When Susanna Clarke released her debut novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell in 2004, it enchanted readers worldwide, winning Time’s Best Novel of the Year and the Hugo Award for Best Novel. An 800+ word tome, the story follows two magicians in the Napoleonic era on a quest to bring magic back into England. Armed with magic and wit, the novel flows with footnotes (referencing books real and made-up) and a pastiche style of writing (a combination of Dickens & Austen). Even Neil Gaiman, world-renown author and writer, remarked that “it was the finest work of English fantasy written in the past 70 years.”
At the crest of its success, illness crept into Clarke’s life, and she was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome.
With the spirit of a warrior, Clarke continues to persevere. But, at the time, she felt too overwhelmed to resume work on the Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell sequel. Instead, she returned to an older book idea and began to write — through illness, cloudy days, and a heavy mind.
Nearly two decades later, her second novel entered the world. Dubbed a “study in solitude” by The Guardian, Piranesi arrived in September 2020, at the height of Covid-19. And I must agree with the critics, it’s different from its hefty predecessor. Its size is probably the most noticeable distinction: small and slender, it does not attempt to rival the grandeur of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Unlike the bustling world and changing scenery of her debut, a quietness inhabits Piranesi. It’s a puzzle — but a delightful one.
I opened it tentatively, unsure what to expect with its peculiar summary. But all hesitation drained away after reading several entries. Struck by the vivid imagery Clarke paints with her words, I was quickly enwrapped in her World of wonders.
Piranesi, our story’s protagonist, is the inhabitant of a House. Not an ordinary house, a House with sweeping halls and towering staircases. A House where millions of ivory statues line its vestibules. A House with tides rolling in and out. In this “labyrinthine” House, Piranesi carries out his meticulous tasks of measuring tides, naming and recording statues, and jotting down everything in his journal (the book we read!). Furthermore, he attends a biweekly meeting with the Other — the only other known human in existence — where they make plans for the search of the Secret Knowledge.
To him, the House is his World: “The beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.” He cherishes it, like an artist would cherish a masterpiece.
However, as the story progresses, he grows more and more dissatisfied with his position. Questions formulate in his mind and discoveries threaten the foundation of his World.
And when the House shows signs of another occupant, Piranesi is determined to bring the secrets to light.
When I finally shut this slender masterpiece, a sigh of satisfaction left my lips. It was powerful… in a peculiar way. It was one of those stories, not unlike The Lion, the Witch, and The Wardrobe, that awakened in one a sense of wonder. Whether I was drifting under the tapestry of stars, gliding along moonlit halls with Piranesi, searching for the marks of another human being, or lost in forgotten memories: everything echoed with meaning.
The themes and messages the novel contained left me reflecting long after it ended.
One of the most striking things about Piranesi is the character — Piranesi. His words carry a charm, full of innocence, curiosity, and oblivion. Though he states that he’s a little over thirty, he peers at the House through lenses of a child — full of wonder and respect.
Piranesi’s existence in the House (revealed later in the book) is a mystery even to himself. And yet, he feels at home in the halls. He prizes the comfort and safety the House provides: “[The statues’] Beauty soothed me and took me out of Myself; their noble passions reminded me of all that is good in the world.” As he carries out his monotonous (and seemingly insignificant) duties, he remarks “the enormity of this task sometimes makes me feel a little dizzy, but as a scientist and an explorer I have a duty to bear witness to the Splendours of the World.”
However, with all the happiness his life offers, a shadow trails his delight. As much as he enjoys the sights he sees and the places he goes, acute pangs of loneliness accompany each new discovery. For, he has no friend to share the beauty with. As far as he knows, he and the Other are the only living beings in the House.
Though isolation envelopes his steps, he has no knowledge of it. He’s unaware of who or what he is alienated from. And yet, he feels the emptiness of their absence.
To fill this void, he attends the biweekly meetings with the Other. Acting as an apprentice, he continually attempts to please the Other with the fear that he would abandon him. Even birds offer a small consolation.
Yet, these transient occurrences don’t satisfy the aching gap in his life.
Like Piranesi, the pandemic has banished us into a world of isolation. Although Clarke dreamed up the novel long before whispers of a virus shadowed earth, its timely arrival in the midst of it adds an additional layer of relevance readers can connect to. On our own islands and in our own houses, we stare at the gaping divide between ourselves and the world. It leaves us feeling separated, isolated. Even the sources of comfort we fill the hole with wear out.
Humans were designed with an inherent longing for connection. Something or someone that would draw us out of ourselves and into the grand world.
It is Piranesi’s desire for companionship and fear of uncertainty that both drives him away from and toward uncovering the truth. Through this polarity, the conflict of the novel arises.
Unlike the Other, who is satisfied with invariance, Piranesi longs for adventure. The more he sees of the World, the deeper his yearning is to see more. The Other, unable to understand Piranesi’s need, distracts him with missions and assignments in search of “A Great and Secret Knowledge.” Undaunted, Piranesi begins to stray away from the path in pursuit of “knowledge” and down the road in pursuit of meaning.
Above all, the most captivating thing about Piranesi is the way he views the World. In his eyes, the World is something worthy of respect and awe. Not something to reap and exhaust. Furthermore, Clarke cloaks Piranesi’s surroundings with capital letters to emphasize Piranesi’s feelings of humble diminution next to the grandeur of the World. In an interview with The Guardian, Clarke explains the magic behind her grammar choice: “The world in which [Piranesi] finds himself seems imbued with life – if not conscious, then having a vitality of which he is a part. In the case of the statues, giving him knowledge and teaching him about virtues, almost communing with him. To the Other it’s just a dead empty place and to Piranesi it’s full of ideas and energy, benevolence and kindness.”
From the ivory statues in the halls to the birds who reveal virtues with their flight, Piranesi finds value in the objects of his World because they gesture to a deeper meaning. They teach him, spark ideas, and stirr awe. In essence, Piranesi’s growing affinity with the house draws him away from the meaningless pursuits of the Other. This is particularly evident in a scene where he finds the One-Hundred-and-Ninety-Second Western Hall on an assignment from the Other. After marveling at the crowd of statues he finds, heads tilted toward the moon, Piranesi reflects on the “insignificance” of “the Knowledge”: “I realised that the search for the Knowledge has encouraged us to think of the House as if it were a sort of riddle to be unravelled, a text to be interpreted, and that if ever we 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. The sight of the One-Hundred-and-Ninety-Second Western Hall in the Moonlight made me see how ridiculous that is. The House is valuable because it is the House. It is enough in and of Itself. It is not the means to an end.”
While the Other sees the World around him as a “means to an end,” Piranesi sees the World with eyes of gentle reverence. He sees its worth. He knows that its value comes from what it is, not what he gleans from it.
Later on, in her interview with The Guardian, Clark states that if readers read Piranesi as a “reflection of this world,” “the divide is between people who see the world for what they can use it for, and the idea that the world is important because it is not human, it’s something we might be part of a community with, rather than just a resource. That is something that Piranesi grasps intuitively – that was very important, something I wanted to say.”
It seems, as the years progress, humanity has begun to care less about the world around them and care more about the worlds they can create within their jobs, social spheres, etc. With the rhythmic buzz of lives passing by and opportunities ahead, society overlooks the tangible (& intangible) wonders of the world. Reducing people to digits, treating others like chess pieces to use and discard, resorting to violence and blackmail — these are just the first tears of a breaking world. If stopping and watching – with no distraction in hand- is radical in this society, how far do we need to go before libraries and parks become outlandish entities? This is definitely something worth pondering as we move forward in the ‘20s.
As Verlyn Klinkenborg touches on in his National Geographic article regarding light pollution, “In a very real sense, light pollution causes us to lose sight of our true place in the universe, to forget the scale of our being, which is best measured against the dimensions of a deep night with the Milky Way—the edge of our galaxy—arching overhead.
Although light pollution is a separate topic, the point he brings up is thought-provoking. In an achievement-oriented, society, we, as humans, are so used to feeling big. We’ve raised ourselves to great heights, worn success & status like a crown, disregarded the insignificant… In essence, we’ve lost our sense of the world’s grandeur. We’ve forgotten how minuscule we are among the radiant stars, transient clouds, surreal universe, and tranquil birds.
Piranesi exemplifies the meaning of lowering ourselves to our real places – as humans not kings of the universe. This was something he “grasped intuitively.” He was aware of the world around him; of its beauty, its kindness, and its brokenness.
Today, people equivocate feeling small with weakness. When, in reality, feeling small gives birth to wonder.
Like a child enveloped in the arms of his mother, Piranesi ponders, marvels at the world. No phone vies for his attention, no screen produces disregard: he watches, he listens, he feels. And, oh, these are actions so lost in a world of constant momentum.
To put on Piranesi’s glasses is to see the world crowned in capitals, and thus crowned with value. To feel a sense of belonging, and thus view the objects & people you come in contact with as beings that belong. To be aware of our minuteness next to the grandeur of the world, and thus feel the humbleness of being human. To sense the tranquility of distraction’s absence, and thus cultivate a deeper regard for silence.
We could all use a pair of these lenses.
Have you read Piranesi? If so, what are your thoughts on it? What are your thoughts from this post? Comment down below. (: I’d love to hear from you!