GORMENGHAST by Mervyn Peake

After-Gormenghast-9-wo-590x388Gormenghast is the second book of the Gormenghast trilogy, which Mr. Peake calls a fantasy of manners.  Manners?  For me, not so much, but definitely a commentary on our ideas of tradition and ritual.  It is a gothic and surreal tale, in a gothic and surreal setting.   I find it strange and compelling… noir and fun.  Do those two words go together?

This volume second has a lot more description in it than the first book.  Paragraphs and paragraphs, pages and pages, as though the author was so delighted with the act of writing he couldn’t contain himself.   You know what I mean, the kind of writing that would seem to be much more fun to write than to read.  Peake once said that he loved fiction, because he could write anything he wanted and no one could question what he wrote.

In Gormanghast, we find Steerpike ever more evilly ambitions, and Titus, the 77th Earl, growing up.  We meet the boys school faculty, as bizarre and strange a group of teachers that ever existed, and their even  more strange Headmaster, who, after he dies upside down, is replaced by Professor Belgrove,  something of an improvement, but not by a whole lot.

Dr. Prunesquallor’s bony spinster sister Irma decides she has had enough of spinsterhood and puts together a party, a soiree if you will, to which she will only invite men.  Smart cookie.  Dr. Prunesquallor has despaired of ever getting her married off:

“How old are you, Irma?”  “You know very well, Alfred.”  “Not without thinking”, said the doctor.  “But leave it.  It’s what you look like that matters.  God knows you’re clean!  It’s a good start.”

At the party, she meets the new Headmaster and ta-da!  they are a match.

And then we have Barquentine, the new Master of Ritual, the elderly crippled son of the even more elderly Sourdust, who died in the Library fire.  Barquentine is a nasty, dirty old thing, and Steerpike decides he can improve his position for taking over everything at Gormenghast by making himself a disciple of Barquentine.  And then killing him.

Meanwhile, old Flay, the deceased Earl’s personal manservant, has been living in exile out in the far woods in a cave.  Titus, by accident, finds a tunnel that leaves the castle and comes out fairly nearby the cave.  Flay, seeing that he can enter the castle at will without being seen, soon moves into the castle into an unknown and unused room, from which he can venture forth to keep an eye on things.

The mentally challenged twin sisters of the deceased Earl come under the thrall of the evil Steerpike, and he locks them in a room so they won’t reveal it was they who set the fire to the Library under his tutelage.

So limp of brain that for them to conceive an idea is to risk a haemorrhage.

As events progress, Steerpike forgets about them, and they die of starvation locked in their room.

Titus sees the vicious Steerpike one night, runs to get the Doctor and Flay to join him in following the fellow and do him in.  In the ensuing scuffle, Steerpike kills Flay, runs away and hides in the bowels of the giant castle, and all are on the lookout for him.

And then we have the flood.  Raining for weeks and weeks, the water rises outside, and then in the castle, and the inhabitants are forced to retreat upwards, floor by floor.  The outer dwellers living in the mud huts are brought inside, where they begin to carve boats from the various purloined beams and other lumber.  The empress takes over, hoping to force Steerpike ever higher where he can be corralled.

Titus’ sister accidentally kills herself by falling as she stood on her windowsill contemplating the flood, hits her head, falls into the rising waters and drowns.

It transpires that eventually Steerpike is caught and killed by Titus.  Titus has decided he can’t take all that meaningless ritual that is the life of the castle, and prepares to depart for places far and unknown.

A much darker volume than the first, although leavened throughout by scenes of grotesque humor, and just plain clever conversation.

In the third volume, Titus Alone,  Titus apparently journeys to the far outer parts beyond the realm where he encounters industry and the evils thereof.   Meh.  It may be a while before I get around to reading that, because for me, the fascination of this story is the castle itself, and the large cast of unforgettable characters.  I’m not all that interested in allegorical tales of the evils of capitalism, etc.







7 comments on “GORMENGHAST by Mervyn Peake

  1. ajwriter2014 says:

    I agree with everything you say about this book. Honestly, Gormenghast reminds me of some of the foundations of American Southern Gothic: it continually hammers on the ideas of isolation and insularity, and how those can warp and twist the people trapped inside. Faulkner would have felt right at home.

    • Marti says:

      Wish I’d said that. It is just the strangest world, but I got the feeling that that population arrived already twisted and warped, and the castle was the perfect showcase for them. The insularity of the place makes the reader constantly ask “Where did these people come from?” They all seem to be sui generis.

      • ajwriter2014 says:

        I don’t necessarily agree with that. Not that you’re wrong. But I wonder, what if they were “normal” once upon a time, but living in such a bizarre situation turned them unique? What if I were placed in the same world, would I warp so much? But that’s me.

  2. Marti says:

    Well, given that it is fantasy, I myself am not able to give it too much realistic credence. It’s NOT Faulkner, it’s a made-up world with no basis in reality, so everything gets to be just what it is. 77 earls means that Gormenghast world started maybe a couple of thousand years ago. I am taking it at fantasy face value. I believe if memory serves that Peake only was concerned with a ‘message’ of sorts in the final volume. The rest was just for fun. For me, I read Peake for fun, and Faulkner and the other southern gothic writers for insight into the human condition. But I confess I read for entertainment, amusement, some education. My analytic powers aren’t all that deep. I’m really impressed by what you see in the work. As I always say, each reader brings something of themselves and something different to every book.

    • Charlie says:

      There is no such thing as ‘fantasy – a made-up world with no basis in reality.’

      Peake himself says in “The Craft of the Lead Pencil’ that this is a a ‘world, whose denizens… never were, but have their roots in your and my experience.’

      Everything comes from the reality that the artist lives and absorbs, transfigured into strange new shapes.

  3. Charlie says:

    People focus on the brooding Gothic of Gormenghast, as epitomized by the vast and ruinous castle, but they tend to ignore the lightness, humor and sense of youth and life that opposes the pressing masonry at all times. As a social comedy it has enormous vivacity, almost like Wodehouse at times, Steerpike is corrupt and evil but he also embodies wiry youthful strength and the hatred of institutions; Fuschia and Titus are both frantically, desperately young, so is Keda and her child, Titus’ half-sister, who is almost the disembodied spirit of pure youth and ephemeral sensation. The book is prized by young people because the ancient and unchanging is constantly opposed and transfigured by the glory and sensuality of the young. Plus it’s filled with breath-taking beauty: the play of light and colour, the skies and waters, the forest and the bright carvings, that light up in the shadows of the stones.

  4. Marti says:

    It is easy to ignore the lightness, humor and sense of youth and life with all the darkness, deception, murder and death going on. The first two books of the trilogy really are tales of many layers.

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