Mystery abides

First-person narratives often use the grammatical device of the first-person pronoun to solicit the reader’s close identification with the narrator, without letting go of the privileges pertaining to a distanced, omniscient point-of-view. Such stories usually fail to elicit the immersion they are aiming at for me—which is not to say that I don’t enjoy them, as I enjoy many third-person or multi-perspective stories. However, there is something very particular about the effect of a truly subject-centred narrative—one whose world is built from a situated and limited position. This is an approach which was extremely important to the development of modernism in fiction, although in a sense it is simply the continuation of the realist project to zoom in as closely as possible on the inner life of the character.

One of the writers whose work I love the most, the American science-fiction savant Gene Wolfe, was known for his flawed and unreliable first-person narrators, as well as for the games he liked to play with memory and causality, and the densely referential weave of his intricate, erudite texts. I found myself immediately reminded of Wolfe as I began to read Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi. By the end of the first paragraph, Wolfe, Mervyn Peake, and Jorge Luis Borges, all among my most beloved guides and teachers, had leapt off the page for me, although this book is no homage, and is very distinctly Clarke’s, in its technique and its material—and its most overt references are to C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series. However, I knew from the opening that I was in exactly the territory I most like to tread as a reader, metaphorically and literally: a complex, labyrinthine palace of historical accretions and contingent perceptions.

I’m not sure what to say about this book. It seems superfluous to write down what’s in it, to summarise or paraphrase Clarke’s story. Like all the best writing, it’s very hard to paraphrase, and to precis its plot would be to miss out most of what’s good about it while spoiling it for anyone who has yet to read it. The primary dimension of my response to it has been aesthetic. It is a complex, clever, erudite piece of writing, realised in beautifully crafted prose, but its cleverness and technique are not at all what absorbed me while I was in it. Instead, some unfathomable combination of its narrator’s outlook on the world, the cryptic events which he experiences, and the way in which the book’s mysteries are gradually unfurled added up to something akin to the still presence of a poem, or a wild flower encountered in a roadside verge. It has a kind of crystalline completeness, which put me in mind of Charles Howard Hinton’s conception of time as a geometric parameter rather than a thing which passes.

Sixteen years elapsed between the publication of Jonathan Strange And Mr. Norrell, which made Clarke famous, and this, her second novel. Her substantial debut’s denouement is clearly open to the writing of sequels, which her many fans would have been keen to read. However, it transpires that Clarke has chronic health issues which limit her output. On the evidence of her writing so far, genre is not something that she feels constrained by, but it’s still fair enough to describe both her novels as fantasy, and fantasy readers are known for their appetite for substantial books written in series, so waiting sixteen years for a further slim volume on unrelated characters may have felt disappointing for many admirers of her first novel (she has also written a collection of short stories in the same setting as Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell). Works of art are not zero-sum materials, measurable by the pound or the yard, however. Piranesi is a short novel which is freighted with a greater weight of truth and beauty than the many yards of bookshelf required to store the vast output of a conventionally-minded fantasy writer like Robert Jordan, for example.

Like Clarke’s debut, Piranesi is concerned with the recurrent fantasy theme of ‘thinning’, the idea of characters living in a world which is not as magical as it once was—magic passing out of presence and into memory, personal or historical. Magic, of course, can have no presence in a narrative other than a metaphorical one—even if completely unintended, allegory will attach itself to the figure of magic. When this process is clumsily handled, as it is in the majority of commercial fantasy writing, in which magic is treated as a species of technology, those meanings come crashing destructively into the text and destabilise it radically. Where it is handled with awareness and expert control, as here, it signifies in ways that are… well, magical.

Memory and history are foregrounded in this story, primarily by means of their absence and occultation. The narrator appears at the start, and in some fundamental sense remains at the end, a person without a history. Similarly, the story’s primary locus of the fantastic, a domain accessed via a portal from the prosaic world of the everyday, appears to spring into existence unmoored to any knowable sequence of historical causality. Clarke explores tensions between these states and more situated ones, between the magical and the prosaic, between the mnemonic and the immanent, by means of a number of personal histories that are unravelled completely by the end of the novel. There is a clever trick to that—I’m fond of an observation made by Jacques Derrida, that ‘[m]onsters cannot be announced. One cannot say: ‘Here are our monsters’, without immediately turning the monsters into pets’. The lack of this understanding has turned many works of horror fiction into comedies, but Clarke turns it back upon itself. She announces her monsters; she classifies and explains the materials from which her various narrative mysteries are made. And somehow, at the end of it all, thickening the world with its magic, a great mystery abides.

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