This isn’t a natural choice of novel for modern times. The plot ambles around, confusedly, minor characters are seemingly given a great deal of the limelight, and the reader is kept off balance with regards to the protagonist. Should you root for Titus (not easy in Titus Groan, the first book), or Steerpike, who is as brilliant as he is ruthless. Let’s not forget Flay, who lacks initiative but is loyal to the last. Some other readers might yet take a shine to Dr Prunesquallor, who, despite being facetious in the extreme at least has a sense of self awareness the other characters struggle to manage.
Peake’s work is a strange one, deliberately strange. It’s as if Gormenghast (both the book and the castle of the same name) is such a damnably wretched place that the denizens will attach themselves to any fleeting moment of happiness, no matter how unsuitable. The stumbling, awkward courtship of Irma Prunesquallor takes up much of the second book, and is painfully embarrassing. It’s this celebration of the pathetic that lays bare all the neuroses and fragility of the human condition, although magnified through a particularly grotesque lens.
Grotesque is a particularly appropriate word for the Gormenghast books. Barely a single character is described as anything approaching normal. Flay is gaunt and hunchbacked, a gangly and peculiar creature. Swelter, on the other hand is corpulent and immense, as is Lady Groan herself, who has such a close kinship with birds they make nests in her hair. Steerpike is possessed of a bulbous forehead, hunched shoulders and red beady eyes. Even Titus is denied a handsome countenance. All a far cry from today’s airbrushed, waxed and tanned creatures that adorn multiplex posters and magazine covers.
It’s worth noting that Peake was also an illustrator, and it’s an artists eye for the minutia that crops up time and again in his prose. Woodland scenes are lovingly created and lavished with long descriptions. Brooding interiors and lofty halls both come under intense scrutiny, architecturally and by function. Gormenghast itself exists under a cloud of entropy, the effects of which are held at bay by the bitter Barqentine, Master of Ritual. Much of the daily life in the endless wings and annexes of the castle is carried out with a large measure of ennui, the legend and preservation of Gormenghast being the only reason to continue.
These elements combine to create an a gloomy invitation, but there is a lot of comedy, particularly in Gormenghast. The Professors, whilst all quite hateful, go to great lengths to behave as abysmally as any schoolboy prankster or truant, and Dr Prunesquallor’s management of his dim-witted sister (and her hot water bottle) should provide a decent counterpoint to the gloom of this crumbling edifice.
The British Library is holding two Mervyn Peake events:
Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast Monday 11th July 2011, 19:30 – 21:00, with Sebastian Peake and China Miéville
Mervyn Peake: A Celebration Tuesday 26th July 2011, 18:30 – 20:00