Gormenghast Read-along: Week 5

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Gormenghast (Gormenghast Trilogy (Book Two))

Gormenghast

One – Eighteen (p373 – p467)

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This week’s Gormenghast discussion is written by Birdie, a blogger who reviews literary fiction with emphasis on British writers.

The beginning of Gormenghast, while retaining the absurdity of Titus Groan, has a slightly different feel to it.  I ascribe this difference to the fact that we get to see inside the characters’ heads a bit more often and in more detail.  In Titus Groan, we never really got the opportunity to understand Lord Sepulchrave’s motives, or the Countess’s, or even Prunesquallor’s, and it was the very last section of the book before we got to see into Flay’s personality (with the consequence that I sorely miss him in this text).  We did see into Steerpike and Fuchsia a bit more, but in this second book of the series we are meant to move into the world a little more.

 

This image of Gormenghast castle was created by ~Dream-Painter on Deviant Art.

Titus Groan was largely about viewing the world of Gormenghast from the outside: the first viewpoint we could really be said to follow was Steerpike’s and he was still an outsider to the culture of Gormenghast at the time. We are presented with the characters almost as Steerpike sees them. In other words, we see them from a more distant and sociological perspective. This perspective accounts for the difficulty many of us had in forming sympathetic relationships to the characters. In this second novel, Steerpike has established himself as an inevitability, training under Barquentine, spying on many of the castle inmates, engineering the disappearance of the twins and controlling them through terror. While he becomes a constant force in the castle, we as readers need his viewpoint less, and we gravitate toward the interiority of other characters just when Steerpike’s shallowness and sadism toward the aunts is demonstrated.

Gertrude, from the BBC production of Gormenghast

I find the sections of Gertrude’s thoughts particularly interesting, since she seems to have been cast as singularly thought-less in the first novel.  But in Gormenghast, we see her struggling to turn on her brain after years of neglect and we get an idea of what her internal character is like.  I have several questions that revolve around the Countess:  What is it that has awoken the mistrust in her mind/heart?  Does she sense Steerpike’s perfidy or is she simply reacting to the change necessitated by the loss of Lord Sepulchrave, Sourdust, Flay, Swelter, and the Twins?  We know that her animal/base instincts are incredibly strong since she has a greater affinity for animals and nature than for humans. What instinct, then, leads her to trust Prunesquallor?

Gertrude does not like change, which is unsurprising since the entire absurdist edifice of Gormenghast is built on the unchanging nature of out-dated ritual.  What is interesting is the way that other characters who might not have such a strong personal interest in this ritual are blindly loyal and extremely dedicated to the status quo.  In particular I’m thinking of the Professors of Gormenghast here, whose days are dictated as much by ritual as those of the seventy-sixth Earl had been, and who are also every bit as averse to change:

There had once been talk of progress by a young member of a bygone staff, but he had been instantly banished. (page 490)

What do you think Peake is doing with these characters? Is this simply more demonstration of the dangers of inertia or is Peake making a larger point about the educational system, not only of Gormenghast, but of the public schools that breed a sort of traditional mentality? Also, the narrator mentions several times that Titus is to be treated the same as the other castle whelps , presumably in order for him to understand multiple types of relationships and to humble him a bit.  But we have not seen Titus interact with any of his school fellows.  And though he is supposed to be treated the same, would there have been a school-wide search for any boy other than the young Earl?

Finally, we get to see inside Titus’s mind quite explicitly.  The boy seems to think primarily in colours and images rather than in logical thoughts.  His reflections on the marble on his desk seem related in this way to his discovery of the brightly coloured room in the castle and to his view of the separate copses as distinct from his vantage point on Gormenghast mountain.  What does this visual sense of apprehending the world tell us about Titus?

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13 Comments

  1. Jackie says:

    Many thanks to Birdie for writing such a thought provoking post :-)

    “The beginning of Gormenghast…has a slightly different feel to it. ”
    I agree. I found it a bit strange at first and had difficulty getting used to the change in style. It took me at least 60 pages to get back into the story and start enjoying it again.

    “”is Peake making a larger point about the educational system?”
    I’m not convinced that Peake is making a point about anything. I’m sure he is influenced by things that were happening in the world around him, but I haven’t seen signs of any bigger political/social statements. I think he is just writing a good story, but I’m probably wrong and have missed all the hints!

    “would there have been a school-wide search for any boy other than the young Earl?”
    It probably wouldn’t have been as detailed, but I’m sure they’d have had a look for anyone else. No one wants a child to go missing on their watch. There was probably a greater urgency to find the Earl though ;-)

  2. Very thought-provoking post, Birdie.

    I’m interested in the contrast between the overt humour whenever he’s writing about the school room and when he writes about Titus.

    I do agree that the style is quite different from that of Titus Groan and I did struggle (again!) for the first few pages.

    And does anyone really still have a soft spot for Steerpike?

    I’ve left my lengthier thoughts at:

    http://2606books.blogspot.com/2011/07/gormenghast-readalong-week-one-of.html

    1. Jackie says:

      Falaise, Sorry for delay in responding to this post – my computer has died :-(

      I’m sad that my soft spot for Steerpike is disappearing. I had hoped that I’d love him all the way through, despite his obvious evil. I’m hoping he’ll have me back on side at a later date.

      I’m glad you only struggled for a few pages. I had a much tougher time adapting to the change in writing style. Hpefully I’ll enjoy the rest of the book now.

  3. Ellie says:

    Just dropping by to say I’m still reading but not quite caught up. I’ll be back with a proper comment when I am :)

    1. Jackie says:

      Ellie, Thanks for letting us know. Enjoy your reading!

  4. Teresa says:

    I started reading the trilogy over the weekend, and I’m now over halfway done with Gormenghast (I have to read in gulps; I can’t parcel out books over several weeks). I agree with you, Birdie, that this book feels different from Titus Groan, which was so focused on one or two people. I like how this one is broadening out more, and I think you ask some good questions about the changes in Gertrude. I can’t decide if Peake just needed to make her more sympathetic or if there’s a reason that she’s become more active and involved.

    1. Jackie says:

      Teresa, I’m amazed that you are half way through already! You’ll probably be finsished soon :-) I look forward to seeing what you make of the trilogy as a whole. Enjoy!

  5. I’ve had a pause in reading Peake’s trilogy, so I’ve only just started to read Gormenghast – I hope to catch up with the read-along schedule soon. The opening chapter does have a different feel. It is very poetic, not that Titus Groan isn’t, but this, written mainly in the present tense, struck me forcibly as a poem. But really I have read too little to make a proper comment.

  6. Jackie, have you come across the Mervyn Peake blog, written by his son Sebastian? http://mervynpeake.blogspot.com/

    I didn’t know it’s the centenary of Mervyn Peake’s birth this year and there are a number of events being planned including the publication of his mother’s book Titus Awakes concluding the Titus trilogy! Maybe you did though?

    1. Jackie says:

      Margaret, Yes – I did know and I’m sorry for not passing on the information. I’m lucky enough to be going to an event at the British library tomorrow to celebrate Gormenghast and the launch of Titus Awakes. I’ll report back soon :-)

  7. nearly forgot – the Official Gormenghast website with the list of events etc etc – is at http://mervynpeake.blogspot.com/

  8. sorry wrong link – I’m in a hurry, off to do other things :) Here’s the correct link
    http://www.mervynpeake.org/gormenghast/index.html

  9. Qahira Lynn says:

    Thank you for including my painting of Gormenghast Castle!

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