Tuesday, April 5, 2011

terrifyingly themselves, as they set out for the Cool Room

Riding carbound through western Oregon I looked through the window at the forest and thought of Gormenghast. Peake dug his way so thoroughly into me when I was younger that it seems impossible to ever reach a state where an object that suggests castles or forests will not remind me of the books, always there, they are always ready to be accidentally summoned, like the ability to ride bicycles.

All around the road were the dark trees, black trees, clawing trees in the drizzle, "the branches interlacing so thickly that even the heaviest downpour was stayed from striking through," the moss growing on the rocks and on the concrete road-dividers, and different moss (darker) on the trunks, lighter moss on the branches like buds. By the time the new leaves need to sprout the weather has become too warm for this lighter moss so it dies and drops off, allowing the leaves to take its place, which is a beautiful symbiosis. (Another symbiosis: when we stopped in Arizona later three small birds came down to stand on the front bumper of the car and eat flattened insects off the paintwork.)

Gormenghast castle is set behind deep forests, like Portland (from the south, anyway), which you approach through trees and then through fields, but with my mind I can easily compress the fields to nothing and see only the city's downtown area inside a wall of this forest, which rises thickly on all sides of the buildings, as close as the thorn barrier around Rapunzel's tower, while the inhabitants of Portland (who, when we saw them, were either homeless or else dressed in black and standing by the counters of coffee shops, as if they'd stepped out of a stereotype of Melbourne) live inside, cultivating their eccentricities. (But we can only dream of a world as sprouting and disheveled as Peake's: the employee-hiring section of the website for Powell's Books is as sober as the white forehead of "the high-shouldered boy.")

In the north the buildings run up to the river that borders Washington. We went across quickly, ate lunch and then came back, so that we'd be able to say in future, "We've been to Washington," but all we saw of the state were some one-way streets and a one-legged man in a wheelchair, a rectangular grassy park, and a sign for the Vancouver School of Beauty printed in lavender.

Coming back days later to the low desert of Arizona, I remembered Peake in Titus Groan describing the self-contained nature of his characters, "terrifyingly themselves." How did the sentence go?

Each one with his or her particular stride. His or her particular eyes, nose, mouth, hair, thoughts and feelings. Self-contained, carrying their whole selves with them as they moved, as a vessel that holds its own distinctive wine, bitter or sweet. These seven closed their doors behind them, terrifyingly themselves, as they set out for the Cool Room.

Peake, an artist who worked as an illustrator, wrote as if his mind was going through the procedure of drawing, he wrote as a person drawing sees, paying attention to the proportions and singularities of objects, measuring the negative spaces between leaves,* or noticing the distance between one person's nose and eyes and another person's nose and eyes. He magnifies differences and reiterates them. We could guess at the lack of inner sympathy between the characters even if we only saw them standing far away in silhouette -- the physical contrasts are so strong -- fat Swelter fighting with thin Flay, or tiny shivering Nannie Slagg, "like a withered doll," attending to the hair of the monumental and still Countess Gertrude, whose "effect … was one of bulk," or Fuchsia, whose stance is untidy, talking to Steerpike, who is neat and contained, "methodical and quickly moving," and who keeps his hair slicked back.

The author plays the game a little differently when it comes to the Doctor and Irma, making them look superficially similar, giving them both "the Prunesquallors' head," and then assuring the reader that their minds are absolutely antithetic in noteworthy ways. "Her own brain was sharp and quick but unlike her brother's it was superficial." The contrary features that he makes external in a couple like Flay and Swelter, he internalises for the two Prunesquallors.

Arriving at the Twins he changes the game again and creates two characters who look, think, and behave so alike that they are virtually the same person. Now the striking thing is the likeness between the two sides of the pair, not the dissimilarity. (When he brings them together with Steerpike the threesome behaves like a twosome; the Twins are so identical that conversations with outsiders arrive at the same result no matter which one of them is speaking.) At this point you realise that Peake's technique is something like Lewis Carroll's, the author acknowleging a set of rules and then tweaking them to find out what effect these changes will have. But Peake's rules are visual and physical, where Carroll's were abstract, linguistic and mathematical.

I thought, "If you're comparing landscapes then it's Arizona that has the Gormenghast spirit, not Oregon. It doesn't look like the landscape in the book, but it has that emphasis on difference." The desert is so wide, the foliage is so low, and lit with such a brilliant crushing light, that each plant stands out distinctly, and when I see a saguaro standing up in this crouching countryside, I have the impression that I'm looking at a bare stage with a single prop. Those shapes, like poles, seem too striking and isolated to be ordinarily alive. They are supernatual, "terrifyingly themselves." But in Oregon the plants have so much rain that they never have to crouch, they grow tall, lush, and crammed, in places a weaker tree will lean sideways into the others and tangle itself in their branches, the moss runs from the earth up the trunks disguising the join between the two, and nothing is allowed the total isolation of the saguaro. In Arizona the plants are singular, in Oregon they are plural. Arizona has a tree, Oregon has trees.

* In Titus Groan, the chapter called Farewell: "Her eyes seemed to be drawn along the line of the dark trees until they rested upon a minute area of sky framed by the black and distant foliage. This fragment of sky was so small that it could never have been pointed out or even located again by Keda had she taken her eyes from it for a second."

Measurements that are even more detailed are not difficult to find. In the Blood at Midnight chapter:

Swelter's shadowy moonless body at the door was intersected by the brilliant radii and jerking perimeters of a web that hung about halfway between himself and Mr Flay. The centre of the web coincided with his left nipple. The spacial depth between the glittering threads of the web and the chef seemed abysmic and prodigious.

This is more or less the way my mind talks to itself when I'm drawing objects with a pencil -- sorting out intersections and proportions, and guessing at the effects. Peake's language works by combining exact observation ("The centre of the web coincided with his left nipple") with words that suggest largeness, vagueness, grandeur, romance, and drama -- "abysmic" "dark trees" "terrifyingly" -- the precisely known meeting the ineffable -- or the mechanical meeting the spiritual -- the same tension that we see described in Anthony Burgess' assessment of the books, "A rich wine of fancy chilled by the intellect."

I'm not totally sure if the moss story is true. M. says that a friend told him about it.


  1. Wow, what a wonderful little essay on Peake and his modes of perception and writing!
    As for seeing Peakean things everywhere once you've read his work, C S Lewis wrote, 'What one may call “the gormenghastly” has given me a new Universal; particulars to put under it are never in short supply.'
    Best wishes

  2. Thank you very much. That's an astute comment from Lewis. Once I was in the grip of the books, the thing that "one may call "the gormenghastly"" really did become one of my mental filing boxes. A person would walk around a corner and I'd think, "Oh, he's a Doctor," "She's a Nannie Slagg." It became automatic.

    Best wishes to you too. I hope Peake Studies is going well. (I clicked on your name and arrived straight away at the website.)