Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake

Titus GroanIf you imagine a sliding scale of fantasy from the Epic to the Gothic, the defining works at either end must surely be Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Peake’s Gormenghast books. Both Tolkien and Peake were illustrators (Tolkien on a much more amateur level), and both used (initially private) drawing as a means of immersing themselves in their created worlds. A quick glance through J R R Tolkien: Artist & Illustrator shows that Tolkien was mostly interested in, and accomplished at, landscapes. His humans and humanoids, when present, are often stiff, and usually take second place to the scenery, but his landscapes, though conjured with a decorative rather than a realistic style (and very much under the influence of the Golden Age of Illustrators), are much more convincing. Peake, on the other hand, was a professional illustrator, and his manuscripts for Titus Groan were peppered with evocative little sketches, mostly of his characters, in an attempt to capture their personalities and test the authenticity of the dialogue he wrote for them. Tolkien’s characters are people in a landscape, and you know that, should the people depart, the landscape would remain, just as magnificent, just as laden with myth and history. Middle Earth is a place you can imagine visiting for a while. But you can’t imagine visiting Gormenghast castle without the fear of it bringing out your Gormenghastian side, your urge to find your own lonely niche in its spidery attics and dusty, junk-filled side-rooms, and there stew in your eccentricities till cooked into a weird and ornery self-caricature. Peake’s characters and landscape are one — his cast of oddities are not so much in the shadow of the great castle, as it is the shadow of them, and they the shadow of it. So much do its limits make an entire world for them that when one of their number, crack-kneed Flay, is banished to the wilderness, he’s astonished to find that:

“Nature, it seemed, was huge as Gormenghast.”

Peake's own dustjacket design for Titus Groan

Peake’s own dustjacket design for Titus Groan

Knowing Peake is an illustrator, it’s tempting to say that the incredible vividness in which his world and characters are described must be the result of an artist’s eye and a well-honed visual imagination, right down to the details:

“a sweep of old cobwebs, like a fly-filled hammock…”

“a thin beam of light threaded the warm brooding dusk and was filled with slowly moving motes like an attenuate firmament of stars…”

“His face was very lined, as though it had been made of brown paper that had been crunched by some savage hand before being hastily smoothed out and spread over the tissues…”

or, one of the most evocative lines from the second book, Gormenghast:

“…a streak of lightning, like an outrider, lit up the terrain so that for a moment the world was made of nothing but wet steel.”

But read his descriptions closely, and you find that Peake feels his world as much as he sees it — both the physical weight of it, and the unseen tensions and moods that haunt it — though this of course may be what explains his ability as an illustrator as much as it explains his ability as a writer: both are translations of a keen inner sense of the is-ness of things, and the being-ness of people, rather than merely what they look like. And Gormenghast is a world as much shadowed with dark emotion as it is by lack of light. Here is doomed Sepulchrave in his doomed library, dwelling on doom:

“The library appeared to spread outwards from him as from a core. His dejection infected the air about him and diffused its illness upon every side. All things in the long room absorbed his melancholia. The shadowing galleries brooded with slow anguish; the books receding into the deep corners, tier upon tier, seemed each a separate tragic note in a monumental fugue of volumes.”

Fuchsia, by Mervyn Peake

Fuchsia, by Mervyn Peake

I first read Titus Groan when I was about 17. I read it again a year later, then once more just recently, and was amazed to find how vividly every incident and character had remained in my memory throughout the 24 year gap. Each character, though grotesquely fantastic, is also utterly, realistically human, a product of what Peake called “extreme individualism”, both infinitely strange and infinitely right, a perfect example of a type of person I’m sure I’ve met, but know I can’t have. That shark-eyed look of cold calculation you get from Steerpike (who was originally called Smuggerly in Peake’s earliest drafts) makes him the original of all Machiavellian social climbers and arch-manipulators; Fuchsia’s tempests of love and hate, resentment and forgiveness, (always full on, one then the other), make her the most awkwardly adolescent of adolescents; Prunesquallor so rightly accused (by his snapping sister) of being “drunk with [his] own levity” is perhaps the only character with the potential of seeing beyond the Gormenghastness of Gormenghast, if only he weren’t so Gormenghastian himself; the Twins as emotionally dead as marionettes; the drear solemn weight of mournful Sepulchrave; the stateliness and indifference of Countess Gertrude; the insignificant whining of Nanny Slagg — all so real, so human, so exaggerated, so true.

In a radio broadcast at the time of the book’s publication, Peake said:

“I enjoy the fantastic and the sheer excitement of having a sheet of white paper and a pen in one’s hand and no dictator on earth can say what word I put down…”

And, in a later essay (“How a Romantic Novel Was Evolved”), he talks of just what sort of words he found himself putting down as he began Titus Groan:

“A mixture of serious as well as nonsensical fantasy began to pour itself out, without object, sentences growing out of their precursors involuntarily.”

Growing out of their precursors — like the mass of Gormenghast grows from its own tortuous foundations. Has a novel ever so resembled its own subject? Titus Groan is a monumental fugue of words.


Day of the Locust by Nathanael West

The Day of the Locust (cover)Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust (1939) was one of J G Ballard’s favourite novels, and it’s easy to see why, considering the way its ending, in which a crowd outside a 1930s Hollywood premier turns into a rioting mob, serves up such a Ballardian mix of celebritised glamour and seething everyday savagery:

“New groups, whole families, kept arriving. He could see a change come over them as soon as they had become part of the crowd. Until they reached the line, they looked diffident, almost furtive, but the moment they had become part of it, they turned arrogant and pugnacious. It was a mistake to think them harmless curiosity seekers. They were savage and bitter, especially the middle-aged and the old, and had been made so by boredom and disappointment.”

The novel’s protagonist, Tod Hackett, is a would-be fine artist working as a designer for a film studio. He notes two types of people in the streets of Hollywoodland: those who live (or pretend to) the life of glamour, and the underclass of the un-glamorous and ordinary, come to California with the forlorn hope of fixing the misery of their lives with a dose of the glitz they see on screen, only to be disillusioned and betrayed:

“Scattered among these masquerades were people of a different type. Their clothing was somber and badly cut, bought from mail-order houses. While the others moved rapidly, darting into stores and cocktail bars, they loitered on corners or stood with their backs to the shop windows and stared at everyone who passed. When their stare was returned, their eyes filled with hatred.”

Hackett is making sketches for a painting to be titled “The Burning of Los Angeles”, in which that underclass of the ordinary finally revolts against those it envies, but the book’s ending implies that the reality of Hollywood will always be one step ahead of the most blatant attempt to satirise it.

Hackett himself is not immune to the glamour, caught as he is in a (mostly lustful) infatuation with a would-be starlet called Faye Greene, who explains to him matter-of-factly how “she could only love a handsome man and would only let a wealthy man love her”, thus ruling Hackett out on two counts. Instead, Tod gets to witness as Faye conquers one of the newly-arrived saps — one Homer Simpson, by name — inveigling her way into both his spare room and his wallet, having him buy her swathes of new, glamorous outfits so she can parade herself in front of other men and somehow win herself a film career. Homer — who, in his utter limpness of personality, is more like Hans Moleman than his actual Simpsons namesake — simpers through his every humiliation at Faye’s hands, and only lashes out, near the end, at the wrong person, in the wrong place.

Nathanael West worked as a writer in Hollywood at the time he wrote Day of the Locust, but before that already had an eye for the wasteland of early 20th century American life:

“Men have always fought their misery with dreams. Although dreams were once powerful, they have been made puerile by the movies, radio and newspapers. Among many betrayals, this one is the worst.”

Miss Lonelyhearts (cover)This is a quote not from Day of the Locust, but one of West’s previous novels, Miss Lonelyhearts (1933), in which a newspaperman, given the job of providing answers in the paper’s agony column, is overwhelmed by the sheer weight of human misery that pours in via the mailbags each day, as well as by the cynicism of his colleagues who treat it all as a joke, and who are themselves nothing but “machines for making jokes”. The likes of Miss Lonelyhearts, he’s told, “are the priests of twentieth-century America” and “Jesus Christ, the King of Kings, [is] the Miss Lonelyhearts of Miss Lonelyhearts”, but his work offers no real redemption, salvation or true substance.

West refers to the (male) protagonist of Miss Lonelyhearts throughout as “Miss Lonelyhearts”, something which puts a distance between his character and the reader, as though forcing us to take the part of his mocking peers. Day of the Locust‘s Tod Hackett, by planning his satirical painting, seems to be taking a similar stance towards the denizens of Hollywoodland, but nevertheless wonders “if he himself didn’t suffer from the ingrained, morbid apathy he liked to draw in others.”

Writing in 1993, Ballard called Day of the Locust “the best of the Hollywood novels”, even though we get to see very little glitz and glamour in its pages. It’s much more about being on the outside looking hungrily, angrily in. Which is perhaps the point about the paper-thin Hollywood West presents: all its glamour is an illusion, so everyone is on the outside, looking in. Paper-thin as it is, it has no inside.