20 Books of Summer: Piranesi

I read Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell over a decade ago, before I kept any regular record on Goodreads. I picked it up for a reading challenge–the prompt was a book longer than one you’d usually read–and also because I had been intrigued by the reviews. Magic and fantasy are not typically my thing, but that book ended up knocking my socks off. A couple years ago, when I heard Susanna Clark had a new book being published, I knew I’d have to read it.

I want to refer back to some things I said on my blog about that novel because they’re relevant to my thoughts about Piranesi:

Some reviewers seemed to think all the detail detracted from the action (Janet Maslin described it as “[both] action packed and unhurried”), and here I have to disagree. I think the “get to the action already” attitude is a modern one…something about the way Clarke tells the story makes it completely visible to the mind’s eye. Her descriptions of places and people are so straightforward that they both reveal the scene and allow the mind to dress it up a bit, as it likes.

With Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (which I’ll just refer to as Strange, from here on), I remember being immediately drawn into the book’s language and its world. I expected much the same with Piranesi, but I have to admit that for the first 50 pages I was…not bored, but ready to get on with the story. Strange starts in the real world, so Clarke doesn’t have to do a lot of world building. Piranesi, on the other hand, starts with entries from Piranesi’s journals:

A description of the World
I am determined to explore as much of the World as I can in my lifetime. To this end I have travelled as far as the Nine-Hundred-and-Sixtieth Hall to the West, the Eight-Hundred-and-Ninetieth Hall to the North and the Seven-Hundred-and-Sixty-Eighth Hall to the South. I have climbed the Upper Halls where Clouds move in slow procession and Statues appear suddenly out of the Mists. I have explored the Drowned Halls where the Dark Waters are carpeted with white water lilies.

For me, the halls and the statues were a problem. In every entry, he orients himself by naming halls (ones he’s travelled through, ones where he fishes, where he sleeps, where he keeps his journals, where he meets the Other, where the Fifteen are located) and statues. I started to wish for a map. Where in Strange the world building happens gradually, here we are plunged into it, but instead of feeling immersed I felt distracted. Maybe I’ve been reading too many short stories, thinking that every detail must count, must mean something later (in Strange, as long as that book was, details certainly meant a lot), but finally I came to grips with the fact that I could pretty much give up and skim past all the hall and statue descriptions. While they were lovely as ever, they didn’t really mean anything–yet.

As I said, for me things began to take off around page 50. That’s when all the little dropped hints and clues about his world (aside from the endless naming of halls and statues) became interesting. Only two people inhabit Piranesi’s world, himself and the one he calls the Other. They meet for an hour, twice a week. It’s through these meetings that little details come into real focus for the reader, even before Piranesi himself. And while this is one of those books I’d love to discuss at length, in a review I’m afraid to say too much because I don’t want to spoil the magic. Because Clarke is so very good, and once the pace picks up it doesn’t stop. This is a good thing, because it’s a much shorter book, and I think if the book had kept on much longer at the pace it set in those first 50 pages, I would have given up. I don’t know that regular readers of fantasy would have felt this same frustration. I want to add, though, that I would bet this bears more fruit upon rereading. I probably missed some of the hints and setups dropped early on because I was trying too hard to orient myself in the world. My advice, if you decide to pick this up: just go with it. Don’t try too hard to think about where things are.

But as I look back at what I’ve written so far, it sounds like I’m damning this book with faint praise, so let me try again. Yes, the halls and statues are distracting, but they’re also intriguing. Something to know about the House, as Piranesi calls it (and Piranesi is not his name, but the name the Other has given him–he doesn’t know his name, or even to be concerned that he lacks one; Piranesi, by the way, is the name of Giovanni Battista Piranesi, an eighteenth century architect who was famous for his etchings of fictitious prisons), is that it also has its own weather systems, and the lower halls are filled with water holding fish and other sea creatures, including the seaweed Piranesi consumes and finds various uses for. And there are the Fifteen–thirteen of which are just skeletal remains of other humans (and one small monkey). And so you’ll wonder: is the House real? Is it a mental institution? Piranesi’s imagination? All of the above? Is he crazy, or just cursed?

Clarke drops hints, but she’s careful not to reveal too much too quickly. We follow along as Piranesi discovers the truth about the house. Part of his discovery is learning words:

The word ‘university’ occurs three times in the entry about…Two weeks ago I hypothesized that I was able to ascribe a meaning to this seemingly nonsense word because I have seen Statues of Scholars in the House.

It occurs to me that there are many other ideas that I understand perfectly, even though no such things exist in the World. For example I know a garden is a place where one can refresh oneself with the sight of plants and trees. But a garden is not a thing that exists in the World nor is there any Statue representing that particular idea. (Indeed I cannot imagine what a Statue of a garden would look like.) Instead, scattered about the House are Statues in which People or Gods or Beasts are surrounded by Roses or Strands of Ivy, or shelter under the Canopies of Trees…It is from these things that I deduce the idea of garden. I do not believe this happens by accident. This is how the House places new ideas gently and naturally in the Minds of Men. This is how the House increases my understanding.

This has echoes of Plato’s cave in more ways than one, especially as the story unfolds. And if you are someone who delights in thinking about the nature of language and reality, then this book holds double the pleasure. Piranesi’s discovery of language (and its tricky relative, writing, which Plato–writing about Socrates, ahem–also told us was a big no no, because it leads men away from the Truth with a capital “T”) is key to revealing what’s happened to him.

I’ve always wanted to reread Strange, but with so many other books sitting in piles around the house (and in digital piles on my Kindle), I’ve never been able to justify it. Do I reread Strange, or do I read some other big book–Middlemarch comes to mind–or several shorter ones? But I do think I could fond time to read Piranesi again–in fact, I read it quite quickly the first time because once I hit my stride, I couldn’t put it down. I think it may be even better, now that I can go back and see how Clarke has built the world. That’s double the magic.

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