This review article was first published as ‘Book review: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke’, Paula Clarke Bain, The Indexer, vol. 39, no. 1, pp. 113–117, copyright © 2021 Society of Indexers, Liverpool University Press. The submitted version is self-archived here with permission and in accordance with LUP green open-access guidelines. The final published version is available online at www.liverpooluniversitypress.co.uk/journals/article/61076/.
Piranesi. Susanna Clarke. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020. 288 pp. ISBN 978 1 5266 2242 6, £14.99.
One of the most highly anticipated titles of the autumn 2020 publishing boom was Piranesi, the new novel by Susanna Clarke. The book comes 16 years after her debut bestselling novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, and 14 years after her last publication, the short story collection The ladies of Grace Adieu. Piranesi was nearing the top of my to-read pile when I saw a tweet saying that it should appeal to anyone interested in the history of the book, paratext and indexes. That was the day to start reading it.
Clarke’s previous publications have been set in a world of magic, and Piranesi continues this theme. The title itself gives an initial clue to the contents. The real Giovanni Battista Piranesi was an eighteenth-century Italian artist, archaeologist and architect, known for his intricate engravings of Rome and of real and fictional buildings. The reader doesn’t need to know this to enjoy the novel, but even a quick look at Piranesi’s artwork, particularly his ‘Imaginary prisons’ (1761), affords a good insight into the weird world about to be entered. (An excellent resource on these is The Digital Piranesi project at the University of South Carolina, which is a digitised archive of their complete set of his posthumous Opere [Works], with its own online index.)
From the first pages of Piranesi the novel, it is clear that we are in a different world. The paratext is worth attention before diving in. The front cover dustjacket image shows a faun standing on a Roman column (both are found in the real Piranesi’s artwork); underneath this, the hardcover shows more Roman columns of varying sizes; the endpapers show images of sea creatures, snowflakes and bees; the two epigraphs are from C. S. Lewis’s The magician’s nephew and a ‘Laurence Arne-Sayles’ (the reader will find out who that is from the novel), both on the role of magicians and their experiments. The clues are there from the start.
The main text introduces a series of diary or journal entries, dated in an unusual way:
entry for the first day of the fifth month in the year the albatross came to the southwestern halls
These are the journals of a character called Piranesi, who describes their life in an odd, dark and vast House of ‘Halls’ and ‘Vestibules’, with its own Clouds, Tides, Staircases and Statues – the initial capital letters are part of their writing style. I am using ‘their’ deliberately as it’s not clear at this stage who ‘Piranesi’ really is, and they don’t seem to know either. Piranesi is exploring this world and has ‘begun a Catalogue’ in which to record all the statues and other points of interest in the hundreds of halls they have discovered to date.
Piranesi believes only fifteen other people have ever lived in this world, deduced from the skeletal remains discovered on their travels. In this world, there seems to be only one other living person, whom Piranesi terms ‘the Other’. The Other invents the Piranesi moniker in return, but Piranesi thinks this is strange because ‘as far as I remember it is not my name’. Piranesi describes them both as scientists, with the Other speaking of a ‘Great and Secret Knowledge’ hidden in the World that they are trying to find. They meet twice-weekly, at a prearranged place and for limited time, and Piranesi does all the exploration in the meanwhile.
Piranesi initially addresses these entries to the ‘Sixteenth Person’, who is whoever might be reading these journals at a later date, and describes their notebooks of observations. We are told that journal numbers 1 and 2 are labelled with the year 2012, but from journal 3 that year is crossed out and the other dating style is employed (‘Thirtieth Day in the Twelfth Month in the Year of Weeping and Wailing’). Piranesi doesn’t know why two date systems are used, nor why many pages of the early journals appear to have been ‘violently removed’.
The role of the index
This is all setting up for the role of the index, which is mentioned early in the book:
One of the drawbacks of keeping a journal is the difficulty of finding important entries again and so it is my practice to use one notebook as an index to all the others. [p.14]
In the index notebook, Piranesi has allocated a number of pages for each letter of the alphabet (more for common letters, fewer for those such as Q and X). In these pages are recorded ‘entries by subject’ and ‘where in my Journals they are to be found’. Piranesi has completed nine journals and is currently working on number 10.
Nothing more is then mentioned about this index for half the book, but much else of interest is happening besides. Piranesi begins to glean that the Other is withholding details and has access to extra resources, including ‘his shining device’. The Other warns Piranesi that there is another new person in the labyrinth and to keep away from them. Piranesi refers to this new person as ‘16’, as it is the Sixteenth Person they have evidence of existing. Piranesi hears others’ footsteps and voices, and then meets a man who doesn’t seem to be ‘16’, whom Piranesi terms ‘the Prophet’. The Prophet starts giving Piranesi further information about what is actually going on and the true names of some people involved, including the real name of the Other.
It is then time for Piranesi to update their notebook index, a weekly task. After writing a few subject entries, Piranesi starts to add an entry for one of the names the Prophet had mentioned – ‘Ovenden, Stanley’ – but finds that there is already an entry for this name higher up the page, with a few details and the location by journal and page number of where to find more.
Ovenden, Stanley, student of Laurence Arne-Sayles: Journal no. 21, page 154. See also The disappearance of Maurizio Giussani, Journal no. 21, pages 186–7 [p.103]
Piranesi’s current journal is number 10, but the index locators refer to journal 21, which shouldn’t exist. Further up the ‘O’ page are more handwritten index entries (half a page worth of these are listed for the reader), referring to more concepts and names, including both real authors from our world and ones from this fictional world. These also refer to journal numbers that should not exist.
Outsider philosophy: Journal no. 17, pages 19–32; see also J.W. Dunne (Serialism), Owen Barfield, Rudolf Steiner [p.104]
Piranesi recognises these entries as being in their own handwriting, just subtly different – ‘in a word, younger’. Examining the ten journals, Piranesi finds that the first three had originally been numbered as 21, 22 and 23, just the first numeral has been scratched out in each case. Piranesi decides to look in Journal no. 1, on the page reference given for Ovenden for Journal 21, and indeed finds biographical notes of him written there (which are given for the reader). The same is done for the Giussani entry, which starts to link the names already heard.
The more names and information Piranesi finds out, the more they can continue to look up in the existing notebook index and journals, and the full story develops from there. For one of the character names, the journal entries make it clear that Piranesi had previously written notes for a talk about him and pros and cons for expanding this into a book. These notes give more of the background on the magical side of the text and how people found a way into this Other World from our own.
Other textual forms are embedded in the novel. These include: fragments of pages torn from a notebook, scattered on floors and woven into birds’ nests, which Piranesi collects to piece together; a handwritten letter, replied to in kind by Piranesi; chalked words on the floor, which the Other tells Piranesi to erase and not read; and a message spelled out in pebbles, which advises Piranesi of their real name for the first time, two-thirds through the book. Piranesi is also able to look up this name and relevant information in the notebook index and journals, which shows that at one time Piranesi was an academic writer elsewhere.
For more on the Other character, Piranesi has to consult the journal index both under the letter ‘O’ for ‘Other’ (as the later journals refer to him by that name) and also under the Other’s real name that is discovered. Piranesi has not known to cross-reference these entries before and needs the information from both. One of these entries remains intact in the journals, but most are in the ripped-out pages. These missing pages are the paper fragments that Piranesi has been collecting, and they form a whole chapter late in the novel, dated the year 2012, in which much of the rest of the story is revealed. What Piranesi then decides to do with all this (re)discovered knowledge forms the climax and ending of the book.
I am trying not to reveal all the spoilers here but, through the information discovered via the notebook index, by the end of the novel, Piranesi and the reader know the story involving some fifteen-plus names, and who is really whom in terms of Piranesi, the Other, the Prophet, 16, and probably some of the deceased, and how this all fits together.
The use of the index as plot device and map seems quite convincing to me as a professional indexer. I like how the handwritten notebook index means that Piranesi can tell that this was their own work by recognising the handwriting. In the index examples displayed, the entries appear in chronological order, because this is how Piranesi would have entered them in the journal as more information was found. There is also a pleasing moment when Piranesi has to look up a compound three-part name in the index, and finds nothing there under the last part of the name, but knows then to try under the second part of the name instead and duly finds the information sought.
One of the main literary allusions in Piranesi is, as indicated in the epigraph, The magician’s nephew by C.S. Lewis, the origin story for the Chronicles of Narnia. I read this after finishing Piranesi and the parallels are quite striking. We discover that one character in Piranesi is really called Dr Valentine Andrew Ketterley. In The magician’s nephew, the character Dr Andrew Ketterley (or ‘Uncle Andrew’) is the magician whose experiments include sending his nephew Digory and friend Polly off to other worlds. (Digory grows up to be Professor Digory Kirke, whose wardrobe is the access point to Narnia in The lion, the witch and the wardrobe.) Other relevant Lewis ideas include the Wood between the Worlds, which is a place of calm or fear for the characters who arrive there in their travels between different worlds. One of these worlds is Charn, where the Witch is summoned, which is formed of ruined halls and statue-like figures. The faun statue from the cover and text of Piranesi also of course hints at the figure of Mr Tumnus, the faun in the snow, who is turned to stone in The lion, the witch and the wardrobe. The novel Piranesi ends with a scene in the winter snow.
Clarke has spoken of further inspiration drawn from the short stories of Jorge Luis Borges, particularly the Labyrinths collection and its stories ‘The library of Babel’ (with its ‘indefinite, perhaps infinite’ hexagonal galleries containing all books) and ‘The house of Asterion’, telling of ‘a house like no other on the face of this earth’, ‘the same size as the world’, which Asterion never leaves, and never wants to.
Piranesi also puts me in mind of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy (and Peake’s own illustrations to the same), with its vast Gothic spaces, mysterious wandering figures and catastrophic floods. That trilogy is one of my all-time favourites, and I rate Clarke’s work right up there with it.
Prison or sanctuary
Reading Piranesi in the current world climate is an interesting experience. Here in the UK, we were entering another national lockdown as I was writing this review, having been in various Covid-limiting measures since the spring. The novel’s setting is itself a strange paradox of limits and freedom. Piranesi is arguably happier in the relative solitude before regaining full knowledge of their true circumstances. By the ending, they are neither fully Piranesi nor their original identity. The House is seen by some as a prison, but by others as a sanctuary from worldly stresses and relationships. Susanna Clarke wrote the novel during a period of chronic illness (also explaining the gap between her publications), and she has spoken of the peculiar circumstances of being housebound and not part of the normal world, with a feeling of restriction but also safety, which affected its writing. I found this personally very relatable, moving and sensitively done.
Piranesi is a short and fairly easy read – much shorter than the 1000-plus-page Jonathan Strange – but there is considerably more going on within its pages than its size would suggest. Previous fans of Clarke’s style and world-building should enjoy it, and it seems a good place to enter her writing for the new reader. I enjoyed the other literary and artistic allusions that it offers as other avenues to explore. It’s certainly a book that will stay with me with its themes of identity, magic, memory, and the discovery and navigation of information. It’s a curious puzzle which the reader must solve, detective-like, along with the central figure. How fantastic to have a bestselling novel with an index right at its heart. We all know it can be the key to a Great and Secret Knowledge.
Borges, Jorge Luis (1962) Labyrinths. New York: New Directions.
Clarke, Susanna (2004) Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.
Clarke, Susanna (2006) The ladies of Grace Adieu. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.
The Digital Piranesi (n.d.) Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections at the University of South Carolina, available at https://scalar.usc.edu/works/piranesidigitalproject/index (accessed 22 December 2020).
Lewis, C. S. (1950) The lion, the witch and the wardrobe. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
Lewis, C. S. (1955) The magician’s nephew. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
Peake, Mervyn (1999) The Gormenghast trilogy. London: Vintage Classics.
Piranesi, Giovanni Battista (n.d.) Imaginary prisons, Princeton University Art Museum, available at https://artmuseum.princeton.edu/object-package/giovanni-battista-piranesi-imaginary-prisons/3640 (accessed 22 December 2020).
Paula Clarke Bain is an Advanced Professional Member of the Society of Indexers and the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and a new Member of the Society of Authors. She tweets as @PC_Bain and her website (with comedy book indexes blog) is baindex.org. Find the Society of Indexers on Twitter @indexers and www.indexers.org.uk.