Joy and Belonging in Susanna Clarke's Piranesi

Where does one look for joy in modern culture? For the last year, this question has felt especially intimate as people around the world have been forced to upend their routines, socially isolate, and confine themselves within their homes to avoid an invisible enemy lurking outside their walls. What does joy look like in such circumstances? Where can it be found?

Pandemic life draws a number of parallels with that of the narrator in Susanna Clarke’s latest novel, Piranesi. Named after the title, Piranesi dwells in what he refers to as simply “the House,” a labyrinthine mansion filled with an infinite number of halls connected by staircases and vestibules, all of which are plentifully decorated by statues.

The topmost levels of the House fill with rain-swollen clouds that storm in regular intervals, while the lower chambers flood with the ever-changing tides of the sea. Piranesi makes his home between the two, surviving on a diet of fish and dried seaweed while weaving shells into his hair and exploring new halls every chance he gets. As he sees it, his purpose is simple: “I have a duty to bear witness to the Splendours of the World.” And bear witness, he does.

The novel reads as Piranesi’s journal, chronicling his travels, calculating the tides, and musing about his favorite statues. (Early on, he notes his particular fondness for an upright faun, a sentiment sure to be shared by fans of C. S. Lewis.) To the best of his knowledge, only fifteen people have ever occupied his world. Thirteen of them are dead, their bones attended to by Piranesi like holy relics. Aside from himself, there is only the Other, a short-tempered, sharply dressed man consumed by a scientific commitment to discovering the “Great and Secret Knowledge” he’s certain lies hidden away in the House.

Mysteriously, the Other appears only two days a week, sending Piranesi on strange errands to collect data for his quest, one he believes will endow him with special powers like telepathy and immortality. Sometimes the Other arrives bearing gifts, such as a new pair of shoes or plastic bowls for collecting rainwater. Other times, he simply greets Piranesi with a curt nod while tapping away on his “shining device.”

The two men set up the crossroads of the book, embodying two utterly divergent visions for the world, humanity’s place within it, and how to derive joy along the way.

Clarke’s Original Enchantment

Best known for her debut novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (2004), Clarke  carries on a tradition long cherished among fiction lovers by envisioning a magical England. Set in the nineteenth century, her first book explored an alternate history of England in which two men, Jonathan Strange and Gilbert Norrell, manage to revive the long-dead use of magic. Critics have likened her prose to that of Jane Austen or Charles Dickens, and acclaimed author Neil Gaiman described her debut as “unquestionably the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last seventy years.”

Yet, in the wake of such acclaim, Clarke found herself unable to pen a short story, let alone a highly anticipated sequel. Soon after the release of her debut, she fell ill with what would later be diagnosed as chronic fatigue syndrome, a condition that continues to plague her today.

Vacillating between constant exhaustion and bouts of depression, piecing together a sequel to Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell—well over 700 pages itself—provoked a mental paralysis she could not overcome. It wasn’t until she visited the set of the television adaptation of her novel over a decade later that a creative spark began to burn within her. And to fuel it, she set her sights on a more manageable idea constrained by a limited set of characters and requiring little to no research. After all, how does one study an otherworldly house containing the sea?

For Clarke, Piranesi was, at least in part, an attempt at describing joy. Throughout her illness along with intermittent hospitalizations, she found respite in novels and wanted to create a fictional setting of her own that was safe enough for considering such a topic. Where does one find purpose when bedridden? How does a person feel connected to the outside world when locked inside, burdened by a constant mental fog?

Piranesi’s joy is time consuming, localized, and void of any external praise, but it is real, whereas the Other finds no solace in the present, constantly working to achieve a goal that remains at arm’s length.

Piranesi derives joy from his connection to the House. Repeatedly, he says, “The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.” Much like the child narrator in Emma Donoghue’s Room, Piranesi describes inanimate objects with a kind of reverence typically reserved for human subjects, capitalizing terms like “Pavement” and “Door” as though they might spring into conversation at any moment. “The House is valuable because it is the House,” he says. “It is enough in and of Itself.” His world surges with life and vitality at every turn. It is beautiful—purposeful—simply because it exists.

While Clarke has credited reading The Lord of the Rings with inspiring her fantasy career and peppered Piranesi with references to Narnia, her narrator’s connection to his world is yet another influence of the Inklings, owing to the brilliant mind of Owen Barfield. Known for what he referred to as the “evolution of consciousness,” Barfield developed the concept of “Original Participation,” through which he argued that ancient peoples related to the world in a much different manner than their modern counterparts. They viewed their lives as participation in an enchanted universe, one in which they connected with reality (or God) through expressions like dance, art, myth, and nature, whereas the modern person views itself as the protagonist and has disabused any notion of enchantment.

Piranesi is the fictional form of Original Participation, embracing the world around him as important because it is unlike him. There is no distance between him and his environment. Whereas the Other approaches the House like an outside observer, Piranesi considers himself a member of it, linked to it like an appendage to a body. A foot and its functions are unlike that of a nose, but they belong to the same body and contribute to its overall good. Thus, Piranesi enamors himself with caring for and exploring the House because every new discovery informs his understanding of his home as well as his purpose within it. At one point in the novel, a snow white albatross nests with its mate in one of the House’s halls and their arrival is so significant to Piranesi that he designates it the start of a new calendar year.

This notion of Original Participation grates against the more modern notion of utility. Rather than seeing ourselves as part of a greater whole, people today tend to think of the world as a resource to be leveraged for personal enrichment, much like Piranesi’s counterpart, the Other. To him, the House is hollow and meaningless apart from the power he believes it offers. It is nothing more than a means to an end. He does not belong to it, but it to him. Rather than admiring the virtue of the statues or learning to respect the majestic power of the sea’s tides, the Other cares only for how the House can serve his ambitions.

If Piranesi is innocence, the Other is egoism at best, corruption at worst. Yet, few readers will recognize themselves in Piranesi. His joy is attractive, but impractical—naive, even. Why reset our calendar at the sighting of a bird when we can measure the Earth’s rotation around the sun with consistent precision? Who has the time to catalogue the world around them amidst their daily responsibilities? And why bother, especially if there is no guarantee that such records will ever be published or praised by readers? What is the point?

Joy’s Belonging

Everyone desires to belong to something greater than themselves, but doing so requires stepping out of the spotlight. For many, that is a threatening thought because it might mean living in the background. Like Piranesi, it could mean the responsibility of bearing witness instead of being witnessed. But what is the alternative?

If the Other is any example, the alternative is endless toil, competition, and anxiety. It is constant comparison to the accomplishments of others to affirm your personal status. It is exhausting and alienating. No wonder joy is so elusive. Still, it is the world we inhabit—and there is no going back. But we are not hopeless.

Without giving away the novel’s well-earned twist, suffice it to say that no reader will consider the way Piranesi arrived at his view of the world one worth replicating. But his allure is in his resistance to the air we breathe. There’s no escaping the modern obsession with self, but there is power in recognizing that joy cannot be sustained by the latest time-saving app, exercise regimen, or get-rich-quick scheme. 

Piranesi’s joy is time consuming, localized, and void of any external praise, but it is real, whereas the Other finds no solace in the present, constantly working to achieve a goal that remains at arm’s length. There will always be dishes to wash, meals to prepare, laundry to fold, meetings to attend, presentations to deliver, children to shuttle to school—and all of it, even the most mundane task, becomes a source of joy when we embrace the fact that we are not at the center of the story of life. Like Piranesi, we are given to the task of bearing witness to the splendors of this world in which we have been placed.

Joy is not something we create; it is something we receive through belonging. We find it when we look up from our screens to see our neighbor, when we treat our homes as places worth preserving, when we admire a work of art for its beauty instead of its usefulness. But it can only start with a practice of refusing to be swept up in the current of self-centric busyness that keeps us from seeing the world around us as beautiful simply because it is.