Monday 19 October 2020

PIRANESI by Susanna Clarke, reviewed by Adèle Geras


"I’ve never in my life read a story which so defies reviewing. Summing up the plot doesn’t work. Comparing Clarke to other writers might, but only if you’ve read the other writers."

Adèle Geras has written books for readers of all ages. Coming from Michael Joseph in February next year is her novel Dangerous Women, published under her pseudonym, Hope Adams.
Twitter: @adelegeras

I have been not reading fantasy for nearly 70 years. At school, my friend Philippa was a passionate fan of The Lord of the Rings and all things Tolkien. Every term, she would urge me, “Just try it again, Delly.” I would try and fail. My eyelids would droop after three lines and I’d always put the book aside before I turned the first page. I describe myself as ‘allergic to Tolkien.’ Nothing to do with his books or their merit, but rather to do with me: I’m not adapted to reading them. (I ought to add that I have no such problem with ghost stories or fairy tales or horror stories.)

But I have been eschewing fantasy and science fiction. I didn’t like Dune by Frank Herbert in spite of a boyfriend urging it on me, telling me it was life-changing. I read His Dark Materials because (cunningly!) it began in an Oxford college (which I do like reading about) and then I got sucked in by the daemons, but that’s an exception and there were large tracts of the three volumes which I must admit I skipped over.

One of my most spectacular failures was a very fat book called Jonathan Strange and Dr Norrell by Susanna Clarke. This was a huge hit when it appeared and I couldn’t read it. I couldn’t even watch the TV version…. found the whole thing extremely boring and I have a very low threshold for boredom. If I’m not gripped at once, I give up and I’ve not finished more books than I care to number. If it’s a crime novel, I might turn to the last page to see who did it, but mostly I put the book aside and forget about it.

How then to explain the attraction I felt to Piranesi? It’s all Twitter’s fault. Alex Preston wrote about the book in a way that intrigued me. The reviews were uniformly enthusiastic. Also, I read an article from the New Yorker which explained why Susanna Clarke had taken fifteen years to write a follow- up to Jonathan Strange and Dr Norrell. It was because she was ill from a variant of ME and simply could not. Then I watched her in a virtual event, speaking about Piranesi and I liked her so much that I downloaded it. Of course, there was also the artist Piranesi whose drawings of fantastical prisons I know and admire. I wondered what the connection was between the book and the artist.

Before I sat down to write this, I was reading the newspaper. Piranesi is still number 10 on the Sunday Times bestsellers list. Each book listed there has one sentence describing it. Piranesi’s says: "The resident of a surreal palace is disturbed by news of a new inhabitant."  When I read this, I laughed out loud. Nothing in that sentence is untrue but it’s a world away from the book, and what it’s about and what sort of experience the reader has when she embarks on it.

What I’m going to add won’t add much more enlightenment. I’ve never in my life read a story which so defies reviewing. Summing up the plot doesn’t work. Comparing Clarke to other writers might, but only if you’ve read the other writers. Borges was mentioned in reviews, and by the author herself but alas, I’ve never read his work. I can tell you that the use of capital letters for many nouns is mesmerising and gives the prose an air of undeniable authority and strangeness.

I’m still haunted by Piranesi more than a fortnight after I finished reading it. The ‘surreal palace’ mentioned above is mind-blowing. Hall after Hall, filled with thousands of Statues, which are the whole universe. There are seas running through the Halls and Vestibules and our hero, whose first person account this is, has learned to read the tides and has set out a geography of the place to help him find his way around it. Others have lived there. There are Bones which he tends and respects and these show he’s not the only person who’s ever lived in this place. Once a week, he has a meeting with The Other. Then other things happen and an explication of sorts is provided. This doesn’t lessen the otherworldly feeling you’re left with when you finish the book.

It’s the look of the place, and the feel of the place and the simplicity and poetry of Piranesi’s own narrative voice that I loved so much and which is still resonating in my head. Someone, somewhere is, I’m sure, thinking about how to make a movie of it and I hope very much that this will be an animation; a drawn universe because real flesh and blood humans would reduce magic to the mundane tropes of normal fantasy.

It’s a very short book. Please read it before anyone takes it out of individual heads and puts it up on a screen. To tempt you, I shall quote from it. I am going to open my Kindle and pick a passage at random. It’s the kind of book where you can do that.

“Preparations for the Flood


With the exception of the Concealed Person, all the Dead stand in the Path of the Flood Waters. On Sunday, I began the work of carrying them to safety.

I took a blanket and transferred all the Biscuit-box Man’s bones into it – all except for the ones inside the biscuit box. I tied up the blanket with seaweed twine, making it into a sort of sack, and I carried it to the Second Vestibule and up the Staircase to the Upper Halls.”

I’m saying it again. Please read it.

Piranesi is published by Bloomsbury.


Ann Turnbull said...

Wow! I will. Thanks, Adele. (And it's short? Such a rare blessing, these days.)

Tja said...

I partially agree with Adele on this one. Appealingly discounted as a Kindle, and with lockdown #3 time on my hands, I cast caution to the wind and read it. I do not enjoy phantasy/sci-fi, and I didn't enjoy this. Skilfully imagined in a transparently simple style Conrad it isn't (thank God!), but it holds no appeal. Lots of allusions to pursue: C.S. Lewis' Narnia, Plato, Piranesi. Lots of opportunity to hypothesise. But it's too weird and other-worldly for me. Literary Marmite!