Wednesday 19 May 2021

Titus Groan, Mervyn Peake

Titus Groan, first of the Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake, is a visual, visceral print on my memory from when I first read it circa 1970, an endless, sprawling dorsal fin of towers and corridors, an eruption within bounds, an excrescence, yet soft, trees penetrating buildings (there is a Root Room), rock indistinguishable from ghastly pallor, high walls and lowering skies. A forbidden city entirely built on ritual, law and costume. In black and white. In profusion. Creatures move according to their status, there is much language around the tiny useless squit in the kitchen, and the fusty trappings of power. The 76th Earl of Groan has his library. The Countess of Groan has 100 white cats and a selection of nesting birds about her person. These are the parents of Titus. Fuchsia, his sister, lurks in her private attics (traces of Jo in Little Women, including needing a bag of apples when she wanted to think), Nannie Slagg (straight out of Romeo and Juliet) fuss fuss oh my poor weak heart, Fuchsia's only friend, apart from Dr Prunesquallor — there's always a doctor in a well-rounded tale. 

Creatures start to gather, out of the ghoulish night. Steerpike, a cunning verminous underling, thin-faced, high shoulders (out of Bergen-Belsen) climbs up out of chef Swelter's kitchen, up the ivy of the Gormenghast Mountain, to land, exhausted, falling over a windowsill, into Fuchsia's private attics, where no one, not even Nannie Slagg, has ever entered (childhood fantasy, perennial).

The burning of the library of the 76th Earl of Groan is a pivotal moment (The Tempest. Prospero burning his books.)  As he descends into folly, the 76th Earl is for a moment closer to his daughter Fuchsia, who is pleased and bemused by the sudden emergence of a father. Insofar as anyone in the verbal sprawl of Gormenghast is capable of pleasure. Most are at odds with wherever they are, and with whom. Parents are cloaked in books and cats and birds. (Edward Lear) Aunts form covens and wear purple; they are easily fooled. (P.G. Wodehouse)

Titus Groan, 77th Earl, is only two at the end of the first volume.

Mervyn Peake was born in China in 1911. Peking was a Forbidden City, rising out of the hoi polloi, endless high walls leaning inward towards its own rituals and costumes. 

I fell asleep this afternoon, for the first time in a long time, half-reading Titus Groan — how a name can be the principal activity of a life, a noisy narrative on its own. As with certain poetry you only know how these words are hitting out, not at what. Those long descriptions of Gormenghast, rooms and corridors, a few trees, a lake, all is knee-deep in its own meaning. The vastitudes of it, once you start, the savagery. A child's view, from the ground up. 

At the back of my copy there's a note from Jo, Lebanese Joe, my boyfriend at 24 or so. The first couple of lines are just legible, the rest is cryptic. I once knew them by heart, I'm sure. 

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