Notes on Piranesi

In which I either lose or find myself in a book

Entry on the day of our fourth virtual watch party for the His Dark Materials television series, season 2

I read Susanna Clark’s Piranesi in two days.

It might have been one, but I keep busy. It was the beginning of the week, and I had work. Meals to cook. Elderly cats to give medication. Exercise to perform grimly. Friendships, via a weekly D&D game one night and a weekly watch party the next. A video game I tend like a fussy garden, with daily quests and daily dungeon crawls I complete with players I can see but not hear.

In Piranesi, the title character (who is not named Piranesi, but we’ll call him that) lives in a sort of interstitial plane that exists as a thruway to other worlds, beautiful and awe-inspiring in its own right: hall after classical hall, some sheltered and others exposed to the sea and air, lined with massive statues. When we are introduced to Piranesi and his world, he has been dwelling in the halls entirely alone except for some human remains (for whom he feels great fellowship and sympathy) and occasional travelers who are passing through. Aside from chatting with the travelers (who are not always friendly), Piranesi keeps himself occupied with the business of staying alive–catching fish, preparing for winter–and with goals he sets himself to satisfy his curious mind, such as cataloging the statues and studying the movements of birds…

…oh.

Is Susanna Clarke a gamer?

Entry on the day before my final group assignment for Oceanography class is due

Since Piranesi came out in September of this pandemic year, I have seen some reviewers and Twitterers suggest that it is, in a sense, a quarantine novel. As Piranesi ekes out his survival in the ruins–although I don’t think he would use the term survival, or ruins–his isolated and repetitive existence reminds us of our own, only with a kind of noble austerity and determined optimism we can only aspire to. He catches fish. He gathers seaweed. He makes tools and supplies out of the fish and seaweed. He marvels in the beauty of his vast and mysterious surroundings, and delights in discoveries large and small. He does not chafe at the limits of his world–as far as he knows, it is limitless. He does not yearn for the worlds that intersect with his, even once he finds out about them.

Of course, Susanna Clarke wrote this book long before we were told to shelter in place and limit social contact. It went to press after a long fallow period following her vibrant and charming debut Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell; she struggled with chronic illness in the intervening years. So of course I also wanted to read Piranesi as a metaphor for chronic illness. The enormity of the rote daily tasks. How much time and effect it takes just to keep yourself fed and clothed and functional. (Late in the story, Piranesi experiences an emotionally devastating realization; the next section is titled “I resolve to take better care of myself.”) The loneliness of pain and fatigue. I am reasonably well now, but remember vividly how isolated chronic illness can make one feel–impossible for the able-bodied to truly understand or empathize with.

I saw another tweet that interpreted the book as a metaphor for gender dysphoria. Piranesi is a rich text in that way–like a fairytale, like the mysterious statues, the allegorical potential is irresistible.

So it should not surprise you that, since I read this book while reflecting on my own habits in isolation, I wanted to compare Piranesi’s daily industriousness to level-grinding. His main quest-giver only appears a couple times a week, and the rest of the time… he gathers resources. He crafts. He visits his favorite parts of the map. He pieces together the lore of the realm. There are worse ways to pass the time, when you can’t leave.

Winter is hard

Entry on the third day of ice on the ground

The House where Piranesi lives is a House–hallways, stairways, chambers, windows–and everything outside of it is either sea or sky. There are no gardens or flowering plants in the House, just statues of gardeners and beekeepers and the like. But there are seasons.

“There is a thing I know but always forget: Winter is hard,” Piranesi writes. In the winter it is colder and food and fuel are scarcer, so he has to work twice as hard to build up supplies. When winter descends, he doesn’t concern himself as much with exploring, playing music, or journaling; his goal is to stay alive.

I too forget, every year, that winter is hard. And I think someday I will look back and view the entirety of 2020 as a long, dull winter.

On the unbearable necessity of others

Entry on the tenth day of Special Winter Vacation, a period of paid leave enforced by my employer, during which I had many tasks scheduled and few completed

In the first scene of the novel, Piranesi is almost swept away by tides converging rapidly in the lower level of the vast halls. He clings to a statue for dear life. When the waters recede, he finds that he is clutching a fragment of another statue in his fist. “The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite,” he writes afterward in his journal.

Some reviewers read Piranesi as happy in his isolated existence. The House provides food, water, shelter, beauty, activity for both the mind and the body. Edenic, in a sense. “The World feels Complete and Whole, and I, its Child, fit into it seamlessly,” he tells himself.

I do not see it that way. Piranesi is achingly lonely.

He cherishes his visits with the Other–the only other living human being he knows at the beginning of the story–although it is painfully clear that the Other does not cherish him. When the Other leaves him a gift to find, Piranesi is filled with such joy that he looks instinctively for someone to share it with, and ends up telling the crows who perch on statues. He finds a letter written by an unknown hand and he writes back, although he does not know whether the letter writer is alive or dead. When moonlight pierces a dark hall in the House and Piranesi finds himself surrounded by a crowd of statues, he marvels. “For a moment I had an inkling of what it might be like if instead of two people in the World there were thousands,” he writes. And when it turns out that there are indeed more than two people in the House, and the Other instructs him to expect danger, he is quick to offer aid and kindness to the strangers.

That’s the problem with the Other, or others. They are like Houses or Worlds unto themselves: unknowable, and therefore unpredictable. Piranesi may have been comparatively contented before the others entered his world–but his curiosity and longing for communion would have drawn him out of isolation sooner or later.

On the ruined houses of our masters

Entry for the day a group of armed domestic terrorists stormed into the Capitol building, compelled Congress to flee, and rifled through the emptied chambers

Piranesi reminded me of another fantasy book I read recently in which the main characters wander around a majestic, mysterious ruin: Gideon the Ninth, in which representatives from far-flung planets are dropped into a contest for which they do not know all the rules, and must decide whether to compete or cooperate to win. They don’t know exactly what happened to the great house which both shelters and imperils them, and their understanding of the house’s mythology doesn’t quite account for its state of ruin. Unlike Piranesi, who is prepared to offer the best of himself to anyone he meets even if he does not expect the best of them, the necromancers and cavaliers of Gideon the Ninth anticipate violence and proceed accordingly. Nonetheless, time passes; the contestants must eat, rest, and talk; they can do it together or apart, and most choose to do it together even at their own risk.

Piranesi, despite his confidence in the gifts of his House, sometimes has cause to wonder why the halls that shelter him also cause him hardship and hunger. He finds answers in the structure of the House itself: its size, its mysteries, its evocative statues that invite his contemplation. Early on, Piranesi tries his hand at augury: he watches birds swoop from statue to statue, and meditates on the symbolism of the statues they light upon. A message from a great distance. Obscure writing. Innocence that is worn down or eroded. The omen is, like so many things in the book, a moment of beauty and poetry, the familiar made strange. Rereading, I realized: oh, it is Piranesi’s innocence that will be eroded away. The House is not Eden and he is not perfectly content in ignorance; he will leave the safety of his vast House for knowledge, and companionship. Curiosity even introduces the closest thing to sin in his tranquil existence by compelling him to keep secrets from the Other.

This is the new literature of haunted houses and mysterious ruins: tales of wandering the wreckage of a failed society, desperate for human connection, knowing that others pose both your worst danger and your only hope.

3 thoughts on “Notes on Piranesi”

  1. […] Disappearing Earth by Julia PhillipsCreatures by Crissy Van MeterBlack Leopard Red Wolf by Marlon JamesThe Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí ClarkWeather by Jenny OffillThe Parable of the Sower by Octavia ButlerAll Systems Red and Artificial Condition by Martha WellsMy Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan BraithwaiteGirl, Woman, Other by Bernardine EvaristoThe Plague by Albert CamusGideon the Ninth by Tamsyn MuirMargaret the First by Danielle DuttonPiranesi by Susanna Clarke […]

  2. […] When I read Piranesi, I noted that it was a rich text that lent itself to many interpretations. I also noted the weight of having its protagonist explore ruins and piece together the history of the people it once held, if any–which I thought about again when I read The Starless Sea. So I was pretty excited to see this thoughtful essay about how the labyrinths in these books can be read as queer desire. […]

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