Tuesday, June 21, 2011

406. Gormenghast – Mervyn Peake

History: This is the second novel in the Gormenghast series. The book was published in 1950.
Plot: Steerpike, despite his position of authority, is in reality a dangerous traitor to Gormenghast who seeks to eventually wield ultimate power in the castle. To this end, he kills Barquentine so that he can replace him and so advance in power. Although he is successful in his murder of Barquentine, the old master of ritual put up such a severe struggle that Steerpike is severely injured in the process, suffering extensive burns and almost drowning. As Steerpike lies recovering in a delirious state from his ordeal, he cries out the words And the twins will make it five. This is overheard by the castle's doctor, Dr Prunesquallor, who is greatly disturbed to hear it. Although the reader is not told this explicitly, Steerpike's words are a clear reference to the number of people he has killed. The reference to the twins is to the aunts of Titus, the twin sisters Ladies Cora and Clarice. Steerpike has effectively been holding them captive in a remote and abandoned part of the castle, and they are utterly dependent on him for food and drink. Due to Steerpike's prolonged recovery he is unable to supply them (and at some level Steerpike is aware of this, even in his delirium), and by the time he has recovered they have already died of thirst and starvation.
Dr Prunesquallor discusses Steerpike's words with the Countess Gertrude, but they disagree over its meaning and the ambiguity over exactly what Steerpike meant is never resolved. Nevertheless, both of them are now thoroughly suspicious about Steerpike and his role in the various disappearances and deaths among the happenings of the castle. Although Steerpike appears to make a full recovery, he is left disfigured with a morbid fear of fire. It also becomes clear that the balance of his mind is increasingly disturbed.
An important parts of Titus' life is spent at school, where he encounters the school professors, especially Bellgrove, one of Titus's teachers, who eventually ascends to Headmaster of Gormenghast. The other teachers are a collection of misfits, each with idiosyncracies of their own, who bicker and compete with each other in petty rivalries, being not unlike a bunch of overgrown schoolboys themselves. A welcome humorous interlude in the novel occurs when Irma Prunesquallor (sister of the castle's doctor), decides to get married, and throws a party in the hope of meeting a suitable partner. To this end she invites the school professors, who are so terrified of meeting a woman that they make fools of themselves in various ways. One professor faints at the prospect of having to speak to Irma and has to be revived by the doctor. When he wakes up he flees naked and shrieking over the garden wall, never to be seen again. Only Bellgrove, recently made headmaster, rises to the occasion and behaves in a gentlemanly way to Irma. Bellgrove and Irma thus begin a rather unusual romance. Bellgrove becomes an important figure in Titus' development. In many respects, he is the standard absent-minded professor who falls asleep during his own class and plays with marbles. However, deep inside him there is a certain element of dignity and nobility. At heart Bellgrove is kindly, and if weak, at least has the humility to be aware of his faults. He becomes something of a father figure to Titus.
An important development for Titus is his brief meeting with his "foster sister" a feral girl known only as 'The Thing', the daughter of Titus' wet-nurse Keda of the Bright Carvers. The Thing, being an illegitimate child, is exiled by the Carvers and lives a feral life in the forests around Gormenghast. Titus first meets her when he escapes from the confines of Gormenghast into the outside world. Titus is entranced by her wild grace, and sets out to meet her. He does so, and holds her briefly, but she flees him and is fatally struck by lightning. However, her fierce independence inspires Titus, and gives him courage to later leave his home.
Due to the vigilance of the old servant Flay Steerpike is eventually unmasked as the murderer of the aunts of Titus, Cora and Clarice. He becomes a renegade within the castle, using his extensive knowledge to hide within its vast regions, and waging a guerilla campaign of random killing with his catapult. Steerpike's capture seems impossible until the entire kingdom of Gormenghast is submerged in a flood, due to endless rains. The mud dwellers are forced to take refuge in the castle and the castle's own inhabitants are also forced to retreat to higher and higher floors as the flood waters keep rising. Fuchsia, grown increasingly melancholic and withdrawn after the death of her father and betrayal by Steerpike, briefly contemplates suicide. At the last moment, she changes her mind, but slips and falls from a window, striking her head on the way down and drowning in the floodwaters. Unaware of the accident when they find her body, both Countess Gertrude and Titus are convinced that Steerpike is to blame, and both resolve to bring the murderer to justice.
So begins an epic manhunt through the rapidly flooding castle, with Steerpike forced into ever smaller areas and eventually surrounded by the castle's forces. Even at this late stage, his ruthlessness and cunning mean that Steerpike almost evades capture. However, Titus realises that he is hiding in the ivy against the castle walls, and full of rage and hatred against Steerpike he pursues and kills him himself. Despite being hailed as a hero, Titus is intent on leaving Gormenghast to explore a wider world, and the novel ends with him dramatically riding away to seek his fortune in the unknown lands outside.
Review: There's nothing else in all of literature quite like the Gormenghast trilogy. A weird, totally original blend of fantasy, gothic, and allegory, with characters out of Dickens by way of Hieronymous Bosch, and looming over it all the mammoth, decaying architecture of Gormenghast, the Groan family castle. The first two books in the series concern the newly born heir, Titus, 77th Earl of Groan, born into an aristocratic family which is completely bound by ancient and inane rules and ceremonies, and the efforts of one rebellious kitchen hand, Steerpike, who is determined to bring the whole artificial edifice, physical and cultural, crumbling to the ground. In the third volume, Titus leaves Gormenghast to seek his fortune in the outside world, a less claustrophobic, but still quite strange and intimidating landscape.
Mervyn Peake was raised in China, where his father was a medical missionary. Coincidentally or not, he was born there in the year (and month) that the child emperor (recall Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Emperor) was overthrown. One can only imagine how bizarre a childhood he must have had, a Christian English boy growing up amidst the poverty of revolutionary China. He returned to England for college, where he studied art and adopted something of a bohemian persona. He joined an artists colony on the Island of Sark, the setting for his novel Mr. Pye. As he began to develop a reputation as an artist, Peake left Sark, in 1935, to become a teacher at Westminster School of Art, where he met his wife, Maeve. World War II broke out just as he began to come into his own, and though he volunteered with the understanding he could be a war artist, he was instead placed in a series of inappropriate jobs until he had a nervous breakdown. He did make it to Germany at the end of the War, arriving at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in time to do sketches of the wraith like survivors and to have the horrors of the place seared into his soul.
He'd begun writing Titus Groan while he was in the army and it was published in 1946. Gormenghast followed in 1950 and both were critically acclaimed. He'd always had an aura of doom about him and was obviously not all that mentally sturdy, but the lingering psychological effects of what he saw in Germany (he returned after the War while the country was still devastated) and a combination of illnesses, including Parkinson's, made his later years quite awful. Titus Alone, the final volume of the trilogy, was published in 1959, his last major work, though he would linger for another ten years.
The allegory of Gormenghast is fairly straightforward, and seems to parallel what Peake had himself witnessed. A once great society rots from within, beset by bureaucracy and senseless ceremony. A servant from the lowest ranks of the society rises up to challenge the established order, but turns out to be more evil than the existing regime. I note--though I doubt it's significant, since I saw it mentioned nowhere else--that you can transpose a few vowels to make the title read "German Ghost." At any rate, it is the case that Peake was in China as it's Empire crumbled, returned to Britain in time to watch it sink after the War, and saw the horrifying aftermath of Nazi Germany's Steerpikean nightmare. In a sense then, Gormenghast tells the story of the Century, of the fall of the upper classes of the old order and their replacement by the even more horrid workers. Though Titus manages to stop Steerpike, he nonetheless abandons Gormenghast to seek a brighter future.
The greatness of Peake's work though does not lie in the story, it instead rests on his accomplishment as a visual storyteller. This is the most painterly form of literature imaginable. It helps that he did illustrations for the books himself, but even without his drawings, the books seem to move from set tableau to set tableau, more like a series of paintings than like a fluid narrative. This great strength of his work is also a significant weakness, because the tale is so two dimensional. With Tolkein, there's such depth to the story--not surprising considering that he created mythology, languages, history, etc. for each of the peoples in the trilogy--that the reader is always conscious of the sense that the teller of the tale could veer off onto any tangent for hundreds of pages without faltering. Gormenghast has more of the feel of a movie set; particular images are brilliantly imagined and realized, but there's nothing behind the image. You never really feel that Peake has given a moment's thought to either the 75th or the 78th Earl of Groan
After a somewhat slow beginning, in which Mervyn Peake first briefly summarizes Titus Grown by drawing up a list of which characters have died or gone missing, then introduces the reader with the plethora of new characters that are the teachers of Titus, the now seven-year-old seventy-seventh Earl of Gormenghast, the pace hopefully picks up again. And as the pages turn, the story becomes more and more exciting.
Irma Prunesquallor's party, and then her romance and the way the whole affair eventually backfires on Wellgrove, although it does not push the plot further, were fun to read. Titus's growing love for his sister Fuchsia, and at the same time his attempts at shunning both the physical prison that is Gormenghast castle and the mental cage that is its sacrosanct ritual, attempts that lead him into the mysterious forest where lurks the Thing, and to the grotto where Flay has taken shelter, were passionating. Finally, Steerpike's mischievious, murderous ambition, and the others' suspicions that gradually turn into evidences, and the memorable chases in the shadowy maze of the fortress that ensue, were purely mind-boggling.
Mervyn Peake's characters are so complex that in the end you like the ones you despised and hate the ones you loved in the first book. His words give life to such an amazing imagery, it vibrates and dazzles, it's intoxicating.
Peake has been compared to Dickens, Tolkien, and Peacock, but the Gormenghast trilogy is truly unique. Unforgettable characters with names like Steerpike and Prunesquallor make their way through an architecturally stifling world, with lots of dark corners around to dampen any whimsy that might arise. This true classic is a feast of words unlike anything else in the world of fantasy. The plot is murderous - literally, with intrigue and betrayal, madness and merciless violence.
Opening Line: “Titus is seven.”
Closing Line: “Haunted by the thought of this other kind of world which was able to exist without Gormenghast.”
Quotes: “Withdrawn and runinous it brooods in umbra: the immemorial masonry: the towers, the tracks. Is all corroding? No. Through an avenue off spires a zephyr floats; a bird whistles; a freshet bears away from a choked river. Deep in a fist of stone a doll's hand wriggles, warm rebellious on the frozen palm. A shadow shifts its length. A spider stirs...
And darkness winds bewteen the characters.”
Rating: Good

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