Monday, May 16, 2005

Peake: Gormenghast Trilogy

The visual imagination of Titus Groan is often breathtaking. Consider the opener:

"Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls."

That isolation of the ponderosity, of one individual quality, in contradistinction to another quality, the sheerness of the contrast, is what creates the vividness of the image. Imaginative genius is a genius of reductive contrasts. Peake also avoids a superfoetation of metaphor by dipping into abstraction: the only one here is the locust-like dwellings. Trite enough by itself, were triteness not a matter of context and use. Important too, Peake's words extrude the image through time, immediately increasing the dimensionality of Gormenghast. The "original" stone; the "circumfusion" of other dwellings, a process noun for their past agglomeration; the "swarming" of the present narrative time. A keen sensitivity to the impression of the thing, its felt quality: James does this best, though particularizes it always as the impression of a character, instead of relaying it as here straight to the reader.

Limning the world begins, as one might begin the history of the German Dark Ages, with the life of an insignificant, here the carving-duster Rottcodd, who does nothing, oblique to the main drama, and is therefore the best frame for Steerpike and the Groans, who do have a stake in the milieu and who weigh on the initial tranquility of which Rottcodd is the type. Again the fiction works by the operation of contrasts. This is not formula, this is genius. Narration takes first the go-round of the periphery, the curators and the chefs, funneling slowly inward, with Mr. Flay as sinister cicerone. Steerpike is introduced in the same way: first anonymously-metonymously, as "the high-shouldered boy," filling a wormwood pipe, then as Steerpike, then as Steerpike. Creation as a slow circling-inward, a progressive stripping-away of impressions from the most apparent and trivial to the deepest concealed and essential. Drunk the chef ambivalently accuses and praises him as "sho far removal'd from anything approaching nature." In vino veritas, the reader knows.

Peake often has nauseatingly Dickensian presentations of character, just as his language can be too florid: but Flay, redeemingly, turns out a positive figure. Steerpike would be better if his cogs were blackboxed: Peake errs when he presents the seduction of Fuchsia from both perspectives. Steerpike has sublime moments, such as when he acknowledges at face Prunesquallor's accusation that he is "monstrous." But that is an opportunity lost, for he merely replies tu quoque, whereas he should have made Prunesquallor admire him the more for it. Dramatically his inadequacy is not to know more about himself than his accuser, though that comes later; in any case it keeps him short of Iago. Also his ambition, for which he is monstrous, is a too understandable motive, keeping him among positive capacities. The kernel of his psychology is Iagoan: "Everything, he thought to himself, can be of use. Everything." His bolshevism, as it were, his hypocritical urge for "Absolute equality of status. Equality of wealth. Equality of power," is revealed as jealousy, or the papering-over of a consuming ambition that even jealousy cannot sufficiently motivate.

Strange recurrences of the color purple, unaccountable except as a sign of majesty: Prunesquallor, Fuschia, Titus's violet eyes, Cora and Clarice clad in purple...

Numbering objections serves no purpose, but the case against Peake is much the same as the case against Durrell in his Alexandria Quartet: the baroqueness mars the wisdom, however valuable it often is. Trace elements of Joyce (the reveries at the dinner table a la Molly Bloom) and of Proust ("The loss of his library had been a blow so pulverizing that he had not yet begun to suffer the torment that was later to come to him," etc.) are not where Peake's genius lies.

Other problems are with characters. We lose any sense of the other inhabitants of Gormenghast, those who give the ruling family its dignity. And since the only character of interest is Steerpike, excepting Flay and Prunesquallor, perhaps Swelter and Nannie Slagg, and the cameos of the Earl, the stakes begin to vanish. Peake's women are nimwits. Cora and Clarice are beyond belief.

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