Something Good #2: Escapes
“The direction of escape is toward freedom. So what is ‘escapism’ an accusation of?”
- Ursula K. LeGuin
The challenge is how to tell you everything you need to know about Piranesi while revealing as little as possible. Not because I’m afraid of spoilers (which, science tells us, actually make you enjoy stories more), but because I don’t want to deprive you of the pleasure of slowly coming to comprehend the world Susannah Clarke has created in her new novel. It is a process of revealing that is as carefully constructed as the story itself.
So let’s start with “Piranesi,” himself (probably not his real name), the book’s protagonist. What do we know about Piranesi? At first, not very much. We know, from his journal entries, that he lives in a vast, possibly endless “House” of enormous, statuary-filled Halls (“I have travelled as far as the Nine-Hundred-and-Sixtieth Hall to the West”). The lower Halls are battered by powerful tides, which sometimes rush up their massive staircases and fill the upper rooms. We know that Piranesi is largely alone, save for the occasional visiting flock of birds, 13 mysterious skeletons, and one other, itinerant human presence, a well-dressed man who Piranesi simply calls “The Other.” We know that Piranesi sometimes encounters detritus from another world, one he knows nothing about—our world.
That is pretty much all we know. And all that Piranesi knows either. While he can describe any statue he’s seen in the House in great detail, he seems remarkably incurious about the universe beyond his strange surroundings. And remarkably content. While he survives on the seafood he can scavenge from the House’s lower Halls and shivers through harrowing winters, he maintains that, “The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.”
There is something about even the most inhospitable fantastical worlds that makes us want to live in them.
Before Susannah Clarke’s novel, there were a few other Piranesis of note. Giovanni Battista Piranesi was an 18th-Century Italian artist. Born in Venice—itself a fantastical stone labyrinth—he trained as an archeologist before becoming known for his etchings of Rome, his so-called vedute (or “views”) of historical sites that tourists visiting the ancient city would take home as souvenirs.
But he’s perhaps best remembered today for his series Carceri d’invenzione (or “Imaginary Prisons”), 16 eerie depictions of otherworldly archeologies. They feel like tiny details of a huge and endless parallel dimension, where something mysterious is always happening just outside the frame.
He once said, “I need to produce great ideas, and I believe that if I were commissioned to design a new universe, I would be mad enough to undertake it.”
Giovanni’s children Francesco and Laura also achieved some fame as etchers. It’s said that Francesco, near the end of his life, perhaps maddened with syphilis, made a series of fantastical paintings, which unfortunately I haven’t been able to dig up. Laura, in a familiar story, was largely disregarded by art history for centuries. (In fact, although she worked in her father’s studio, when he died it was passed to her younger brother and he quickly set about marrying her off.) Although her unique talents were rediscovered in the 20th Century, most of her work is thought to be lost and I could find almost no scholarship about her online.
Piranesi has stayed with me like no other new book I’ve read in a long time. I read it in a day (and later re-read it even more quickly). It’s the first book in 16 years, incredibly, by Susannah Clarke, who emerged seemingly from nowhere (actually, from the world of editing cookbooks) in 2004 with Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, a real door-stopper of a fantasy novel about duelling traditions of magic in Regency England. Then, years of silence, attributable to an exhausting, difficult-to-diagnose illness. She is a fascinating writer, and I’m so happy to have her back. I’ve been recommending this book to everyone I know. It is an exquisite feat of world- and character-building.
Exploring imaginary worlds fulfills a deep human need: to believe in ways of being unlike, to dream up something better or stranger, to live in the fantastical even for a moment.
To return to LeGuin, quoted up top: “Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape?”
One more recommendation: When I learned that Lovers Rock, a new film by Steve McQueen as part of his Small Axe anthology series, was set over one night at a reggae dance party in London in 1980, I knew I had to see it immediately. Talk about pushing all my buttons!
I’ve set up DJ systems in lofts and homes more times than I count and sold my share of lukewarm beer bottles out of apartment kitchens. But it’s been a long time since I’ve done anything of the sort, let alone stepped out onto a dancefloor, a place I’ve always prized for its ability to transport and escape. McQueen captures that feeling profoundly here, never letting us forget the dangers waiting outside (and sometimes on the dancefloor itself), but letting the joy and liberation of music and movement and just moving next to other people shine through.
God I miss it all.
You can watch Lovers Rock on Amazon Prime, along with the other films in the series. Check out the soundtrack playlist here. I’ve had it on all week.
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