1950s Chunkster Classics Other

Gormenghast Read-along: Week 7

Gormenghast (Gormenghast Trilogy (Book Two))


Thirty-Eight – Fitfty-Eight (p565 – p659)



.This week’s Gormenghast discussion is written by Falaise from 2606 Books and Counting. He is a blogger who, given the average life expectancy of a British man, realised that he will probably only manage to read 2606 books in the rest of his life. He is prioritising the important ones by working his way through 1001 Books: You Must Read Before You Die.

Jackie has very kindly allowed me to barge into her blog to share some thoughts on this third week of the Gormenghast segment of the Gormenghast Read-along. It’s a good week to have this opportunity as it’s been spectacularly eventful in the book, with Steerpike taking centre stage once again.

I’ve always pictured him as being pale, sinuous, almost serpentine in appearance but, over the past couple of weeks, another image has been elbowing its way into my mind.  You see, I am starting to have these flashes of seeing Steerpike as a villain from the days of silent movies, the kind who wears an opera hat, black cloak and an outré moustache.  I know it’s wrong.  I know he is far more evil and complex than that, but his journey from ambition to Technicolor sadist has been so dramatic and complete that I just can’t help it.

When we first met him in Titus Groan, Steerpike was an escapee from Swelter’s hellish kitchens, characterised more by a strong survival instinct than by anything else.  Now, however, with the slayings of Barquentine and Flay, his treatment of the twins and his twisted pursuit of Fuchsia, his descent into evil is complete.  Fortunately, this has also coincided with his unmasking as a traitor and Fuchsia’s realisation of his true nature.

All this seems quite straightforward, inasmuch as anything in Gormenghast Castle can be straightforward, but there are a few nagging questions that I haven’t quite got my head around.  Firstly, the death of Cora and Clarice doesn’t seem to be quiet as clear cut as I had originally thought it.  We are told that Steerpike stops visiting and that they starve to death, with only their final wails and screams heard by Flay.  It’s shockingly cruel and the implication is obvious.  Steerpike has murdered them.  But, hold on.  We later find out that Steerpike has been sick in bed for weeks, after his killing of Barquentine.  So, maybe he hadn’t really intended them to die, even though they only succumbed to starvation a couple of days after he was up and about.  I still think he is ultimately responsible but am not sure whether this was a cowardly crime of omission (by failing to alert anyone to their predicament) or a cruel crime of commission (locking them away, intending that they should starve).

What do you think about this?  Did Steerpike want them dead? Or was he just indifferent to their fate?  And, if so, does it make any difference to our view of him?

There’s also the question of Steerpike’s physical appearance and emotional state and whether there is a relationship between them and his level of moral turpitude.  At the beginning of Titus Groan, Steerpike is a flatterer, a manipulator, even an arsonist by proxy, but not a killer.  During this phase of his career, he is described as being strong and lithe, almost an athlete.  His killing of Sourdust was accidental, although he was quick to capitalise on it but, after his murder of Barquentine and of the twins, his appearance has been terribly damaged by fire, he is scarred both physically but also emotionally, as his reaction to Fuchsia’s candle shows.  I can’t help but think of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray here and the decay of Dorian’s picture as his character is degraded.

Do you think there is a conscious relationship between Peake’s description of Steerpike’s physical and emotional well-being and his moral condition or am I reading waaay too much into it?

I’m not going to dwell too much on the underlying themes of ritual and tradition versus change and freedom this week, save to point out the very different ways in which Steerpike and Titus embody the tension between them.  Both are seeking to break out of the confines in which Gormenghastian law would bind them but in very different ways.  Steerpike wants to bend and rework tradition to his aims to increase his power and to break into the privileged part of traditional society to usurp the legitimate rulers.  By contrast, the actual ruler, Titus, is beginning to realise that he is no different to his class mates and to resent the rules that will govern his life.  He wants to overthrow tradition to find personal freedom and to cast off responsibility.

Leaving aside Steerpike’s methodology for achieving his ends, are Titus’ aims really any better than Steerpike’s?  Is it right that he should want to abdicate responsibility for the people of Gormenghast?  Is this “just” a phase of childhood and a sign of growing up?

I am finding Gormenghast to be an even more enjoyable read than Titus Groan and can see why it is generally accepted to be Peake’s masterpiece.  The castle, which, arguably, was the star of the first book, has stepped back to be a rich backdrop to the central drama of the castle’s inhabitants.  Unlike many authors, Peake is definitely not scared of killing off key characters and is deft at rounding out and developing other characters, notably the Countess.  It is rapidly becoming one of my favourite reads for a very long time.

I do have one issue with it though and an admission to make.  I can see the point of having some school scenes in the book.  I find Irma Prunesquallor amusing comic relief, especially in Doctor Prunesquallor’s reactions to her.  I am, however, struggling to see any meaning in the Bellgrove-Prunesquallor romance and marriage, other than as part of Peake’s surprising comedic tendencies.

Am I missing something here?  What do you think Peake was trying to do with this strand of the novel?  Have you been surprised at the amount of humour in an otherwise dark book?

Many thanks to Falaise for creating such a thought provoking discussion!

1950s Books in Translation Classics Nobel Prize

Independent People – Halldór Laxness

 Halldor Laxness won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955

Five words from the blurb: Iceland, epic, sheep, independence, masterpiece

I first heard about Independent People when David Mitchell, one of my favourite authors, recommended it. He seems to have a very good taste in books and so I now snap up anything that he highlights.

Independent People focuses on Bjartur, a sheep farmer living in an isolated part of Iceland. His beliefs are totally different from any other culture I have read about before and I found it fascinating to learn about them. Bjartur’s main aim in life is to achieve independence.

The man who lives on his own land is an independent man. He is his own master. If I can keep my sheep alive through the winter and can pay what has been stipulated from year to year – then I pay what has been stipulated; and I have kept my sheep alive. No, it is freedom that we are all after, Titla. He who pays his way is a king. He who keeps his sheep alive through the winter lives in a palace.

He wants to be able to survive without having to rely on anyone else and the lengths he goes to are a bit extreme. For example, he finds it rude to ask anyone for help, to the extent that in a life or death situation he offered to help someone with a mundane task until that person was grateful and asked if there was anything they could do for him.

This book is beautifully written and packed with quotable sentences and amazing descriptions.

“She peeped out from under the blanket, and there he was, still sitting on the edge of his bed, when all the others had gone to sleep, mending some implement or other. No one stirred any longer, the living-room fast asleep; he alone was awake, alone was chanting, sitting there in his shirt, thickset and high-shouldered, with strong arms and tangled hair. His eyebrows were shaggy, steep and beetling like the crags in the mountain, but on his thick throat there was a soft place under the roots of his beard. She watched him awhile without his knowing: the strongest man in the world and the greatest poet, knew the answer to everything, understood all ballads, was afraid of nothing and nobody, fought all of them on a distant strand, independent and free, one against all.”

I admit that there were several slow sections, but this is one of those books where all effort is rewarded. It was wonderful to be able to gain an insight into a culture so different from my own. I now have some appreciation for the harshness of life in the Icelandic countryside and am just a little bit more grateful for my centrally heated home.

Highly recommended.

The thoughts of other bloggers:

….brilliant in a depressing, downtrodden sort of way. BookNAround

His language is poetic, touching and authentic. Caribou’s Mom

It is not an easy read, but is well worth the effort. Musings

Have you read anything written by Halldor Laxness?

Which of his other books do you recommend?


1950s Books in Translation Chunkster Classics Historical Fiction Nobel Prize Recommended books

Palace Walk – Naguib Mahfouz

 Naguib Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988

Translated from the Arabic by William Maynard Hutchins and Olive E.Kenny

Palace Walk is the first book in the Cairo trilogy, which is normally considered to be Naguib Mahfouz’s greatest achievement. It became a best seller in the Arab world on its release in 1956, but also enjoyed worldwide success, selling 250,000 copies in America.

The book is set in Egypt and describes the life of the Al Jawad family. Every aspect of their day is described in minute detail and so we learn exactly what life was like for the middle-class shopkeeper and his family. The book begins in 1917 and focuses on the complex task of finding someone suitable to marry each of the children.

Men play the dominant role in the household, using the words of the Qur’an to decide the most appropriate course of action. The women in the book were oppressed and spent most of their time shut inside, but at no point did this feel wrong to me. The book made me understand why this society worked in the way it did and at some points I was envious of their tight-knit community and the way the women were so close to each other.

No woman was anything more than a body to him. All the same, he would not bow his head before that body unless he found it truly worthy of being seen, touched, smelled, tasted and heard. It was lust, yes, but not bestial or blind. It had been refined by a craft that was at least partially an art, setting his lust in a framework of delight, humor and good cheer. Nothing was so like his his lust as his body, since both were huge and powerful, qualities that bring to mind roughness and savagery. Yet both concealed within them grace, delicacy, and affection, even though he might intentionally cloak these characteristics at times with sternness and severity.

I loved reading about the complex marriage negotiations and the way the household was run, but the text was so rich with detail that I found I could rarely read more than about twenty pages a day. This meant that it took me about six weeks to read the first 300 pages.

At about this point the style of the book changed, the pace picked up and I flew through the remaining 200 pages in just two nights. WWI brought British occupation to Egypt, changing the lives of the household completely. Seeing fear and tragedy brought to a family I knew so well made the impact much greater.

Palace Walk gives an impressive insight into Egyptian life. I loved the characters and the way I came to understand their very different way of living. I finished this book knowing a lot more about Egyptian history, but also feeling a little bit wiser and more tolerant. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the trilogy.

Highly recommended.

Have you read The Cairo Trilogy? Are the other books in the trilogy similar in style/pace?

Do you recommend any of Naguib Mahfouz’s other books?

1950s Classics Science Fiction

The Day of the Triffids – John Wyndham

I hadn’t read any Wyndham before, but everyone seems to talk about him fondly and so I decided that it was time I tried one of his classic science fiction books.

The Day of The Triffids begins with the central character, Bill, waking up in hospital to discover that everyone around him has gone blind. Bill was recovering from an eye operation and so had his eyes covered the previous night when a beautiful green meteor shower appeared in the sky. He had been upset that he’d missed out on the spectacle, but now realises that this is the reason he managed to retain his sight.

Bill heads out into the world and begins the difficult task of trying to survive now that almost everyone is blind. The basic infrastructure has collapsed so even basic things are difficult to achieve. On top of the blindness people also have to deal with large plants that have learnt to walk. These triffids are beginning to hunt people down. I was aware of the killer plants in The Day of the Triffids, but I hadn’t realised that people went blind too. The moment I read this I began to compare the book to Blindness by Jose Saramago (one of my all time favourites), but I think this initially put The Day of the Triffids at a disadvantage. They are very different books and the light, entertaining tone of The Day of the Triffids didn’t have the same impact on me as the darker Saramago novel.

As the book progressed the oppressive nature of the triffids began to creep in. I had initially thought they were quite comical, but I was impressed by the way Wyndham began to make me fear these mythical plants. By the end I was totally convinced by the events of the book: loving the plot, the characters and the many important observations of our society.

It must be, I thought, one of the race’s most persistent and comforting hallucinations to trust that “it can’t happen here” – that one’s own time and place is beyond cataclysm.

This book showed a realistic vision of a society struggling to survive, but all the darker, more gory elements were removed. I can see why it is a classic and why people love reading Wyndham. It is a perfect, cozy disaster story!

Highly recommended.

Which is your favourite John Wyndham book?

I was tempted to watch the recently released BBC adaptation of the book, but most of the reviews are terrible!

Have you seen it? Is it worth watching?

1950s Classics

The Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger

A few weeks ago J.D. Salinger sadly died. A brief discussion on twitter revealed that several of us had not read any of his books, so we decided to join together and read of his most famous work.

It is amazing how wrong preconceptions of a novel can be. For some reason I thought Catcher in the Rye was about a legal case; I’d have put my money on fraud, but wouldn’t have been surprised by murder or drug dealing. I was, however, very surprised that this wasn’t a crime novel at all, but a coming of age novel about an obnoxious teenager.

For the few of you who have as little knowledge of this book as me, it is about Holden Caulfield, a teenager who is thrown out of his school. After his expulsion Caulfield heads to New York where he meets girls, gets drunk and then gets a bit lonely.

As you can probably guess from my description I wasn’t a big fan of this book. I disliked Caulfield, but my overwhelming emotion reading this book was boredom. I just didn’t care what Caulfield got up to and considered giving up at several points. As the book was a classic, fairly short and not too difficult to read I persevered, but I’m not sure that was the right decision. I don’t feel I gained anything by reading it and wouldn’t be tempted to try any of his other books.

I had heard that several people disliked the stream of conscious writing style, but I didn’t have a problem with that. I think that I may have enjoyed this more as a teenager, but as an adult I failed to connect with Caulfied. Most of the time I flipped between wanting to slap him and wanting him to shut up so I could get on with something else!

I’m afraid that this book just wasn’t for me, but see the other read-along participants for more discussion: Book NutSteph & Tony InvestigateSerendipity and The Zen Leaf



Did you enjoy Catcher in the Rye?

Did you have any stupid preconceptions about this book?

1950s Short Story

The Victorian Chaise-Longue – Marghanita Laski

  Persephone No. 6





Claire from Paperback Reader and Verity from The B Files are hosting Persephone Reading Week. I have not read a Persephone book before and so decided to take this opportunity to try one. I admit to searching out the shortest one I could find (The Victorian Chaise-Longue is just 99 pages long), but I think it was a very good choice, as I really enjoyed it and will go on to read many more in the future.

The Victorian Chaise-Longue tells the story of Melanie, a young woman suffering from TB in the 1950s. She recovers enough to be allowed out of her sick bed for the first time and decides to sleep on a Victorian chaise-longue. When she wakes up, she discovers that she has been transported back in time and is now living inside the body of a Victorian woman, who is also ill.

This book is suppossed to be dark and spooky. Nymeth described it as being a

chilling, atmospheric and suffocating novella.

but I’m afraid this book didn’t scare me at all. I think the main reason for this, is that this isn’t very likely to happen. Blindness had a real impact on me, as I can foresee it’s shocking events occurring one day, but I’m afraid I’m not a big believer in time-travel.

I enjoyed reading this book, but I actually found it funny as opposed to scary. The rantings of Melanie trying to persuade the people in her Victorian world that she was from the future just made me smile.

‘You think I am Milly Baines gone mad,’ she said, ‘but I am not. I am another woman. I don’t know where Milly Baines is, perhaps she is in my time and we have got changed somehow, or perhaps I am just dreaming and I cannot wake up. But I do not belong here, I tell you, all my life is in the future, my child, the man I love.

This is a lovely little book, and whether it scares you or makes you laugh, I’m sure you will enjoy it!


Am I alone in finding this book funny?

Have you ever found a scary book amusing?