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The meditative empathy of Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi

Why you can’t unlock this novel’s secret meaning.

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The cover of the book “Piranesi” by Susanna Clarke features a faun atop a decorative column piping a tune.
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke.
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

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One of the dangers of thinking about Piranesi, Susanna Clarke’s uncommonly beautiful second novel and the Vox Book Club’s September pick, is that you can get trapped in the question of whether you are interpreting too much.

Piranesi has a heavily allegorical structure. It concerns a man called Piranesi (although that is not his name) who lives in a vast House made up of endless marble halls filled with statues. The lowest floor of the House is flooded; the top floor is filled with clouds. Piranesi lives on the middle floor, with the birds. As far as he can tell, the House is all there is of the world, so that House and World are one and the same to him.

The House, empty of all other living people and populated with statues, feels familiar to any reader: It is a world made up of books. It is a place populated by symbols, abstract and unspeaking, and deep dark waters that likewise keep their own council. It is a place through which you may pace on your own, quite solitary and at your leisure, and take in the beauty and the brutal solitude that surrounds you.

As this understanding emerges, temptation strikes: The statues, you might conclude, are the key! If the House is a metaphor for reading, then obviously the statues all allude to different books. For instance, Piranesi makes a point of noting that his favorite statue, which depicts a faun, makes him dream of a faun meeting a girl in the snow, which anyone who has read the Narnia books will recognize as a reference to C.S. Lewis’s Mr. Tumnus.

Piranesi himself reads his statues, ascribing different symbolic meanings to each one. A statue of a gorilla, he tells us, “represents many things, among them Peace, Tranquillity, Strength, and Endurance.” When he sees flocks of birds flying from one statue to another, he reads their movements like an augury and does what he believes the birds are advising him to do. Generally, his interpretation proves to be prophetic.

So then all you have to do is figure out what books each statue is alluding to, a dutiful reader might conclude, and then you’ll be able to sort of decode Piranesi itself. You’ll unlock the secret meaning at the center like a trap door.

The first time I read Piranesi, I scribbled notes about each statue. The minotaurs by the entrance to the House evoke the myth of the labyrinth, which is what the wicked Laurence Arne-Sayles calls the House. An elephant carrying a castle puns on the famous Elephant and Castle inn in London. A woman carrying a beehive — well, certainly that could be a reference to any number of classical myths, which tend to feature bees as a chthonic symbol for life, death, and the soul.

But early on, Clarke makes a point of aiming her readers away from such mechanical, goal-oriented reading.

Piranesi knows of only one other living human, a man he calls the Other who visits the House every so often. The Other believes that the House contains the key to some secret Knowledge that mankind used to possess but has now lost. Once he gets it back, the Other believes, he’ll have the power of flight, immortality, and control over weaker souls.

Piranesi dutifully searches the House for the Knowledge the Other is seeking, but without all that much interest. Eventually, he is struck by an epiphany: The Knowledge, he realizes, is not the point of the House.

“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,” Piranesi concludes. But: “The House is valuable because it is the House. It is enough in and of Itself. It is not the means to an end.”

If the House is enough in and of itself and not as mere scenery, then when we reduce it and its contents to a set of symbols, we lose what is valuable about the House — and, by extension, what is valuable about reading Piranesi.

The beating heart of Piranesi is Piranesi himself, the experience of watching him live his life, his profound empathy. The way he tends to his birds and to the human dead he finds scattered across the halls, the way he communes with the House. An albatross comes to the House, and like the Ancient Mariner in reverse, Piranesi embraces it. He gives up his hard-won seaweed so the albatross can build a nest from it. When he needs to pilfer paper from a seagull’s nest, he waits until the baby gulls are fully grown so as not to disturb them. When he must move the skeleton of a small child out of the way of floodwaters, he leaves her “snuggled in a blanket” so that she will “feel safe in an unfamiliar Place.”

There is something meditative about watching Piranesi live, the purity of his life and the kindness of it. And Piranesi’s kindness is possible in part because he lives in such communion with the House, which is his world. He respects the House and knows how to live within it, and in turn the House blesses him with its bounties.

All the same, it’s not clear that the House, where Piranesi lives his pure and transcendent life, is actually superior to our own world.

Toward the end of the novel, Piranesi meets a woman named Rafael (the name of an angel, like the statue of the angel that predicted her arrival). Rafael explains to Piranesi that he lives in the House because he has been kidnapped from our own world, a world that contains many things the House and all its statues do not have.

“Here you can see only a representative of a river or a mountain,” she says, “but in our world — the other world — you can see the actual river and the actual mountain.”

Piranesi responds defensively. “The word ‘only’ suggests a relationship of inferiority,” he says. “I would argue that the Statue is superior to the thing itself, the Statue being perfect, eternal and not subject to decay.”

But Piranesi, in the end, leaves the House and returns to our own world. There, he has an encounter that forms a perfect inverse to his many encounters with the statues of the House, where he saw representations of things he recognized from elsewhere. In our world, Piranesi sees an old man, sad and tired, with “broken veins on his cheeks and a bristly white beard,” and recognizes him from a statue in the House.

“He is shown as a king with a little model of a walled city in one hand while the other hand he raises in blessing,” the man who is no longer called Piranesi explains. “I wanted to seize hold of him and say to him: In another world you are a king, noble and good! I have seen it! But I hesitated a moment too long and he disappeared into the crowd.”

Within the House, Piranesi was able to apply his limitless empathy to the statues that surrounded him, to all the rock and stone and water that comprised his world. In our world, the empathy the statues trained in him leaps out of him to strangers. He knows that a sad and tired old man may also be a king, noble and good, because he learned as much from the House.

This knowledge is not the Knowledge the Other sought, the Knowledge that reduces the House to meaningless scenery and grants its bearer control over lesser minds. It is an ability to respect what is around us as valuable in and of itself, not as a tool we can use to extract power to wield over other people. And having come to this conclusion, the narrator who used to be Piranesi concludes with the prayer he said often when he lived in the House, and which applies to our own world as much as that one: “The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.”

Share your thoughts on Piranesi in the comments section below, and be sure to RSVP for our upcoming live discussion event with Susanna Clarke herself. In the meantime, subscribe to the Vox Book Club newsletter to make sure you don’t miss anything.

Discussion questions

Here are a few questions and scattered thoughts to guide your discussion.

  1. Suggested reading! There’s been a lot of great analytical writing about Piranesi since it came out last fall, and here are a few of my favorites: Laura Miller’s profile of Clarke in the New Yorker; Carla Baricz’s reading of Piranesi through the Romantics, at Ploughshares; and Elyse Martin’s reading of Piranesi through the metaphor of a Renaissance Memory Palace, at Tor. Did I miss anything good?
  2. The allusions in Piranesi aren’t the point, but they’re fun. The most important allusion is probably to The Magician’s Nephew, the Genesis volume of Narnia, which provides both the epigraph and the Other’s last name (Ketterley, like Lewis’s wicked Uncle Andrew). That book features both the Wood Between the Worlds, a forest full of ponds that transport visitors from one world to another, and Charn, a dead and empty world full of statues. Both Charn and the Wood Between the Worlds are effective metaphors for the act of reading and writing (Lev Grossman’s The Magicians plays with them to interesting effect), and they both suggest the world of the House, with its statues and endless waters. How did the Narnia allusions take you?
  3. The other big referent is probably Borges’s “Library of Babel.” (As that New Yorker profile of Clarke notes, she was taking a Borges class when she had the first idea for Piranesi.) “Library of Babel” takes place in a world that is an infinite library, with every possible book containing every possible combination of letters. There, the abundance of meaning paradoxically renders the world meaningless, and its inhabitants go mad. I tend to take Piranesi as an inversion of Borges, in which the accumulation of meaning only makes the world more meaningful. What do you think?
  4. If you were in Piranesi’s shoes, would you leave the House in the end or stay?
  5. Is there any character in contemporary fiction more detestable than the Other? (Strong no, IMO!)
  6. Have you read Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Clarke’s much-admired first novel? Were you surprised by how different Piranesi is?
  7. Clarke wrote Piranesi in fragments, between bouts of isolation from chronic illness. How did it affect you to read this book in the midst of a pandemic?

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