Piranesi by Susanna Clarke review – an elegant study in solitude

“The beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite”: this is the reverent pronouncement of Piranesi, who believes he has occupied the house in question “since the world began”. Indeed, the house and the world, for Piranesi, are one and the same. Birds congregate in its cloud-wreathed upper halls and fearsome tides surge through its lower levels, but although Piranesi has journeyed widely – as far as “the Nine-Hundred-and-Sixtieth Hall to the West” – he has glimpsed nothing beyond it. And but for the bones of the dead, and an enigmatic visitor known only as “the Other”, he wanders this world entirely alone.

Susanna Clarke is a writer who has never quite been given her due. She is hardly obscure, of course; her first novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, became a worldwide bestseller and was given a plush TV adaptation by the BBC. But its lingering influence – perhaps all the more notable for her long quiescence – has not been fully appreciated. Infusing “great tradition” verisimilitude with the imaginative radicalism of Ursula Le Guin, it gave rise to what might be called magical archaism, a fictional strain that has since become widespread. Like Hilary Mantel, Clarke made the very notion of genre seem quaint.

Yet even as her imitators proliferated, she herself returned only briefly to her antic and ornate parallel Regency. The Ladies of Grace Adieu, a collection of stories published in 2006, was politely received by critics but didn’t quite rekindle the fervour of devotees. And, given the long silence that followed, even non-devotees might wonder what to expect of this new novel. Does it announce an author boldly reclaiming her territory, or one emerging from her own shadow? Well, it’s complicated.

Some distinguishing features are immediately apparent. This is, for a start, a much shorter novel than its predecessor, whose doorstopper proportions were a byproduct of its garrulous and vastly digressive style. All that has been cast aside here, in favour of a prose that is economical almost to the point of austerity. And where Jonathan Strange was populous and richly polyphonic, Piranesi is a tenebrous study in solitude. It is also newly mysterious. Its narrator, though deprived of both company and reliable memories, seems curiously content with his lot. He wanders empty halls and courtyards, cataloguing in his meticulous journal entries their bewildering array of statuary. He documents with satisfaction – and with no trace of despair – how he has sustained himself with meagre catches of fish and staved off the cold by burning dried seaweed.

Piranesi does evince at least some curiosity, not least about who he really is; he was given that name by the Other and cannot remember his own. He wonders, too, about the identities of the dead, but subsumes even these pressing questions into acts of tranquil devotion, bringing offerings of water lilies to the forlorn remains of “the Folded-Up Child”. These moments are touching, though related with affectless decorum, but Piranesi’s peculiar equanimity comes to seem unsettling.

So too does his abject gratitude for the Other’s occasional gifts. The various items – multivitamins, a sleeping bag, plastic bowls – are as incongruous in this setting as the “shining device” that the Other carries, but it takes more momentous events to disturb Piranesi’s obliviousness. These begin when he finds signs of another visitor to the House. Enthralled, he relates the news to the Other, whose habitual cold indifference gives way to stern warnings: Piranesi must keep away from this other person at all costs; his very sanity could be in danger.

It would be a disservice even to hint at the revelations that follow, revelations that not only upend Piranesi’s world but confront the reader with some truly onerous moral uncertainties. What can be said, though, is that at least the contours of the truth are encoded in this novel’s architecture. Here it is worth reflecting on the subject of Clarke’s overt homage. The historical Piranesi, an 18th-century engraver, is celebrated for his intricate and oppressive visions of imaginary prisons and for his veduta ideate, precise renderings of classical edifices set amid fantastic vistas. Goethe, it is said, was so taken with these that he found the real Rome to be greatly disappointing. Clarke fuses these themes, seducing us with imaginative grandeur only to sweep that vision away, revealing the monstrosities to which we can not only succumb but wholly surrender ourselves.

The result is a remarkable feat, not just of craft but of reinvention. Far from seeming burdened by her legacy, the Susanna Clarke we encounter here might be an unusually gifted newcomer unacquainted with her namesake’s work. If there is a strand of continuity in this elegant and singular novel, it is in its central preoccupation with the nature of fantasy itself. It remains a potent force, but one that can leave us – like Goethe among the ruins – forever disappointed by what is real.