Piranesi | Susanna Clarke #WomensPrize

When the Moon rose in the Third Northern Hall I went to the Ninth Vestibule to witness the joining of Three Tides. This is something that happens only every eight years.

I’m really not sure how I can write a review for this story that will do the reading experience justice. Piranesi was the book I chose for my book group to read in November. It ended up being one of the best book discussions we’d had together during my time with the group.

Curiously we all had a similar response to the beginning, in that we felt some hesitancy. Where was this story taking us, what did we need to pay attention to, what did we need to remember? Some of us started making lists of the statues and rooms, but before long, we all reached the same decision – to simply let it all go, and go with the flow.

In the end Piranesi is rather like a zen meditation. It’s an exercise in slowing down, being in each moment as it happens and simply letting the story wash over you and through you.

I had planned on rereading Piranesi before writing this post as some stories are meant to be read multiple times; this is one. But time and Covid-19 disruptions got in the way. I now feel a VERY strong desire to complete all my outstanding 2021 reviews before the New Year ticks over. That means one post a day until the end of the year.

But I WILL reread Piranesi one day, so anything that I miss saying in this post can be picked up later.

So let me start with the story blurb, so you can carry a vague impression of what happens with you through this post.

Piranesi’s house is no ordinary building: its rooms are infinite, its corridors endless, its walls are lined with thousands upon thousands of statues, each one different from all the others. Within the labyrinth of halls an ocean is imprisoned; waves thunder up staircases, rooms are flooded in an instant. But Piranesi is not afraid; he understands the tides as he understands the pattern of the labyrinth itself. He lives to explore the house.

There is one other person in the house—a man called The Other, who visits Piranesi twice a week and asks for help with research into A Great and Secret Knowledge. But as Piranesi explores, evidence emerges of another person, and a terrible truth begins to unravel, revealing a world beyond the one Piranesi has always known.

In some ways, this is all you need. This is the story. What the blurb fails to reveal though, is the almost trance-like state you enter as you read Piranesi’s story. Even when you quickly realise his unreliable narrator status, you are not dismayed. He is not deliberately trying to bamboozle you; Piranesi is in a genuine state of forgetfulness. The story, the mystery, if you like, then hinges on why and how this forgetfulness has occurred.

Next up, Susanna Clarke and the Women’s Prize for Fiction.

Fantasy books rarely win literary prizes that are not specialty fantasy/sci fi awards. Judge Sarah-Jane Mee had this to say about picking Piranesi as the 2021 winner.

“It was difficult because this year’s shortlist was so varied,” said [Judge Sarah-Jane] Mee. “But we went for something that was totally original. We’ve had a year like no other, and we feel that we’ve got a winner like no other. It’s certainly like nothing I’ve ever read before, and we all kept returning to this book. So it was so hard to compare these books, because they were all so different and individually brilliant, but Piranesi really made a lasting impression on us.”

Mee said that Piranesi, for her, “pretty much sums up what the Women’s fiction prize is all about … And that’s that women can write about whatever they want. So much of the time, when you talk about women’s fiction, female authors will tell you that they’re told to write about their experiences, that women’s stories need to be heard. And that’s all very important, but it sort of constrains women”….

Men can write about whatever they want. Why can’t women? Women can be just as successful writing about whatever story in whatever world pops into their head. And I think that’s a wonderful message to send to girls and women who are reading or writing: You can write about whatever you want. Piranesi is ultimate escapism, a mind-bending trip”.

The Guardian | 9 Sept 2021 | Alison Flood

Piranesi not only celebrates a woman writing about anything she wants to, in whichever way she choses, but it also celebrates overcoming adversity.

Since writing her last book, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2004), Susanna Clarke has suffered through 15 years of a chronic fatigue syndrome-like illness. A short story collection, The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories was published in 2006, but ill-health stalled any attempts at writing a follow up to her cult success Strange & Norrell.

Accepting the £30,000 award today in London, she said, “As some of you will know, Piranesi was nurtured, written and published during a long illness. It is the book that I never thought I would get to write—I never thought I’d be well enough. So this feels doubly extraordinary….My hope is that my standing here tonight will encourage other women who are incapacitated by long illness.”

In various interviews and articles, Clarke mentions that Piranesi was inspired by the short stories of Jorge Luis Borges that she read in her twenties, especially The Library of Babel (a story about an endless library) and The House of Asterion (a literary puzzle about living in solitude in a house that is describes in detail, comparing the infinitude of the house to the universe). As a result, she wrote a short story about an infinite house that was regularly invaded by the ocean. It has sat in her files for years waiting for the right time to be developed.

The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi (4 October 1720 – 9 November 1778) was an Italian artist, best known for his black-and-white, fictitious & atmospheric ‘imaginary prisons‘. Clarke mentions Piranesi in both Strange & Norrell and Ladies of Grace Adieu, so it was only natural that it was his name that The Other (and Clarke) bestowed on our narrator in her latest story.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi | Le Carceri d’Invenzione, plate XIV: The Gothic Arch | 1745-50   

C. S. Lewis is another huge influence on Clarke. The Magician’s Nephew was one of the books she turned to during her long illness for comfort. The fictional, between-worlds, city of Charn appealed to her in particular.

It is too long ago since I last read the Narnia series, so I had to check wikipedia to rediscover why the city of Charn was significant to the development of Piranesi.

The city is totally deserted, lifeless and crumbling, under a dying sun. Rivers have dried up, and neither weeds nor insects live. All life on the world of Charn had been destroyed by Jadis through an evil magic spell. In the novel, the city stands as an example of the dead end that can result if a civilization succumbs to evil.

Charn was a world that stood as an example for what can happen if wickedness and corruption are allowed to run their course. When Polly asks Aslan if this is the fate for humanity, he replies, “Not yet. But you are growing more like it. It is not certain that some wicked one of your race will not find out a secret as evil as the Deplorable Word and use it to destroy all living things.”

Given that Clarke then uses a quote from The Magician’s Nephew as one of her epigraphs (see below) it suggests that such a ‘wicked one’ is at hand, at least in this latest fictional creation. The other connection with the Narnia books is the character Dr Valentine Ketterley, his surname is lifted from Lewis’ story in the guise of Uncle Andrew Ketterley, the man who magics the children into the wood between the worlds that allows them to travel to Charn. Both men are obsessed by the possibilities of Other Worlds.

In Piranesi, the House is one such world. But is it a sanctuary or prison? Is Piranesi a prisoner or an exile? Is he confined or cocooned?

Piranesi. It is what he calls me. Which is strange because as far as I remember it is not my name.

Piranesi is never bored or lonely. He has found his own purpose to life and he appears to be eternally joyful and present. He views the world with a childlike wonder and acceptance.

In our Covid-19 pandemic world, where isolation and solitude have become the norm, Piranesi’s approach to living in his infinite world can be enlightening. His deliberate day-by-day living, paying attention to every small detail, caring for his environment and honouring those who came before him provide him with sense of peace and connectedness.

The reader, looking in from the outside, is aware that something is very off-kilter, but at the same time, one feels a sense of envy for Piranesi’s ability to experience such simple bliss and empathy.

“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,” Piranesi concludes. But: “The House is valuable because it is the House. It is enough in and of Itself. It is not the means to an end.”

Epigraph:

I am the great scholar, the magician, the adept, who is doing the experiment. Of course I need subjects to do it on.

The Magician’s Nephew, C. S. Lewis

People call me a philosopher or a scientist or an anthropologist. I am none of those things. I am an anamnesiologist. I study what has been forgotten. I divine what has disappeared utterly. I work with absences, with silences, with curious gaps between things. I am really more a magician than anything else.

Laurence Arne-Sayles, interview in The Secret Garden, May 1976

Facts:

  • Winner Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021
  • Costa Novel of the Year Shortlist 2020
  • Hugo Award Best Novel Shortlist 2021
  • Nebula Award Best Novel Shortlist 2020
Title: Piranesi
Author: Susanna Clarke
ISBN: 9781526622426
Imprint: Bloomsbury Publishing
Published: 15 September 2020
Format: Hardback

18 thoughts on “Piranesi | Susanna Clarke #WomensPrize

    1. It’s not an easy book to talk about, so I mostly focused on the influences at play in this post. (Her illness, the evolution of the book, real life artists and other authors/books). I had always planned on rereading Piranesi, but now, before I do, I may be tempted to try the two Borges stories she cites as inspiration.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I haven’t read Strange & Norrell, but I have been told by others who have, that it is very different. It’s actually a very good book to read during a pandemic given it’s themes of isolation, solitude, living day by day, being present in the moment…

      Liked by 1 person

  1. It is such a tough one to write about, but this was great. Such a strange and wonderful book.

    I found some overlap with Strange and Norrell, but stylistically it was very different. I liked them both, though.

    Like

  2. Earlier in the year I read Mr. Strange & Jonathan Norrell and while I enjoyed some parts, I did not consider it worth trudging through 1000 pages for it. Therefore I was determined to this one a miss. But what you tell me about Piranesi and his living in solitude and living day by day as well as the Author’s own illness, resonates with me in my current situation and I think I will give this a try! Thank You for an excellent insightful review!

    Like

  3. I’ve had the Piranesi audiobook waiting for me on my phone for a while now, and just haven’t quite felt in the mood for it – I think your review has prompted me to finally start listening to it! Thanks for bumping it up my TBR.

    Like

  4. Pingback: 2021 in Review

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s