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”.)


The Angel of the West Window by Gustav Meyrink

At one time I worked my way through all of Gustav Meyrink’s novels (in Mike Mitchell’s translations, published by Dedalus), and although his first, The Golem (1914), is his most famous, it was his last, and least successful in terms of sales (selling less than 3,000 copies, compared to 220,000 of The Golem, according to this article), that stuck with me.

Published in 1927, The Angel of the West Window tells a dual story. The narrator — unnamed till virtually the last page, when he’s revealed to be one Baron Müller — learns that he is the only surviving descendent of the Elizabethan mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, alchemist and occultist John Dee, when he inherits a sizeable packet of the man’s journals and private papers. Embarking on the task of ordering these papers into some sort of narrative, Müller finds occult elements starting to invade his own life. Dee’s papers describe how, early on in life, he looked into a mirror and found his reflection talking back to him, promising what sounded to be a great future, in which he:

“…shall know neither rest nor repose till the coasts of Greenland, where the Northern Lights glow, shall be conquered… He who holds the Green Land in fief, to him shall the Empire beyond the sea be given, to him shall be given the crown of England!”

Dee immediately makes plans — which include finding a way of making sure the then-Princess Elizabeth would drink a potion to make her fall in love with him, and thus ensure his kingship of England — but finds himself frustrated at every step. Elizabeth, once she is queen, toys with him, agreeing to his plans for an expedition to Greenland only to cancel them a moment later. And though she drops hints that she knows the nature of the potion Dee contrived to have her drink, and occasionally implies that the two of them have some sort of special relationship, she makes no move towards marrying him — in fact, she orders him to wed one of her ladies-in-waiting who clearly hates him.

Meanwhile, a number of peculiar characters enter the narrator’s modern-day (i.e., 1920s) life. Lipotin, a trader in antiquities — whose nickname, Mascee, is oddly the same as that of an antiques pedlar known to John Dee — provides him with a number of occultly significant objects, including a locked Tula-ware puzzle-box and a green-glass mirror, while the Russian Princess Assja Shotokalungin drops by, wanting to buy from him a certain antique spearhead, which she seems sure he owns, even though he doesn’t.

For me, the Dee part of the novel works so much better than the narrator’s. Dee’s story is all about how his promised glories are constantly denied him, and how he turns more and more desperately to the occult, only to meet with a constant cycle of repeated promises, delays, more promises, and ultimate frustration. He enters into a partnership with Edward Kelley, an ex-criminal (his ears have been cut off as punishment for forgery) who provides Dee with a small amount of powder that can turn lead into gold, along with a book that describes how this powder might be used to make the Philosopher’s Stone. But the book is in code, and the pair soon use up their small stock of powder in making the gold they need to continue their studies (and to fund Kelley’s dissolute lifestyle). Kelley, though, can summon the Angel of the West Window, an awesome, otherworldly presence (with something of a demonic air: “the thumb on the right hand pointed downwards, it was the left hand thumb”) that promises to teach Dee the key to the book’s cipher, though always tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, never today. (It does, when their need is at its most dire, replenish their stock of powder, so they can make more gold, and continue their desperate studies.) Along with Dee’s second wife Jane, the pair leave England for Prague, where Dee wants to see what the Emperor Rudolf II, who claims to be an alchemical adept, can teach him, but Rudolf is paranoid, controlling, and on the edge of madness. Then the Angel of the West Window declares that Dee must share his beloved wife with the lecherous Kelley.

In between reading of Dee’s troubles, the narrator finds himself at the centre of an occult battle for his soul, fought between forces he only gradually comes to understand. On the one hand, there are the Gardeners, a group of enlightened beings who provide the occasional prod on his path to illumination; on the other, there’s the Goddess Black Iaïs, who “rules the realm of anti-Eros, whose power and extent no-one suspects who has not himself been initiated into the mysteries of hate”, and who wants the antique Spearhead of Hywel Dda, once in the possession of John Dee. Despite all this being a clear parallel to Dee’s story, the narrator comes across (to me, anyway) as almost wilfully stupid in being unable to tell what’s happening to him, and as a result, his part of the story seems mostly about him being shunted from one incomprehensible event to another. There’s a lot of occult talk and mysteriously significant events, but no real human-level drama, as there is with the Dee tale, and all of the narrator’s gains feel like something given to him, rather than something he’s earned.

It eventually emerges that the narrator is to experience the fulfilment of what was promised, centuries ago, to his ancestor John Dee. Dee got the nature of that initial promise wrong, interpreting it wholly in terms of worldly gains, when it was meant only in spiritual terms. (“Green Land” is used, in the novel, to refer to the land of the dead, and of the spiritually enlightened, and it was this land that was promised to Dee, not the land of the same name that exists in the material world.) By the end of the book, I found it difficult to accept that the narrator had done anything to earn his spiritual elevation — he’d seemed to learn no lesson, having merely been batted about between occult forces like a spiritual tennis ball that just happened to end up on the right side of the net.

Reviewing The Angel of the West Window in 1936, Jorge Luis Borges called the book “a chronicle of confused miracles, barely salvaged, from time to time, by its poetic ambience”. (Of Meyrink’s literary career as a whole, Borges says: “His books became acts of faith, and then of propaganda.”)

It didn’t, to me, feel that Meyrink was merely peddling some occult system. At times, the supernatural events that happen to either Dee or the narrator felt genuinely weird and shocking (in particular, the pronouncements of Bartlett Greene, with whom Dee shares a prison cell near the start of the novel) rather than being contrived. The best parts — the Dee parts — actually seemed to be all about how, the more enticing the promises of the occult are, the more empty, frustrating, and soul-destroying is their effect. It might have been better simply as Dee’s story, with no modern counterpart, but by the end, despite often tedious passages in which many supposedly significant things were happening but no real meaning emerging, The Angel of the West Window does, nevertheless, work a little literary magic.


Colin Wilson

Colin Wilson, from the back of Dreaming to Some Purpose

This week I’ve mostly been reading a recently-released collection of book reviews by Colin Wilson, Existential Criticism, from Paupers Press. (If the title sounds rather dry, the contents are anything but, as I several times found myself laughing out loud.) After finding his first book, The Outsider, in a bookshop in Tunbridge Wells and buying it on an impulse, I was instantly hooked on Wilson’s writing, and went through a period of reading everything by him I could get my hands on. In those pre-internet days, when the thrill of the hunt was a large part of book collecting, this, combined with the wide range of Wilson’s interests, resulted in my reading books on subjects I’d not normally be interested in, such as serial killers (in often rather grisly detail), cult leaders, and UFOs. Then, almost as abruptly, I suddenly had my fill of Wilson, got rid of most of the books by him I’d collected, and read him no more. Or almost no more, because I’d occasionally dip in when he released a new book (I reviewed The Angry Years on this blog a few years ago), and have slowly been warming to him again. When Existential Criticism arrived in the post last Saturday, I sat down for a quick dip-in and soon found myself absorbed as I remembered all the things I’d liked about his work from before.

Colin Wilson’s writing is incredibly moreish. Every so often I go through my bookshelves, pulling off books, flipping through, and asking what it is the authors have that makes their writing work, and I always end up with a Colin Wilson book in my hand. Other writers may have a characteristic prose style, or a unique imaginative world, but Wilson writes in a straightforward manner, and his best writing is as likely to be his non-fiction as his fiction; nevertheless, he’s compulsively readable.

Existential Criticism by Colin Wilson

Why? It comes down, I think, to two things. The first is his intense interest in what he’s writing. Whatever he’s writing about, he goes at it like a hungry fox eyeing the fat rabbit on the other side of the field — wily, but determinedly singleminded. Wilson is also tremendously knowledgeable. At times, he seems to have read just about every book in existence — and not just the ones that would make him “well-read”, but the dregs, too, and read with no preconceptions, meaning he’s found value where others wouldn’t stoop to look, and been unimpressed by what others universally praise. There’s a real feeling of the stuff-of-life in Wilson’s writing. He’s willing to throw every element into the pot — and that means the tawdry, quirky, gossipy messiness of it as much as the idealistic striving. Whether he’s writing about murderers or philosophers, science or the occult, he accords it all equal value as a source of potential understanding, of ideas. (And this may be the reason he’s not as appreciated as he ought to be — his more culturally po-faced critics get embarrassed by his serious approach to things they think beneath them.) This leads to the second essential element that powers his writing, the easy-going confidence that is, perhaps, its most attractive quality.

But what was it that stopped me reading Wilson’s work? Weirdly, it’s the thing that Wilson himself would consider the most important element in his writing: the existentialism.

I don’t disagree at all with the philosophical element of Colin Wilson’s writing, which basically comes down to the idea that boredom, or the deeper feeling of purposelessness or meaninglessness, isn’t (as it was taken to be by Existentialists such as Sartre) an essential fact of human existence. It can be overcome, simply by making the effort. And the effort involves merely making yourself interested in something. The more intense the interest, the more meaningful life will seem. Wilson has obviously achieved this. Viktor Frankl, in Man’s Search for Meaning, identifies this finding a focus in life, this creating a meaning from the inside rather than waiting for it to arrive from the outside, as a key factor determining which of his fellow-prisoners survived the concentration camps of the Second World War.

As I say, I had no problem with this idea, and was happy for Wilson to bend every subject he treated round to it, as he inevitably did, so he could rehearse its main points. I had no problems, either, with him treating the writings of the likes of Rilke or Sartre — who I haven’t read and don’t intend to — as testing grounds for his philosophy. But it started to grate when he turned his attention to writers whose work I love, and almost always found them seriously wanting. H P Lovecraft, for example, was damned pretty thoroughly in The Strength to Dream. And though Wilson was a key figure in rescuing David Lindsay‘s A Voyage to Arcturus from near-oblivion, his interpretation of Lindsay’s work has, as a result, sometimes been taken as the only interpretation, one that seems to me quite reductive, particularly when applied to Lindsay’s second novel, The Haunted Woman. All this began to grate on me, and the feeling returned when I read, in Existential Criticism (p. 57): “Borges is not a great writer because he is not a mature writer. He has remained in a kind of perpetual adolescence.”

Back when I first encountered these criticisms, I couldn’t get over them. I felt Wilson had missed the point, but overawed as I was at the time by his evident intelligence and confidence, I couldn’t bring myself to admit this. Instead, I gave up reading him. Now, though, I find it easier to simply say, “I beg to differ,” and read on, still enjoying the Wilson I used to enjoy, and taking the rest as a challenge to what I’ve since come to think. Because, yes, it’s easy to criticise Lovecraft for being a pessimist, for being overwhelmed by the threatening bleakness of the universe. And no, Lovecraft didn’t provide an answer to the existential problem of life’s apparent meaninglessness, but what he did do was encapsulate the problem in an entirely new imaginative form. This can only be regarded as a failure if you treat fiction as a form of philosophy. But I think it’s the other way round. Aesthetics contains philosophy, not vice versa. And this, I think, is one of Jorge Luis Borges’s strengths. Borges takes obscure philosophical ideas and plays with them as easily as a poet plays with words. Wilson may take this as evidence that Borges didn’t believe in anything with any conviction; I’d say it means Borges believed that the world is not one thing, with one single interpretation, but a manifold thing worthy of a million interpretations, none of which is wholly right nor wholly wrong — a multiverse rather than a universe — which is a very Borgesian idea (the Aleph, the Book of Sand, and Shakespeare’s Memory are also many-things-in-one), but also, surely, the same as the existential idea that “meaning is not in the world, but one’s head” (as my version of Alice puts it). In fact, if you want to get properly philosophical about it, it’s the idea William James (a frequent Colin Wilson touchstone) wrote about back in 1907, in A Pluralistic Universe.

In the Borges review, Wilson does go on to say that he enjoys Borges as a writer, just finds him lacking in an existentialist sense. Wilson has even dedicated a book to him (The Philosopher’s Stone), and has written stories in the Lovecraftian mode (“Return of the Lloigor”). So, I’m going to get over it, and carry on enjoying Wilson, having left him alone, I think, for too long.