Gormenghast – Mervyn Peake
This massive tale of a remote, gothic earldom is comprised of three novels published between 1946 and 1959. Peake was unable to realize his plans for further novels after his death from Parkinson’s at the age of 57. His pellucid language darts in and out of the dark, hulking place he concocted in Gormenghast, which of course is a living presence in itself.
Gormenghast has been ruled by the family Groan always; it is a vast castle, isolated from the outside world by inhospitable regions on every side. As Peake was an official war artist (and had been present at the opening of some of the Nazi concentration camps), it has been suggested that the partially abandoned and jagged skyline of Gormenghast is intended to be reminiscent of London or Dresden post-war.
Outside the castle, clustered under the northern walls, are mud dwellings inhabited by the “Bright Carvers”, whose only purpose is to carve elaborate objects out of wood and present them to the Earl. The Outer Dwellers bear children of unearthly radiance, which fades rapidly on reaching adulthood. The castle’s highest tower, the Tower of Flints, is inhabited by huge numbers of death-owls. The realm’s inhabitants know “every bay, inlet and headland of the great stone island of the Groans, of its sheer cliffs, of its crumbling outcrops, the broken line of the towers”. Their lives revolve around the ruling family of Groan. Martial force, economy and religion appear to have no place here, yet this still does not make for simplicity, because of course there are still people in it.
The melancholy Earl Sepulchre loses his mind after his library is burnt, and sacrifices himself to the death-owls, believing he is one of them. His Countess – a magnificent bulwark redhead with locks like “burning snakes”– only talks to birds, is followed by a cloud of white smoke and yet hides a keen strategic brain. Their wild daughter Fuschia always wears a dress of “flaming red” and their son Titus is not keen on taking on their father’s mantle of observing endless, onerous ritual. And this is approximately seven percent of the plot.
The Groan way of life is threatened by a boy from the kitchens, named Steerpike. He worms his way up the ranks of the servants by murdering and manipulating at every opportunity. He knows every rule and every nook, and is quite simply a wonderful creation. He is revolting (“His body gave the appearance of being malformed, but it would be difficult to say exactly what gave it this gibbous quality”) and highly intelligent. His rise to power is psychopathic (declaring “Equality is everything” whilst pulling the legs off a beetle) fuelled by the fundamental urge to destroy the castle. With his bulging brow and red eyes, capering over the corpses he creates, you do not clamour for his victory but there is a chasm in the novel at his departure.
Notable dynamics are between the obese, sweating cook Swelter (first name Abiatha) and his murderous, reciprocated hatred for the top servant Flay. Flay is an emaciated tall devotee who sleeps outside his master’s door and who lives to preserve the stones of Gomernghast. Second to their dance macabre is Doctor Prunesquallor’s verbal torture of his egomaniac sister Irma (played brilliantly by Fiona Shaw in the 2002 BBC production). She is:
“Vain as a child, thin as a stork’s leg, and, in her black glasses, blind as an owl in daylight. She misses her footing on the social ladder at least three times a week, only to start climbing again, wriggling her pelvis all the while, She clasps her dead, white hands beneath her chin in the high hope of hiding the flatness of her chest.”
The romantic sub-plot concerning the vapid Irma Prunesquallor and Gormenghast’s Headmaster Bellgrove is welcome relief from Steerpike’s machinations. The established professional academics, the schoolmasters of Gormenghast, are parodies of Oxbridge learning; pedantic, futile, vulgar, lazy and grotesque. Bellgrove is gently dismissed thus:
Two things demand transparency when it comes to this epic. Firstly, that because it is an epic, it is of course immense. Perservere by all means, and here is the second thing: the third book is extremely strange. At the end of the second, Titus flees the castle for the wider world beyond Gormenghast Mountain. The third book follows Titus as he finds a futuristic world of industrialists and advanced technology – with strong steampunk overtones. The plot for this one is utterly bonkers, but suffice it to say that Peake includes some fairly indulgent love scenes, and Titus learns that he does not need to live in the shadow of Gormenghast. Peake’s humour and original illustrations help you along the way. This is a book to read over a holiday, when it does not matter if the way is long, and when you can succumb to the intensely detailed world he created, and follow Flay into the dark.