The phrase “surprise best seller”—often applied to more or less any book that achieves some commercial success despite not being by John Grisham, Nicholas Sparks, or James Patterson—can rarely have been used more accurately than it was about Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (2004). Certainly, it’s hard to think of another thousand-page, densely plotted, heavily footnoted debut novel about magicians in Regency England that went on to sell more than four million copies, to become a Time Book of the Year, and to inspire a TV miniseries, any number of obsessive fansites, and a board game.
Even Neil Gaiman, an early champion of Clarke’s, whose one regret about the novel is that it wasn’t twice as long, thought it “would be too unusual…for the general public.” Not only did Clarke appear to take the existence of magic for granted, but she gave its specifically English form a backstory spanning seven hundred years—which is where all those footnotes came in. Among other things, this included a race of malevolent fairies who had the regrettable habit of kidnapping mortals into Other Lands. But the magic was also ingeniously interwoven with history of a more recognizable kind. The Duke of Wellington, for example, still defeated Napoleon. It’s just that he did so with the help of Jonathan Strange’s handy ability to move rivers and temporarily shift Brussels to the middle of America.
Inevitably, after the book’s success, Clarke’s fans (and presumably her publishers) were soon clamoring for a sequel—and at first she seemed happy to oblige. “The next book will be set in the same world,” she told one interviewer. “I feel very much at home in the early nineteenth century and am not inclined to leave it.” In the meantime, as her readers waited, 2006 brought The Ladies of Grace Adieu, a collection of eight short stories, seven of which had previously been published—mostly in the 1990s—with the eighth expanding on an untypically short footnote in Jonathan Strange. The collection had its moments, especially the title story that first alerted Gaiman to Clarke’s talent in 1992. On the whole, however, these apprentice works did feel like apprentice works. The magic, kidnapping fairies, and Other Lands were already in place, but without the solid anchoring in the nonfairy world that made Jonathan Strange so full-bodied.
And then there was silence.
An early sign as to why came in 2007 when, answering questions on a blog duly called The Friends of English Magic, Clarke mentioned that she had been “dogged by ill-health for two years now and it’s holding up progress on any new work rather seriously.” Yet only in recent interviews has the extent of her ill health become apparent. After collapsing at a friend’s house in 2005, Clarke began suffering from a debilitating disease that has continued with varying severity ever since. Precisely what the disease is her doctors have never established, but the symptoms are a combination of exhaustion, nausea, cognitive impairment (aka brain fog), depression, social anxiety, and agoraphobia.
For years, writing was somewhere between tortuous and impossible, and even when her symptoms eased, another book on the scale of Jonathan Strange remained out of the question. So it was that Clarke decided to “simplify what I was asking of myself.” The result is the comparatively slim Piranesi, which might, I suppose, disappoint some Jonathan Strange fans (and board-game players) because it is not the longed-for sequel. Although only until they read it—since what Clarke has served up instead is a quietly dazzling novel of abiding and intriguing peculiarity.
Admittedly, the opening pages demand some patience from the reader, as we’re plunged into its extraordinary setting without anything in the way of handholds. “When the Moon rose in the Third Northern Hall I went to the Ninth Vestibule to witness the joining of three Tides,” begins the narrator in the first of the carefully labeled journal entries that make up most of the novel—in this case, “entry for the first day of the fifth month in the year the albatross came to the south-western halls.” “The Beauty of the House is immeasurable,” the entry concludes, “its Kindness infinite.”
From there, the nature of the setting does become clearer—although no less odd: an unfailingly uppercase House of vast, never-ending Halls, Vestibules, and Staircases, all full of Statues, and with its own tidal Ocean on the first floor. It’s also, as far as the narrator is concerned, the World.
The House has three Levels. The Lower Halls are the “Domain of the Tides,” the Upper Halls “the Domain of the Clouds,” and the Middle Halls “the Domain of birds and of men.” But, as it turns out, of just two men—the second being “the Other,” who calls the first, the narrator, Piranesi (“Which is strange because as far as I remember it is not my name”) and meets him twice a week for hour-long briefings on what Piranesi has found during his journeys of exploration. How the Other knows enough about the celebrated eighteenth-century Italian etcher of labyrinthine prisons to have come up with such an appropriate name is one of many things we don’t yet know. But one thing we do is that the Other believes “there is a Great and Secret Knowledge hidden somewhere in the World that will grant us enormous powers once we have discovered it.”
Luckily, Piranesi doesn’t mind—or even notice—that the quest for this Knowledge is left entirely to him. Regarding himself as a scientist of scrupulous empiricism, he travels from Hall to Hall, cataloging the Statues, calculating the Tides, and recording everything he sees with a solemn sense of responsibility that borders on the comically prissy. In between his investigations he contentedly fishes for food, talks to birds, and tends the bones of the only thirteen other people he imagines can have ever existed. (“Possibly there have been more,” he characteristically clarifies, “but I am a scientist and must proceed according to the evidence.”)
Meanwhile, our initial sense that the Other mightn’t be the trusty friend Piranesi believes him to be is definitely not banished when we first encounter him at one of those twice-weekly meetings. For one thing, he’s too busy tapping on what is seemingly a mobile phone to say hello. (“I do not mind,” says his ever-loyal helper. “I admire his dedication to his scientific work.”) For another, he’s curiously anxious that Piranesi might be harboring memories he shouldn’t. “Do you remember Batter-Sea?” he asks—which Clarke’s fellow Brits will readily identify as the London neighborhood of Battersea.
In subsequent meetings, the Other is less amicable still. Even Piranesi is reluctantly shocked to hear his beloved House described as “just endless dreary rooms all the same, full of decaying figures covered with bird shit.” (Given the Other’s choice of his cohabitant’s name, it’s worth remembering that Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s prisons were unambiguously nightmarish.) To his horror, the Other tells him that somebody is about to arrive who means them harm. This new enemy—whom Piranesi calls 16, as in the House’s sixteenth-ever occupant—“is opposed to everything…you and I think is valuable…. And that includes reason.”
As the strangeness deepens, Piranesi has what he considers a revelation from the House itself that they should abandon the search for the Secret Knowledge. Yet when he plucks up the courage to suggest this to the Other, he’s told that he’s said the same thing many times before. Being inordinately proud of his memory—including of all 7,678 Halls he’s visited—Piranesi finds this hard to credit. But then he reads his older journals and realizes they’re full of things he’s not only forgotten but now can’t understand, among them such “nonsense words” as “university.”
There are also the notes he appears to have made for a lecture on a late-twentieth-century academic named Laurence Arne-Sayles, who believed that “the world was constantly speaking to Ancient Man,” and, more controversially, that the “dialogue between the Ancients and the world was not simply something that happened in their heads; it was something that happened in the actual world.” (“One sentence puzzles me,” Piranesi reflects. “The world was constantly speaking to Ancient Man. I do not understand why this sentence is in the past tense. The World still speaks to me every day.”)
Reading on, he further learns that Arne-Sayles felt these “lost beliefs and powers constituted a sort of energy” that “must have gone somewhere. This was the beginning of his most famous idea, the Theory of Other Worlds…. Somewhere…there must be a passage, a door between us and wherever magic had gone.” Equipped with this theory, Arne-Sayles had gathered a group of acolytes and developed a way for them to enter these Other Worlds. He was imprisoned in 1997 after a man named James Ritter was found behind a fake wall in his house in a state of physical and psychological collapse—even though Ritter claimed he’d spent the last eighteen months in “a vast building with great rooms and statues and staircases.”
To say that what follows is an unraveling wouldn’t be wrong exactly. But it might imply something far more linear than Clarke gives us: a beautifully modulated series of drip-feed revelations in which, most of the time, we’re slightly ahead of Piranesi but a long way from understanding what’s going on.
Eventually the truth emerges. Piranesi was once Matthew Rose Sorensen, a scholar writing a book on “transgressive thinking,” particularly that of Laurence Arne-Sayles. As Piranesi discovers (by reassembling a torn-out section of his journals that he finds in one of the Halls), in 2012 Matthew had interviewed Valentine Ketterley, a former Arne-Sayles disciple, at his Battersea home. Despite his skepticism, Matthew agreed to let Ketterley perform the ritual for accessing the place where the Ancients’ lost magic has gone—and found himself in the House.
Faced with this, even Piranesi is forced to recognize that the Other is Valentine Ketterley and has been lying to him all along. The reason they meet only twice a week is that the rest of the time Ketterley is back in Battersea, aware that if he stays in the House too long, amnesia will claim him as well: “The Other had needed someone—a slave!—to live in these Halls and collect information about them; he dares not do it himself in case the House makes him forget.” Yet even then the House remains precious to Piranesi. When 16 finally tracks him down and explains that she’s a police officer named Raphael who has entered the House with Arne-Sayles’s help and has come to take him home, he delivers one of the book’s most telling twists. “I am home,” he says. He also refuses to accept that he is Matthew anymore, because “I haven’t got his memories.” “Who are you?” asks Raphael. “If you’re not him.” “I am the Beloved Child of the House,” he replies.
In the event, Raphael does persuade him to return to Matthew’s family, and the two leave the House hand in hand, heading for a world that he’s alarmed to learn contains a lot of people. (“‘As many as seventy?’ I asked, deliberately choosing a high, rather improbable number.”) But he continues to revisit his old dwelling place, sometimes with Raphael, who loves the House too, and once with James Ritter, who weeps with happiness to see it again. The final sentence is a perfectly judged reprise of “The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.”
So what on earth to make of this haunting but perplexingly slippery novel? At one point we’re warned by Piranesi—and possibly Clarke—that the House shouldn’t be seen as “a sort of riddle to be unravelled, a text to be interpreted.” Yet, readers being what they are, this naturally feels like a challenge—and the fact that the quest for straight allegory is obviously doomed only encourages our minds to scuttle off in several different directions in search of the book’s meaning (as you may notice in the rest of this review).
One, of course, leads to spotting the parallels with Clarke’s previous fiction, which bristles with arrogant scientist-magicians, labyrinths, and amnesia-producing fairy enchantments leading to Other Worlds. This time, though, there are three big differences. First, there are no fairies. Second, the setting is the present day. Third and most important, Piranesi—unlike the kidnapped mortals in Jonathan Strange—is happy in his Other World. Their place of exile was called Lost-hope. His is positively Edenic, with the moment when he and Raphael leave the House echoing the end of Paradise Lost—in which, you may remember, the archangel who explains how the world was created is called Raphael.
In fact, there are closer parallels with a favorite book from Clarke’s childhood that brought her some comfort during the worst of her illness. In The Magician’s Nephew, the first of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia chronicles, the children Polly and Digory are sent into another world by Digory’s villainous uncle Andrew. His surname—uncoincidentally, I would suggest—is Ketterley and, like his Piranesi namesake, he comes from “an old Dorsetshire family.” The two men’s motives are eerily similar. Uncle Andrew wants the children to explore the Other World on his behalf in case it proves dangerous, or impossible to escape from. “Men like me, who possess hidden wisdom, are freed from common rules,” he explains, just as Arne-Styles and Piranesi’s Ketterley might do. One place the children find is Charn, where “vast rooms opened out of one another till you were dizzy with [its] mere size.” (“Lewis meant this to be an utterly desolate place,” Clarke has said in an interview, “but I always rather liked it.”) Another is the Wood Between the Worlds, which causes them to forget they’ve ever been anywhere else.
But Lewis’s influence may be even stronger on Piranesi’s themes than on its narrative. Above all, there’s his idea of “chronological snobbery,” which he, in turn, owed to his friend Owen Barfield, whose name appears in Matthew’s notes on transgressive thinking.1 Barfield defined chronological snobbery as the belief that “intellectually, humanity languished for countless generations in the most childish errors on all sorts of crucial subjects, until it was redeemed by some simple scientific dictum of the last century.” In the 1995 film Owen Barfield: Man and Meaning—available on YouTube—he can be seen still heroically smoking a man-of-letters pipe in his late nineties and expounding further. “People in the past…didn’t think like us at all,” he says. “Participation between the human mind and the natural world was something which people took for granted as happening.”
Clarke has said that this notion, which Barfield called “original participation,” is something she “tried to describe…in Piranesi’s attitude to the House” (where, don’t forget, the World speaks to him every day). And of course it underlies the thinking of Arne-Styles, who in one scene briefly and anonymously visits the House. “My first great insight happened when I realised how much humankind had lost” when it no longer “communed with rivers and mountains,” he tells Piranesi:
My contemporaries did not understand this. They were all enamoured with the idea of progress and believed that whatever was new must be superior to what was old. As if merit was a function of chronology!
For this reason, his method for entering the Other Worlds involves returning to a place or mental state in a time “before the iron hand of modern rationality gripped one’s mind.”
Is Clarke suggesting that Barfield and Arne-Styles are right in a way some readers might find disconcertingly literal? That the retreat to the purely human has been a terrible loss? The answer, I think, is a firm “possibly”—although for her the Other World into which the lost magic has disappeared is apparently fantasy fiction. There is, she once said, “something we [fantasy writers] do so much better than the literary fiction people. Literary fiction sticks resolutely to the human. But the world seems to me so much bigger than that.”
It’s this opposition to the reductive nature of contemporary science that presumably leads Clarke to emphasize that so many of her magical characters—Mr. Norrell, Jonathan Strange, virtually everybody in Piranesi—are themselves scientists. After all, the division between science and the supernatural hasn’t always been as rigid as it’s recently become—more recently, in fact, than we sometimes think. The early-twentieth-century telecommunications pioneers—Guglielmo Marconi (radio), Alexander Graham Bell (telephone), John Logie Baird (television), Thomas Edison (phonograph)—all believed to a greater or lesser extent that their devices might one day contact the dead. “If this is ever accomplished,” Edison said, “it will…be not by…so-called mediums, but by scientific methods.”
Another way, then, of reading Piranesi is as a meditation on the limitations of modern rationality. From an orthodox perspective, Piranesi is wildly misguided to believe the Other’s warning that 16 is opposed to reason. Yet Raphael’s rationality proves, at the very least, insufficient to explain what he has experienced.
At the same time, you could make a case that Piranesi—a book that’s defiantly both/and throughout, rather than either/or—is also a study of the unconscious, the traditional alternative explanation for the supernatural. In a recent BBC series, The Romantics and Us, Simon Schama argued that the Romantics explored the unconscious long before Freud did, and that in this they owed a heavy debt to none other than Giovanni Battista Piranesi, the first artist “to open up the door to this parallel world” with his “fantastical images” of prisons “etched from his dreams,” representing “chambers of the mind.”2
In particular, Schama traced Piranesi’s influence on Coleridge, who, like Barfield, believed in the imagination as a truth-bearing faculty. (If Clarke didn’t want us to think of Coleridge, why would her Piranesi have an encounter with an albatross so significant that he named a year for it?) According to Schama, as Coleridge investigated the unconscious through poetry and laudanum, he also realized that a potential side-effect of entering it too deeply was insanity. But then again, “very few Romantics at one stage or another didn’t think they were going mad.”
With that came the Romantic idea of a link between madness and creativity, another long-standing theme of Clarke’s. In that very first story, “The Ladies of Grace Adieu,” we’re told that magicians “are all a little mad.” In Jonathan Strange, we hear that the old magicians “held madmen in a sort of reverence and thought they knew things sane men did not.” Later, Strange himself deliberately opts for insanity by the simple method of drinking a tincture made from a dead mouse in order to enter the land of Faerie. Is Piranesi mad, as the police and his family think after he has left the House? And if he is, has that given him privileged access to hidden truths? Again, these questions are left to dangle tantalizingly for our consideration.
All of this still leaves two characteristics of Piranesi that you mightn’t expect in a novel about a wicked magician-scientist sending someone into an enchanted world of infinite halls: it’s both topical and autobiographical.
Part of the topicality is, needless to say, Covid-related, now that Piranesi’s housebound isolation has been shared by the rest of us. But at a time when we tend to live in our famous echo chambers of like-minded people, his semi-comic belief that the place he happens to inhabit is nothing less than the whole world—and his inability to imagine anything existing outside it—also strikes a contemporary chord.
As for autobiography, when Clarke’s illness worsened in the 2000s, she stopped contacting her agent, who remembers thinking “it was as though she’d been captured into the land of Faerie…as if she had been taken away from us.” Clarke herself has said that “I wrote a long book in which there was this sort of enchantment, and then fell into this strange enchantment myself,” adding jokingly (I think) that “You really shouldn’t annoy fairies, or write about them—they don’t like it very much.” Toward the end of writing Piranesi, she also realized that “I (a person living a very confined life) was writing a story about a man who couldn’t leave his house”—admitting that the realization was weirdly belated.3
But if the book is a suitably subconscious version of her plight, it’s quite a consoling one. For a while, her response to the illness was anger at all that had been stolen from her. But then “you learn to take pleasure in what is available to you”—which is “more how Piranesi thinks. He thinks his life is full of marvellous things.” As time passed, she even felt “contained in a shell of illness, almost protected…against the world.”
In 1962 Shirley Jackson—another writer with agoraphobia, and according to the jacket of her first book “a practicing amateur witch”—published We Have Always Lived in the Castle (a title that would have suited Piranesi pretty well). In it, two sisters are surrounded by hostile neighbors, until they decide to shut out the world completely. For Jackson’s biographer Judy Oppenheimer, the novel was “almost a paean…to agoraphobia”—and although it might be an exaggeration to say the same about Piranesi, it wouldn’t be a wild one.
Lewis’s The Allegory of Love was dedicated to Barfield, “wisest and best of my unofficial teachers,” and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to Barfield’s daughter, Lucy. ↩
Piranesi, who has long fascinated Clarke, receives passing mentions in both Jonathan Strange and The Ladies of Grace Adieu. ↩
Seekers after the subconscious roots of Piranesi might also note the resemblance of the placename “Battersea” to that of Buttershaw in Yorkshire, where Clarke went to school—and where she “set about systematically disappearing” and “made a sort of ghost of myself.” ↩