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The best way to change a person’s life…. @RobGMacfarlane

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When I had my little wobble in Waterstones recently and went a bit mad, buying three brand new books when I have so many unread ones at home already, I justified one of the purchases by the fact that it was very slim and about books – so it didn’t really count and I would be able to read it quickly. Well, yes – but for all its small size it certainly got me thinking!

The book in question is “The Gifts of Reading” by Robert Macfarlane; the latter is well-known for a number of chunky books loosely about landscape (although really about much more), as well for his championing of Nan Shepherd. This, however, is an essay by Macfarlane on the subject of books, specifically on the practice of gifting them, and it’s an absorbing little read.

I guess all of us booklovers have given and received any number of volumes over the years, and Macfarlane is no different. Here, he muses on the act of giving by relating it to his own very personal experiences, particularly with his friend Don (to whom the book is dedicated). The latter was the person who gave Macfarlane a copy of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s “A Time of Gifts”, which became a touchstone for Robert in his subsequent travels, perhaps even a catalyst for them. And he goes on to consider any number of other book gifts and their fates, the passing on of the libraries of departed friends, the effects those books can have and how in fact the right book at the right time can be life-changing.

I must be honest and say that my first read of Macfarlane’s work (“The Old Ways”) was not unproblematic; however, having read this eloquent and beautiful little book I’m inclined to think that possibly the issue was with me and not the book, and perhaps it was simply a case of bad timing. “The Gifts of Reading” set me off on all sorts of trains of thought, and if you’re a bookish person I can really recommend tracking it down to see if your experiences of book gifting are the same as this.

However, as I hinted above, the book nudged my brain into thinking a *lot* about books I’d been gifted during my life which had a really significant impact; and so in the spirit of Macfarlane’s book I thought I’d share them here. And I should say that these are all the original copies – I still have them after all those years…

The earliest is probably my copy of Tolkien’s “The Hobbit”, which was given to me by family friends Bill and Pamela back in the day (and this is *really* back in the day because I was very young!) They had been visiting us down south from Scotland and noticed I was reading the Narnia books. Bill was of the opinion that if I liked those I should also read “The Hobbit” and not long after sent me his copy. I read it, and my Dad also read it, and this led on to us reading “The Lord of the Rings” from the library in lovely big hardbacks (I’ve written about this before). Tolkien was indeed a life changer and I’ve gone through a number of LOTR obsessions in my time.

The inside of the book with Bill’s inscription – the book itself is a bit fragile nowadays…

The next most influential gift books I recalled were given to me the Christmas I turned 19 and were a set of the Mervyn Peake “Gormenghast” books. I was living in a cold-water flat in the Cotswolds at the time and went home for Christmas; the gift of the books came from one of my flatmates. I spent the whole of the Christmas period absolutely locked in the books, unable to stop reading. They really *were* life changers as I became so obsessed with Peake I later ended up helping to run the Peake Society for a while – but that’s another story…

My original Penguin Peakes – just beautiful…

Finally, of course, there has to be Italo Calvino. “If on a winter’s night a traveller…” (note the UK spelling on the cover of my version!) was gifted to me by Mr. Kaggsy in our early days together, and it really was a game changer. I’d never read anything like it; it did literary things I’d never came across and it took me places I’d never been and I had a major obsession with Calvino (still have, really). Yes, I get obsessed with my favourite writers, in case you hadn’t noticed – Georges Perec, anyone? 😀 Anyway, this was one of the most important gifts of my life, really, changing the way I saw everything. Truly books can be transformative.

My original Calvino, complete with UK spelling!

Those are the three obvious gifts of reading I’ve received during my life (although I could probably think of many more and make this post so long you’d all nod off); and I hadn’t thought of them in those terms before, but really they’re so important to me and did indeed change my life, making me the person I am – I would have been very different without experiencing them. So actually, Robert Macfarlane’s little book has been a bit of a gift in itself, making me consider some of the books of my life in a way I never have before. I can’t recommend “The Gifts of Reading” enough (in both senses!) and I’m off to rescue “The Old Ways” from *whispers* the donation pile as I think I’ll have to give it a bit of a reconsider! 😀

Rediscovering Gormenghast: Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake

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One of the pivotal reads of my life, and one which I’ve mentioned a couple of times recently in guest posts, was my first encounter at the age of 19 with the Gormenghast books by Mervyn Peake. I devoured them over a dull Christmas, and became totally absorbed in the strange and wonderful world the author had created. They had such an effect on me that I later ended up becoming involved with the running of the Mervyn Peake Society for some years, and I’ve always thought that Peake’s polymath talents have been underappreciated. Painter, illustrator, poet, playwright and author, he really was a multi-talented man.

the-gormenghast-trilogy

Over the years I’ve returned to the books several times, and they would most definitely be on my desert island list. However, writing about them brought them back into my mind and I’ve been circling a re-read. A chance stumble upon a lovely, readable omnibus edition in a charity shop clinched it – now was the time to make a return journey to Gormenghast castle and its inhabitants. I actually read the book over a week where both myself and OH were unwell with some nasty undefined bug that was doing the rounds, and it’s a tribute to Peake’s genius that I was completely absorbed – I spent the week *living* through the events in Gormenghast once more. I’ll confess up front that I’m not going to be able to give an objective, coherent review – I’m too close to the book, it means too much to me and so I’ll just try to capture some impressions and thoughts.

The action is set in the castle of Gormenghast, home to the ancient family of Groan, and opens with the birth of an heir, Titus, to Lord Sepulchrave, the 76th earl, and his wife Gertrude. This is a world ruled by the iron hand of ritual; every day defined by a prescribed set of actions that Sepulchrave and the denizens have to undertake, under the hand of the ancient and bad-tempered master of ritual, Sourdust. In rapid succession we meet all the main characters: Flay, stick-like and monosyllabic manservant to Lord Sepulchrave; Fuchsia, 15-year-old daughter of the house of Groan; Dr. Bernard Prunesquallor and his sister Irma, not quite part of the higher echelons but above the servants; Nannie Slagg, ancient nurse to the children of Groan; Swelter, the monumentally huge chef; and Steerpike, the high-shouldered, sly kitchen lad who comes to play a pivotal part in the story.

Fuchsia and Steerpike on a page of the ms - from mervynpeake.org

Fuchsia and Steerpike on a page of the ms – from mervynpeake.org

Those are just a few of the characters in this rich and wonderful book, all vividly alive, in fact larger than life; but there are many more who pass through its pages. To be honest, the castle itself, a rambling, sprawling, undefined structure with architectural oddities and marvels all over it, is very much a character itself. And as the castle’s denizens reacts to the birth of Titus, Steerpike makes an escape from the kitchens and into the upper life of the Groans; Flay and Swelter clash in a way that will eventually seal their fates; Fuchsia responds badly to the changes coming in the castle; and the story follows the events of the first year of Titus’s life which will bring dramatic events to a cataclysmic head. More I am not going to say, because if you’ve never read Peake you have the biggest treat in the world awaiting you.

mp-peake-head-and-shoulders

To attempt to give a summary of the plot would be impossible in a blog post, and also I want to avoid any kind of spoiler; so instead I’ll just focus on a few of the strands which gave me the most pleasure. Of course, watching Steerpike’s inexorable rise through the ranks, as he twists every situation to his own advantage, is fascinating – like watching a poisonous animal in action; the development of Prunesquallor, who initially appears to be all hysteria and puff but gradually reveals himself to have a hidden intelligence and subtle understanding of what’s going on around him, is wonderful to see; and the late-flowering relationship between Fuchsia and her father Sepulchrave is particularly poignant and heartbreaking. The Flay-Swelter rivalry and conflict is gripping, and has you on the edge of your seat at several points; and the manipulation of the Groan twins Cora and Clarice is clever and vicious. As for the melancholy Sepulchrave and his library – let’s not go there…..

The library appeared to spread outwards from him as from a core. His dejection infected the air about him and diffused his illness upon every side. All things in the long room absorbed his melancholia. The shadowing galleries brooded with slow anguish; the books receding into the deep corners, tier upon tier, seemed each a separate tragic note in a monumental fugue of volumes.

Even though I know this story better than I had remembered, the joy of revisiting it was immense. The first time reading it I was stunned by the writing and the characterisation, reading obsessively to follow the story. However, on re-reads you can wallow in the wonder of the prose and the sheer brilliance of the imagery. Wherever Gormenghast is meant to be (in my mind it sits apart in some kind of parallel world!), it is truly alive in its own right and it’s a creation of genius. “Titus Groan” contains vivid and wonderful writing, the prose of an artist bringing to life his creation with word paintings. The pictures it creates, of corridors and roofscapes, attics and kitchens, faded ceremonial rooms and bedrooms full of ivy, birds and white cats, are unique and stamped in my brain. Peake’s writing summons a chiaroscuro world where light and dark are in constant contrast and although the book contains a scattering of his pen and ink drawings of characters, you don’t need them – the writing provides the pictures for you.

    As Fuchsia climbed into the winding darkness her body was impregnated and made faint by a qualm as of green April. Her heart beat painfully.
    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 man or of a woman for their world. For the world of their centre where their lives burn genuinely and with a free flame… The love of the painted standing alone and staring, staring at the great coloured surface he is making. Standing with him in the room the rearing canvas stares back with tentative shapes halted in their growth, moving in a new rhythm from floor to ceiling… The window gapes as he inhales his world. His world: a rented room, and turpentine. He moves towards his half-born. he is in love. … the painted mutters, ‘I am me’ on his lone raft of floorboards, so… dark Fuchsia (says) on her twisting staircase, ‘I am home’.
(Fuchsia’s love for her secret attic)

And revisiting these characters, with all their quirks and individual traits, was a wonderful experience. From Prunesquallor’s hyena laugh to Irma’s obsession with her long white neck; Steerpike’s cold mechanical calculation to Swelter’s almost sensual greed and hatred; Fuchsia’s petulance and need for affection to Sepulchrave’s melancholia and love of his books; all the characters leap off the page, alive and vivid, and they’re ones you don’t forget. The wonderful Flay is one of my favourites, but each strange but compelling character is necessary to the story. I’ve pondered in the past about a sub-strand of the plot, involving Keda; one of the Bright Carvers, people who live outside the walls of the castle, she’s brought in as a wet-nurse for Titus, and her life and fate is related alongside that of the castle. The passion she and her people feel is in direct contrast to the sterility of the dying line inside the castle, and I think is a necessary counterpoint to that story.

Mr. Flay (from mervynpeake.org)

Mr. Flay (from mervynpeake.org)

What I had either forgotten or perhaps never appreciated is quite how Dickensian Peake’s writing is. His wonderful use of names, of course, echoes the great Victorian writer, and he demonstrates the same kind of dry wit at times. The sprawling world of Gormenghast in many ways echoes Dickens’ London, and the use of evil, melodrama and dark themes was common to both writers.

I accept that “Titus Groan” and Peake’s writing will not be for everyone. The events and characters are often grotesque, the subject matter grim and the sense of ennui and destruction noticeable. The books were influenced by Peake’s experiences as a child living in Tientsin, but also by his life experiences. As a war artist, he was one of the first civilians to see inside Belsen and witness the prisoners dying as their liberators arrived; therefore it’s hard not to read significance into something as simple as Steerpike’s kitchen uniform having a striped jacket… (“Titus Groan” was published in 1946). The book contains darkness, yes, but a necessary darkness; it’s also shot through with brilliance and often great beauty.

I did wonder, after all these years and several reads, what I would feel approaching the Gormenghast books again. Although I’ll never be able to recreate the thrill of that first read, this re-read stunned me in many places with the brilliance of the writing and plotting, completely involved me emotionally and left me drained at the end. It’s one of those books, a select few, that you inhabit rather than just read. The main problem I have now is in restraining myself from simply picking up the next book and carrying on with the re-read – I want to give myself time to recover a little, but the temptation is immense!

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