Thursday, 16 November 2000

Mervyn Peake: Gormenghast (1950)

Edition: Penguin, 1983
Review number: 686

Gormenghast is where Peake's writing all comes together. In contrast to most mid-trilogy novels, it is the best by a long way. It combines an exciting story, one of the most famous and evocative backgrounds of any novel, deeper levels of symbolism, humour, tragedy and a hero who is easy to identify with.

The story tells of the adolescence of Titus, 77th Earl of Groan. He and some others - foppish, apparently foolish Dr Prunesquallor and the dowager countess - have begun to realise that the centuries of tradition making Gormenghast what it is are under threat. The former kitchen boy Steerpike has risen to the place of assistant to Barquentine, curator of traditional observance, as he has worked out just how much power controlling the lives of the castle's inhabitants to the minutest degree will give him.

The background, the castle of Gormenghast, is less self-consciously described than it was in Titus Groan. It is more a background, without the lengthy florid descriptions which fill the earlier novel. Peake makes more of the way in which it affects every part of every inhabitant rather than exhibiting the castle directly.

On a deeper lever, there are clearly meanings to many of the events in Gormenghast and its surrounding countryside. It is easy to read something different into it from what Peake meant - the novel has been read as a Christian allegory, for example - but some things at least are clear. The tradition of the castle has something at least to do with the conventions of society; the freedom that Titus yearns for is represented by his foster sister, the wild forest-dwelling Thing; and her death is clearly important though its meaning is less so.

The humour of Gormenghastis mainly provided by the dusty boarding school at which Titus is educated, taught by fossilised pedagogues, and by the desire of vain, stupid Irma Prunesqallor to marry. (She achieves her aim by inviting the senior teachers to a bizarre party.)

The other side of the coin, tragedy, is acheived through Flay, banished manservant to Titus' father. He has a truer love for Gormenghast as an institution than any other character, and yet for a relatively minor infraction he has to live in a hut on the mountain overlooking the castle, all the time gazing at the beloved home to which he cannot return and which he knows is in grave danger from Steerpike.

Titus is the hero. Aside from conventional attributes of heroism - youth, good looks (which can be assumed since the assembled grotesques of Gormenghast think him hideous), an enemy - he has an ambiguous attitude to the castle which makes him easy to identify with. He is far more a true rebel than Steerpike; Steerpike wants to rule the castle and uses its traditions and puts himself outside the traditions as a means to this end, while Titus wants to escape the traditions entirely. The reasons that Titus opposes Steerpike are simply that he dislikes him and because Steerpike has attacked those Titus holds dear.

Peake has assembled all these elements to make up one of the greatest cult classics of the twentieth century. What is more, Gormenghast really deserves this status.

No comments: