Giving the right book to the right person at the right time can be magical, though one should always be wary of the possible consequences. Ambitious young boys, good at chess and board games such as Risk and Monopoly, may devour classic studies of power like Machiavelli’s The Prince, Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War and Orwell’s 1984. When they have grown beards and an interest in hallucinogens and Celtic mysticism, they will be equally grateful to the hand that fed them Graves’s The White Goddess and Huxley’s The Doors of Perception. Anything by Salinger will enhance your standing in the eyes of a 15-year-old niece, while I know a father who discreetly cautioned his daughter by providing her with a trousseau of Benjamin Constant’s Adolphe, Maurice Baring’s Cat’s Cradle and Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses for her honeymoon. (These three studies of the shifting nature of male desire might have constituted literary overkill, but the marriage in question has triumphed.)
For a young adult setting out into the world, however, leaving behind either college or close-knit community, I would instinctively choose Mervyn Peake. Not any Peake, mind; it has to be Titus Groan and Gormenghast without the so-called third volume of the trilogy. (Titus Alone is one of the most pronounced examples of a failed sequence; a disconnected series of passionless adventures that leaves one longing for the acutely drawn cast of characters and the haunting eloquence that suffuse the first two books.)
I first became aware of Mervyn Peake through the covers of two Penguin paperbacks, on which appeared Peake’s own drawings of his invented characters. I was familiar with the thick lips of the heroine Fuchsia and the cadaverous high brow of the anti-hero Steerpike years before I read so much as a line. They have power. Peake was an artist and only took to writing aft
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Giving the right book to the right person at the right time can be magical, though one should always be wary of the possible consequences. Ambitious young boys, good at chess and board games such as Risk and Monopoly, may devour classic studies of power like Machiavelli’s The Prince, Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War and Orwell’s 1984. When they have grown beards and an interest in hallucinogens and Celtic mysticism, they will be equally grateful to the hand that fed them Graves’s The White Goddess and Huxley’s The Doors of Perception. Anything by Salinger will enhance your standing in the eyes of a 15-year-old niece, while I know a father who discreetly cautioned his daughter by providing her with a trousseau of Benjamin Constant’s Adolphe, Maurice Baring’s Cat’s Cradle and Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses for her honeymoon. (These three studies of the shifting nature of male desire might have constituted literary overkill, but the marriage in question has triumphed.)For a young adult setting out into the world, however, leaving behind either college or close-knit community, I would instinctively choose Mervyn Peake. Not any Peake, mind; it has to be Titus Groan and Gormenghast without the so-called third volume of the trilogy. (Titus Alone is one of the most pronounced examples of a failed sequence; a disconnected series of passionless adventures that leaves one longing for the acutely drawn cast of characters and the haunting eloquence that suffuse the first two books.) I first became aware of Mervyn Peake through the covers of two Penguin paperbacks, on which appeared Peake’s own drawings of his invented characters. I was familiar with the thick lips of the heroine Fuchsia and the cadaverous high brow of the anti-hero Steerpike years before I read so much as a line. They have power. Peake was an artist and only took to writing after the war; possibly a deliberate personal reaction to the task of trying to record the horrors of Belsen concentration camp as a war artist. But he could never shed this experience and in the end it helped to destroy the already delicate balance of his mind. I must also confess that I had at first only noticed Peake’s books because they were being held in the hands of a boy called Pink. Among the many clever and competitive boys at school he and I were the only ones who ever seemed to make use of the library – not for what was on its shelves, but as a shelter from a world otherwise dominated by sports and amplified music. Pink was bright, pale and taciturn, made up new languages and their accompanying grammars for his own amusement and had an intriguing taste in books. (I hope he has survived to become some kindly, philologically inclined don, though I fear that such an original soul may have succumbed to a bad fix in a garret near King’s Cross.) So when it came to using the book tokens that were handed out as school prizes, I selected what Pink was currently engrossed in, which was Mervyn Peake. A few weeks later I was expelled from school after spending a night in a police cell. I toyed with the idea of becoming a White Father in Africa; and in this frame of mind, the Peake volumes were put to one side. My father had other ideas. Perhaps hoping that a period at sea, in the mess of some naval cadets, would attract me towards a career in the Royal Navy, he arranged that I be given a lift in an aircraft-carrier that was sailing from Portsmouth dockyard for a naval exercise in the Bay of Biscay, and that I be deposited in Gibraltar. In the rush to pack a suitcase (containing not much else besides a white short-sleeved shirt, a pair of dark trousers and some blue shorts) I threw in the two Peakes. If a naval career was my father’s plan, it failed. But the voyage did turn me into a lifelong devotee of Titus Groan and Gormenghast. The eponymous Titus Groan is child heir to the vast massing stone of Gormenghast castle. It is impossible to construct a model of this fictional dwelling, which is a vividly drawn fusion created from fragments of all the great castles, abbeys, medieval colleges and walled palaces of our own experience. It is slowly depicted by Peake in small evocative details so that it grows in complexity to become the most dominant character in the narrative. Listen to him create the Room of Roots, filled with ‘a thousand branching, writhing, curling, intertwining, diverging, converging, inter-lacing limbs . . . a network of weird arms that rose and fell, dipped and clawed, motionless yet alive with serpentine rhythms’. Only in Lampedusa’s The Leopard and Maxwell’s Lords of the Atlas do you get an equally vivid sense of architecture emerging from out of the backdrop to become a palpable character. Gormenghast is the alphabet of Titus’s imagination, a place of ‘arch and aisle; the language of dim stairs and moth-hung rafters. Great halls are his dim playgrounds; his fields are quadrangles; his trees are pillars’ – and they become ours too. The inhabitants of Gormenghast are engaged in an intricate daily round of rituals and obligations which are presided over by Lord Sepulchrave and his wife Countess Gertrude, though their every movement is in turn controlled by traditions that are lovingly guarded and ferociously policed by the Master of Ritual – clad in his torn scarlet sacking of office. Titus is loved and neglected by his parents: Gertrude, his charismatic animal-loving mother, will visit him on just seven occasions in the first seven years of his life, while his melancholic father, the bookloving Earl, will gloomily ask, ‘Now let me see, my son . . . My son Titus. Is it true that he is ugly?’ Titus is cared for by the diminutive but devoted Nannie Slagg, whom we meet whispering nervously to her charge in the darkness of the grim stone corridors, ‘There, there my only . . . it won’t be long, my little Lordship dear . . . it won’t be long now. Oh, my poor heart! Why must it be at night?’ Other unforgettable characters within the castle’s narrow society are the clever but lazy doctor, Prunesquallor, burdened by the company of his vain sister Irma, and the head chef Swelter, a gross and malevolent character who tyrannizes the kitchen but makes the most beautifully delicate pastries. Swelter is locked into a murderous rivalry with the Earl’s devoted manservant Flay, and despite his vast bulk teaches himself the art of moving soundlessly, save for his whispered endearments to his double-headed cleaver, ‘I’ll make you red and wet, my pretty thing.’ The hidebound order of this self-referential society is gradually torn apart by Steerpike, a clever young servant boy who has managed to escape hellish servitude in the castle kitchens and claw his way up through the ossified ranks of Gormenghast society, using his natural wit and intelligence. There is an innate cruelty in his character, however, which is tellingly revealed when he attempts to charm Titus’s compassionate older sister Fuchsia. Watching her face for approval, he declares, ‘There should be no rich, no poor, no strong, no weak’, while methodically pulling the legs off a stag-beetle one by one. He adds, ‘Equality is the great thing, equality is everything,’ before flinging the mutilated insect away and deferentially asking, ‘Do you agree, Lady Fuchsia?’ Though he fails to win over Fuchsia, Steerpike brilliantly manipulates the brooding envy of the Earl’s two spinster sisters, the half-paralysed twins Clora and Clarice, who conspire with him to burn down their brother’s beloved library. This inferno allows Steerpike to pose as a rescuing hero and achieve further advancement, though the book-burning destroys the balance of the Earl’s already melancholic mind. He will later willingly embrace oblivion among the mass of flesh-eating owls who inhabit the tower of flints, leaving Titus the task of overthrowing and hunting down Steerpike.
* * *Living in the bowels of a great aircraft-carrier, lodged in a cabin on Level 7, proved to be the perfect environment in which to submerse myself in this brilliantly imagined world. I had no occupation on board apart from reading, exploring the ship and attending meals. Everywhere around me Peake’s fabulous three-dimensional creativity was mirrored in the equally fantastic architecture of a warship: the bridge looming up like a Gothic metal tower hung with gallows and aerials, the empty stone courtyard, arcades and cavernous rooms of the castle of Gormenghast here transmuted into long metal passages, decorated with ladders, hatches and riveted bulkheads, and a vast internal hall packed full of helicopters and fighter planes with bent wings. The rigid neo-Byzantine hierarchy of Gormenghast’s ritual-obsessed society dovetailed with that of the Royal Navy, with its ingrained respect for rank and seniority. However charmingly vague he might appear to be when pottering around his garden in the Meon valley, I was able to observe that at sea a Captain is an absolute monarch, a male queen at the centre of a hive of drones. But there are subtle limits to his powers. Most particularly he is forced to dine alone every evening unless he has been specifically invited into the hospitable buzz of the officers’ mess – just like the Earl being dictated to by the Master of Ritual clad in his crimson sacking. The turmoil of the kitchens and the perpetual heart-like beat coming from the engine rooms allowed me to walk in my imagination through the cellars of Peake’s Gormenghast and look upon the forms of Swelter and his eighteen grey scrubbers. The professional pride of the senior petty officers vividly reminded me of Flay at work, for they shared his absolute devotion to the institution in which he served and his gruff, taciturn authority. The physical confidence of the sailors brought to mind the Society of the Bright Carvers, who in Gormenghast labour beyond the castle walls on carving beautiful things that are destined to be consigned to the flames, while in the aircraft-carrier the cheerful banter of the sailors was directed to looking after the brightly painted rocket canisters. Even in my own cabin, I could not escape Gormenghast. Looking in the cabin mirror I was by turns either Titus, a young man trapped by the weight of inherited expectations, or Steerpike, a clever, selfserving anarchist who is prepared to destroy a whole culture if it serves his purpose. (To my mind Steerpike is a brilliant literary fusion of Iago and Napoleon, men caught up in the innate tragedy of their abilities who must always be further tested until, like meteors, they at last consume themselves.)
* * *It has been said that the traditions and rituals of Gormenghast’s enclosed world are merely the ultimate ‘gothick’ fantasy, but I’m not so sure. Ever since my first and only voyage at sea courtesy of the Navy, I have found that life has a peculiar habit of mirroring Gormenghast and its denizens. Working as a pony-boy on the West Highland estate of Mrs Douglas, and observing that the windows had been broken to allow birds year-round access to the bread and water put out for them in the kitchen, I realized I had stumbled across one of the avatars of the Countess of Groan, who gave birth to her son Titus in a bedroom full of wild birds. While in Fez last year, when I heard from an imposingly tall Orientalist scholar of the destruction by fire of her family’s library (until then the oldest and best collection within Europe to have remained in private hands), all I could think of was that this was a pure piece of Mervyn Peake – so much so that it made me instinctively fear that her brother the Prince might soon feed himself as a sacrifice to the owls. But perhaps the most bizarre re-immersion in a Peake-like world occurred about fifteen years ago when I spent many months travelling around Europe in the company of Major Malcolm Munthe, helping him to lift dustsheets from darkened drawing-rooms, rearrange statues in walled gardens and open up the many secret vaults within the walls of his castle outside Rome and his manor houses in Sweden, Herefordshire and Wimbledon. Each house had its own season to be open for guided tours and as a holiday refuge for exhausted teachers of history. This allowed Major Munthe to establish a busy yearly schedule of trans-European train journeys as he closed down one house and then set off to re-open another – the whole enterprise funded by wads of cash drawn from a numbered bank account in Zurich. Just as in Gormenghast, each of his houses was populated with a random assortment of lodgers, quarrelling custodians, dog-keepers and the occasional resident poet. There were family secrets too, and an obsessive jangle of keys and locks, pet cemeteries, and attic hutches for Romolo the pet owl, who travelled within an adapted Gladstone bag. Major Munthe had been a hero in the Second World War, escaping from the German army across the mountains of Norway and then helping to organize the first cells of Scandinavian resistance. He was subsequently moved to the Italian front and was blown up by a mortar shell that destroyed his best friend in the confused fighting of the Anzio landings. These experiences may have helped him turn his back on a conventional career and create his own world of historical imagination behind crumbling walls. But there were other causes. Malcolm’s father, Axel Munthe, had written the first international bestseller of the twentieth century, The Story of San Michele. This partial memoir is set around the construction of an isolated hermitage on a hill-summit in Capri and is flavoured by Axel’s many identities and experiences: by turns compulsive womanizer, heroic doctor to the plague-ridden slums of Naples, traveller, bohemian aesthete and brilliantly successful consultant on neurotic diseases who was much in demand behind the closed walls of many of Europe’s royal palaces. Like the Countess of Groan, Axel Munthe neglected his two boys, and when he died he effectively disinherited them in favour of an old mistress and an archaeological institute. This callous act may have encouraged the last Lord Wharton to disinherit his own wife and family in his turn in order to leave his substantial art collection and fortune to his childhood friend, Malcolm Munthe. To honour this strange bequest Munthe set about creating houses full of mystery, enchantment and illusion, and toward the end of his life, he tried to encourage me to become the perpetuator of the annual rituals he had created, and the custodian of the treasures he had inherited. The suggestion forced me back to the world of Mervyn Peake. Would I become a Titus, ‘suckled on shadows; weaned as it were on webs of ritual . . . Heir to a crumbling summit: to a sea of nettles: to an empire of red dust: to ritual footprints ankledeep in stone’, or would a Steerpike prevail? In the end, there proved to be a third way. Against the emphatic counsel of the one friend we had in common, Malcolm’s son Adam and I formed an unlikely friendship in the legal confusion that followed the death of Major Munthe. It has not always been an easy process, but recently we had a picnic breakfast together in the garden of one of the manor houses that Adam Munthe now looks after. It was then that I reminded him of the time I had given his son a pair of books to help him on his first travels away from home. They were Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan and Gormenghast, wrapped up in a map and tied together with ribbon. At the time he had looked on in horror, for they were the two books that he had been determined to keep out of his young sons’ hands, wary of the possible consequences of their dangerous enchantment.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 12 © Barnaby Rogerson 2006
About the contributor
Barnaby Rogerson was conceived on a yacht and spent much of his childhood following in the wake of his naval father. He has written half a dozen guidebooks, a History of North Africa, a biography of the Prophet Muhammad and an account of the early Caliphate, The Heirs of the Prophet. With his partner Rose Baring he now runs Eland Publishing which specializes in keeping
the classics of travel literature in print.