Friday, May 29, 2009

Quotable Titus Groan

Further to my review of Titus Groan, I marked some highlights in the text, sentences and paragraphs that I found particularly delightful. Mervyn Peake always seemed to find a new way to say everything. Time after time, as I read this book, I gasped in awe, or scratched my head in wonder, or giggled with evil glee. His knack for words, images, and moments of wit constantly opened up new vistas and showed new facets. In my opinion, more people ought to know this book, so that we can drop allusions to it in our conversation and trust they will be noticed and enjoyed. Here are a few of them.

The first passage I marked was the chapter titled "The Attic," which astonished me as a whole. Within it is the poem "The Frivolous Cake," which I read aloud twice to a friend in the break room at work, much to the concern of my co-workers. It's a piece of delightful nonsense, comparable to the fancies of Lewis Carroll. Part of the first stanza, for instance, reads:
How jointlessly, how jointlessly
The frivolous cake sailed by
On the waves of the ocean that pointlessly
Threw fish to the lilac sky.
Since this poem appears in a book treasured by Fuchsia Groan, I reckon it represents a style of literature Mr. Peake wanted to lampoon--something absurdly sentimental, perhaps. Nevertheless, it's a wonderfully light moment within the predominantly gloomy atmospherics of the book.

In the final lines of the chapter titled "A Gift of the Gab," Peake describes Steerpike thus:
His face remained like a mask, but deep down in his stomach he grinned.
When I marked this sentence, I thought: Wow. I can't wait to find an excuse to quote this.

In the following chapter, titled "While the Old Nurse Dozes," Peake powerfully evokes the urgent need rising up within the wetnurse Keda, culminating in a very moving, two-sentence paragraph:
Keda raised her heand and wiped away the slow tears from her cheeks. 'I must have love,' she whispered.
Her tragic journey becomes the most painfully, touchingly human episode in the novel.

I drew a question-mark next to the paragraph in the chapter titled "The Library," in which the East Wing of the castle is described as
...a procession of forgotten and desolate relics, an Ichabod of masonry that filed silently along an avenue of dreary pines whose needles hid the sky.
What, pray, is an Ichabod? But only a few paragraphs later I took pleasure in this description of Lord Sepulchrave's library:
All things in the long room absorbed his melancholia. The shadowing galleries brooded with slow anguish; the books receding into the deep corners, tier upon tier, seemed each a separate tragic note in a monumental fugue of volumes.
In "Reintroducing the Twins," I chuckled at how the the twins
had been staring at Steerpike more in the manner of a wall staring at a man than a man staring at a wall.
And in "Keda and Rantel," I was gripped by this passage:
Her breast rose and fell, and she was both weak and strong. She could feel the blood flowing within her and she felt that she must die or break forth into leaves and flowers.
In "The Grotto," Peake memorably portrays Gormenghast as
...a sinister thing as though drawn out of the earth by sorcery as a curse on all who viewed it.
One of the feelings that has lingered since I finished reading the book is pity for the twins, Cora and Clarice Groan. In spite of all evidence that they deserve no sympathy, for there really is something wrong deep inside them, I couldn't help regretting the tricks Steerpike played on them. He messed with their simple minds and brought out their most monstrous aspects, but he also terrified them to a dreadful degree. Here, from the chapter "The Sun Goes Down Again," is a sample of how the adder-tongued Steerpike speaks to them:
'Glorious,' said Steerpike, 'is a dictionary word. We are all imprisoned by the dictionary. We choose out of that vast, paper-walled prison our convicts, the little black printed words, when in truth we need fresh sounds to utter, new enfranchised noises which would produce a new effect.'
I wonder how much Peake personally shared Steerpike's sentiments. Is this a confession or a manifesto? Or is it an indictment on the rhetoric of demagogues? Whatever the answer may be, Titus Groan is a veritable symphony of "new enfranchised noises."

What was the effect of Steerpike's speech?
The aunts put their arms about one another so that their faces were cheek to cheek, and from this doublehead they gazed up at Steerpike with a row of four equidistant eyes. There was no reason why there should not have been forty, or four hundred of them. It so happened that only four had been removed from a dead and endless frieze whose inexhaustible and repetitive theme was forever, eyes, eyes, eyes.
Two paragraphs after this magnificent portrait, however, I drew another question-mark in the margin where it says:
They got to their feet awkwardly and stood before him evil.
Huh? I'm wondering if that isn't a misprint.

In the chapter "Meanwhile," Doctor Prunesquallor's sister Irma
...rose rustling to her full height, arching her nostrils as she did so, as though they itched with pedigree.
Wow! An even bigger wow -- arguably the most quotable line in the whole book -- comes in the chapter "And the Horses Took Them Home," after the burning of the library:
The shelves that still stood were wrinkled charcoal, and the books were standing side by side upon them, black, grey, and ash-white, the corpses of thought.
What a description of burned books!

Later, in "Half-Light," we find Sepulchrave in the early stages of madness. Perhaps, therefore, it is nonsense when he confides to his daughter:
'That is Andrema, the lyricist - the lover - he whose quill would pulse as he wrote and fill with a blush of blue, like a bruised nail. His verses, Fuchsia, his verses open out like flowers of glass, and at their centre, between the brittle petals lies a pool of indigo, translucent and as huge as doom.'
Another flush of poetic prose crops up early in the chapter "A Roof of Reeds," where Keda observes
...a region of marshland which reflected the voluptuous sky in rich pools, or with a duller glow where choked swamps sucked at the colour and breathed it out again in sluggish vapour.
Peake plunges further into poetic diction in "Early One Morning," where he describes a leaky, frescoed ceiling
...where a faded cluster of cherubs lie asleep in the bosom of a mildew'd cloud.
The contraction of the word "mildewed" suggests that the author's mind inclined toward verse at that moment, possibly in a lampooning way.

One of the weirdest paragraphs in the book is surely this one, later in the same chapter:
Swelter's eyes meet those of his enemy, and never has there held between four globes of gristle so sinister a hell of hatred. Had the flesh, the fibres, and the bones of the chef and those of Mr Flay been conjured away and away down that dark corridor leaving only their four eyes suspended in mid-air outside the Earl's door, then, surely, they must have reddened to the hue of Mars, reddened and smouldered, and at last broken into flame, so intense was their hatred - broken into flame and circled about one another in ever-narrowing gyres and in swifter and yet swifter flight until, merged into one sizzling globe of ire they must surely have fled, the four in one, leaving a trail of blood behind them in the cold grey air of the corridor, until, screaming as they fly beneath innumerable arches and down the endless passageways of Gormenghast, they found their eyeless bodies once again, and reentrenched themselves in startled sockets.
My marginal note here consists of a question-mark, followed by an exclamation-point.

In "A Bloody Cheek-Bone," Flay is caught hurling one of Lady Groan's pets at Steerpike. The latter comes away with a light flesh-wound and
Something to remember, that: cats for missiles.
"The Dark Breakfast" ends thus:
No one is listening to Barquentine. The rain has drummed for ever. His voice is in the darkness - and the darkness is in his voice, and there is no end at all.
I wish I could quote all of the chapter titled "The Reveries," which describes what all the deeply sick people at the aforementioned breakfast were thinking while Barquentine droned on so. Let it be enough to say that William Faulkner, James Joyce, et al had nothing on Mervyn Peake when it came to writing experiments in point-of-view and stream-of-consciousness. Irma Prunesquallor's reverie goes on for more than a page with scarcely a single full stop, and includes such private considerations as:
...I am still a virgin but there was Spogfrawne who had had so many beautiful adventures among the people he redeemed from sin and he appreciated me and wrote me three letters on tissue paper although it was a pity that his pen-nib used to go right through it so often and make it difficult for me to read the passionate parts where he told me of his love in fact I couldn't read them at all and when I wrote and asked him to try and remember them and write me a fourth letter just putting in only the passionate sentences which I couldn't read in the first three of his beautiful letters he wouldn't answer me and I think it was because I asked him in my last message to him to either write more carefully on the tissue paper or to use ordinary paper that he became shy poor silly stupid glamorous Mr Spogfrawne who I will always remember but he hasn't been heard of since and I am still a virgin...
In the chapter "Here and There," Peake cheekily reports that
The darkness in the great hall has deepened in defiance of the climbing of the sun. It can afford to be defiant with such a pall of inky cloud lying over the castle...
In "Presage," Keda reflects that she does not fear rejection of her people because she has suffered it already in anticipation:
All this was far wan history and an archaism.
I loved that sentence. In the very next paragraph, however, I ran into another difficulty, betokened by a marginal question-mark:
'I shall follow my knowledge - ah, so soon, so soon into the julip darkness.'
Can anyone spot me a definition of the word julip?

A good summation of the overall atmosphere of the book and its setting can be found in the chapter "In Preparation for Violence," where we read:
Drear ritual turned its wheel. The ferment of the heart, within these walls, was mocked by every length of sleeping shadow. The passions, no greater than candle flames, flickered in Time's yawn, for Gormenghast, huge and adumbrate, out-crumbles all.
In "Blood at Midnight," I found this super-quotable phrase in a description of the sharpness of Mr Swelter's cleaver: lazes through long grass the lethal scythe.
Again, what a phrase to drop into an erudite essay, allusion-riddled story, or conversational contest of wits with your literary rivals! I can hardly wait to rub somebody's nose in their inability to identify my source! Ha, ha, ha! But seriously, the margins of the same chapter are riddled with my markings. Sepulchrave, driven insane by the loss of his library and suffering under the delusion that he is a death-owl, raves:
'Good-bye. It is all one. Why break the heart that never beat from love? We do not know, sweet girl; the arras hangs: it is so far; so far away, dark daughter... But they will take me in. Their home is cold; but they will take me in. And it may be their tower is lined with love - each flint a cold blue stanza of delight, each feather, terrible; quills, ink and flax, each talon, glory! Ah no - not that long shelf - not that long shelf: it is his lifework that the fires are eating. All's one. Good-bye... good-bye... Blood, blood, and blood and blood, for you, the muffled, all, all for you and I am on my way, with broken branches. She was not mine. Her hair is red as ferns. She was not mine. Mice, mice; the towers crumble - flames are swarmers. There is no swarmer like the nimble flame; and all is over. Good-bye... Good-bye. It is all one, forever, ice and fever. Oh, weariest lover - it will not come again. Be quiet now. Hush, then, and do your will. The moon is always; and you will find them at the mouths of warrens. Great wings shall come, great silent, silent wings... Good-bye. All's one. All's one. All's one.'
For my money, that is one of the most beautiful mad scenes in English literature.

The entire duel between Swelter and Flay, later in that same chapter, is worthy of being read and re-read in admiring detail. I laughed heartily when the tremendously fat chef sprang forward:
For a moment there was so much flesh and blood in the air that a star changed colour under Saturn's shoulder.
Mervyn Peake, you sick, sick man! The next passage I would like to quote, but won't, is the blue streak Barquentine swears at Steerpike in the chapter titled, ahem, "Barquentine and Steerpike". However, this descriptive paragraph is apposite:
Steerpike began to bow, with his eyebrows raised by way of indicating that his ear drums had proved themselves equal to the call made upon them. If the art of gesture had been more acutely developed in him he might have implied by some hyper-subtle inclination of his body that what aural inconvenience he experienced lay not so much in his having to strain his ears, as in having them strained for him.
Two consecutive paragraphs in the chapter "By Gormenghast Lake" merited marginal exclamation-points. The first such mark indicates my astonishment at one of the few places where, in my opinion, Peake may have misjudged a description of one of his characters. Perhaps it's just me, or perhaps he is being a mite too judgmental when he reports that Irma Prunesquallor
...had gone out of her way, it appeared, to exhibit to their worst advantage (her waist being ridiculously tight) a pair of hips capable of balancing upon their osseous shelves enough bric-a-brac to clutter up a kleptomaniac's cupboard.
Some authors show compassion to their most flawed characters. Clearly, Peake is not one of them. On the other hand, he seems to have developed an increasing fondness for Irma's brother, the Doctor, who appears repulsive at first, only later to show signs of having a very ordered mind while also being able to offer up priceless remarks like:
'The top of the morning to you, my dears,' trilled the Doctor; 'and when I say "top" I mean the last cubic inch of it that sits, all limpid-like on a crest of ether, ha, ha, ha.'
My new fantasy in life is to be the father of several children who will, in unison, complete that very quote at me whenever I great them with, "The top of the morning to you, my dears!"

It is also Doctor Prunesquallor who makes the most pointed observation about his sister - perhaps as much "to the point" as any bald statement in this book:
'She thinks she's a lady... Oh, dear! the poor thing. Tries so hard, and the more she tries the less she is. Ha! ha! ha! Take it from me, Fuchsia dear, the only ladies are those to whom the idea of whether they are or not never occurs.'
In another attack of pure description, the very next paragraph says:
The branches of the trees behind them chafed one another, and their leaves, like a million conspiring tongues, were husky with heresy.
Then Peake, once again referring to Doctor Prunesquallor, issues what may be his assessment of where clear thought fits into the world that emerged from the flames of World War II:
[He] was a freak only in that his mind worked in a wide way, relating and correlating his thoughts so that his conclusions were often clear and accurate and nothing short of heresy.
What Mr Rottcodd feels in the final chapter may reflect the inner crisis Peake himself felt as he tried to fit his experiences in the British Army, and particularly as a war artist sketching the victims of German concentration camps, into the worldview that had prevailed up to that time:
[H]e became aware of a sense of instability - a sensation almost of fear - as though some ethic he had never questioned, something on which whatever he believed was founded and through which his every concept filtered was now threatened. As though, somewhere, there was treason. Something unhallowed, menacing, and ruthless in its disregard for the fundamental premises of loyalty itself. What could be thought to count, or have even the meanest kind of value in action or thought if the foundations on which his house of belief was erected was found to be sinking and imperiling the sacrosanct structure it supported.
Nevertheless, Peake wraps up the book with a three-paragraph crescendo of triumphalistic braying, which would ring utterly false if it weren't so self-spoofingly odd. Here is part of the penultimate paragraph:
Through honeycombs of stone would now be wandering the passions in their clay. There would be tears and there would be strange laughter. Fierce births and deaths beneath umbrageous ceilings. And dreams, and violence, and disenchantment.


joelville said...

I have nothing constructive to add, except to note that you successfully summarized and surpassed my own feelings about Mervyn Peake! Thank you for writing this, it makes finally gives me somewhere to turn people when I just can't explain why I like Gormenghast.

Robbie F. said...

Thanks & you're welcome!

Nathaniel said...

I've been searching, and am unable to find a definition of the word "julip" except as a misspelling of "julep". Perhaps it's a neologism of Peake's own design.

Robbie F. said...

Thanks for making the effort, Nathaniel.

Robbie F. said...

The only light I can shed on ICHABOD is 1 Samuel 4:21, where the wife of Phineas has just heard that her husband was killed in battle and the Philistines have captured the Ark of the Covenenant: "And she called the boy Ichabod, saying, 'The glory has departed from Israel,' because the ark of God was taken and because of her father-in-law and her husband." According to Strong's notes, the name Ichabod means "inglorious." I reckon Peake's use of this word in his imagery of crumbled masonry is a reference to this departed glory.