Fortress of Solitude

Piranesi BY Susanna Clarke. NEW YORK: Bloomsbury. 272 PAGES. $27.

The cover of Piranesi

A DECADE AND A HALF AGO, a book so enchanted me that it was hard to pull away. If I were to get any of my own work done, I needed to hide it. (The book was very long, over eight hundred pages; I didn’t have the time.) But the tome kept jumping back into my hands. I could have given it away, of course, or simply tossed the thing, but surely at some point—when this oppressive spell of work was over—I’d want to dive back in. I had only finished a third, perhaps less. One day, I came across a length of twine, and instantly its purpose was apparent to me: I neatly tied the fat book up, quartering it like a parcel without the wrapping.

Aptly enough, the book that cast such a spell on me was about magicians: Susanna Clarke’s 2004 debut, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Indeed, the tying—something I’ve never inflicted on a book since—had the quality of a thaumaturgic ritual. Though the specifics have faded, this bout of literary bondage remains one of my most memorable reading experiences.

The years, a whole bunch of them, passed. I didn’t return to the book, and hardly thought of Clarke until last fall, when her surprise follow-up Piranesi (Bloomsbury, $27) appeared. I glimpsed the reviews, just enough to learn that (a) the book was good and (b) I should be even more vigilant about spoilers when it came to this unexpected gem. Andy Miller, cohost of the smart, bookish podcast Backlisted, raved about it on the November 23 episode. Or I think he must have. He prefaced his remarks by saying, “It’s quite a hard novel to talk about, because the less you know about it, going into it, the better. . . . If you want to fast-forward by four and a half minutes, you should probably do that, if you’re planning on reading this book.” I dutifully obeyed. In New York, my pal Molly Young called it “at first impenetrable, then thrilling, and finally pulverizing,” before hilariously declaring, “I refuse to provide a plot summary; it is to your own benefit.” Ron Charles intoned in the Washington Post that Clarke’s story “relies on the steady accretion of apprehension that finally gives way to a base-shifting revelation. Until you read the book yourself, keep your wand drawn to ward off the summaries of enthusiastic fans and clumsy reviewers.” Such reverent caution made the novel even more enticing.

I finally did wade into Piranesi with my tabula more or less rasa, an experience I recommend (though I’m not going to tell you not to read this article). It quickly becomes clear that the titular narrator is not the titular eighteenth-century Italian artist, conjuror of dreamlike ruins and vast, impossible spaces, but some lost soul stuck in a strange otherworld that often resembles those engravings. The “House” he inhabits is one of maddening dimensions, an agglomeration of hundreds of huge Halls in every direction, layered three deep, home to cryptic Statues and a variety of birds. (Yes, this is a Book in which Common Nouns are often capitalized.) Clarke unceremoniously drops you into this alien terrain, as bewildering as it is beautiful.

Our Piranesi got his nickname from the only other living person in the House, known simply as the Other, who is searching for the “Great and Secret Knowledge” that might give them supernatural powers and eternal life. They work jointly, a scientific team, though it’s evident the Other is calling the shots. The chapters have titles that are alternately redolent of Italo Calvino (“When the Moon rose in the Third Northern Hall I went to the Ninth Vestibule”) and matter of fact (“Shoes”), and the effect is touching and strange. An icy magic realism keeps you on your toes: “Ever since the Ceilings of the Twentieth and Twenty-First North-Eastern Halls collapsed two years ago the Weather in this Region of the House has changed,” Piranesi reports. “Clouds drift down through the Broken Ceilings and into the Middle Halls where normally they would not go.” The ground beneath the reader’s feet might give at any second.

Time, too, is not as we know it. Scrupulously jotting down his daily findings in a series of notebooks (for which he vertiginously keeps a separate notebook “as an index to all the others”), Piranesi explains that he eschews the “deeply pedestrian” C.E. calendar, favoring a more poetic system that “gives each year a character of his own.” The bulk of Piranesi takes place in “the Year the Albatross came to the South-Western Halls.” In a lesser author, this could feel twee, but Clarke offsets it with a tone of restrained menace.

The endless succession of grand halls and curious statuary suggest that Piranesi is not inhabiting a real place, but has somehow wandered into a kind of elaborate mental architecture, perhaps a classical memory palace, of the sort illuminated by Renaissance scholar Frances A. Yates, in which distinctive imaginary objects serve as prompts for recollection. But as Piranesi lovingly, even naively describes his odd surroundings—including thirteen skeletons that he tends to with care—it becomes clear that he’s in something like an anti-memory palace. At its best, Piranesi is a work of voluptuous amnesia, in which history and character have been effaced. Texts are written and forgotten; startling messages appear, communications from somewhere beyond. As we grow to understand the nature of the labyrinth, our hero’s true biography seeps in. (It’s a shock when he describes his hair, late in the book, as “dark and curly.”)

Francesco Piranesi, Prison Scene, date unknown, etching, 16 1/4 × 22 5/8". After Giovanni Battista Piranesi.
Francesco Piranesi, Prison Scene, date unknown, etching, 16 1/4 × 22 5/8". After Giovanni Battista Piranesi. The Metropolitan Museum of Art

It’s entirely fitting that a book in which time and space have been turned inside out should work like an accidental mirror to our current mutual isolations, when many of us know every inch of our living spaces as never before. Ironically, the first few sections of this tenebrous book might qualify as comfort reading: it’s weirdly reassuring to see Piranesi make the most of his bleak circumstances, wandering the vast empty spaces, noting the weather, and cheerfully engaging in DIY projects, like repairing the arms of his eyeglasses with seaweed and “fish glue.” Clarke makes solitude dazzling, even inviting. “I love the quiet here,” the Other says. “No people!”

The plot advances, as Clarke reveals chunks of backstory that puncture Piranesi’s static world. At times, he actively resists learning more: when a message in chalk suddenly appears in the Sixth North-Western Hall, he considers it a forbidden text, something that might drive him mad. Tearing an old shirt in two, he uses half as a blindfold and the other part as an eraser. The hair-raising result is a mutilated paragraph of broken words and lacunae. Though I found myself hungry for the reasons behind Piranesi’s dizzying state, the solution to the mystery wasn’t as satisfying as the strange, high-wire setup had made me hope. Like Piranesi himself, part of me didn’t want to read on.

The slim book’s expanding web of clues seems designed to trigger some referential mania in the reader. The name of one key figure, Ketterley, is drawn from C. S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew, from which Clarke also takes one of her epigraphs. And I don’t think it’s an accident that googling a strange recurring name from these pages (“Addy Domarus”) fetches a topically apposite academic paper (“An investigation into the relationship between Schizotypy and crime based reasoning in a non-clinical population”) that cites the work of a contemporary UK psychologist named Addy, as well as a German psychiatrist named Eilhard von Domarus, who posited a theory of schizophrenic thinking.

As fun as this sort of hunt can be, it also saps the book of its hermetic magic. Like the Other, I had loved the quiet. No people! But maybe Clarke sent this book to zap us, a little violently, out of our sleepy routines.

In preparing to write about Piranesi, I thought it would make sense to have another go at Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. I knew exactly where it was: in my office, where I had dared to venture just once after the pandemic silenced the city. When I got to the building, on an afternoon in December, the front-door key didn’t work. There was a number pad, and after a moment, I summoned the code and the door unlocked with a satisfying click. In the narrow vestibule, old mail covered the floor. It was the weekend and there was no one around, but I suspect I could have come on a Tuesday morning to the same eerily still scene. After a while, I realized the elevator was broken. Though I hadn’t used the stairwell in over a year, I summoned the numbers for that keypad as well. Memory! I thought triumphantly. The power of Memory! I walked up the six flights, practically salivating at the thought of being reunited with the book, imagining cutting the twine and entering those pages after so many years. Perhaps there would be interesting marginalia, which I could include in this piece, or a bookmark from some once loved, now defunct store. In the end, though, I was defeated. The door from the stairwell to the office proper required a key, which I didn’t have, and there was no one inside who could hear my pleas, my pounding. There was no one in the building at all.

Ed Park is the author of Personal Days (Random House, 2008), a novel.