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    Piranesi book cover

    That I May Dwell in the House of the Lord

    A Review of Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

    Joy Clarkson

    November 10, 2020
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    The beauty of the House is immeasurable; its kindness infinite.

    In times of turmoil, I like to console myself by disappearing into the world of a book. So the moment I heard Susanna Clarke was coming out with a new novel, I rushed to my nearest book-monger, prepared to joyfully devour nine hundred pages on absolutely whatever her imagination had seen fit to produce: fairies, footnotes, Byron, the Battle of Waterloo. But what I found in my hands was something rather different from her first volume: a modest book of less than three hundred pages, about a man who lives in a house that loves him. The world of Piranesi is bounded, precise, lonesome; and yet as I lived in it, I could feel my soul expanding. It is a book about alienation and loneliness, our frustrated desire to be at home in the world and with each other. A book, in short, particularly suited to our present anxieties.

    Clarke made her debut sixteen years ago with Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, a sprawling tale of two magicians in an alternative history, whose fierce scholarly rivalry brings about the restoration of magic in England. The book is a masterful curio, an ode to scholarship, interspersed with fictitious footnotes recounting fairy stories so vivid that the reader can’t help but find herself believing, for a moment, that they are historical fact. It reads like a cult classic, something with which nerdy literary types become obsessed, only to bemoan its lack of global popularity. And yet the novel enjoyed a period of astonishing success, longlisted for the 2004 Man Booker Prize, winner of the 2005 Hugo Award for the Best Novel, and remaining in the New York Times Bestseller list for eleven weeks straight. An intense curiosity about the author who had managed to write what Neil Gaiman described as “unquestionably the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last seventy years” grew up around Clarke, but much like the elusive gentlemen with the thistledown hair who flits through its pages, shortly after its release, Clarke vanished from public life.

    Until Piranesi.

    This book is a masterpiece too, but in a different way. Where Jonathan Strange might be compared to an imperious baroque mansion, Piranesi is an intricately painted miniature. The story is told through the journals of a man who lives in a labyrinthine house, filled with statues, through which tides wash in and out. He believes himself to be one of two living humans in the world. He spends his days fishing, cooking, mending his nets, attending to the bones of the thirteen humans who have come before him, and attempting to help the Other (his one human companion) in his efforts to discover some lost ancient power in the House. The Other calls the narrator “Piranesi,” but he thinks of himself primarily as a “Beloved Child of the House.”

    In an interview with the Hindustan Times, Clarke describes the book as a “critique of progress” borrowing from the literary imaginations of authors like Owen Barfield and C. S. Lewis. Lewis’s influence can be seen in the aesthetic features of the novel. Clarke drew inspiration for the House from the dying world of Charn in The Magician’s Nephew, and some of the statues could have been breathed into stillness by the White Witch herself: a fox teaching two squirrels, and a satyre playing the flute. But it is from Barfield that the novel draws its concern regarding alienation from nature. In his influential essay “The Rediscovery of Meaning,” Owen Barfield tries to account for the “pure cussedness” of the fact that “the more able man becomes to manipulate the world to his advantage, the less he can perceive any meaning in it.” Attempting to construct a history of language, Barfield argues that when the scientific method hardened into an epistemological outlook, horizons of scientific knowledge exponentially expanded, while horizons of meaning began to contract. Ingrained to a “habit of inattention,” we began to treat the world as an object quite separate from ourselves, and thus quite alien. Clarke explains:

    One of Barfield’s ideas was that people in the past related to the world in quite different ways than we do now. Ancient peoples did not feel alienated from their surroundings the way in which we sometimes do. They did not see the world as meaningless; they saw it as a great and sacred drama in which they took part. Barfield called this idea “original participation” and I tried to describe this sort of relationship in Piranesi’s attitude to the House.

    Clarke highlights this alienation from the natural world by contrasting the relationship of Piranesi and the Other to the House. For Piranesi, it is intuitive and reciprocal; the House provides the food, water, and shelter he needs to survive, and he naturally perceives and responds to what he sees as spiritual significance woven into the physical world. Through Piranesi’s eyes, we see the world as a created and shepherded place, interpenetrated by a spiritual reality. I thought of the Apostle Paul’s words to the Athenians “For ‘in him we live and move and have our being,’ as even some of your own poets have said” (Acts 17:28) – incorporating into Christendom the pagan understanding of the animation of the world.

    By contrast, the Other’s relationship to the House is one of frustration and alienation. Unlike Piranesi, the Other is not able to survive without the supplies (shoes, food, canoes) he procures from we know not where. He senses some potency in the House, but is locked out of the intuitive reciprocity Piranesi seems to enjoy. In one moving and revelatory scene, Piranesi likens the Other to one of the statues:

    It is a statue of a man kneeling on his plinth: a sword lies at his side, its blade broken in five pieces. Roundabout lie other broken pieces, the remains of a sphere. The man has used his sword to shatter the sphere because he wanted to understand it, but now he finds that he has destroyed both sphere and sword. This puzzles him, but at the same time part of him refuses to accept that the sphere is broken and worthless. He has picked up some of the fragments and stares at them intently in the hope that they will eventually bring him new knowledge.

    In this tragicomic portrait, Clarke vividly illustrates Barfield’s concerns about the destruction of meaning in the modern world. And in the shattered sword and globe we see also a reflection of our present crisis of environmental ruin, which, ironically has coincided with the ascendance of purely “scientific” and mechanical accounts of nature.

    But the Other is not the only character who suffers from alienation. Piranesi is afflicted with another kind of exile: loneliness.

    Many critics have noted the suitability of Piranesi to a year riddled by lockdowns and social isolation, such as Paraic O’Donnell describing the book as “an elegant study in solitude.” Although Piranesi is at home in the House, he is alone in it. And yet, when signs of another human appear, Piranesi reacts with contradicting surges of intense curiosity and profound suspicion. Nestled in the comfort of his interior world, he finds it difficult to venture into the uncertain world of connection with another human being. Clarke’s own experience of agoraphobia in 2010 informed her idea for the book:

    Whenever other people were around me I felt intensely uncomfortable and threatened. It didn’t matter whether they were taking notice of me or not. Fortunately this period didn’t last terribly long. But sometimes when I was walking in a street and there were people near me, I would imagine I was back in the palace of Charn, or a place very like it; and the silence and the solitude calmed me.

    Piranesi’s lonesomeness is most poignantly revealed in his devotion to the bones of previous inhabitants of the House. To Piranesi they represent the only semblance of friendship outside of his brusque relationship with the Other, but to the reader they become hints of evil that contribute to a growing dread which propel us to wish for his escape. The human remains, Piranesi’s amnesia, and the Other’s apparent narcissism begin to cast a dark cloud over this quiet world. We begin to feel keenly that Piranesi must wise up, and perhaps even get out of the House before some grave evil befalls him.

    In these two kinds of alienations, Clarke puts her finger on a nerve which pulses painfully in the modern world. As society fragments and isolation deepens, and the earth groans under the effects of climate change, the question of our ability to be at home in the world and with each other is one of existential significance. But this tension also puts readers in a complicated position. Through Piranesi’s eyes, we have inhabited a beautiful world where we are able to set aside the sword and the globe we’ve been so vigorously pounding, and experience a place charged with beauty and meaning and mystery. But even as we cherish the world through Piranesi’s eyes, we feel keenly his ache of isolation, and the terrible bravery it will take for him to come out of the life he has known into the warmth of human friendship. We want to see through Piranesi’s eyes, but we also want what is best for him. Though emerging from his innocence seems inevitable and necessary, we wonder wistfully if it will mean the end of his beautiful relationship to his surroundings.

    It is by setting up this dramatic tension that Clarke executes her compelling “critique of progress,” neither allowing us to slip into optimistic nostalgia or modern condescension, inviting us instead to consider a possible blindness of our own time to the spiritual potency in the natural world. Barfield was not interested in merely idealizing the pre-modern past, but in seeking to recover a way of regarding the natural world which made us aware of its inherent meaning if, in fact, it existed (which Barfield believed it did). It is significant that the environment of the House is not “enchanted,” so to speak; as far as we can tell, the tides operate like ordinary tides, even if they do take place in a giant and mysterious labyrinth. It is Piranesi’s own outlook, rather than some magical quality in the House, which makes it possible for him to perceive the vivid meaning which evades the Other. We feel keenly not that this outlook was proved wrong, but that we have lost the power to perceive the world like Piranesi does, and so as the book races to a close, we find ourselves bargaining for Piranesi’s enlightenment to not come at the cost of his meaning-filled outlook. We wonder whether in our own banal world of police stations, credit cards, and smart phones it might still be possible to live as a “Beloved Child of the House.”

    For many years, I have prayed Psalm 27: “One thing I have asked of the Lord, this is what I seek, that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life” (Psalm 27:4, Celtic Daily Prayer Book). The irony of this prayer, so often uttered in my own living room or on an airplane, has often struck me; I am not in the House of the Lord. But since reading Piranesi, this passage has taken on a new meaning for me. To Piranesi, his whole world is the House of God, and every coral and shell announces him a “Beloved Child of the House.” I think with a pang of desire how much I long to see the world that way, and how difficult it sometimes is. And yet after reading Piranesi, my eyes have been attuned anew to the possibility that these spiritual realities may not be far away, but seeping through every pang of loveliness in this weary old world. Because, as Piranesi reminds us:

    The beauty of the House is immeasurable; its kindness infinite.

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    Contributed By

    Joy Clarkson is a doctoral candidate in Theology at the University of Saint Andrews where she studies art, moral formation, and death. She hosts a popular podcast (Speaking with Joy), teaches undergraduate students, and drinks too much Yorkshire Gold.

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