I realise I haven't read every writer on the planet, but I think I can say with some certainty that nobody writes like Mervyn Peake. Monkey and I have been relishing 'Titus Groan' over the last few months; it took a long time because she kept going away, but also sometimes we had to pause and appreciate the incredible way he expresses himself. Just a couple of chapters will make you think that every other metaphor or simile you have ever read is trite and predictable. We kept the dictionary handy to enhance our appreciation of his vast vocabulary.
The title character, Titus, makes only limited appearances in this book, the first of a trilogy, intended to be a much more extensive collection of novels, cut short by Peake's untimely death. The book is more the tale of a year in the life of Gormenghast castle: its weird occupants, its weird traditions and ceremonies, and the rise from obscurity of a young man called Steerpike (not only does he have a fantastic vocabulary, but Peake has the most fabulous of character names). On the day Titus is born Steerpike escapes from a locked room high in the castle by climbing out of the window, up the walls and across the roof, ending up in the secret attic of Lady Fuchsia (daughter of Lord Sepulchrave). She is partly horrified at having her privacy invaded but also strangely fascinated by this outsider materialising into a life that has been isolated and self-centred. The reader watches then with increasing incredulity as Steerpike wheedles his way into the upper echelons of Gormenghast society, and brings about some pretty fundamental changes to the status quo. Having said that, not much really happens, and the story is about the people and the place, and, even more, the atmosphere.
"Titus watched Keda's face with his violet eyes, his grotesque little features modified by the dull light at the corner of the passage. There was the history of man in his face. A fragment from the enormous rock of mankind. A leaf from the forest of man's passion and man's knowledge and man's pain. That was the ancientness of Titus.
Nannie's head was old with lines and sunken skin, with the red rims of her eyes and the puckers of her mouth. A vacant anatomical ancientry.
Keda's oldness was the work of fate, alchemy. An occult agedness. A transparent darkness. A broken and mysterious grove. A tragedy, a glory, a decay.
These three sere beings at the shadowy corner waited on. Nannie was sixty-nine, Keda was twenty-two, Titus was twelve days old." (p.102)
Here is Steerpike, ingratiating himself with the Prunesquallors; I love the tiny comment at the end, so subtle, that indicated the effect he seems to have on people:
"'We shall dress him in pale grey,' she said.
'Who, blood of my blood?' cried Prunesquallor. 'Who is to be apparisoned in the hue of doves?'
'Who? how can you say "Who?"! This youth, Alfred, this youth. He is taking Pellet's place. I am discharging Pellet tomorrow. He has always been so slow and clumsy. Don't you think so? Don't you think so?'
'I am far beyond thinking, bone of my bone. Far, far beyond thinking. I hand over the reins to you, Irma. Mount and begone. The world awaits you.'
Steerpike saw that the time was ripe.
'I am confident I shall give satisfaction, dear lady,' he said. 'My reward will be to see you, perhaps, once more, perhaps twice more, if you will allow me, in this dark gown that so becomes you. The slight stain which I noticed upon the hem I will remove tomorrow, with your permission. Madam,' he said, with that startling simplicity with which he interlarded his remarks, 'where can I sleep?'
Rising to her feet stiffly, but with more self-conscious dignity than she had found it necessary to assume for some while past, she motioned him to follow her with a singularly wooden gesture, and led the way through the door.
Somewhere in the vaults of her bosom a tiny imprisoned bird had begun to sing." (p.172)
The castle as character:
"Autumn returned to Gormenghast like a dark spirit re-entering its stronghold. Its breath could be felt in the forgotten corridors - Gormenghast had itself become autumn. Even the denizens of this fastness were its shadows.
The crumbling castle, looming among the mists, exhaled the season, and every cold stone breathed it out. The tortured trees by the dark lake burned and dripped, and their leaves snatched by the wind were whirled in wild circles through the towers. The clouds mouldered as they lay coiled, or shifted themselves uneasily upon the stone sky-field, sending up wreaths that drifted through the turrets and swarmed up the hidden walls." (p.180)
Over the course of the year Steerpike works his way up, pandering to the weaknesses of the aristocracy and skilfully removing others in positions of power, and you get the distinct feeling he has few limits to his ambitions. In this little moment Fuchsia seems to have a premonition of were he is headed:
"Breathing in the sharp air she gulped and clenched her hands together until her nails bit at her palms. Then she began to walk. She had been walking for over an hour when she heard footsteps behind her and, turning, saw Steerpike. She had not seen him since the night at the Prunesquallors' and never as clearly as now, as he approached her through the naked autumn. He stopped when he noticed that he was observed and called:
'Lady Fuchsia! May I join you?'
Behind him she saw something which, by contrast with the alien, incalculable 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." (p.254-5)
This one is probably my favourite passage from the book and exemplifies the style so perfectly. Swelter is the chef, the ruler below stairs, and Mr Flay the ruler above, being Lord Sepulchrave's personal servant. He could have written simply that they glared at each other, but why would you, when you could say this instead:
"Swelter's eyes meet those of his enemy, and never was there held between four globes of gristle so sinister a hell of hatred. Had the flesh, the fibres, and the bones of the chef and those of Mr Flay been conjured away and away down that dark corridor leaving only their four eyes suspended in mid-air outside the Earl's door, then, surely, they must have reddened to the hue of Mars, reddened and smouldered, and at last broken into flame so intense was their hatred - broken into flame and circles about one another in ever-narrowing gyres and in swifter and yet swifter flight until, merged into one sizzling globe of ire, they must surely have fled, the four in one, leaving a trail of blood behind them in the cold grey air of the corridor, until, screaming as they fly beneath innumerable arches and down endless passageways of Gormenghast, they found their eyeless bodies once again, and re-entrenched themselves in startled sockets."
What I enjoyed so much was that the book has writing like this, but at the same time he is beautifully subtle and knows exactly the right word: "The long corridors were susurrous with rumour." (p.421). Reading Titus Groan I was reminded of a writing advice article in the Guardian, from Roddy Doyle that said "Do keep a thesaurus, but in the shed at the back of the garden or behind the fridge, somewhere that demands travel or effort. Chances are the words that come into your head will do fine, e.g. 'horse', 'ran', 'said'.", and it made me think that he was right, if you don't know a fancy word for something don't go looking for one, it will just sound wrong. But Mervyn Peake does not sound wrong. I have to assume he just had these words in his vocabulary and uses them with both precision and creativity, often taking words that were familiar and using them in unusual ways. The language is unexpected and challenging but never pretentious or inauthentic. I enjoyed reading a word, not understanding it, and then rereading the sentence with new appreciation once the meaning was clear.
Here are the words we looked up:
So we have jumped eagerly into the next book; will baby Titus ever get out of the smothering clutches of Nannie Slagg, will Barquetine get a wooden leg, will Cora and Clarice ever get their golden thrones, will Lady Groan be suffocated in her sleep by the horde of white cats and just what is Steerpike hoping to discover with his network of holes and mirrors?