“Titus Groan” by Mervyn Peake

Greetings!  Welcome to Gormenghast Castle.  Allow me to introduce you to some of its residents:

Lord Sepulchrave – 76th Earl of Gormenghast.  His life is ruled by a mind-numbing, never-ending sequence of rituals that tradition requires.  Afflicted with crippling melancholy, Sepulchrave’s only respite is to escape into his beautiful library’s world of books.  It just might be the only thing keeping him sane.

Titus Groan – son and heir to the House of Groan.  Born on the day the novel begins.

Lady Gertrude – The wife of Lord Sepulchrave, mother to Titus and Fuschia.  A solid, sturdy woman, she prefers the company of birds or her one hundred white cats to that of other people.  Indeed, she seems unable to relate to human companionship or logic.

‘Slagg,’ said the Countess, ‘go away! I would like to see the boy when he is six.’

Fuschia Groan – daughter of Lord Sepulchrave.  Like her mother, she seems more content in her own fantasy world than in reality.  However, unlike her mother, she seems to be growing up and out of this phase.

Nannie Slagg – nanny to Fuschia and Titus.  Small, ancient, frail, simpleminded.  But she loves children.

Keda – an outsider from the village of mud huts outside the castle walls who recently lost her own infant, she is recruited as a wet nurse for Titus.  She is happy to escape the escalating tensions of a love triangle in the village, where two men vie for her affection.

Dr. Prunesquallor – loquacious and hilarious! My favorite character.  Cleverer than he first appears.

Irma Prunesquallor – the doctor’s sister.  Tries to be a real Lady, but as her brother says, “The only true ladies are the ones who don’t wonder whether or not they are a lady.”

Cora & Clarice Groan – twins, sisters to Lord Sepulchrave.  Intensely jealous of Gertrude.  Simple minded and easily manipulated by Steerpike….

Flay – head butler and personal manservant to Lord Sepulchrave.  Tall, skinny, old, and creaky.  Favors dusty black suits.  Eschewing inefficient grammar and sentences, Flay generally speaks in strings of single words, using the fewest possible to make his point.

Swelter – immensely obese and nasty head cook.  Archenemy of Flay.

Steerpike – begins as one of Swelter’s kitchen boys, but not for long.  His cleverness and thirst for power, seemingly simply for its own sake, leads him continually onwards and upwards.  He doesn’t care much about the consequences of his actions or their “rightness” or “wrongness” as long as his ambitions are furthered.  Life is something of a game to him, and power is the only score worth striving for.

Quite a memorable cast of characters.  Several times while reading I thought that every single one of them was neurotic and insane, each in their own special way.  Which very well might be true.

“Titus Groan” is a beautiful book and showcases an incredible use of language.  I loved it how every character has their own distinct voice.  Some parts of the book were a little tedious, such as where several pages are spent describing the color of the night (might be exaggerating a bit about “several pages”, but you get the idea), but the dialog between characters is great.  It’s hard to describe, so below is an example.  This is when Steerpike meets Dr. Prunesquallor:

‘Steerpike,’ said the youth. ‘My name is Steerpike, sir.’

‘Steerpike of the Many Problems,’ said the Doctor. ‘What did you say they were? My memory is so very untrustworthy. It’s as fickle as a fox. Ask me to name the third lateral bloodvessel from the extremity of my index finger that runs east to west when I lie on my face at sundown, or the percentage of chalk to be found in the knuckles of an average spinster in her fifty-seventh year, ha, ha, ha! – or even ask me, my dear boy, to give details of the pulse rate of frogs two minutes before they die of scabies – these things are no tax upon my memory, ha, ha, ha! but ask me to remember exactly what you said your problems were, a minute ago, and you will find that my memory has forsaken me utterly. Now why is that, my dear Master Steerpike, why is that?’

‘Because I never mentioned them,’ said Steerpike.

‘That accounts for it,’ said Prunesquallor. ‘That, no doubt, accounts for it.’

‘I think so, sir,’ said Steerpike.

‘But you have problems,’ said the Doctor.

Steerpike took the glass of brandy which the Doctor had poured out.

‘My problems are varied,’ he said. ‘The most immediate is to impress you with my potentialities. To be able to make such an unorthodox remark is in itself a sign of some originality. I am not indispensable to you at the moment, sir, because you have never made use of my services; but after a week’s employment under your roof, sir, I could become so. I would be invaluable. I am purposely precipitous in my remarks. Either you reject me here and now or you have already at the back of your mind a desire to know me further. I am seventeen, sir. Do I sound like seventeen? Do I act like seventeen? I am clever enough to know I am clever. You will forgive my undiplomatic approach, sir, because you are a gentleman of imagination. That then, sir, is my immediate problem. To impress you with my talent, which would be put to your service in any and every form.’ Steerpike raised his glass. ‘To you, sir, if you will allow my presumption.’

The Doctor all this while had had his glass of cognac raised, but it had remained motionless an inch from his lips, until now, as Steerpike ended and took a sip of brandy, he sat down suddenly in a chair beside the table and set down his own glass untasted.

‘Well, well, well, well,’ he said at last. ‘Well, well, well, well, well! By all that’s intriguing this is really the quintessential. What maladdress, by all that’s impudent! What an enormity of surface! What a very rare frenzy indeed!’ And he began to whinny, gently at first, but after a little while his high-pitched laughter increased in volume and in tempo, and within a few minutes he was helpless with the shrill gale of his own merriment. How so great a quantity of breath and noise managed to come from lungs that must have been, in that tube of a chest, wedged uncomfortably close together, it is difficult to imagine. Keeping, even at the height of his paroxysms, an extraordinary theatrical elegance, he rocked to and fro in his chair, helpless for the best part of nine minutes after which with difficulty he drew breath thinly through his teeth with a noise like the whistling of steam; and eventually, still shaking a little, he was able to focus his eyes upon the source of his enjoyment.

‘Well, Prodigy, my dear boy! you have done me a lot of good. My lungs have needed something like that for a long time.’

‘I have done something for you already, then,’ said Steerpike with the clever imitation of a smile on his face.

See my thoughts on “Gormenghast” (the second book) here.

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