any of her readers that she was not well enough for sustained writing. And then, in this garbage fire of a pandemic election year, Piranesi finally was released. And I’ll admit, I was so anxious about it. I’d waited so long, and I worried the book wouldn’t live up to what I wanted. The fragments I read from early reviews suggested it was very different from her debut smash: okay, that’s fine, understandable, I don’t want her to confine herself to too small a box. But would it be good? I refrained from reading many reviews this time around, so I could just experience it for myself.
I’m really happy to say that Piranesi is indeed very, very good.
The basic plot setup is simple. The main character, Piranesi, lives in a mysterious, massive labyrinth of a house. He fishes and gathers shellfish to feed himself from the flooded lower halls, and he explores the house ceaselessly, describing to us all its many statues, the stars he can see from the open upper halls, and the fourteen other people he knows to exist besides himself: there is the Other, who visits him from time to time and interrogates him about what he’s learned of the House, and there are the bones of thirteen others, whose names he does not know, yet whose resting sites he attends to with respect and tenderness. They were alive once, Piranesi knows, and that is enough to make them worthy of his attention and care in death. The House, too, is almost alive to him as well: as he describes it several times, “The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.”
The beauty is understandable, but kindness feels like an odd word once readers come to suspect Piranesi is, in fact, imprisoned there, and that the Other has something to do with it. Piranesi can can accurately name things that do not appear in the House except as statues, such as bees and gorillas, and the Other can bring him anything he asks for: shoes, pens, notebooks for the journals he constantly writes in. Clearly there is an outside world, and Piranesi once lived there. How did he wind up in the House, we wonder, and why doesn’t he remember what came before?
I don’t want to say much more about the plot; none of the beats are terribly shocking, given the setup, but they unfold at times in surprising ways, and I don’t want to rob anyone of the gift of watching Piranesi navigate the House and the plot, or of getting to know Piranesi himself (who is, as we eventually learn, a mixed-race man with immigrant parents, which Clarke does not linger on and yet which feels necessary in these brutal post-Brexit times).
But what surprised me, more than the plot, are the ways in which Clarke is making a quiet, impassioned argument for the goodness and necessity of art, but also the profound necessity of attentiveness and compassion. The former is not that shocking, in some ways: artists are often making this argument, and Clarke’s reminder that art does not need to exist for anyone’s sake but its own is not novel:
I realised that the search for the Knowledge has encouraged us to think of the House as if it were a sort of riddle to be unravelled, a text to be interpreted, and that if ever we discover the Knowledge, then it will be as if the Value has been wrested from the House and all that remains will be mere scenery.
Or, to sum up more simply: “The House is valuable because it is the House. It is enough in and of Itself. It is not the means to an end.” So too is the novel itself: valuable because it is a beautiful thing, carefully crafted. It’s not unlike the arguments about art, on its surface, that are put forward by Oscar Wilde in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Yet part of the completeness of Clarke’s novel is that she does instill her work of art with its own moral and ethical completeness, too. And this is where the Kindness of the House, as Piranesi sees it, enters the picture: beauty has an effect on us, and perhaps it is best if this beauty draws from us our innate tenderness, our sense of love and compassion. Piranesi seems at times a foolish naif, but Clarke renders his gentleness deeply wise, and we see it particularly in the way he knows the House intimately.
To know something fully, Piranesi reminds us, is to love it fully, too. And love then shapes every subsequent action.
Other reviewers have remarked upon the way this novel seems tailor-made for quarantine: here is a character who is trapped and isolated, with little human contact, what a commentary on our times! but I think the necessity of this book comes instead in its profound sense of compassion and tenderness. It is hard to be human, Clarke acknowledges: people will hurt us, and take advantage of us. And yet: the Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite. Somehow those words become the backbone of a narrative that never veers into mere sentimentality, and it, too, is filled with beauty and kindness.
So I’ll wrap this review with the words that Piranesi says to the dead, whose resting places he attends to with such care: “May your Paths be safe, your Floors unbroken and may the House fill your eyes with Beauty.”