Thursday 28 January 2021

The Architecture of Identity

It is difficult to overstate the yearning many fans have felt for Susanna Clarke’s follow-up to Jonathan
The long-awaited second novel
from Susana Clarke: Piranesi.
(Image via Bloomsbury UK)

Strange and Mr. Norrell

Younger fans may not grok the fanfare that greeted Clarke’s 2004 debut, but it was a cultural phenomenon; on top of its Hugo Award, the novel earned a Locus Award, a Mythopoeic Award and a World Fantasy Award. Like few other fantasy novels, it was celebrated both by fandom, and by the non-genre community. The New York Times hailed it as a masterwork, Time Magazine named it the best novel of the year, it appeared on the Whitbread Award shortlist. 

Piranesi, therefore labours under a weight of expectations that would be impossible to meet.

This is a very different book than Clarke’s debut, and those simply looking for another Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell should consider themselves warned. Instead, this is a slender volume — 250 pages as opposed to Strange and Norrell’s 800 — that provides less action. What it provides instead is a nuanced meditation on the construction of identity and the role of memory, especially as it intersects with social conditioning, the formation of personality, and happiness.

Readers are guided through the story by a journal written by the title character as he navigates an endless series of labyrinthine halls in which there is evidence of only fifteen people having ever lived (only two of whom are living). Piranesi is content with his life, and exalts the House, describing its halls, staircases, waters and particularly its statues in reverential tones. The tale becomes a puzzle as it is revealed that the mysteries of the House and Piranesi’s identity are intertwined.

The House (the word House is always capitalized) is described as an enormous and strange structure that evokes images similar to Jorge Luis Borges’ Library of Babel
The novel's prose effectively evokes
the etchings of its namesake, the
18th century Italian artist Piranesi
, or Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s Imaginary Prisons. It is a dangerous place, filled with perils both physical and spiritual, but in the narrator’s eyes the House is not malevolent. The novel is structured as a series of journals that Piranesi keeps to detail his daily life in the House.

Piranesi tells a small-scale story that belies its literary and philosophical depths. Although a short novel, the story takes time to reflect on the nature of knowledge and beauty. The story’s end is tidy — feeling like the beginning of a grand adventure we are unlikely to ever see explored — and doesn’t provide much closure to the more meditative aspects of the novel.

Our book club found itself divided, there were members who unreservedly adored Piranesi, others who enjoyed it (with reservations), and some who found themselves regrettably disappointed.

Most of our members were thoroughly charmed by the titular character’s curiosity and optimism. However, at least two members of the book club found Piranesi’s narrative voice grating, and argued that Susanna Clarke’s most impressive literary achievement with Piranesi was to make a novel that’s one third the length of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell three times as interminable. More than one member found the narrative voice and reflective writing to be the novel’s greatest strength, which demonstrates Clarke’s flexibility as a writer.

Some of our discussion group struggled with the novel’s strangeness (and fondness for Grandiose Capitalization) in the early pages, and a few never connected with the story. This isn’t a book for everyone, but one that provoked strong opinions — mostly positive — and prompted spirited discussion and deep-dive analysis.

Those looking for a puzzle, for poetry, and for philosophy, may find themselves pleasantly ensorcelled by the cyclopean halls of The House.

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