Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

After a couple of recent reminders — her sketch map for the novel appeared at the Fantasy: Realms of Imagination exhibition, and she was interviewed alongside Alan Moore at a related online event in January — I’ve finally got round to reading Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi, which I’d been meaning to do since it came out in 2020. (A publishing event that caused minor tremors in this blog, as an old entry from 2009, “Giovanni Battista Piranesi and the Three-Dimensional Labyrinth” — in which, ahem, I link to my own short story called “Piranesi” — started getting hits.)

The novel is narrated by a man who gives himself no name, but is called “Piranesi” by the only other living person he knows (whom he refers to as “the Other”). Piranesi lives in a strange world, which he refers to as “the House”, a world of vast, light and airy halls peopled by statues and birds, with sea-tides sometimes surging up from the lower levels, and rain-forming clouds in the higher. He busies himself with staying alive (eating fish and seaweed, and drinking water he collects from the clouds) while making a catalogue of the statues in the potentially infinite array of halls, as well as caring for the remains of the few dead he has found in his explorations. He regularly meets the Other, a man seeking an ancient knowledge that will give him extraordinary powers. Piranesi, though keen to help his one and only friend — though the Other, it’s obvious to the reader from the start, is not much of a friend — realises he doesn’t actually want such powers himself, and even wonders if the search may be leading them down the wrong path. As he explains to the Other:

“I realised that the search for the Knowledge has encouraged us to think of the House as if it were a sort of riddle to be unravelled, a text to be interpreted…”

Which couldn’t help come across, to me, as a reader’s warning. The mysterious nature of the world of “the House”, of Piranesi’s identity, and of the Other’s clearly our-worldly nature, were all encouraging me to read Piranesi as a puzzle to be solved. I expected it all to be a profound metaphor of some sort, a fable about the nature of human existence perhaps, and hunted for clues among the inconsistencies. (The fact, for instance, that Piranesi, who as far as he can remember has always lived in the House, knows of such things as trees, chess, lobster traps, angels, husbands and wives, even Prince of Wales check-pattern suits.)

Piranesi himself has no feeling there’s a puzzle to be solved. For him, the House is an entirely benevolent environment, to be accepted — and celebrated — as it is:

“The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite…”

“The Beautiful Orderliness of the House is what gives us Life…”

“It is my belief that the World (or, if you will, the House, since the two are for all practical purposes identical) wishes an inhabitant for itself to be a witness to its Beauty and the recipient of its Mercies…”

“The World feels Complete and Whole, and I, its Child, fit into it seamlessly…”

My own initial approach to the novel as primarily an intellectual puzzle started to turn to a slight disappointment when it was obvious the whole thing wasn’t going to unlock into some tightly-argued philosophical metaphor — but in fact that approach had blinded me to the purely emotional side of Piranesi’s story, which gained all the more of an impact when it hit home. And all the more so, considering Piranesi is a thoroughly innocent and childlike man, industrious, friendly, kind, trusting, considerate, and full of wonder at all around him in the manner of a kind of Holy Fool.

The novel has resonances to some classic works of fantasy. That sentence quoted above — “the World (or, if you will, the House, since the two are for all practical purposes identical)” — echoes the opening of Borges’s “Library of Babel” (“The universe (which others call the Library)…”). There’s Peake’s Gormenghast books (and perhaps a Peake’s law should be coined, stating that any sufficiently Gormenghastian structure will inevitably attract a flood). Clarke opens her novel with a quote from The Magician’s Nephew, and one of the many statues Piranesi encounters is of a faun, which inspires him to dream of it “…standing in a snowy forest and speaking to a female child” — a clear reference to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Perhaps the dreams of the House are the imaginative stories of our world?

I at first wondered if there wasn’t a reference, also, to Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, in the albatross that appears near the start of the novel. There’s certainly something of the shipwrecked loon about poor Piranesi, but maybe there’s a deeper link, too. The Ancient Mariner escapes the horrors of the “Night-mare Life-in-Death” when he spontaneously blesses the slimy creatures (which he’s at first repulsed by) crowding the oceans. Piranesi seems to have slipped into a similar state of wanting to bless everything in the world. “It is my belief that the House itself loves and blesses equally everything that it has created,” he says early on, and by this belief he blesses himself and everything in the House.

It’s perhaps a hint at how he has survived in a situation whose clearest non-fantastic parallels are to mental breakdown and imprisonment: an almost holy acceptance of the world around him, a commitment to seeing its beauty, and his own humble place in it, a radical affirmation in the face of what must also, surely, include the pains of loneliness. Set against this, the Other is all too clearly selfish, cynical, uncaring, even abusive, right from the start — and that’s before we get to know what he’s up to.

It’s a short book, but it packs an emotional punch in its last sections that made it an absolutely worthwhile read, for me.

There could, certainly, be more to the story. Two characters at least — the dark occultist Laurence Arne-Sayles, and the (surely series-ready) Sarah Raphael — feel untapped of their full potential. I’d love to see them face off. But, on its own, Piranesi is a really fine read, and one I’m glad I finally got round to.

(As one more plug, here’s that link to my own story, “Piranesi”.)


Fantasy: Realms of Imagination at the British Library

Currently running at the British Library (until 25th February 2024), the Fantasy: Realms of Imagination exhibition manages to pack a lot into its four rooms. If one of its aims is to cover the breadth of fantasy as a mode of creative expression, they’ve certainly succeeded, as the exhibition covers books, film, TV, art, games (both digital and physical), as well as oddities such as Bernard Sleigh’s “Ancient Mappe of Fairyland” from 1918 (is it art, a story, a game?) which greets you as you enter.

Alan Garner’s The Owl Service manuscript, and some Owl Service plate

The best thing, for me, was certainly the opportunity to see some original manuscripts. A page from Alan Garner’s Owl Service (written in red ink) was presented alongside an example of the Owl Service plate that inspired it; there was Michael Palin’s notebook in which he was working out the plot for Monty Python and the Holy Grail; and a page from C S Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe manuscript beginning: “This book is about four children whose names are Ann, Martin, Rose and Peter” (alongside Lewis’s own map of Narnia); as well as handwritten pages from Angela Carter, Diana Wynne Jones, and E. Nesbit, among others.

C S Lewis’s Narnia map

My favourites among the manuscripts, though, were the ones which featured drawings. (Do any but fantasy authors create drawings as they write?) I didn’t know, for instance, that Ursula Le Guin produced illustrations (for herself, I think, rather than publication) for the Earthsea books. Alongside her manuscript for A Wizard of Earthsea was a drawing of the Ring of Erreth-Akbe, and a page (perhaps done in ink wash, and certainly easier to make out in a photograph) depicting Tenar’s first sight of Ged in The Tombs of Atuan.

Ursula Le Guin’s artworks for her Earthsea books

I did know, on the other hand, that Mervyn Peake peppered his Titus Groan and Gormenghast notebooks with drawings, but it was wonderful to see them. The illustration of the Prunesquallors, for instance, was alongside a page on which Peake had written out the dialogue for a scene (with no he said/she saids). There was also a double-page drawing by G K Chesterton of characters from The Man Who Was Thursday (it turns out Chesterton can draw quite well), and Susanna Clarke’s plans of the house from Piranesi.

One of Mervyn Peake’s notebooks

And speaking of Piranesi, as well as manuscripts, there were printed books on display, among the more impressive of which was an edition of Piranesi’s Carceri, which I was surprised to see showed one plate over a double page spread (I’d have thought they’d print one to a page, to avoid losing details in the fold); and a first edition of William Morris’s highly illuminated Story of the Glittering Plain.

Piranesi’s Carceri

William Morris’s Story of the Glittering Plain

The other thing I love to see up close are paintings, though there were only a few here. Few, but all good ones: for instance, Richard Dadd’s Fairy Feller’s Masterstroke (which reminds me, one aspect of fantasy the exhibition seemed to have missed out on was music — it would have been great to have had Queen’s “Fairy Feller’s Masterstroke” playing through one of the exhibit’s little hold-it-to-your-ear listening devices alongside the painting). What struck me about this painting, which for a long time I had as a poster on my wall, was that it was smaller than I expected — which made the level of detail all the more impressive.

Richard Dadd’s Fairy Feller’s Masterstroke, and a Brian Froud painting for The Dark Crystal

Ditto for an Alan Lee original. In a display that included Gandalf’s staff from the Peter Jackson films and a page of notes from Tolkien commenting on a proposed BBC adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, there was an Alan Lee watercolour depicting the assault on Helm’s Deep. It was, perhaps, little larger than A3, but the level of detail was incredible. Distant figures — millimetres high — were tiny but sharply outlined, and my mind boggled at the level of hand-control Lee must have (as well as the fineness of his brushes).

Tolkien display including an Alan Lee painting; C S Lewis’s manuscript for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

There were also a couple of Brian Froud pieces from The Dark Crystal, alongside a display of props from the film: costumes worn by the gelflings, along with a shard of the Dark Crystal itself. (It didn’t glow as I approached, so I guess I’m not the chosen one. Or does it mean I’m not a Skeksis? Maybe I’m glad it didn’t glow…)

Dark Crystal costumes and props

There were also film loops from Pan’s Labyrinth and Princess Mononoke playing on enormous screens. Also (for some reason on a tiny screen), a scene from Xena: Warrior Princess. The Xena screen, small as it was, was right next to what was surely the most unimpressive display in the exhibit, the case dedicated to sword & sorcery.

The Sword & Sorcery display: Black God’s Kiss by C L Moore, Imaro by Charles Saunders, Robert E Howard’s World of Heroes

This contained three modern paperbacks. Just that. They looked like they were social distancing. This made me wonder if, alongside exploring the breadth of fantasy as a genre (in books, films, art, games, TV), there needed to be some exploration of its sometimes overwhelming mass. An exhibit like this, tastefully showcasing the manuscripts of great works, perhaps needed to switch tack when representing something like sword & sorcery, which, to my mind, needed a case stuffed with examples of trashy-covered paperbacks: so many you’d be overwhelmed. (But perhaps it was difficult, with sword & sorcery, to find covers that would keep the exhibit schoolchild friendly!)

Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks

Similarly, with the display of D&D rulebooks, I thought they looked a bit sparse and sterile on their own, and could have done with a few polyhedral dice, dungeon floor-plans, characters sheets, pencils and so on strewn about — an element of playfulness amongst the respectfulness.

Michael Palin’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail notebook

I’ve probably missed out a lot in this run-through of the exhibition’s highlights. It seemed quite well-spaced when I was walking through, but now I realise how much it packed in. There was, in addition, an area mocked up like the Red Room from Twin Peaks, scenes from computer games (including one you could play, but I wasn’t about to show up my lack of skills), a Warhammer set-up, some pretty impressive LARP costumes, ballet costumes, and more.

Ursula Le Guin manuscript for A Wizard of Earthsea

I’ll end, though, with an echo of the last exhibition I covered on this blog, the Tolkien: Maker of Middle-Earth exhibit that was held at the Bodleian (five years ago, I’m shocked to see). There, I commented on the tiny-ness of some of the handwriting on display, which reached its apogee in a letter from Tolkien’s mother. That, though, is nothing compared to the tiny-ness of the Brönte siblings’ writing in their hand-made books detailing their imaginative world of Glass Town. One tiny, tiny book, filled with tiny, tiny writing defied my attempts to read it, so I have no idea how anyone actually wrote it:

One of the Brontes’ Glass Town books


Till We Have Faces by C S Lewis

Current PB, art by Kimberly Glyder

I’m a bit conflicted about reading C S Lewis. I want to re-read his Narnia books, for instance, but whenever it comes to sitting down and working my way through the first one (whichever it should be, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or The Magician’s Nephew), I remember my feelings of being let down by what seems, to me, the rather shoehorned-in moral stance he brings to his Space Trilogy. (As I put it in my review of That Hideous Strength: “he’s always subtly telling me what to think.”) All the same, I was intrigued to read his final novel Till We Have Faces, just from hints I’d heard about it over the years. I have to admit that when I started it — and for much of my reading of it — I did so with my defences up, keeping a mental list of objections to what I felt was going to be Lewis’s moral take on the tale. (That we should obey divine dictates, however unreasonable, simply because they’re from “the gods”.) Then, abruptly, in the final section, I found myself reading all those objections, all my complaints against what I’d thought was Lewis’s worldview, laid out by the novel’s own narrator in an extended, bitter diatribe. That sort of deep-down, excoriating honesty was exactly what I wasn’t expecting. And so, when it came to the novel’s ultimately redemptive ending, it felt as though Lewis had genuinely earned his conclusions, in what feels like a truly mature work I’m still unsure how to feel about.

First UK HB

Till We Have Faces was published in 1956, when Lewis was in his late fifties. That is, after his civil marriage to Joy Davidman Gresham (to allow her to remain in the UK), but before the later (and this time in earnest) re-marriage that followed her diagnosis with terminal cancer — in the midst, then, of the whole Shadowlands thing. How much those elements played into the writing of the novel, I don’t know, because an added complication is that Till We Have Faces is a retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, something Lewis had been attempting since the early 1920s. Back then, intriguingly, he’d started a verse version that included characters named Caspian (not a male prince of a land near Narnia, but Psyche’s sister) and Jardis (not the female White Witch Jadis, but Psyche’s brother). What’s even more intriguing about those gender reversals is that some commentators — and I certainly had the same feeling — say Till We Have Face’s female narrator could well be presenting us with “the real Jack Lewis—his loss of his mother, his disrespect for his father, his desire for closeness, his struggles with disbelief.” (This from Bareface: A Guide to C S Lewis’s Last Novel by Doris T Myers, “Bareface” being the novel’s working title.)

That narrator is Orual, eldest daughter of the King of Glome, a minor kingdom in the days between Athens’ fall from dominance and Rome’s rise. Orual has one younger sister and one even younger half-sister. The sister, Redival, is depicted as shallow and only interested in chasing after men and so, as with Susan from the Narnia books when she discovers “nylons and lipstick”, is relegated to being a silly non-person, freely despised by the narrator. (Orual, meanwhile, is unusually ugly, and her self-consciousness about this leads to a lifetime of loneliness. All the same, Lewis can’t seem to forgive Redival her quite natural desire to not be lonely.)

1966 edition, cover by Leo and Diane Dillon

The half-sister is Psyche. Her actual name is Istra, but she and Orual have Greek nicknames for one another (Orual’s is Maia, meaning “foster-mother”), Greek being the tongue of learning even in these barbaric lands. Istra, in contrast to Orual, is beautiful, so much so that the people think she must be divine, and make that fatal mythic mistake of comparing her to the local goddess, Ungit — who, it has to be said, lacks beauty both in appearance (in the temple dedicated to her, she’s a shapeless rock) and soul (she demands blood sacrifices and other barbaric rituals). When Istra is led by the people to mistakenly believe her touch can cure the plague, and so is treated as actually divine, Ungit’s retribution comes down. Glome has no male heir, is in the midst of plague, famine, and drought, and is now disrespecting its gods. Therefore, a sacrifice must be made, and that sacrifice must be Istra — Psyche — who is led up the mountain, chained, and left to be the bride of “the Brute”, a monstrous creature that pops up in the bad times, marriage with whom is generally taken to involve being devoured.

Days afterwards, Orual makes the difficult journey to the mountain, not wanting her beloved sister’s remains to lie strewn about. But when she gets there she finds Psyche not just whole but happy and free. Psyche claims to have been taken up by the God of the Mountain to be his bride, and she’s right now living in his magnificent palace. All Orual can see, though, is the mountainside wilderness. She questions Psyche about this “God of the Mountain”, but her half-sister says she’s been forbidden to look on him, and he only comes to her in the dark. Orual, sceptical about “the gods” anyway thanks to her Greek education, starts to think her half-sister is delusional from her horrific experiences, and perhaps is being preyed on by some bandit or madman. The only trouble is, in the fog that evening, Orual thinks she glimpses that palace… But convinces herself this, too, must be a delusion.

And so she does what any caring friend would do, she seeks to help Psyche out of this deception, or madness, or whatever it is. She brings her a lamp, and tells her to light it in the darkness when her supposedly divine husband is lying beside her. Then she’ll know if he’s a god or not. But when Psyche, under much duress, obeys, it turns out that not only was he genuinely divine, but she’s now banished from the palace and the presence of her husband for disobedience.

Orual, then, has her scepticism answered in the most brutal way. On the one hand, she now knows the gods definitely do exist; on the other, the price paid for that knowledge is that her half-sister must live in constant misery and exile, and she herself must live with the guilt of what she’s done to the only person she genuinely cared about.

1957 HB from Harcourt Brace

This much is almost straight from the myth of Cupid and Psyche — all except the detail that Lewis says he felt, right from his first encounter with the tale, had to be added: the idea that Orual would not be able to see Psyche’s paradisal palace, and so think it a delusion. This, then, takes us to about the halfway point of the novel. After that, for much of it, the book is about how Orual becomes Queen of Glome, and makes a pretty good go of it — but is always unhappy, alone, and guilty, because of what she’s done. She takes to wearing a veil, tired of her ugliness. When she learns, much later, a new goddess is being worshipped in far temples, a goddess whose myth is Psyche’s story, and in which her own role is played by a sister who acts entirely out of jealousy rather than love, Orual writes her own story as a rebuttal and a “charge against the gods”.

Then comes the second part — the final fifth of the book — and this is where things take such a devastating turn. Orual has a series of visions, or perhaps actual visitations from the gods. She’s given the chance to read them her story, to make her complaint against them, but finds herself, instead, venting all her bitterness, spite, and anger — as well as speaking with an honesty about her own pettiness and jealousy which she was not prepared for. What she speaks is not her story as she wrote it — that carefully-crafted self-justification — but something far more honest and self-revealing:

“When the time comes to you at which you are forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the centre of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over…”

In a way, Orual hears herself — and sees herself — for the first time, and it’s not a pretty picture, though it is a deeply human one. But there is a further step. Now she must hear, and see, the gods against whom she has brought her “charge”, and again it will be for the first time, because, “How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?” We can’t know their true, divine nature, till we know and accept our own human one.

1979 HB, art by Peter Goodfellow

Meeting the gods, in this novel, is the same as meeting one’s deepest self; making a complaint against them is the same as having oneself laid bare. The complaint itself becomes the answer to that complaint. For much of the novel, this is a bleak world, seen through the eyes of a profoundly lonely and unhappy soul, self-despising and disappointed, haunted by that one misdeed she can never put right. But once the lowest point is past — at the end of quite a slow-moving novel — there is, finally, redemption, as Orual comes to learn that she and Psyche were not as torn asunder as she thought.

Lewis himself called it “far and away the best [novel] I have written”, though Roger Lancelyn Green says Lewis liked Perelandra best, while considering Till We Have Faces his masterpiece. But then, it’s a difficult book to really like — so much of it, to me, felt rather plodding, though perhaps it was the very length and slowness of the book that helped make the ending so impactful. It is, though, certainly a work of real emotional power. And it definitely surprised me into giving Lewis more credit than I had (jadedly, or perhaps Jadis-like) been giving him. Maybe it’s time to re-read those Narnia books at last. (If only I didn’t have so many other books I want to read.)