Piranesi and William Golding

This is a guest article by Arabella Currie. Arabella is an Honorary Associate Research Fellow at the University of Exeter, having recently completed a postdoctoral fellowship supported by the Leverhulme Trust. She is writing a book about Golding’s interest in ancient Greece and Rome. 

Innocence and Experience: Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi compared to Golding’s Pincher Martin and The Inheritors

Published sixteen years after her bestselling Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke’s second novel, Piranesi (2020), shares the strange magic of that debut, a fantasy so immediate and believable you’re convinced that Clarke has actually visited another world. Piranesi, though, is on a much smaller scale than Jonathan Strange. Streamlined and taut as a poem, it reminded me of the pared-back novels of Golding’s early period, in particular Pincher Martin and, in different ways, The Inheritors.

Most immediately, it features a man stranded in a stony, sea-washed place, a surreal and disorientating prison that is as much a mirror of his own mind as it is an external reality. While Golding’s Pincher Martin is marooned on a rock in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, Clarke’s protagonist, Piranesi, lives alone in a labyrinth without end or edges, an infinite series of high-ceilinged stone halls, crowded with statues and linked by courtyards and giant marble staircases. Every so often, powerful tides thunder through the halls, leaving the statues strung with seaweed and barnacles and the lower halls totally submerged.

Like Golding’s Pincher, Piranesi tries to become master of this stony, watery kingdom, particularly by naming everything he sees and trying to map the labyrinth. However, unlike Pincher, Piranesi succeeds. Although he starts off afraid, cold, wet and hungry, he gradually learns how to make nets from seaweed, fish in the Drowned Halls and predict the movements of the tides. Before long, he is happy and at home. Visited occasionally by a mysterious ‘Other’, he treats this person as his friend and never even considers that he might be hostile; instead, he is simply interested in who he is and happy that he is there.

In this respect, Piranesi is much more like the central figures of The Inheritors. He shares their innocence and an open trustfulness that we might be tempted to call naivety but we could also choose to view as wisdom. His faith in the ‘Other,’ for example, is very like Lok’s trusting attitude towards the strangers who, the reader knows, have come to dislodge him and his companions from their world.

At their core, both Piranesi and The Inheritors are about a lost innocence, and in particular a lost sympathy between the world and its inhabitants. Lok and his friends are so in tune with each other and the world around them that they can communicate without words, enter into the minds of animals and, Golding says, ‘perform…miracles of sensitive ingenuity with the brambles and branches’. Without giving too much away, in Clarke’s novel we learn that Piranesi’s labyrinth is a kind of storehouse of the magical, enchanted way of living that ancient people once had. Having been trapped in it for years, Piranesi has begun to live that way again: to believe that a boat, for instance, chooses to keep him afloat out of its own generous will, and that the birds are knowledgeable and are trying to teach him.

So, perhaps the key difference between Pincher Martin and Piranesi is that while Piranesi regains his connection with the world of innocence as contained in the labyrinth, Pincher has lost his; indeed, Pincher separated himself from the world even before being stranded. One could even say that Piranesi is like a later, alternative version of Pincher Martin: a Pincher Martin who had managed to cling onto his rock and get to grips with it. While Pincher struggles against his rock and is eventually lost, Piranesi accepts the hall for his new world and finds beauty in it. That is their dilemma and their crisis – whether to find comfort and kinship in the endless, disorientating stony halls in which they are doomed to wander, wrapped around by a restless ocean, or whether to cut themselves off and resist. Perhaps that is a choice we must all make…

It would be fascinating to know whether Clarke is a fan of Golding. I wouldn’t be surprised if she were, given their shared creation of worlds that are mysterious and somewhat confusing, but at the same time meticulous, absorbing and immediate. But even more interesting than any direct influence or echo is the clear sense we get when reading a novel like Piranesi alongside Pincher Martin or The Inheritors that Golding’s novels are powerfully and inextricably linked to the literature of the fantastic, as the writers Una McCormack and Nina Allan have emphasised in recent podcasts and blog posts and argued so memorably in last year’s Golding Symposium.

Related Resources

  • On the original manuscript of The Inheritors, Golding wrote that the 'centre symbol is the waterfall,…

  • Golding’s biographer, John Carey, writes that Savernake Forest, on the outskirts of Marlborough,Wiltshire, was the inspiration…