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.
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.
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.
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.
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!