Piranesi: A Study in Character Voice

Last week, I read Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi. She’s the much-feted author of Johnathan Strange & Mr Norrell (which I have not read and plan to, soon). If you have not read Piranesi, be warned: spoilers await you! I want to talk about book’s main character(s), and I will be epically spoiling the plot.

~ SPOILER WARNING ~

Piranesi lives in a strange and beautiful House. It is a labyrinth, with countless perilous halls and passageways, and thousands upon thousands of statues. An ocean runs through the House, as do clouds. The House has seasons, too. Birds come to roost there.

Piranesi documents the House and its wonders in his journals, which he prizes above all else. It’s through these journals that we experience the story. He is one of two living human beings in the House. His friend, The Other, seeks to find a secret and ancient knowledge which he believes lies at the heart of the House.

However, a third living person has entered the House. They’re leaving strange messages, and is hunting for Piranesi. The Other claims that they bring madness and destruction.

The House in Piranesi consists of thousands and thousands of strange and beautiful statues

To quickly spoil this for you so we can get to the point: the Other had kidnapped Piranesi and held him captive in the House. Piranesi does not remember this, because the House can do a number on your mental health. The third person leaving messages all over the House is a cop, looking to save Piranesi and bring the Other to justice.

What I found fascinating about this book (aside from everything else, because it’s brilliant), was the three personalities of the main character. The first, the one we are most familiar with, I shall call Piranesi. He is the narrator for a majority of the book. The second, is Matthew Rose Sorensen, the man the Other kidnapped, and the third has no name in the text, so I’ll call him Three.

Very briefly, the Other kidnaps Matthew Rose Sorensen, a young intellectual conducting research on transgressive thinking. He is a little arrogant, but clever, and methodical in his journalling.

Once inside the House, a terrified and angry Matthew Rose Sorensen’s personality gives way to Piranesi, a character that loves the House and considers it home. Piranesi is best equipped to survive the House. He is crafty and resourceful in finding food and keeping warm, and above all, believes that “The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite“.

The name “Piranesi” is inspired from Giovanni Battista Piranesi, known for his fictitious illustrations of “Prisons” (Carceri) with surreal, impossible architecture

Three is the personality that takes over the main character when he is finally able to escape the House.

These are three separate and distinct identities. The text itself makes that clear. It’s not me reading into it. Here is a passage towards the end of the book that illustrates my point:


They have Matthew Rose Sorensen back – or so they believe. A man with his face and voice and gestures moves about the world, and that is enough for them.

I no longer look like Piranesi. There are no coral beads or fishbones in my hair. My hair is clean and cut and styled. I am clean-shaven. I wear the clothes that were brought to me out of the storage in which Matthew Rose Sorensen’s sisters had placed them. Rose Sorensen had a great number of clothes, all meticulously cared for. He had more than a dozen suits (which I find surprising considering that his income was not large). This love of clothes was something he shared with Piranesi. Piranesi frequently wrote about Dr Ketterley’s (the Other’s) clothes in his journal and lamented the contrast with his own ragged garments. This, I suppose, is where I differ from both of them – from Matthew Rose Sorensen and Piranesi; I find I do not care greatly about clothes.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, page 237-238.

This character is clearly different from Matthew Rose Sorensen and Piranesi, and yet, all three of them inhibit the same body and mind. How can a writer depict something like this, so artfully, without confusing the reader? Well, that’s what I want to talk about.

Matthew Rose Sorensen

Chronologically, this is the first personality in the plot. Before he is kidnapped by the Other/Dr Ketterley, Rose Sorensen is highly rational and intelligent, potentially quite arrogant. When the reader comes across a journal entry by this personality, the language is self-assured, well-reasoned. Here’s a passage:


‘I don’t think you can claim he was intellectually honest. He said he’d been to other worlds. He said other people had been there too. That’s not exactly honest, is it?’ There may have been a slight edge of superciliousness in my voice, which I suppose I would have done better to suppress but I have always liked winning arguments.

Ketterley scowled. He seemed to struggle with something. He opened his mouth to say something, changed his mind, and then: ‘I don’t like you very much,’ he said.

I laughed. ‘I can live with that,’ I said.


Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, page 177.

We get only brief glimpses of Matthew Rose Sorensen throughout the novel, but we don’t have to struggle too hard to understand the kind of person he was. To me he seems like someone who would be rather annoying to be around, in part due to this need to win arguments. Just this small passage gives the reader an insight into how his relationships might work. He uses complex words like ‘superciliousness’. He doesn’t care if people like him or not.

This personality is radically different from Piranesi.

Piranesi

Piranesi comes off as naive, well-intentioned, and sweet. He loves the House, and believes that the House provides for him, almost like a parent would provide for a child. While Matthew Rose Sorensen thinks he is smarter than Dr Ketterley, Piranesi does not hold such arrogance.

Piranesi loves the mysterious and labyrinthine House, and carefully records its wonders

This morning at ten o’clock I went to the Second South-Western Hall to meet the Other. When I entered the Hall he was already there, leaning on an Empty Plinth, tapping at one of his shining devices. He wore a well-cut suit of charcoal wool and a bright white shirt that contrasted pleasingly with the olive tones of his skin.

Without looking up from his device he said, ‘I need some data.’

He is often like this: so intent on what he is doing that he forgets to say Hello or Goodbye or to ask me how I am. I do not mind. I admire his dedication to his scientific work.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, page 21.

Immediately one perceives a softness and gentleness to this character that Matthew Rose Sorensen lacks. To me, this character stands out even more against the harsh and selfish Dr Ketterley, who has kept Piranesi as a slave (without his knowledge–for, mind you, it is Matthew Rose Sorensen who remembers the kidnapping. The personality of Piranesi has forgotten.)

Three

I call this personality Three because he’s the third, chronologically and plot-wise, to appear in the story. This is the personality that emerges after the main character is freed from the House and re-enters the real world. He sees himself as different, separate, from both Matthew Rose Sorensen and Piranesi.

He seems jaded sometimes, almost world-weary, less joyful. He doesn’t have the innocence of Piranesi, nor the arrogance of Matthew Rose Sorensen. Speaking about the police officer that rescues him, he writes:

I know that she returns to the labyrinth often. Sometimes we go together; sometimes she goes alone. The quiet and the solitude attract her strongly. In them she hopes to find what she needs.

It worries me.

‘Don’t disappear,’ I tell her sternly. ‘Do not disappear.’

She makes a rueful, amused face. ‘I won’t,’ she says.

‘We can’t keep rescuing each other,’ I say. ‘It’s ridiculous.’

She smiles. It is a smile with a little sadness in it.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, page 243.

The TakeAway for a writer

A character’s voice is a representation of their history, who they are and how they see themselves. In Piranesi, Clarke gives us three characters in one person, all of them connected yet noticeably distinct. They see the other identities as separate from themselves, more like a sibling than a part of a whole. The success of this main character and his three personalities are all due to Clarke’s subtle but precise ideas of who these personalities are.

Each one has a purpose. Matthew Rose Sorensen was the curious intellectual who asked too many questions and fell victim to another man’s lust for power.

Piranesi is the observer, a creature in love and at peace with the world in which he finds himself (a necessity, if one must survive in strange and dangerous situations). It is his faultless recording of the House’s wonders and habits that keeps him alive. (To quote from the movie Ladybird, “Don’t you think maybe they are the same thing – love and attention?”)

Piranesi documents the House with great affection and care. It’s what keeps him alive.

And finally, Three lacks both the arrogance of Matthew Sorensen, and the innocence of Piranesi. He is a product of trauma, the worn-out survivor of a terrible crime. He can exist in the real world, he remembers how it works, but he does not feel entirely a part of it anymore. He has come out of the tunnel quite literally a different man. While the other two identities continue to live inside him, it is only this one that is left to navigate the disappointments and heartbreaks of the world that awaits him outside the House.

While developing a character’s voice, we should consider their interactions with their world. Their perspectives, their experiences, and the dynamic we want them to have with the other characters in the story. Susanna Clarke does this spectacularly in Piranesi. The book gave me a lot more to think about. A part of me will always want to slip back to it, into Piranesi’s House. I’m so glad I found it.

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