Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi: a new Gulliver

Attuned now to literature which is markedly comic, I wasn’t drawn by the accounts I’d read of Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi, which emphasised its philosophical intent, and suggested a risk of ponderousness. I was wrong, however, because while the novel is certainly philosophical, it is also very funny.  And if philosophy seems incompatible with humour, then beauty suffers from similar preconceptions, and my initial resistance was partly about the rather exquisite fantastical world that Clarke creates; a labyrinth of vast empty halls lined with statues and animated by great tides of water. It all sounded rather aridly aesthetic. And certainly, there is often a resistance to humour in both literary fiction and speculative fiction – afraid of it marring beauty, spoiling an effect, puncturing a gesture or a carefully conjured atmosphere – which can lead to self-seriousness. But in Piranesi, Clarke wholeheartedly embraces the comedy provoked by the novel’s themes.  

            It’s worth noting that Clarke is not alone among writers of fantasy in understanding the pragmatic usefulness of comedy. Comedy’s focus on materiality can help embed the strangeness of fantasy worlds in a kind of realism; in Angela Carter’s work for instance, her penchant for Gothic excess is frequently juxtaposed with comically empirical exactitude. This is particularly true of The Passion of the New Eve, whose hero/heroine is something of a pedant. It’s a combination that’s also key to Donald Antrim’s tonal imperturbability: in his trilogy (The Hundred Brothers, The Ventriloquist, Elect Mr Robinson For a Better World), the pedantry of the protagonists does important work in providing concrete detail that tempers the wild strangeness of their worlds. Gulliver’s Travels is another example of this comic realism: Gulliver’s stolid pedantry helping to embed the extravagance of Swift’s figurations.

            Gulliver is an important predecessor for Piranesi, the narrator of Clarke’s novel, and the sole inhabitant of the many halls of ‘the House’. Like Gulliver (and Robinson Crusoe before him), he is very competent: fishing, collecting rainwater, tabulating the tides, cataloguing the statues. And like Gulliver he is something of a pedant (perhaps a necessity in staying alive with limited resources), with a penchant for lists and a degree of complacency about his ‘scientific’ perspective.  But what’s different is his essential sweetness, a naivety that sees only the good in the world around him.  One of the ways in which this sweetness is effected is through his language: the formal diction and stately cadences, as well as the idiosyncratic use of capitals; the latter perhaps an inheritance from Swift, which in Clarke’s hands demonstrates an inherently respectful response to the world. The capitals are also used to great comic effect, as when Piranesi bids farewell to an unexpected visitor from the ‘real’ world to the House: ‘Then, sir, may your Paths be safe,’ I said, ‘your Floors unbroken and may the House fill your eyes with Beauty’ (92).  We know how important unbroken floors are to him: we’ve seen how they can cut his feet in his daily work, but to an outsider, of course, the blessing is incongruous. The significance he accords the Floors (and the Paths, the Windows, the Air, and the Tides) also points to Piranesi’s pantheistic belief in the divinity inherent in the world in which he lives. The House provides for him – with fish to eat and seaweed for fuel – and meaning is everywhere: latent in the statues and the movement of the birds.

            The simplicity of Piranesi’s lifestyle and his convictions is in stark contrast with those characters from the ‘real’ world, an inherent incongruity that Clarke is not afraid to play for laughs. That it is consistently funny, however, doesn’t make the disparity negligible.  The contrast works to defamiliarize the modern disconnect from the natural world, which has helped engender a fundamental disrespect. The Other, whom Piranesi believes to be the only other human living in the House, is the key representation of this mode: he’s glib, impatient, profoundly sceptical – with a grasping, instrumental view of the world, seeing the House only as the means to an ancient, all-powerful Knowledge that will make him omnipotent. Piranesi, initially his assistant in this pursuit, realises that it ‘encouraged us to think of the House as if it were a sort of riddle…a text to be interpreted, and that if ever we discover the Knowledge, then it will be as if the Value has been wrestled from the House and all that remains will be mere scenery’ (60-61). The two characters are an allegory for Ancient and Modern man, as is made clear when Piranesi puzzles over a text which reads, ‘The world was constantly speaking to Ancient Man.’ He is confused that the sentence is in the past tense, when ‘The World still speaks to me every day’ (154). 

            To describe Piranesi’s life and his beliefs as simple requires that we acknowledge the ambivalence of that word, and one of the lessons of the book is that our modern disdain for simplicity is misguided. His daily tasks, replete in the dignity of the essential, are undertaken with patience and faith, and the descriptions are so enjoyable, so relaxingin comparison to the chaotic excess that marks so much of our contemporary reality, waylaid as we are in the inessential. In focusing upon the humour of the contrast Clarke deepens that pleasure, while also ensuring she avoids didacticism. And given the inevitable cynicism of a postmodern readership, the truth telling of comedy – which results in a startled recognition at ‘reality frankly spoken’ (Eastman 311) – is one way of negotiating our scepticism. One such moment is when Piranesi is lauding the abundance of the House ‘for the active and enterprising person’, and he exhorts himself to spend more time ‘making coverings for my feet which are often cold. (Question: is it possible to knit socks from seaweed? Doubtful.)’ (111). The parenthesis lightly mocks his ever optimistic and ‘enterprising’ endeavours, acknowledging that while such simplicity is to be celebrated, it is no longer actually available to us. It’s characteristic of the way the novel allows for an equivocal kind of enchantment, ‘in which we are immersed but not submerged, bewitched but not beguiled’, a suspension of disbelief that does ‘not lose sight of the fictiveness of those fictions that enthral us’ (Felski 74).

Eastman, Max. Enjoyment of Laughter. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1936. 

Felski, Rita. The Uses of Literature. Malden, MA; Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2008 

© Emma Sullivan 2021.

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