Allegory, Book review., Books, C. S. Lewis, Dreaming, Dreams, Emma Donoghue, Fantasy, George Orwell, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Literary criticism, Piranesi, Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, Room by Emma Donoghue, Susanna Clarke, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Magician's Nephew
[The following contains spoilers.]
Any dream is a sequence of baffling and disquieting events, with all of them colluding in the silent conspiracy of dream logic. The House in Susanna Clarke’s second novel Piranesi is a dream palace and dream logic is the only law that has any standing within its walls. These walls “are lined with marble Statues, hundreds upon hundreds of them, Tier upon Tier, rising into the distant heights.” “Tides” wash through the House, battering the statues, and sometimes the air will be jumpy with the tumbling of seagulls or crows. The halls of the House proliferate inexhaustibly, like the never-ending interiors within a dream, and the face of the House only ever looks in upon these interiors. There is seemingly no door to the outside world.
Nonetheless, the most frightening thing about any dream is never actually its contents. Rather, it is more that you are stripped of your normal personality whilst you are walking in a dream and transformed into an alien version of yourself. You accept every absurdity that you experience without any sense of scandal occurring to you. Your defining characteristic becomes a terrifying absence of curiosity. Well, let me introduce you to Piranesi.
Piranesi does not know who built the House or how he himself came to be there or what he will do amongst its halls forevermore. He explores the interiors of this pile, aimlessly and without any determination to arrive anywhere. He writes detailed journals about its nothingness, a sort of ongoing Wikipedia article about the House, and he pays periodic visits to thirteen sets of human remains that he has come across during his travels.
This novel might be always several steps ahead of us but the fund of dramatic irony that is its generous allowance means that we are ourselves always several steps ahead of Piranesi. There are “stars” beyond the walls of the House and we are often wondering about what else comprises its exterior. Unlike Piranesi, we know that there is more to reality than just the House.
Piranesi was published last September. The consensus amongst reviewers is that it is a lovely novel and a superb surprise. Clarke had seemed to be a novelist who had put herself on the back burner, in that until the appearance of Piranesi she had not produced a book for fourteen years. Her ill health was frequently cited as a reason for not expecting very much from her. There had been perhaps a growing suspicion that the machinery of her writing had dried up following the creation of her spectacular debut novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2004), and that she was struggling to jolt this machinery into motion again. It had looked for a long time as if any second novel was due to become a classic of the “difficult second novel” genre.
Yet this ostensible imp is, upon inspection, a little angel. In common with Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Piranesi is a work of literary fantasy but beneath the fantasy trundles the sound heart of a philosophical novel. With its mixture of innocence and no-nonsense storytelling, Piranesi also carries a strong flavour of those old adventure novels that had once used to be turned out for intelligent children to read. It is not a children’s novel but one need crop only a handful of sentences and it very easily could be. It will make adult readers feel that they have been granted a children’s novel all of their own. Sensitive adult readers might be even struck by a vague, unfair sense of queue-jumping.
In the fellowship that it evinces with children’s fiction, Piranesi is actually strongest where it is in danger of incurring crippling weaknesses. The novel flaunts numerous allusions to C. S. Lewis’ fantasy series The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-56) and in particular The Magician’s Nephew (1955). For example, the wizards in Piranesi and The Magician’s Nephew each share a common name in Ketterley, whilst the House in Piranesi is evidently located on the same map as Lewis’ city of Charn. Still, such is the freshness of Piranesi is that it grows strangely liberated from the elements of its story that in normal postmodern fiction would render it self-conscious and derivative. It somehow manages to help itself to Lewis’ materials with all of the debt being written off.
The transition that we undertake within Piranesi, from total absorption in a sealed world to learning about another, explanatory world that lies beyond, reminds me very much of the novel Room (2010) by Emma Donoghue. Jack, the five-year-old boy who narrates Room is, like Piranesi, a naïf only due to his perspective within the story. He is otherwise ticking with resourcefulness. Jack and his mother are imprisoned in a soundproof garden shed, in a home-captivity narrative and, after their captivity is rumbled, he has to get to grips with human society. Like Piranesi, Room is divided into two parts and the second grows increasingly itchy with a nostalgia for the left-behind world.
The Room and the House are equally one-dimensional but Jack and Piranesi have adapted to these environments so successfully that they can be loosely said to be happy there. The Room and the House are soon revealed to be sites of bitter austerity, but it would be premature to conclude that what each character has experienced in these worlds is necessarily worthless. The innocence that results from Jack and Piranesi’s exposure to the Room and the House will serve them each as a strength once they are unleashed upon the outside world.
Of course, we know that the scales that are being used to weigh the Room and the House have been fixed to give out wry or ironic measurements. Jack and Piranesi could be never mistaken for anything other than partisan narrators, since the first is a native of the Room and the second has become totally assimilated into the House. Once, when Piranesi had been a newcomer, he had been conceivably maddened to despair. “Brainwashing” might be an uncomfortably prosaic term for the process that Jack and Piranesi have undergone within these worlds, although its application does not sound wrong exactly.
What does the House represent? We will probably get further with this question than if we had asked what the House is. The House is a magical realm that is desolate, irrelevant to human lives and even ultimately pointless. With its classical Western art (its statues of fauns and minotaurs) and its British coastal wildlife (seaweed and herring gulls), it is unlikely to be a dimension that shamans and witchdoctors can ever access. It appears to be mostly a plaything for listless British academics.
Laurence Arne-Sayles, the wizard who has thrown open the House, is otherwise uninterested in exploring it or inhabiting it. There is admittedly a danger of “amnesia” for those who get too comfortable inside the House, but for a manipulative creep like Arne-Sayles, there is also nobody there for him to dominate. He claims that the House was “created by ideas flowing out of another world” and that, if such ideas were “water,” the House is akin to a mere “cave” that has been shaped by their passage. For him, the House does not contain any useful knowledge, any more than a real gladiator could be expected to strut out of the ruins of a Roman amphitheatre.
When Piranesi winds up in the House, it is thus as a depersonalised human being who is haunting a ghost world. He has lost his own name (Piranesi, the name of an Italian artist who had depicted labyrinths, is attached to him jokingly) whilst “the House” is similarly a name of his own devising. In this reading, the House is clearly unworthy of Piranesi’s worship. He is investigating it only when its magic is long gone; he loves it only once it is dead and cold.
Piranesi maintains that, “the House is valuable because it is the House. It is enough in and of Itself. It is not the means to an end.” Although we might doubt that these are wholly his own thoughts, a lot of the brilliance of his story is that the House never feels like it is being detained within any allegory. It is too big, too breezy and too beautiful. Even so, it is surely too charged with symbolic electricity to be limited to powering itself alone.
We might think that Matthew Rose Sorensen has not so much travelled from one world to another as that his status has simply fluctuated within academia. He was originally a student of “transgressive ideas” and the House is now his fieldwork. Even though Sorensen’s identity is erased, his journals continue uninterrupted, with him cataloguing and researching the House much as he had previously done with the bare theory of it. One can imagine him back in a British university, established as a postgraduate student and under the supervision of a pompous academic such as Arne-Sayles and far away from his friends and family. In these circumstances, his solitude and his scholarly absorption would be essentially identical to the behaviour that he displays within the House. He would be just as socially useful too.
Sorensen has indeed written for such plausible-sounding publications as Intellectual History Quarterly and Journal of Space Time and Everything. He has even at one point contributed to the Guardian. George Orwell’s description of the intellectual remoteness that this signifies might be pertinent here:
The historical Jonah, if he can be so called, was glad enough to escape, but in imagination, in day dream, countless people have envied him. It is, of course, quite obvious why. The whale’s belly is simply a womb big enough for an adult. There you are, in the dark, cushioned space that exactly fits you, with yards of blubber between yourself and reality, able to keep up an attitude of the completest indifference, no matter what happens… Short of being dead, it is the final, unsurpassable stage of irresponsibility.
It is amusing to regard the House is an allegory of irresponsible academia but such a garment is in truth a slack fit. The straightforward contemplation of beauty within the House is a world away from the bitching and over-politicised trivia that tend to characterise the postgraduate study of art these days. Furthermore, one should remember that Arne-Sayles’ route to the House is a forced reconnection with the worldview of a child. He urges that “one must return to the place, the geographical location, where one last believed the world to be fluid, responsive to oneself.”
One here joins Jack again, with an acute awareness that exploring the House is synonymous with a toddler’s or a small child’s overwhelming absorption in the layout of the house that they live in. All that Piranesi has to fill his consciousness is the House and the items within it and he duly pours over them, engrossed. The typical adult is prevented from ever again becoming as alertly aware of their own home as they had been as a child. They have work, responsibilities, the messiness of relationships and the endless distractions of modern life. For long periods, a creeping small child will have nothing in front of them but a sequence of domestic interiors. The adventure of climbing stairs; the spookiness of the box room or cupboards that are rarely disturbed.
So powerful is this infantile familiarity with a house that it is waiting for even the debauched and cynical Arne-Sayles to invade again. Something infantile that endures within the practices of academia might also make Sorensen especially receptive to the soul of the House. With this, the story might be potentially circling the House with bared teeth, all ready to satirise the selfish or anti-social aspects of Piranesi’s happiness. After all, the labyrinths in the etchings by the original Piranesi had been prisons. Yet the House is always so dazzlingly clean as a vision and as a symbol that these teeth slip helplessly across its surface.
The purity of the House flashes out from a correspondence between two visitors to its halls, one from within its world and another from beyond it. Piranesi’s solitude is interrupted when he witnesses “a white shining cross” suspended above the waves. “Its whiteness was a blazing whiteness.” This, it transpires, is an approaching albatross. Within Western culture, albatrosses have been held to be lucky or angelic creatures and one’s hand might here pause on encountering the plastic of pastiche. The albatross trembles with some of the magnificence of the talking lion Aslan, which was how Jesus Christ had taken shape within Lewis’ Narnia. But, as with the House itself, the albatross has a standalone quality, the simplicity of its obvious goodness.
There is a degree of symmetry with the albatross’ arrival to how Sarah Raphael, an adventuring policewoman, breaches the House. Raphael is a secular rather than a spiritual force, but there is nonetheless an element of self-sacrifice to her rescue mission. She could have, for all she knows, become permanently stranded in the House along with Piranesi. Earlier in her career, she had climbed a cathedral tower to talk down “a troubled person,” despite her discomfort with heights. Shreds of flaming newspaper had rained down but this hellfire had brushed off her.
In contrast to Arne-Sayles’ selfishness, Raphael is motivated by duty, but she is the one who comes to linger in the House rather than Arne-Sayles. It remains an open question whether this is a confirmation of her wisdom or else ominously morbid. “The quiet and the solitude attract her strongly. In them she hopes to find what she needs.”