by Maria on September 14, 2021


I used to think novels were these telos-fuelled trams you hop onto, not like the trams of a normal European city with lines forming meshes that tent-pole at exchange points to condense traffic and the importance of certain neighbourhoods, imposing a new behavioural topology on top of whatever geography was already there, but more like the Luas in Dublin which has just two lines that are only thematically north-south and east-west, were built at the same time but did not interconnect either physically or fare-wise, despite multiple people and agencies pointing out the rank stupidity of this, and so force you to travel in a single dimension, along one obtusely pre-determined line. You get on and off the tram, or put the book down and pick it up again, but you can only ever travel forward to the end or back to the beginning, the way novels retroactively unravel their meaning as the conclusions reframes all that went before. Though, the way numbers are going, long-form fiction seems less city trams than heritage railways tended by hobbyists and devotees, going nowhere much at all.

This was my way of thinking, anyway, before I got really into audiobooks and learnt that some special few stories are not journeys but places. Those places are both a subset of reality and bigger than it, and evert into us as we immerse into them.

It happened like this. After a dose of covid and ensuing confinement indoors, I left London to spend last autumn, winter and spring in my own country, walking nearby roads and the sea shore for two or three hours most days. (We had a 5km limit enforced at police check-points.) After exercise like that I need to spend at least as long lying flat to recover, so between the walks and the lying about in the dark, and, I suppose, the only going into town once a week to buy food for myself and my parents, I wanted other human voices. But not cacophony; communion. I should say this was by no means an unhappy time, but the period of deepest contentment in my adult life so far. I don’t know if I could do it every winter, but the discipline of having to provide my own endorphins with no recourse to external stimuli meant consciously limiting the horizons of even imagined escape, while physically seeing for miles in all directions for much of each day’s available light.

In London I have never seen the sun set. It’s something that happens behind lines and lines of buildings. I never hear silence. In the short, tense spells of engine quiet between the rumbling whine of this low-flying jet and the next climaxing overhead and pressing on to Heathrow or City, there is siren, stadium cheer, motorbike retort, horn, one side of an argument, car alarm, house alarm, cars accelerating down a narrow lane, scolding, cajoling, bottle meets concrete, outdoor café clatter, jackhammer, bin lorry, the unexplained laughter of strangers. It’s a congery of noise, a beaded cacophony whose lulls part the air in the swing of a sucker punch. And look, it’s just city life. Ignore it or listen all you like. None of it means anything. (Not quite true. Next day I read this over to the deep, stereo thwock of a Chinook somewhere above. One is fine. Two or more over central London are never good.)

My first audiobook in the soft Kerry silence was Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi, read by Chiwetl Ejiofor. My Mum recommended it, but I manfully over-ruled my inner teenager to download it anyway. This is how it starts: “When the moon rose in the Third Northern Hall I went to the Ninth Vestibule to witness the joining of three Tides.” Piranesi, beloved child of the House, walks and reads his world, contained by it but free, sanguine about physical discomfort and deprivation, open to knowledge and joy.

The thing about ME/CFS, as I experience it, anyway, is the exhaustion cannot be, well, exhausted, only briefly appeased. If I work my legs – and they are good, strong legs and shapely, the part of my body I used to think generated my energy rather than spent it – they do not immediately tire, but I lose the ability to summon words, finish sentences and find my way to places I know well. An hour or a day after exertion the feeling of a metal dome between my skull and brain, squeezing, will give way to a wholly systemic sludge, the ‘walking through treacle’ tiredness so many describe. But, and this only makes sense in the course of a long, long illness, I do not want to rest. I fight it as a toddler fights nap-time. I eat sugar, read Twitter, pick off low-hanging to-dos, look online at things I won’t buy. If I sleep this afternoon, I just might feel ok tomorrow. If I don’t, I will feel as bad or worse. But I refuse to rest because that gives the exhaustion what it wants. Anyway, it’s fickle. You know the experiment where they feed some lab mice in response to them pushing a button, and some only randomly, when they push it? The mice in the random group keep pushing and pushing till their little noses are bloody, even until they die, because this time it might just work. M.E. is like that. To lie down to rest is to hope for relief.

To lie down to rest is to find something else to fail at. Counting backwards, slowed exhalations, body-scan, imagining being in the sea and slipping under, imagining being an albatross flying for weeks, forgetting how land smells, half asleep and instinctively surfing currents of wind.

Nope. Still awake, failing to sleep. Still addled, raddled, unable to generate sufficient nothingness to swoop down into even as, swooping, you become not-one-thing and fizz out into air. Still here in this bed, this room, this house, hoping for relief that will almost certainly not come.

Into those early darkening afternoons crept Piranesi.


The repetition of numbers in a familiar but imperfect sequence greatly helped my fritzing, glitching brain. Each mini-chapter of Piranesi, as read aloud, starts with an incantation like;


Ejiofor reads in a way that’s quite cool and clear, but in a subtle, rolling intonation that swells out the pleasure in each word, yet he never even hints at irony. This is so important, because Piranesi is of our world, and has forgotten it, so we read his world for clues he misses about how he has come to be in this situation. Any inferred complicity of the reader with the listener would undermine Piranesi’s integrity and dignity, and trivialise his deep and daily joy. It would go against the book itself. The great joy of this novel is Piranesi’s open-hearted delight in the world of the House, and how he expresses this through his scientific enquiry and religious practice.

There already exists a venal stand-in for us. Piranesi notices that he calls the infinite chambers ‘vestibules’ and ‘halls’, while the only other human, the Other, calls them ‘rooms’, and the House a ‘labyrinth’. Piranesi correctly diagnoses the absence of veneration or love in the Other’s attitude to the House, but never wonders where the language they both use has come from. He knows what a mother is, and a minotaur, but never wonders about his own mother or the existence of Crete. Just as the House is filled with crumbling marbles of pure, momentary, human essence, Piranesi has been stripped by harsh conditions and memory loss of his ego, selfishness and vanity. He is more beautiful than he can ever know. Everything that happens in the story is caused by Piranesi acting selflessly, often sharing what little he has. Ejiofor is Piranesi, incanting his diary entries, laughing as he imitates the chatty monologue of the birds, and knowing nothing, suspecting nothing, until Piranesi does. There can rarely have been a more perfect union of reader and text.

Piranesi’s first break from the Other, a prickly man who brings vitamins and instructions to seek out arcane and powerful knowledge, is sparked by a journey to a far-away hall where Piranesi sees a group of statues standing rapt under a moonlit window. He is deeply moved and immediately rejects the idea that the House is a riddle or a text to be resolved, saying “if we ever discover the Knowledge, then it will be as if the Value has been wrested from the House and all that remains will be mere scenery.” He proposes a different kind of research, not one determined to solve and wrest meaning from the House, but an open-ended lifetime of appreciation and discovery. “The House is valuable because it is the House. It is enough in and of itself. It is not the means to an end.”

I noticed two statue-scenes in the House’s halls that were not from our world but from Narnia; when Lucy meets Mr. Tumnus, and the Last Battle. The first and the last. It’s so striking that while these and so many other imagined worlds come to us inside perfectly engineered vessels of story – now I see them as little one-man submarines, lethal as torpedoes, rounded as worming tablets – the reason they live so long in our minds is not that we’re still involved with what happened and what happened next, but that we want to escape all the way into them to live.

The House is an imagined space with perhaps an infinite number of imagined spaces nested inside. You could say in that coolly Borgesian way that it demonstrates the bubbling vastness of infinity, like a library or an Aleph, a memory bigger than the mind it inhabits, a map exponentially greater than its territory. But in the world of true feeling and spiritual nobility engendered inside this book, the very idea of a labyrinth is reductive and extractive, a fear-bricked dungeon the Other builds around himself. There is no minotaur, and no hidden treasure, either. The world is just the world. The House is just the House. The point is to be held by it, not as a prisoner but as a beloved child, walking, seeing and singing to the end of his days.

Piranesi is meticulously plotted and structured, but to be in its thrall is to live in the embrace of the House, to listen for the tides, map the stars, share seaweed with the nesting albatross, write down numbers that relate only to other numbers and soon to nothing at all. I listened to it through evenings that started at four o’clock, my rain gear drying on hooks, rain pelting a dormer window after a journey across the Atlantic. The next day I would get up again, do a few hours’ work, then put on my boots and strap my walking poles around my wrists, walk a mile or so down the grassy middle to a beach we call Bun an Bóthair, which just means ‘end of the road’. Turn left on the beach and into the prevailing wind, Milo yipping and darting into the water if the tide was low, or gingerly tapping the waves running at cross purposes over the little pier if it was high. Then twenty or so tough minutes over slimy rocks and out onto a sandy headland so rippled, vast and bare you can almost see the tide running back in from the sea. As Piranesi says, tides are “not not alive”, are they?

To enter Piranesi’s world was both to leave my own and to return somewhere deeply familiar, like a house I lived in as a baby or a lament sung once and forgotten till heard again in entirely different circumstances.

To be continued



Phil 09.14.21 at 1:55 pm

I love Piranesi like few other books. It came out a few weeks before my wife’s birthday; I bought it for her, held out for a while, then gave in and read it myself before wrapping it. After she’d read it I read it again. I’m already looking forward to my next visit.


Neville Morley 09.14.21 at 7:16 pm

“To lie down to rest is to find something else to fail at.” This is horribly familiar.


JakeB 09.16.21 at 5:26 am

I remember when I first saw my copy of Piranesi, ordered from the local bookstore, and my disappointment at its slenderness. Where, I thought, is the plump tome that I had been conditioned to expect by Jonathan Strange?? In bitterness I let it sit for a week or two until I had one of those days with no need to be doing anything and no energy to do anything but read. And then, of course, I found that it was perfect as it was and Susanna Clarke had nothing to apologize for. And, as a classicist manque, it gave me all kinds of weird stuff to think about.


John Quiggin 09.17.21 at 11:35 am

Beautifully written as always. I hope you recover soon


oldster 09.17.21 at 1:53 pm

“(Not quite true. Next day I read this over to the deep, stereo thwock of a Chinook somewhere above. One is fine. Two or more over central London are never good.)”

So true. Or when an orange helicopter holds a hover over the city, in one spot, for hours.

The flip side of the constant noise in London is that even big things no longer seem big. The Billion Dollar Bomb woke us from sleep, in a flat in Bloomsbury. “What’s that?”, asked my wife, newly arrived from the States. “Oh, it’s nothing,” I said, already inured to the constant noise, ” — just the trucks in the alley emptying the dumpsters.”

I hope the seacoast and the silence will bring you strength again.


EWI 09.18.21 at 3:14 pm

but more like the Luas in Dublin which has just two lines that are only thematically north-south and east-west, were built at the same time but did not interconnect either physically or fare-wise, despite multiple people and agencies pointing out the rank stupidity of this

This, of course, was directly down to interference by the free-marketeering Progressive Democrats, who were in coalition at the time.


Alison 09.19.21 at 8:24 am

Lovely review. I listened to it as I walked in our local woods, and the vaults of the trees even now make me think of the vaults. Piranesi is a corrective to the instrumentality of magical practice in Strange and Norrell. The value of magic, or the spirit world, is not in making things happen, but something we should love its own right. Or you could say this is how we should think of art or nature. I am reminded of verse 29 of the Dao De Jing ‘The world is a sacred object. You can’t use it. You can’t own it.’ PS can we have a Crooked Timber seminar on Piranesi.

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