Q&A with Susanna Clarke on creating the world of PIRANESI

Bloomsbury novelist Susanna Clarke at her home in the Peak district.

Susanna Clarke’s second novel, Piranesi, was published last month, 15 years after the phenomenal success of her debut, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, an epic fantasy about two magicians in an alternate Victorian era. Contrasting with that 600-page tome, Piranesi is a compact 250 pages. Yet it too contains an entire world.

Piranesi lives in a House of seemingly endless wings and several levels. The halls are filled with statues, making it feel like a museum. The ocean surges into the lower floors at regular intervals. Piranesi knows the House intimately after exploring it for as long as he can remember. He has no recollection of ever living anywhere else or knowing anything but the House, although he keeps notebooks about his explorations, the first of which begins in December 2011.

Piranesi is not his real name, which he does not know. It is the name given to him by the only other occupant of the House, whom he calls The Other.

Piranesi writes, “The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite” (page 5) and sees the House as “valuable because it is the House. It is enough in and of Itself” (page 60).  Is he right? What is the role of the House? Isn’t the House a trap that he can’t escape?

For Piranesi, the House is never a trap. It cannot be a trap since there is never a moment when he does not consider himself to be perfectly free. He is free to get food for himself, free to go anywhere he likes, free to write his journals, free to think his thoughts. He has religious obligations (caring for and talking to the Dead) and obligations of friendship (helping the Other with his scientific research, making maps for him, taking photographs for him, etc.), but as far as Piranesi is concerned, he has accepted these obligations freely.

The Other desires knowledge from the House because he wants power, while the narrator finds fulfillment in the process of learning and exploration. Why did this contrast speak to you?

What I’m interested in here is the contrasting attitudes of the Other and Piranesi towards the House. The Other is only interested in the House for what it can give him. He sees it as something he can use and exploit: an object. Because he wants something from the House (power) and because he can’t find it, he is endlessly frustrated. So, to him, the House is a dreary place; a great labyrinth full of desolate rooms and statues with bird shit on them. The world is meaningless to him until it gives him what he wants. If it were to give him what he wants, it would immediately become meaningless again, because he would have got what he needed and what remained would be like an empty skin.

Piranesi sees it quite differently. To Piranesi the House (which is the World) is full of meaning; he responds to it, and it responds to him. It is constantly unfolding, showing him new things and filling his eyes with beauty. He wants to know everything he can about the House/World. He is a scientist and he loves being a scientist. If he could he would catalogue every statue, map every hall, take every measurement. But in the end he knows that the House is more than the sum of facts about it. There is knowing facts about the House and then there is something different: knowing the House itself, by which I mean feeling yourself to be part of the House, feeling yourself to be loved by the House, seeing the beauty of the House, communing with the House. And for Piranesi knowing the House itself is more important than knowing facts about the House.

One of the early readers told me he was struck by the fact that Piranesi is fairly sure that his name isn’t really “Piranesi,” but he doesn’t make any effort to find out what it is — it’s a question that doesn’t really interest him. What really matters to him is that he is the Beloved Child of the House. He doesn’t need any other identity.

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Piranesi is content in his confinement. He fishes, he has his journals, he is happy to help the Other with his scientific project. Piranesi was thought about and written long before lockdown. What lessons do you think we can learn from Piranesi?

Fictions rise up from God-knows-where. They’re like dreams; they mean different things to different readers (or dreamers). And that, I think, is as it should be. Because of this, I’d be hesitant to talk in terms of lessons; that’s for the reader to work out (or not).

When I became ill my life became severely curtailed. I could go out sometimes, but much of the time I was confined to my house. Lockdown has been pretty easy for me; this is far from the most isolated I’ve been in my life.

As I got towards the end of writing Piranesi, I realized that I (a person living a very confined life) was writing a story about a man who couldn’t leave his house; I (a person who of necessity was quite isolated) was writing a story about a man who is alone most of the time, who has only one friend and who makes friends of the Dead and the birds. It might seem a bit preposterous that I didn’t realize until quite late on that this was what I’d done, but the number of things I don’t notice when I’m writing are legion. You’re not really in a noticing frame of mind when you’re writing. You’re attuned to different things.

For some readers, Piranesi is confined; for others not. (I’m more on the not side, myself.) I suppose one of the things I was trying to do was to undercut the idea of Piranesi as someone confined, as a victim.

I spent a long time angry at the unfairness of my illness, angry about all that was taken away from me. And a lot was. But how I try to look at it now is that I still have a lot left. As well as a comfortable home and plenty to eat, I still have all of history, all of literature, all of spirituality, all of mathematics, all of art, all of science. And that’s quite a lot really. (To be clear, I don’t necessarily do all of those things. Some, such as science or mathematics, are largely a closed book but the point is they’re perfectly available to me.) That’s more how Piranesi thinks. He thinks his life is full of marvelous things.

My aunt was ill for a decade before her death. Her room was small, but there was a tree outside it, just a small, unremarkable tree. When we went to see her, she sometimes talked about the tree. After her death I found a diary — just a little thing in which you write appointments. The last thing she wrote was a few days before she died. She was worried about the tree because a wind had come and blown off many of its leaves. The tree, I think, represented the whole of nature to her. And she was still connected to it and to all the seasons through it.

Having said all that, I loved making Piranesi very active. He climbs up walls of statues, fishes in strong tides, goes for long walks in beautiful halls, all things I can’t do or would struggle to do.

One of the bizarre things about lockdown for me has been the way it’s opened my life up at the same time as it closed down other people’s. Gatherings now take place on Zoom. (It’s currently July 2020.) I can take part from my sofa. I’m in regular contact with groups of people I couldn’t have dreamt of before lockdown. When people start to meet again in the real world, I shall be happy for them and for all of us, but I expect my world to get a little smaller.


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