Our Gormenghast Readalong, hosted by Jackie at Farm Lane Books has moved this week on to Gormenghast, the second book in the original trilogy, and five years have passed since the Earling of Titus.
Peake opens with an ingenious way of recapping events from Titus Groan, presumably for the benefit of new readers (or existing readers with a short memory!). The ghosts of the dead from Titus Groan swirl around young Titus and we see from his perspective what he knows of the events of those earlier years and of what he is still ignorant. There’s an ethereal, almost mystic feel about his writing at this point and, I am afraid to say, I found the first few pages as difficult to get through as the beginning of Titus Groan the first time I tried to read it.
Although the pacing of this first part of Gormenghast is quite slow, there is a huge amount going on. Interestingly, the book so far is focusing on characters who played relatively minor parts in Titus Groan. We are beginning to see a different aspect to Countess Groan who, in the first book, appeared to be almost devoid of normal human feelings, being only capable of showing care and affection towards her army of white cats and the birds of Gormenghast. Here, however, she is starting to wake to the atmosphere of uncertainty and change that is hanging over the castle and there is even a vestige of maternal protectiveness in her desire to crush the animating spirit behind the change she feels:
“She drew a deep breath and then, very slowly: ‘…and I will crush its life out: I will break it: not only for Titus’ sake and for his dead father’s, but more – for Gormenghast.”
It remains to be seen whether this is a true awakening for the Countess but I am beginning to have more of a feeling for her.
The same cannot be said for Steerpike, about whose malignancy surely noone can now have any doubt. We see not just ruthlessness but also an element of sadism in his treatment of Cora and Clarice. In a lesser, more predictable book, I would be confident of his ultimate fall from grace but here, who knows?
But there is relatively little of Steerpike in the first part of Gormenghast. Instead, we are given our first lengthy glimpses of the new Earl Groan. He likes to ride his grey pony and to explore the castle and its environs. He takes pleasure in discovery and has the makings of a rebel himself in his willingness to skip class to explore
. His actions as a toddler at his Earling were the first clues that he was not going to follow the calcified ritual and tradition of his forefathers and the character that we are starting to see is a further strong hint that Steerpike is not the only disruptive personality in the castle. Gormenghast Mountain
The centrepiece of this first instalment, however, is the school part of the castle and its collection of absurd and grotesque schoolmasters. It looks like they will play a significant role in not only the plotline involving Titus and his education and growth but also in the comic sub-plot of Irma Prunesquallor’s search for love.
Indeed, one of the strongest impressions of Gormenghast so far is the comedic tone. Peake is actually genuinely funny in a dry, sardonic kind of way. As well as the overall comedy of the situation and the lampooning of the social and intellectual peculiarities of the staff, there are several witty asides and barbed comments:
“As for their being ‘gentlemen’ – perhaps they were. But only just. If their blood was bluish, so for the most part were their jaws and finger-nails. If their backgrounds bore scrutiny, the same could hardly be said for their foregrounds.”
There is an interesting contrast between this overt comedy and the more serious tone that Peake uses when describing Titus and his thoughts and deeds which may be intended to highlight the importance of the development of Titus’ awareness and hopes by comparison to the self-important small-mindedness of many of Gormenghast’s other inhabitants.
There’s a very different and, I believe, more complex feel to Peake’s writing in Gormenghast as compared to Titus Groan. Different voices are being used not only for different characters but also for different plot elements. It’s clever but it does take more effort to follow through. I hope that I will get more accustomed as the book progresses – there is certainly a lot going on and many plotlines need to be developed.
Further thoughts on the first instalment of Gormenghast can be found by:
1. Birdie, guest posting at Farm Lane Books.