by Susanna Clarke
Bloomsbury, $27.99 pb, 272 pp
It is day one hundred and seventeen of the official ‘Shelter in Place’ order in Berkeley, California, when I finish Susanna Clarke’s surreal, heartbreaking novel Piranesi, having rationed the final pages over several days.
There is something about lockdown and its strange effects on the mind that makes every text seem like a code for the situation of quarantine, every story an allegory of constriction, captivity, or exile. But Piranesi speaks to these themes with unique sharpness: it is literally a story about a man trapped in a house of endless rooms, who no longer remembers that another world exists.
The narrator has forgotten his real name and is called Piranesi. The name references the eighteenth-century Italian artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi and the House described in the novel seems to embody his monumental, uncanny architectural images, especially his collection of etchings titled Carceri d’Invenzione (Imaginary Prisons, 1750). In these haunting engravings, as in the novel’s House, massive stairs and walkways connect gothic archways and innumerable vast halls filled with statuary.