Monday, November 7, 2011

had held at bay the illness

As I was finishing this sentence about Titus Groan in my last post, "How many rooms does the reader never see because no character visits them?" it occurred to me that the answer had to be "None" and "Innumerable." Titus, in the third book of Peake's trilogy, removes himself from the castle and runs into the wide and open outer world, but the author keeps restoring him to enclosed spaces, putting him in a prison cell, or an underground tunnel, or a car, where he usually acts against one other key person, Old Crime in the cell, or Veil in the tunnel. He enters from the wings of one of these stage-areas, exchanges dialogue, then exits to another stage. This two-way opposition works in the other books as well, where you have Flay against Swelter, or Prunesquallor exclusively talking to Gertrude, but Titus Alone is unique in that one side of the dialogue rarely changes. It is usually Titus. He is the static force now, he is Gormenghast castle, the object that carries through the story from one end to the other.

He is trapped and released and trapped and released and trapped again. (You could even argue that the endings of the last two books are being mashed together and relived, mashed together and relived. End of book one: Titus is imprisoned. End of Book Two: Titus escapes from that prison. The body of Book Three: ditto ditto ditto. So that Titus Alone is not a sequel to the other two books but a compression of them, their anthology or compilation tape.)

An alien society is surging somewhere outside the walls that the author keeps putting in place around him, or at least that's my feeling when I read the book -- this surging, this muttering -- the strange culture exists and it has its own rules and laws, it picks up the young man and puts him in a courtroom, then shuttles him into the cell, then persecutes him, but the mutter of this society is happening apart from him; it happens outside and away and it touches him only to harm him, and otherwise it's foggy.

To extend the idea of a stage: this society is the audience gathering in the theatre foyer during the interval to make a verbal judgment that can be heard perhaps dimly through the walls backstage, and the actors come out again at the start of act three to meet this judgment, not knowing what it is. Titus emerges onto the stage, he gestures dimly against judgment, he sulks, strives, panics, and runs to evade it.

Peake wrote a stage play, hoping to make money, but "The reviews were not good," states John Watney in his biography Mervyn Peake, "the work of seven years wasted; the magic wand that was to solve all their worries had broken." It had a short run and he received seventeen pounds. "He had expected too much from it, he had worked too hard on it, and had held at bay the illness that had started to take hold of him."

The next work he finished before "the illness" broke him down irrevocably was Titus Alone, and the characters keep returning to these stage-areas, they present themselves on stages again and again, and the book's writer-character, who squats behind mouldering remaindered copies of his novel in the dark Under-river, is a pessimistic object; he is set up next to his failures, they are on display; and Titus is sent to the Under-river by his author to witness this failure and misery, and to fight an evil pimp named Veil.

Titus fought a different man in the previous book, and won, but now he isn't saving his homeland, as he did in Gormenghast, he goes to commit murder because the other soul disgusts him (as Steerpike did: it is important to Peake that the fight be subrational), and he fights in order to rescue a sick woman so that she can be allowed to die as she wants, on clean linen. Veil is foul in the author's estimation, morally filthy; this is a battle over the clean and the unclean; she dies on clean linen but she is still dead, a small wish is granted but nothing is saved, unless you consider Freud, and the idea that the most independent wish of every life is to control the manner of its death, and yet she didn't control it, she didn't command it, she only wished for it, and it was only through the intervention of a stranger that the wish was fulfilled. It was a ruthless culture that damaged her, and a ruthless culture that pushed her saviour down there to put her on a flawless pillow, which kills her instantly.

I don't have the book with me, so all of this might actually be wrong.

On the subject of that flawless pillow: notice that clean things in Peake are often dangerous. Swelter's axe is clean. Steerpike is clean. The evil technology in Alone is sleek and neat. Fuchsia is messy and harmless. But the Doctor is clean too, and we even see him taking a bath, so I can't say that Gormenwashing is universally bad. Whimsical washing versus serious washing? (The Doctor plays in his bath.)


  1. You made me read all that only to then end with that! Now, I don't know whose stage I'm on or if I'm on any stage at all. I demand my money back! That, or I suppose I should read Peake for myself.

    BTW I do like the notion of no rooms or innumerable rooms. I can live with either, though there are readers who need to know that all the right rooms are there, whether they are used or not.

  2. I am keeping your money and investing in casino shares. By next Tuesday I will be a plutocrat and wash my feet in bollinger. The idea of the rooms tantalises me because Peake always tells us that Gormenghast castle is huge, sprawling, nonsensically massive, just utterly phenomenally absurdly vast with endless floods of forgotten corridors, halls, rooftops, and everything infinitely multiple, but the rooms he lets us see are very sharply characterised. (As sharp as people in Dickens. You wouldn't mistake one Gormenghast room for another, any more than you'd mistake Uriah Heep for one of the Cheeryble Brothers.) So you have this unusual particularity, and then this limitless vague flood. That contrast preys on me somehow.

  3. Well that's not fair! BUT I'll keep visiting you cos I like reading about the things that prey on you!

  4. As soon as the millions start rolling in I'll send around a noble eunuch with a feather fan to cool your computer gently as you read.