Mervyn Peake, Titus Groan, introduction by Anthony Burgess (London: Vintage Books, 1998)
This is a love that equals in its power the love of man for woman and reaches inwards as deeply. It is the love of a man or of a woman for their world. For the world of their centre where their lives burn genuinely and with a free flame. 66
We grew up with Gormenghast though can’t recall when or how it was introduced, only that it was due to our mother and it was always there, like the great oak sideboard or the heavy wooden slab of dining table which could be slid back and forth on its stolid legs to let slimmer or wider people slip into the deconsecrated church pew we used for a bench.
At some point, our mother’s mentions of Gormenghast and its characters permeated us without our even reading the book, and despite the fact I don’t remember her actually talking about it. One of my brothers made a plaster life-sized aquiline head of a protagonist which he still has. It was only recently I became conscious of never having actually read this masterpiece of fantastic fiction, and so began with the first of the triology, Titus Groan.
Could an imaginative fantasy read in adulthood live up to the tap-root expectations penetrating the cellars of childhood impressionistic memories? This WritingRedux bestellar review says ‘yes’.
This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven. 6
Gormenghast, you realise, is a place, its double hard ‘g’ sounds giving a glimpse of its Gothic granitic organic growth. And note the closing syllable echoing ‘ghastly’ and ‘aghast’. The towering, louring sprawldom has a lowly counterpart of hovels and plebs, clinging to its walls like limpets and known, collectively, as the Outer Dwellings.
… those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls. 6
Apart from providing labour and wet nurses, the main contact between this community and the castle which overlords it, is an annual competition of wood carvings, which are then displayed for eternity in a gallery nobody visits but its dusty curator, Rottcodd.
Within, there is a tussle between the static, stifling rituals of ages, and the seethe and foment of change, of hatreds and power struggles, manipulations and plots, roiling beneath the purview of the Earl and Countess. The family, if mere blood relations can be called such, lives each in their own fastness of the castle’s vastness, apparently only coming together every few years to act out prescribed rituals.
In the case of the Earl and Countess, it appears their only contact as a couple is for the purpose of procreation. This has borne Fuchsia, a daughter now about 15, an interesting, intelligent girl but essentially inessential due to her sex. When the story begins, however, the awaited son and heir has been born, Titus of the book’s title.
‘Eyes?’ said Lord Groan. ‘What’s wrong with them?’
‘Wrong?’ cried Prunesquallor. ‘Did you say “wrong”, your lordship? Have you not seen them?’
‘No, quick, man. Hurry yourself. What is it? What is the matter with my son’s eyes?’
‘They are violet.’ 41
The puckered-up face of the newly-born child, old as the world, wise as the roots of trees. 83-84
His mother’s responses to him evoke the atmosphere of loving tenderness in which he is to be reared.
‘Slagg,’ said the Countess, ‘go away! I would like to see the boy when he is six. Find a wet nurse from the Outer Dwellings. Make him green dresses from the velvet curtains. Take this gold ring of mine. Fix a chain to it. Let him wear it around his wry little neck. Call him Titus. Go away and leave the door six inches open.’ 50
The main source of warmth for both children is a harried, fussing, anxious nanny who feels downtrodden and underappreciated (and we join the others in under appreciating her), and the bodily contact of their Outer Dwelling wet nurses.
‘I want a big breakfast,’ said Fuchsia at last. ‘I want a lot to eat, I’m going to think today.’
Nannie Slagg was scutinizing a wart on her left forearm.
‘You don’t now where I’m going, but I’m going somewhere where I can think.’
‘Yes, dear,’ said the old nurse.
‘I want hot milk and eggs and lots of toast done only on one side.’ Fuchsia frowned as she paused: ‘And I want a bag of apples to take along with me for the whole of the day, for I get hungry when I think.’
‘Yes, dear,’ said Mrs Slagg again, pulling a loose thread from the hem of Fuchsia’s skirt. 59
There is also Clarice and Cora, a brace of insane, superannuated twin sisters of the Earl, who scheme synchronously in the confinement of their quarters, pettily and self-pityingly power-plotting against being perpetually passed over in importance, all with stupendous ineptitude.
‘Where have you been since then?’ said Lady Groan …
‘We’ve been in the South Wing all the time, Gertrude,’ replied Cora.
‘That’s where we’ve been,’ said Clarice. ‘In the south wing all the time.’
… ‘Doing what?’ she said.
‘Thinking,’ said the twins together, ‘that’s what we’ve been doing – thinking a lot.’ 100
‘I like roofs’, said Clarice; ‘they are something I like more than most things because they are on top of the houses they cover, and Cora and I like being over the tops of things because we love power, and that’s we are both fond of roofs.’
‘That’s why,’ Cora continued. ‘That’s the reason …’ 200
The place has been there since forever and so have its rhythms and rituals. So have its hatreds and rivalries, such as the visceral enmity between the creaky, lanky Flay and the Gargantuan chef, Swelter. One of the highlights of the first part of the trilogy is the boiling over of their reciprocal loathing with its quite unexpected result.
… he could make out the vague unmistakable shape of what had really been at the back of his brain like a tumour, ever since he entered the Great Kitchen. 21
It had therefore been Mr Flay’s practice, whenever possible, to ignore the chef as one ignores a cesspool by the side of a road. 91
… while Swelter, whose frustrated blood-lust was ripe as a persimmon… 403
So far, so static, nothing changes bar the moving parts occasionally being displaced by death or banishment, and duly replaced.
Enter evil. Enter it does, yet ‘enter’ suggests striding in upright from stage left. In fact, it seeps and insinuates like damp and cancer. Its name is Steerpike.
… but he was soon his cold, calculating self, with his ordered mind like a bureau with tabulated shelves and pigeon-holes of reference. 162
The blood, streaming down Steerpike’s neck, feels as warm as tea as it slides to his belly. 354
I’ll leave it there, no spoiler-moiler me.
But in this labyrinth of distemper and dysfunction, is there anyone likeable? I think four, including Fuchsia, the inessential daughter. Mostly though, it is Dr Prunesquallor who stands out, showing wisdom, kindness and sensitivity towards Fuchsia, and impressive patience and forebearance to his tragically, comically spinsterish sister Irma.
As the days passed he began to know her better, in the great, inarticulate way of guardian trees. 335
Fuchsia took the pouch from the Doctor’s hand and from it drew forth into the lamplight a ruby like a lump of anger. 165
Also likeable, though hardly balanced, is Gertrude the Countess. Surrounded by a surging mewl-swarm of cats and flocks of fluttering, flapping birds, she seems to love these creatures more than humans, including her own progeniture.
And I shall teach the boy to whistle birds out of the sky to his wrist which I have never taught Fuchsia because I have kept my knowledge for the boy and if I have the time before he is twelve years old and if it’s a pleasant evening I might take him to the pool that is as green as my malachite ring with the silver setting and let him watch the lesser-fly-spotted-wag-catchers building their soft grey nests out of moth-wings and dew-twine but how do I know he will be observant and careful with birds for Fuchsia disappointed me before she was five with her clumsiness for she used to ram the flowers into the glass vases and bruise the stalks though she loved them but it is my son I wish to teach for there is no use in revealing my secrets to a girl but he will be so useless for a long time and must be kept away from my room until he is about five at least when he will be able to absorb what I tell him about the skies’ birds and how he can keep his head quite clear of the duties he must perform day after day… 374
A favourite phrase is ‘If I have the time before he is twelve years old…’ But the closing clause hints that this is eccentricity, not madness, and there is in her a core of sharp instinctual perception. If she allows it to impinge on her freedom, she has a capacity, far exceeding that of her husband Sepulchrave, to see what is going on and to act on it.
Sepulchrave, his name tells you all you need to know apart from the fact he loves books and is perhaps most at ease in his library. Read the book.
Beyond the walls, there is also a touching human story among the Outer Dwellers, which renders them real and feeling, rather than simply being a short-lived, joyless, lumpen-prol backdrop to the main action of the castle, if its slow-moving machinations can be called ‘action’.
The writing is densely detailed, richly-textured, and peppered with rare words and rich metaphors and similes. As Anthony Burgess describes it, it appears sometimes as mad as the place it describes, but the whole thing is taut and controlled.
It remains essentially a work of the closed imagination, in which a world parallel to our own is presented in almost paranoiac denseness of detail. But the madness is illusory, and control never falters. It is, if you like, a rich wine of fancy chilled by the intellect to just the right temperature. Anthony Burgess, introduction, 5
Mervyn Peake was an artist as much as a writer, and his drawings for Gormenghast are magnificent. A selection can be seen on the official website, of which my personal favourite is Irma Prunesquallor.
Years ago, when audio came on a cassette, I heard a wonderful BBC radio dramatization of Gormenghast. Unable to find it again, I have however discovered that the BBC made a four-part series. As always, I hesitate to watch it as I don’t want to displace the visual world Peake’s words have built in my mind – how many such parallel Gormenghasts are there, created by Peake in the minds of readers?
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