PIRANESI – Susanna Clarke (2020)

PiranesiMy expectations for Piranesi were lukewarm. Clarke’s short story collection wasn’t fully successful, and the early descriptions of this new novel hinted at a dreamlike, labyrinthine, magic-realist puzzle – not really my cup of tea.

So I entered The House with a certain reservation, but Clarke’s narrative powers quickly swept me away.

Not that this book is a 100% triumph, but it would be foolish to dwell on its few, minor flaws too long. Taken as a whole, Piranesi succeeds brilliantly, and easily stands among the very best I’ve read this year.

I do think this review is safe for those who haven’t read it yet, but as I will try to unravel some of the book’s philosophical underpinnings, there will be mild spoilers – even so, nothing you can’t guess after about 30 pages in. I will not say anything about its relationship with Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. There are links aplenty – disenchantment for one – but Piranesi deserves to be treated & read as its own thing first.

I’ve seen the book’s biggest shortcoming identified in other reviews as well: earlier than expected the central mystery becomes reasonably clear to the reader, and for a while that results in less narrative tension. At the same time, the oblique early revelations make it clear Clarke’s endgame is not the mystery, but the psychological portrait of the main character.

The fact that the book is named after the title character is a strong indication he is the focus, not The House. Piranesi is a tragic figure, and Clarke wonderfully managed to evoke traumatic personal dissociation – truly a tour de force, especially as she uses so little means to do so. It is mostly the result of careful, deliberate construction, not of some spectacle in the plot. The book’s descriptions in the press of the rococo setting obfuscate the fact that Piranesi is at heart a very simple, small story.

Small & simple it may be, the construction is nonetheless intricate, and even though its artifice clearly shows – Clarke doesn’t try to hide it – the emotional effect of Piranesi was deep and unexpected.

I’ve read minor complaints about a lack of character development, but those seem to miss the point. Side characters are steady, yes, but Piranesi’s psychological journey is complex and layered – even though Clarke evokes it seemingly effortlessly, again simple, clean & without fuss. Much is left unsaid, and readers have to fill in most of the implications themselves. That makes flipping the last page all the more a sad goodbye – even though the ending to this tale is nominally a happy one.

“Birds are not difficult to understand. Their behavior tells me what they are thinking.

Thematically Clarke uses old, familiar tropes, but she manages to infuse them with new life. Maybe the most breathtaking reversal was how she made the real world serve as mythic prophecy, and as such Clarke has written a very, very successful epistemic novel. Piransi shows perspective is always key when judging knowledge.

Clarke seems to inscribe herself into the Romantic tradition that longs for a past where humanity – before the advent of “progress” and Science – possessed “Great and Secret Knowledge”. A tradition that sees the innocence of a child as superior to “the iron hand of modern rationality”. The core of the novel’s world building confirms this. There would not be a House if Clarke didn’t acknowledge these sentiments. Ideologically I don’t see eye to eye with Clarke on this matter: while the Enlightenment of the 18th century undoubtedly altered our world, and the results of its technologies now even threaten it, I don’t think most people would want to return to the state before penicillin, fridges and smartphones. That past might seem appealing to lovers of the arcane, but people tend to forget we used to burn witches.

Clarke also makes the categorical mistake to uphold the illusion that “rivers and mountains” don’t give us wisdom anymore. All we know today, we know because of observation of and dialogue with reality. More so: it is the essence of science. It is a falsehood we “ceased to speak and listen to the World.” On the contrary: much of the trouble we are in today could be remedied is we would only listen better to science’s listening.

Luckily, these matters aren’t fully clear cut in the novel. Clarke renders the quest for ancient knowledge insignificant in Piranesi’s mind. It’s also no coincidence that Piranesi is a scientist and explorer himself. He is able to understand The House’s appearance, but not its nature, and that makes him the ultimate Everyman.

Never mentioned, but always present, is Plato. I have never been an Idealist, and I suspect Plato’s dualism has done humanity a disservice. Piranesi understands he knows concepts not found in the House’s statuary: again a brilliant reversal. It’s unsure what Clarke’s own stance is, but there might be a hint in the fact that Piranesi needs real fish to feed himself, not marble ones.

Despite my own beef with Plato, I don’t have any trouble admitting words on a page are indeed a representation of a something – be it an idea or a fragment of reality: structurally language doesn’t seem to make a distinction anyhow. So taken as a metaphor for books, journals, art, rather than as true ontology, the world of Ideas has its rightful place, and regardless of whatever alleged philosophical blueprint in Clarke’s mind, as a fictional setting it works wonderfully.

Which is the better world? Piranesi says the statues don’t decay in The House, yet an entire wing is collapsed & derelict. There is lots of sadness in our own world – but humans bring death and crime to The House too. Ostensibly Piranesi’s early innocence state is to be preferred, but we have to remember that such wasn’t his primordial state: he hasn’t always been like that, and he’s only there because of deceit. Maybe more importantly, he needs Others too. Clarke confirms man is a social species, and knowledge a social construct.

Perhaps even people you like and admire immensely can make you see the World in ways you would rather not.

This is a partial echo of a sentiment expressed much earlier in the novel:

This experience led me to form a hypothesis: perhaps the wisdom of birds resides, not in the individual, but in the flock, the congregation.

The very ending dissolves any dichotomy, and Piranesi clearly becomes what it has been all along: a festive meditation on reality’s Beauty and Kindness – immeasurable and infinite. In short: a celebration of the imponderable Mystery of the world.

But cruelty, and oceans of human suffering, you say? That’s a valid question, just as Clarke is well within her rights to put the positive aspects on a pedestal. Death and violence aren’t absent from the book, and Piranesi’s attitude of forgiveness is a real possibility – a matter of perspective.

Piranesi is much richer than this review could convey. Clarke sprinkles surprise throughout – sprinkles of both wisdom & wild imagination. Aside from the slight dip somewhere halfway, this keeps the tension multiform: intellectual, emotional and aesthetical.


Susanna Clarke (Sarah Lee)

“He has such a sense of belonging, and that’s very often a thing that’s missing – a sense of absolutely belonging in the place where we find ourselves.”

The New Yorker has published a great piece of writing on Clarke, amongst other things about Piranesi‘s genesis, and Clarke’s sickness.

Consult the author index for my other reviews, or my favorite lists.

Click here for an index of my non-fiction or art book reviews only, and here for an index of my longer fiction reviews of a more scholarly & philosophical nature.


45 responses to “PIRANESI – Susanna Clarke (2020)

  1. This seems . . . cool. I’m curious – did you think the style was a trend following thing or no?

    Liked by 1 person

    • No I don’t think so. Apparently she started this even before Strange&Norrell. The writing is more or less timeless as well.

      What trends were you thinking about?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ah, I’ve attempted at reading some of the newer stuff, The Bone Houses comes to mind, it seemed kind of trendy to me . . . Hulk smash trends and disco balls!!!

        Liked by 1 person

        • Thanks for clarifying that. I just read the synopsis for Bone Houses, it would surprise me they bear much likeness.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Yeah, it’s a YA thing. I mean, don’t get me wrong if you are a 14 year old looking to read, I’m sure it can be a great gateway into reading for someone that is trying to learn! I think it’s a recommendation I got out of one the previously owned Gawker blogs . . .

            Liked by 1 person

  2. Great and insightful review! I‘m happy that you liked it – better than so did.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! It was fun to write, and Clarke gave me so much to work with, it kinda wrote itself.

      I’d rated it 4 stars first, and I was even a bit annoyed in the middle, but the more I thought about it, the more the wonder and artistry of the book outweighed any possible negatives or ideological differences, so I won’t be a nagging miser, when all is said or done this was simply a 5 star read.

      It’s a bit like Strange&Norrell: I nearly did not finish that, but man, what a book it turned out to be.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Glad you enjoyed this so much.

    Clarke not only lost me with Strange & Norrell, but burned the bridges, then sailed away on the ship and then burned the ships. Needless to say, I won’t be following her 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • That seems like the poetic thing she would do.

      Liked by 1 person

    • But even though there are thematic similarities, this is a very, very different book both in tone and substance. You might very well like it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • My aversion to the author based on my experience with S&N is too strong. Even if I would have liked this, it is tainted and so I couldn’t enjoy it now.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Where does all that hate & vitriol come from my dear Bookstooge? 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

          • Mainly disappointment. N&S was supposed to be this wondrously fantastic book by this glittering new star of an author.

            And it disappointed me on every single level.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Much like The Curse of Chalion by Bujold

              Liked by 1 person

            • I guess it’s too British/ironic for you. Strange, since you like Dickens so much.

              Did you finish it? Cause I would understand if you’d only read the first half.

              I think it works so well as a satire, and the further in the novel, the higher the emotional stakes.

              All taste obviously.

              Liked by 1 person

              • Part of the Disappointment (and I use the capital D on purpose) WAS that I love Dickens and Austen. The writing did remind me of both those authors.

                I did finish it. I just re-read my review and it turns out that I hated all the characters. And the underlying modern/post modern philosophy underlying the book. I do dislike when an author tries to appropriate the tone of the Victorian while using modern philosophy.

                I think I gave it 3 stars anyway. But I made a note right at the end to never read another of her books myself.

                And I concur. It is taste. Which is why I’m glad you enjoyed this. I’m sorry if I came across as “nobody should enjoy this author because I didn’t”.

                Liked by 1 person

              • Oh no, no prob, didn’t come across like that. Yeah, if you can’t connect to characters it’s hard.

                I wouldn’t call Clarke a modernist, let alone a postmodernist. Why do you thought so? I think she’s a full fledged Romantic, albeit writing in the 21st century.

                Liked by 1 person

              • I have no idea. I didn’t write down that kind of detail back in ’12 when I read it.

                If I had to guess though, from impressions and not even real memories, it came from the way S&N thought, which would have fit right into any modern story without having to change a thing.

                Liked by 1 person

              • Yes, that makes sense indeed. But I would make the distinction between two characters and the actual philosophical blueprint of the story. I’d have to reread it too to say anything more meaningful about that.

                Liked by 1 person

  4. Another question I have for you: what motivated you reading it after your first intention to give it a pass (that was your comment after my review if I remember correctly)?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m really pleased to read this positive review. It’s a book I’ve been curious about, just as I’ve been curious about Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. I have a copy of that book on my shelf and keep wanting to read it but I first need to come to terms with the time it’ll take given its length. I’ve read mixed reviews of both books, and yet the desriptions of both intrigue me. I’m hoping I end up enjoying them as much as you have. If so the time will have been well worth it. I enjoyed your review.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you!

      I haven’t been explicit about it in my review, but I’d easily identify Strange&Norrell as the better book of the two. I’ve rated both 5 stars on Goodreads, but S&N was a 6 star read, so to say, even though I nearly didn’t finish it after about 300 pages. Its problems seemed greater than Piranesi’s, but in the end, its merits were too.

      But I sympathize 100%: I have a very hard time starting 1000 page books these days too. My copy of The Mirror and the Light has been sitting on my shelf, waiting till I come to terms with it too.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Hah! I’m reading this right now! I’m at the halfway point and there is a slight dip and I’m reading for certain story arcs to break through. Expect a review later this week! So far I think it is a little jewel of a novel.

    Liked by 1 person

    • A little jewel indeed. I hope it will keep working for you, the waiting for the story arcs to break through is exactly what I experienced too. Changing expectations a bit worked for me.

      Looking forward to your review!


  7. I’m so glad you enjoyed this, Bart, I’m always anxious that something I’ve lauded to the skies may prove somewhat meh to reviewers whose judgements I respect.

    I agree that the anti-Enlightenment stance apparently adopted here is unfortunate but I wonder if this isn’t really Clarke’s own stance but one assumed by the narrative to account for the Prophet’s philosophy and Piranesi’s own psychological state. But in a way I think that’s beside the point: the novel is really a dream within a dream and I’m happy to go along with that.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know the feeling 😉

      As for the question whether this is Clarke’s own stance or not, there are two important indications for me: the setting of the novel wouldn’t exist without it, and disenchantment is the core of Strange&Norrell too.

      But I also agree with your final remark: it is beside the point – the novel is more than that, and besides, I don’t want to be a reader that excludes writers who might differ with me. Meeting The Other is one of the basic drives for my reading.

      Liked by 1 person

    • By the way, thanks for your lauding: it was your review
      taken together with two others that made me decide to try this outing, even though I was a bit suspicious at first.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I really like Clarke, and I haven’t read the book yet, so I don’t want to read the entire review. Not really worried about spoilers, but wanting to approach it without too many preconceptions – and your reviews are always very deep and persuasive. But now I’m even more convinced I need to get it on my first book order of 2021 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  9. You, Chris and Jeroen wrote such glowing reviews of this book that I decided to give it a try 😉 My expectations are tempered, though – I didn’t like S&N, and the Romanticism of Clarke is one of the key ingredients; also the paternalistic tone that’s supposed to be ironic but only partly succeeds 😉 Hopefully Piranesi will work out better for me!

    Liked by 1 person

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  11. Such a beautifully written and considerate review. I am not familiar with Clarke’s previous work and must admit I read this only because I wanted to know what the hype was about… I like this review much more than the book itself, but actually your observations and analysis make me appreciate the book much more, so thank you!

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