Monday, July 11, 2011

Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake

"Nannie Slagg entered, bearing in her arms the heir to the miles of rambling stone and mortar; to the Tower of Flints and the stagnant moat; to the angular mountains and the lime-green river where twelve years later he would be angling for the hideous fishes of his inheritance." (page 43 of the Overlook Press Omnibus) 
Titus Groan is the newly born seventy-seventh Earl of Gormenghast.  The novel bearing his name is more about the world he is born into rather than about Titus himself.  Gormenghast is everything and there is nothing but Gormenghast.  The reader must come to understand this before anything else and as such Titus Groan, is a complete and very successful novel on its own.  It does, however, feel like a wonderfully patient--and wholly necessary--introduction to what will become the story of Titus' life.  
I choose the above quotation not as an example of the Peake's finest prose rather it encompasses two traits that I found at the heart of the story: enormity of, well, everything, and decay.  Gormenghast is the name of the castle of The House of Groan.  It is the name of the mountains, the lake, and the surrounding land.  In Titus Groan, there is nowhere else, but Gormenghast.  Rather than to suppose that the novel takes place in a very small area the opposite is what the reader comes to find.  Gormenghast, world without end, is everything and as best we know there is nothing else.  Needless to say, the concept takes some getting used to.  Our first encounter with this truth is through the character Steerpike who by a series of curious events finds himself on the exterior of the castle, not outside of it, merely on an outside roof.  

"He saw spread out before him in mountainous facades a crumbling panorama, a roofscape of Gormenghast, it's crags and its stark walls of cliff, pocked with nameless windows.  Steerpike for a moment lost heart, finding himself in a region as barren as the moon, and he became suddenly desperate in his weakness, and falling on his knees retched violently."  pg 104  

His efforts to escape the confines that he had only moment before found literally suffocating only yield greater physical discontent and greater weakening of his physical constitution: decay.  Later, we hear the word 'roofscape' replaced with 'castlescape' so large is Gormenghast that from a high vantage point on the outside of the castle nothing could be seen in a given direction that wasn't the castle.  The 'crumbling panorama' and 'cliff, pocked with nameless windows' that induce Steerpike to vomit bring about the other inescapable point of Gormenghast, everything is in an advanced, yet leisurely, state of decay.  Though the rot of Gormenghast may in fact be advanced the castle is alive and in many regards thriving.  It is described as 'breathing' and being 'sentient.'  Buildings 'grow' from pre-existing buildings in Gormenghast as do branches from a tree.     

In a castle of such size there is always some manner of maintenance to be done.  Everywhere there are piles of rubble and seasoned lumber scattered about in equal amount.  Of more interest than the castles upkeep or as the status quo would have it, degradation (remember 'stagnant moat' and 'lime-green rivers') is its inhabitants and their mental states that are given Peake's primary attention.  
Flay is chief servant in all of Gormenghast castle and attendant to Sepulchrave, the current Earl.  Though his dimensions are never given we come to see him as impossibly tall.  His knees are falling apart under the weight of his height and make a hideous loudly audible sound as he moves.  He speaks in a very distinct short hand of his own device as though the effort of talking has become come too burdensome itself in Gormenghast.  (I'm inclined to agree with him.)  He is slow and deliberate in all that he does and we are given to think he has not had a change of clothing since he was first appointed his post.  Yet he proves to be a patchwork of blind loyalty capable of startling (and original!) violence.  ("Cats as missiles," Steerpike recalls.)  Other castle servants include an obese chef, Swelter, who seems so large in fact as to be near splitting open, a nurse who is a midget, Nannie Slagg, and a master of ceremonies who has lost a leg in service to the castle and enjoys spitting on people.  Dr Prunesquallor is the sole exception of abnormality in the servants of Gormenghast as he seems to make a conscious effort to hide his intelligence, ironically done by talking down to all the other servants, as to better understand his surroundings and be of greatest use.  The castle's most grotesque inhabitants and those that embody and mirror Gormenghast the best are none other than the royal family.  
Sepulchrave seems detached, smart, and altogether normal.  His fall into depravity is marked by a very powerful calamity one even stronger than the birth of his son and heir.  Sepulchrave has twin sisters of a very uncertain mental stability.  To say they are slow-witted is an offense to Forrest Gump.  They were never given a place of prominence nor was anything ever expected of them because of their mental facility.  What they have learned in their seclusion is a lust for power.  They feel they have been displaced by Gertrude Sepulchrave's wife.  They have no ability to think for themselves, and the ease in which they can be manipulated proves to be a point that Sepulchrave will have sorely regretted overlooking.  Gertrude spends her days talking to birds and dealing with an exceptionally large host of white cats.  To say she is disturbing is a vast understatement, but she also has powerful moments of clarity and insight.  Fuchsia, Titus' sister is something of a work in progress.  She is fifteen and given to all the vagaries of being a teenager.  Yet just when we are at our most certain of her family's genetic trait of madness manifesting itself she is capable of displaying--like her mother--clarity of vision, insight, and can shed her cloak of nonsense with ease and astonishing power.        
Titus Groan may have a certain aural attribute that makes it a more fitting title that Streepike, but if the title is supposed to reflect upon who or what the book is about, then Steerpike would have been a much better choice.  He is seventeen at the novel's start and in the service of the kitchen.  From this most abjectly base position he becomes the kiss-ass of the castle; doing small favors for people of importance and slowly but surely earning favor in return.  He is devious, manipulative and wholly self-serving.  By the book's end he sets himself up to be quite possibly the most powerful person in Gormenghast.  Everyone in all of Gormenghast accepts and deals with their lot from The Grey Scrubbers who clean the kitchen to Sepulchrave King and Commander.  Everyone but Steerpike, he doesn't belong.  He wants something more; something better for himself.  Fuchsia puts it best:

"Behind him (Steerpike) she saw something which by contrast with the alien, incalculable figure before her, was close and real.  It was something which she understood, something which she could never do without, or be without, for it seemed as though it were her own self, her own body at which she gazed and which lay so intimately upon the skyline.  Gormenghast.  The long, notched outline of her home.  It was now his background.  It was a screen of walls and towers pocked with windows.  He stood against it, an intruder, imposing himself so vividly, so solidly, against her world, his head overtopping the loftiest of its towers." pg 213
For all of it's personalities and grotesque decay there is a sense of pride and belonging instilled in everyone in Gormenghast.  It's home--even to Steerpike--it is where everyone wants to be.  The Groan family is "of the blood" and that means something to all though it is never explicitly detailed to the reader.  There is no leaving, there is no starting over somewhere else, and that is because everything is Gormenghast.  The servants seem to deal with the gravitas that is Gormenghast by drinking in excess while the Groan family indulges in more laudanum than is strictly necessary.

Readers of the book may note that there is one major character I've yet to mention: Keda; Titus' wet-nurse.  I'm not sure if I'm writing a book review or a literary criticism (it's a sorry attempt at either, I admit) and to that end I'll excuse myself from saying anything more than this: even more than Steerpike, Keda does not belong in Gormenghast.  Beyond that I'll let readers decide for themselves what to make of the who I would deem the character who 'stole the show.'    
The story takes place in less than two years and ends with Titus' coronation--as a toddler--as Earl of Gormenghast.  If you think you've read a book about aristocracy living a typical life of leisure in an immense castle you haven't read Titus Groan.  It's not the kind of originality that took effort and feels well conceived rather the story is told from a direction of story events that no one else considered going in.  That alone makes things fresh enough.  It's a huge book, and just the beginning, but I am looking forward to how things grow larger and fall apart at more profound depths in the next installment.  


Terry Weyna said...

I've been meaning to read the Gormenghast trilogy for a long time now. I think you may have talked me into making it sooner rather than later.

Bluesborn said...

Hi I enjoyed your introduction to Titus Groan.I am an avid reader of many years and have to say that in all the miles of print I've consumed over the years I have never come across another "Fantasy" (for lack of a better word)novel with anything approaching the invention and artistry of Peake's trilogy.With that in mind I was wondering if there was anything you could suggest?I should say that I have read some excellent works in the genre like The Worm Ouroboros,The George RR Martin works,China Meivilles brilliant novels etc but truly nothing that compares to Peake. Thanks for your attention.

Chad Hull said...

Hey Bluesborn. Thanks for stopping by; glad you liked the post. I agree that Peake was special. Not so much original but unique in that with so much surface level familiar material it's amazing to think that no one has told a story like his before.

I've preached the value of Edward Whittemore for awhile now. I've also left comments for his books on this site. His Jerusalem Quartet is amazing and while not fantasy, much like Peake, it is fantasy-ish. He is sadly out of print, but easy to find in libraries and cheap paper backs.

I need to hurry up and read the rest in this series.