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Piranesi Will Wreck You

The novel establishes Susanna Clarke as one of our greatest living writers.

Illustration: Ori Toor
Illustration: Ori Toor

It was nearly 20 years ago that a first-time novelist named Susanna Clarke, then 44 years old and earning a living as an editor of cookbooks, finished writing what was perhaps the greatest and most original British work of fantasy published in England since the days of C. S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Her friend the fantasist Neil Gaiman later said that encountering her writing was akin to “watching someone sit down to play the piano for the first time, and she plays a sonata.”

Spanning nearly 800 footnote-laden pages, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell tells the story of a pair of dueling magicians in Regency England who restore magic to the British Isles some 300 years after its abrupt disappearance. Writing in a voice that evokes Jane Austen’s, Clarke presented magic not as some pyrotechnic force, a bolt of light crackling from a wand, but as the language of trees and rain and the stones of old cathedrals, of all the mundane things that made up the pastoral landscape of a forgotten English past. Those who master these magical arts can conjure wonders from their surroundings — works of poetry written in the land and sky. But as the magicians gain power, a faerie steals their loved ones and brings them to a place called Lost-Hope, where they are forced to spend each night participating in dreary processions and ghostly balls. Exhausted, these captives return to England every morning only to find that an enchantment prevents them from speaking of their suffering. Unable to explain their anguish, their isolation is total.

Clarke’s fans believed the book would elevate the fantasy genre to new heights of respectability and esteem, and indeed, Jonathan Strange was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, becoming the first and only work to receive both a recognition from that prestigious institution and a Hugo Award, science fiction’s highest honor. But just a few years after the book came out, Clarke withdrew from public life. In a smattering of conversations with journalists between 2005 and 2007, she mentioned that her work on the sequel was being delayed by an illness: She had been diagnosed with chronic-fatigue syndrome, and, as the years went by and her seclusion deepened, readers despaired that she would never publish another word. At one of the author’s last public events, a conversation with Gaiman in 2007, her editor, Alexandra Pringle, noted how pale and otherworldly Clarke looked. Eventually, even Clarke’s communications with Pringle slowed. “I remember thinking at the time it was as though she’d been captured into the land of Faerie,” Pringle told me, “as if she had been taken away from us.” And then, about a year ago, a dazzling manuscript unexpectedly arrived in Pringle’s in-box. “It was the most extraordinary thing,” she said. “There was the book — complete.”

That slim volume, titled Piranesi, is not the sequel Clarke had once alluded to in interviews. But if her first novel established her as one of the world’s best fantasy writers, Piranesi is set to place her in the pantheon of the greats, no modifier necessary. When I spoke with Gaiman, he traced Clarke’s literary lineage not to Tolkien but to an older British genius: “It absolutely goes straight back to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, not to mention The Tempest,” he said. “Susanna is part of this beautiful, very strange British literature tradition in which fantasy is one of the keystones and it’s neither privileged nor judged. She is one of those writers who use the tools of fantasy to talk to us about ourselves.”

Both timeless and strikingly timely, Piranesi takes the form of a series of journal entries written by a man who lives in a perpetual quarantine of sorts, an isolation so complete that he spends his days primarily speaking with birds and statues. His nickname is Piranesi. It’s hard to say more about him without giving away too much, in part because he seems to know hardly anything about himself. For one thing, he has forgotten his real name; for another, he doesn’t have the slightest interest in finding out what it is. In contrast to the self-absorbed protagonists who populate so many contemporary novels, Piranesi is completely unencumbered by questions of identity. His mind is a mystery — both to himself and to the reader — and one of the many joys the book offers is the satisfaction of slowly piecing together an explanation for his apparent amnesia. Another is the experience of seeing the world, however briefly, through the eyes of someone curiously devoid of ego. And then there is the simple thrill of turning the pages to find out what will happen next. Although on one level the book is a philosophical puzzle, like something out of Kafka or Borges, it offers the excitement of an adventure story and the dark allure of a detective yarn.

One of the few things Piranesi does know about himself is that he’s a scientist. He believes his duty is “to bear witness to the Splendours of the World” — a job he pursues with unflagging joy. As for “the World,” it’s not one we have seen before. Piranesi lives in what he calls the House, an infinite labyrinth of stone halls lined with statues and swept by ocean tides. These statues depict fauns and lions, gardeners and kings, “a Man holding a Little Box” and “a Woman crowned with coral.” As far as he knows, the universe has only ever contained 15 people. His only friend, whom he calls the Other, is an unpleasant scholar attempting to discover a “Great and Secret Knowledge” hidden in the House. The Other meets with Piranesi twice a week for no more than an hour at a time. Everyone else is dead; Piranesi tends to their skeletons religiously.

As in her first novel, Clarke explores the themes of loss and isolation, but there is a key difference between the two stories. Whereas the unfortunate souls of her first book endure their enforced solitude in oppressive silence, able to speak only in incomprehensible outbursts of the dismal monotony and emptiness of their lives, Piranesi is never lonely or bored. Taking pleasure in the smallest of wonders as a child might, he spends his days cataloguing statues, gathering and drying seaweed for kindling, mending fishnets, observing the birds (he believes they relay messages to him from the House), and writing precise accounts of his days and nights in his journals, which he hopes a future visitor might find and read someday. His life in the House wasn’t always so blissful, however. As the story unfolds, we learn that he once dated his diaries in the conventional fashion but then lost track of the calendar years — and perhaps even of the fact that time was ever recorded in that way. At one point, he notes in his diary that he has switched to a new system; the first entry takes place in “the Year of Weeping and Wailing,” a period marked by fear and hunger and bewilderment. But in time, as Piranesi learns how to fish and make a fire, the Year of Weeping and Wailing gives way to “the Year I Discovered the Coral Halls,” which is followed by “the Year I Named the Constellations.” The more time he spends in the House, immersed in its beauty, the less he remembers of the identity he has lost, or the pain of losing it. Unable or unwilling to either gaze inward or dwell in the past, he is eternally and joyfully present.

When Pringle first read the new book (which required almost no revision at all, “just the most delicate editing imaginable”), a poignant thought crossed her mind: “It was like reading where Susanna had been all those years, wandering in those halls.” The novel, it seemed, was Clarke’s dispatch from another world — what Susan Sontag once called the “kingdom of the sick.” In supplementary materials provided by her publisher, Clarke mentions that she began work on a version of the story in her 20s but couldn’t figure out “how to write it or what the characters’ story was.” Then she fell ill. “I spent a long time angry at the unfairness of my illness, angry about all that was taken away from me,” she writes. “But how I try to look at it now is that I still have a lot left … I still have all of history, all of literature, all of spirituality, all of mathematics, all of art, all of science.” Clarke had somehow learned to make a life even in the midst of illness and isolation, and this epiphany gave the book its meaning.

Even as Piranesi writes of his suffering in the depths of winter, when the wind sends swirls of stinging snow at him as he sleeps, he is able to see the beauty amid the desolation. “Not everything about the Wind was bad,” he writes, looking back at those terrible months. “Sometimes it blew through the little voids and crevices of the Statues and caused them to sing and whistle in surprising ways; I had never known the Statues to have voices before and it made me laugh for sheer delight.”

Clarke reminds us that there’s nothing ordinary about Piranesi’s way of seeing the world. The labyrinth can also be a prison, especially if one is driven by ego. The scholar who meets with Piranesi twice a week doesn’t register the beauty of his surroundings at all. “Just endless dreary rooms all the same,” he says, “full of decaying figures covered with bird shit.” Blinded by reckless ambition, the scholar believes the sole reason for studying this world is to try to plunder it — to find some hidden source of power he can exploit. He doesn’t notice, as Piranesi does, that the bird shit is a sign of life and that the statues, which stretch along the endless walls, seem to represent all the ideas and knowledge and experiences that have ever existed.

Reading Piranesi’s descriptions of the House, I thought back to April, when a plague out of a terrible fairy tale fell over New York City, silencing the blaring of car horns, the ever-present din of construction, all the sounds of modern life apart from the wail of ambulance sirens. My husband and I would take long walks through the empty streets of Clinton Hill, stunned and shell-shocked, mourning the world we’d all lost. The city was desolate and lonely, but as we wandered aimlessly, we realized we were not alone. As in the House, with its infinite variety of statues, remnants of humanity surrounded us, and in the absence of actual human company, some of these relics — objects we had never noticed in the course of our normal lives — seemed to vibrate with esoteric meaning. Like Piranesi with his logbook, my husband documented these strange totems and tableaux on his phone (or “his shining device,” as Piranesi would have put it). He photographed a peeling sign above the door of an abandoned brick rowhouse that identified the inconspicuous building as a former meeting place of the Orient Masonic Organization, and a periwinkle Chevrolet truck from the 1960s parked in front of a statue of Peter Claver, “the Patron Saint of Slaves.” On Putnam Street, we stopped to look at one of those ubiquitous lions that guard people’s gates. It had been painted so that rivulets of blood appeared to be streaming from its eyes. Now, as we face a winter of confinement, the subtle transformation in Clarke’s work lingers in my mind—a feeling of finally learning how to pick a lock. When the ocean tides batter Piranesi against the statues, he feels gratitude that they are there to catch him. “The Beauty of the House is immeasurable,” he writes, “its Kindness infinite.”

*This article appears in the August 31, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

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Piranesi Will Wreck You