The OF Blog: Mervyn Peake, Gormenghast

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Mervyn Peake, Gormenghast

Titus is seven. His confines, Gormenghast. Suckled on shadows; weaned, as it were, on webs of ritual: for his ears, echoes, for his eyes, a labyrinth of stone: and yet within his body something other - other than this umbrageous legacy. For first and ever foremost he is child.

A ritual, more compelling than ever man devised, is fighting anchored darkness. A ritual of the blood; of the jumping blood. These quicks of sentience owe nothing to his forbears, but to those feckless hosts, a trillion deep, of the globe's childhood.

The gift of the bright blood. Of blood that laughs when the tenets mutter 'Weep.' Of blood that mourns when the sere laws croak 'Rejoice!' O little revolution in great shades! (p. 1)

In my review essay on Mervyn Peake's Titus Groan, I only touched upon Peake's use of prose to create mood and atmosphere. Some perhaps found my treatment of it to be a little scant. There was a reason for that, as I wanted to wait until his second volume, Gormenghast, to discuss Peake's prose at length, because I believe it is here where his powers as a storyteller were strongest. Moreso than in Titus Groan, Peake's beautiful although sometimes lugubrious scenes create a powerful, moving, emotional connections between the reader and the text. Consider the opening paragraphs quoted above. Young Titus Groan, Seventy-Seventh Earl of Gormenghast, is "confined" in the castle. He has been "suckled on shadows," weaned in a "web of ritual." He is as much prisoner as lord. But yet the youthful Titus is something other than the rituals that bind the denizens of Gormenghast. He is, as Peake underscores, a child. As Gormenghast unfolds, that relationship between Child and Ritual, ever tense and fraught with tiny little tears, becomes the centerpiece for one of the best-written fantasy novels of the 20th century.

As the story opens, the cold, murderous Steerpike has continued his rise to power within the castle. Having wooed Titus's older sister, Fuchsia, Steerpike has set his aims ever higher, seeking to become, through blood and fire if necessary, the power behind the Groan throne, the Master of Ritual. Peake's description of Steerpike's thought processes makes his murderous designs all the more chilling:

It had not been easy for the young man to decide in what way he would kill his master. He had many means at his disposal. His nocturnal visits to the Doctor's dispensary had furnished him with a sinister array of poisons. His swordstick was almost too obviously efficacious. His catapult was no toy, but something lethal as a gun and silent as a sword. He knew of ways to break the neck with the edge of the palm, and he knew how to send a pen knife through the air with extraordinary precision. He had not, for nothing, spent an allotted number of minutes every morning and for several years in throwing his knife at the dummy in his bedroom.

But he was not interested merely in dispatching the old man.

He had to kill him in some way which left no trace: to dispose of the body and at the same time to mix pleasure and business in such a compound that neither was the weaker for the union. He had old scores to pay off. He had been spat upon and reviled by the withered cripple. To merely stop his life in the quickest way would be an empty climax - something to be ashamed of. (p. 213)

Everything about Steerpike in this novel is cold and calculating. He is like a snake, striking suddenly from the shadows, withdrawing at the least sign of discovery. Power-hungry, he is meticulous in his preparations, dedicated to all practices that might merit him greater power. Steerpike has become a most formidable opponent and a good part of the novel's plot revolves around how his attempts to circumvent Ritual in order to gain mastery over it relates to that of the adolescent Titus struggling against the strictures of the very same Ritual.

Titus himself struggles throughout the novel against the expectations of his mother and Gormenghast's residents. Sometimes, this struggle takes on a darkly humorous cast, as when Titus takes part in a school prank that leaves the Headmaster dead. When the new Headmaster, Bellgrove, sets out to meet Titus and to impress upon him the importance of his duties, the following is described:

Titus watched his headmaster. He had no fear of him. But he had no love for him either. That was the sad thing. Bellgrove, eminently lovable, because of his individual weakness, his incompetence, his failure as a man, a scholar, a leader or even as a companion, was nevertheless utterly alone. For the weak, above all, have their friends. Yet his gentleness, his pretence at authority, his palpable humanity were unable, for some reason or other, to function. He was demonstrably the type of venerable and absent-minded professor about whom all the sharp-beaked boys of the world should swarm like starlings in wheeling murmurations - love him all unconsciously, while they twitted and cried their primordial jests, flung their honey-centred, prickle-covered verbiage to and fro, pulled at the long black thunder-coloured gown, undid with fingers as quick as adders' tongues the buttons of his braces; pleaded to hear the ticking of his enormous watch of brass and rust red iron, with the verdigris like lichen on the chain; fought between those legs like the trousered stilts of the father of all storks; while the great, corded, limpish hands of the fallen monarch flapped out from time to time, to clip the ears of some more than venturesome child, while far above, the long, pale lion's head turned its eyes to and fro in a slow, ceremonious rhythm, as though he were a lighthouse whose slowly swivelling beams were diffused and deadened in the sea-mists; and all the while, with the tassel of the mortar-board swinging high above them like the tail of a mule, with the trousers loosening at the venerable haunches, with the cat-calls and the thousand quirks and oddities that grow like brilliant weeds from the no-man's-land of urchins' brains - all the while there would be this love like a sub-soil, showing itself in the very fact that they trusted his lovable weakness, wished to be with him because he was like them irresponsible, magnificent with his locks of hair as white as the first page of a new copy-book, and with his neglected teeth, his jaw of pain, his completeness, ripeness, false-nobility, childish tempter and childish patience; in a word, that he belonged to them; to tease and adore, to hurt and to worship for his very weakness' sake. For what is more lovable than failure?

But no. None of this happened. None of it. Bellgrove was all this. There was no gap in the long tally of his spineless faults. He was constructed as though expressly for the starlings of Gormenghast. There he was, but no one approached him. He hair was white as snow, but it might as well have been grey or brown or have moulted in the dank of faithless seasons. There seemed to be a blind spot in the mass-vision of the swarming youths.

They looked this great gift-lion in the mouth. It snarled in its weakness, for its teeth were aching. It trod the immemorial corridors. It dozed fitfully at its desk through the terms of sun and ice. And now, it was a Headmaster and lonelier than ever. But there was pride. The claws were blunt, but they were ready. But not so, now. For at the moment his vulnerable heart was swollen with love. (pp. 119-120)
In this passage, Peake not only describes a weak authority figure, but he does so in a way that reveals a depth of character that not even a dozen pages of dialogue could have done. Some readers might harp on the "show, not tell" truism, but there is a time and place for description and in this scene that sets up Titus's conversation with Bellgrove, it highlights and enhances what follows afterward. Furthermore, Titus's reaction to this lovable buffoon is in many senses a foreshadowing of his hastened maturity and his need to flee from the oppressiveness of Gormenghast's arcane rules and rituals. This is further seen in a passage two-thirds into the story:

Titus was no longer a child, and the end of his schooldays was in sight. He had, as the years went by, become more solitary. To all save Fuchsia, the Doctor, Flay and Bellgrove he presented a sullen front. Beneath this dour and unpleasing armour his passionate longing to be free of his hereditary responsibilities smouldered rebelliously. He hatred, not for Gormenghast, for its very dust was in his bloodstream, and he knew no other place, but for the ill fate that had chosen him to be the one upon whose restless shoulders there would rest, in the future, the heavy onus of an ancient trust.

He hated the lack of choice: the assumption on the part of those around him that there were no two ways of thinking: that his desire for a future of his own making was due to ignorance or to a wilful betrayl of his birthright.

But more than all this he hated the confusion in his own heart. For he was proud. He was irrationally proud. He had lost the unself-consciousness of childhood where he was a boy among boys; he was now Lord Titus and conscious of teh fact. And while he ached for the anonymity of freedom he moved erect with a solitary pride of bearing, sullen and commanding.

And it was this contradiction within himself that was as much as anything else the cause of his blunt and uncompromising manners. With the youths of his own age he had become more and more unpopular, his schoolmates seeing no cause for the violence of his outbursts. He had ripped the lid off his desk for less than nothing. He could be dangerous and as time went on his isolation grew more complete. The boy who had been ready for any act of mischief, for any midnight venture, in the long dormitories, was now another being! (p. 272)

When compared to the description of Steerpike as a 17 year-old youth in Titus Groan, there are many similarities. Both as teens have become aloof, both want something more than their station in life. But while Steerpike has become cold and calculating, there smolders a frustrated rage inside Titus. For despite his reluctance to embrace it, there still remains the siren's call of his duties as the Seventy-Seventh Earl of Gormenghast:

He had been, virtually, an orphan. That his mother, deep in her heart, too deep for her own recognition, had a strange need for him, as a son of the Line, was of no value to him, for he knew nothing of it.

To be alone was nothing new to him. But to have defied his mother and his subjects as he had done this day was new, and this knowledge of his treachery made him feel, for the first time since he had escaped from the carver's balcony, lonely in the extreme. Lonely, not for his home, but lonely in the knowledge of his inward isolation (p. 330).
This sense of isolation is further reinforced in a cave just outside Gormenghast Castle, where he has just experienced a sense of sudden loss:

It was finality. Titus knew in his bones that he could expect no more than this. His teeth had met in the dark core of life. He watched her almost with indifference - for it was all in the past - and even the present was nothing to the pride of his memory.

But when, out of the heart of the storm that searing flash of flame broke loose, and ripping a path across the dazzled floods, burned up the 'Thing' as though she had been a dry leaf in its path, and when Titus knew that the world was without her for ever, then something fled in him - something fled away - or was burned away even as she had been burned away. Something had died as though it had never been.

At seventeen he stepped into another country. It was his youth that had died away. His boyhood was something for remembrance only. He had become a man. (p. 339)
It is here that I believe Peake wanted to establish a key turning point in Titus Groan's life, to show the beginnings of the path of adulthood that would be explored in future, planned Gormenghast novels. Tragically, Peake was struck with a premature form of senility that caused his death at 57, so one can only speculate how he would have developed Titus's character beyond that of the third volume, Titus Alone. However, the beginning at least is visible and in these quotes above, the hurt and isolation that Titus feels is so palpable that I consider these events near the end of the novel to be among the finest prose that I have read in years. For not only do we see Titus's rage and grief, we witness again just how different it is from that of the murderous Steerpike, just as the twain's fates begin to be bound closer together. Consider this late scene involving Steerpike:

No. He could not afford to send the rough stone hurtling down. There was more than a chance of his failure to slay. The acute temptation to crush at a single blow that life out of the heir to Gormenghast - and leave nothing more than brick and stone behind - the intoxicating temptation to take the risk and to do this, was hard to resist.

But before all else came his own survival, and if by so much as an iota he deviated in any way from what he considered to be his final advantage then the end would surely come if not now, then very soon. For he knew he was walking on a razor's edge. He gloried in it. He had slid into the skin of a solitary Satan as though he had never enjoyed the flourish of language, the delights of civil power. It was war, now. Naked and bloody. The simplicity of the situation appealed to him. The world closed in upon him, its weapons drawn, eager for his death. And it was for him to outwit the world. It was the simplest and most fundamental of all games. (p. 355)

Here, hatred and power-lust has consumed Steerpike. Shorn of all pretense, he now appears in all his naked evil. Excited by this, he exists only for himself and himself alone, while Titus, who has had grief upon grief piled upon him, searches to wipe out this menance that has caused such grief to the Gormenghast residents. But it is at the end, after Titus's conflict with Steerpike has ended, that the story comes full-circle to the beginning:

Perhaps he was swimming to his death. It didn't matter. He knew that what he was doing was what he must do. He had no option. His whole life had been a time of waiting. For this. For this moment. For all it was and all it would mean.

Who was it that swam within him, whose limbs were his limbs and whose heart was his heart? Who was he - what was he, as he battled through bright waters? Was he the Earl of Gormenghast? The seventy-seventh lord? The son of Sepulchrave? The son of Gertrude? The son of the Lady at the window? The brother of Fuchsia? Ah yes, he was that. He was the brother of the girl with the white sheet to her chin and her black hair spread across the snow-white pillow. He was this. But he was no brother of her ladyship - but only of the drowned girl. And he was no one's figurehead. He was only himself. Someone who might have been a fish of the water, a star, or a leaf or a stone. He was Titus, perhaps, if words were needed - but he was no more than that - oh no, not Gormenghast, not the seventy-seventh, not the House of Groan, but a heart in a body that swam through space and time. (pp. 389-390)
Here Titus breaks the chain, rejects Ritual, claims himself for himself, but not for the selfish greed that consumed Steerpike. No, Titus has been battered and bruised, lost so much that is dear to him. In other words, he has "grown up," and his heart aches with the pains of that maturation into adulthood. As the story closes, Titus has changed from the child of seven ten years before:

For Titus had discovered himself. The 'Thing', when she had died in the storm had killed his boyhood. The death of Flay had seasoned him. The drowning of Fuchsia had left a crater beneath his ribs. His victory over Steerpike had given him a kind of touchstone to his own courage.

The world that he pictured beyond the secret skyline - the world of nowhere and everywhere was necessarily based upon Gormenghast. But he knew that there would be a difference; and that there could be no place exactly like his home. It was this difference that he longed for. There would be other rivers; and other mountains; other forests and other skies.

He was hungry for all this. He was hungry to test himself. To travel, not as an Earl but as a stranger with no more shelter than his naked name.

And he would be free. Free of his loyalties. Free of his home. Free of the maddening forms and ceremonies. Free to become something more than the last of the great Line. His longing to escape had been fanned by his passion for the 'Thing.' Without her he would have never dared to do more than dream of insurrection. She had shown him by her independence how it was only fear that held people together. The fear of being alone and the fear of being different. Her unearthly arrogance and self-sufficiency had exploded at the very centre of his conventions. From the moment when he knew for certain that she was no figment of his fancy, but a creature of Gormenghast Forest, he had been haunted. He was still haunted. Haunted by the thought of this other kind of world which was able to exist without Gormenghast. (pp. 405-406)
Gormenghast is perhaps one of the most emotionally-resonant novels that I have read this year. The passages I cited above (I could have easily cited another dozen, but these I felt were essential for showing Titus's development and how he resembled and diverged from Steerpike) illustrate Peake's talents for creating a heartachingly beautiful tapestry that contains several layers. There was much that I did not touch upon here, lest this essay be longer than the 3,000 or so words that I have written. But I like to think that I have highlighted a concern of Peake's in this novel, that of Titus's maturation and the pains that it causes him. In reading this tale, I remembered so many of my own pains and sorrows from that time period of my own life and I have to credit Peake for writing his tale in such a way that readers ought to be able to find something in it that they can claim for their own. His prose has a musical quality to it, one that if one can just take the time to pause and to listen to the melodies contained withing, that can move a soul. Nowhere in these three novels is this more on display than in Gormenghast. It is a shame that Peake died before his vision could be complete, as the third volume, Titus Alone, barely scratches the surface of what Peake has set up with the final scenes here. A true classic and one that I hope readers here will consider reading in the near future.


Si said...

Hey Larry, very chuffed to see this review up! I haven't much time to check your blog these days, but whenever I do there is always a lot of great thought, and attention to great novels/authors. Thanks! :)

Anonymous said...

I've always felt that Peake marries his beautiful, raw prose style from 'Titus Groan' with a story that benefits from being further grounded in the coherent aspects of narrative. By coherent I refer to the how the events seem to affect the characters in a more human way, as though they've matured. I also refer to the characters' clearer desires, depressions and dreams, and how they are met, or not. The Gormenghast series is one of the truly important works to come out of the 20th century, and it's my privilege to have experienced it for myself without the bells and whistles (that is rightly deserves) of the Modern Classic laying a path to it.

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