“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.”
Having once read it, there’s no way one could mistake the opening sentence of Titus Groan for that of any other book. For one thing, it begins with the name, “Gormenghast,” simply and instantaneously establishing a setting and setting a tone before continuing in a tumble of words that feel as meticulously chosen as they are off-kilter. “Off-kilter,” of course, may be the best one-word description of these first three chapters. From sentence and paragraph structure to word choice, everything about these chapters feels at least slightly askew and unbalanced from the very first words of the book.
The homes of the common people “swarm” and “sprawl.” The earth is sloping and the roofs are uneven. These buildings are “held back by the castle ramparts” as if they’re assaulting the castle—the poor imposing upon the wealthy, titled and powerful by simply existing—and they’re tenacious, “…like limpets on a rock.” The castle itself complements the ramshackle town around it with its “time-eaten buttresses” and “broken and lofty turrets.” Gormenghast is ancient and enormous, but it’s also crumbling and in disrepair. Worse, there’s something obscene about it; it’s most distinguishing feature the Tower of Flints, which “arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven.” To round out the picture, the tower is full of owls, noisy at night and quiet during the day.
And that’s all just the first paragraph.
Chapter 1, “The Hall of the Bright Carvings,” continues to establish the setting. Gormenghast is an ancient but decaying seat of power, and every description of it is reflective of its decline. The place is gloomy and dingy, collapsing under the weight of time, and there’s a profound disconnectedness between the denizens of the town and those of the castle. The annual carving contest, through which three sculptures are added to the eponymous Hall, is a tradition without meaning. The townspeople, we’re told, spend all year working on their submitted pieces, only to have the majority of them burned after the Earl of Groan judges them and chooses the winners. The chosen pieces are relegated to an enormous gallery kept up by a Curator, Rottcodd, who obsessively, but joylessly keeps them dust-free. They are otherwise seen by no one, as no one except Rottcodd seems to go to the Hall, and he lives there as well as works there. It’s not only those in the castle and those without who are disconnected from each other.
Within the castle, too, there are sharp divides between the gentry and the staff and within the staff as well. This is shown in Flay’s interactions with Rottcodd, but it’s further highlighted in the next chapters, “The Great Kitchen” and “Swelter.” While the workers in the Great Kitchen may be more in the loop of major events inside the castle than Rottcodd was, at least enough so that they know to get wildly drunk in celebration of the new Lord Groan’s birth, they’re no more emotionally connected to the Earl and his family than the Curator. Their bacchanalian revels are just as empty a tradition as the sculpture contest, and the kitchen staff may work for the Earl, but they worship the Chef, Swelter. Like the description of the Tower of Flints, the descriptions of the Great Kitchen and its Chef have a feeling of the profane about them. The Kitchen—hot, stifling, crowded, smelly, cacophonous—is a Hell, and Swelter is its ruler.
To the degree that these first three chapters have a plot (which is debatable), it is this: a new heir to the Earldom has been born, and Lord Sepulchrave’s personal servant, Mr. Flay, is spreading the news. Mr. Flay is so excited about the birth that he is in search of someone to share it with who won’t have heard of it yet, and this sends him to Rottcodd in the Hall of the Bright Carvings. When Rottcodd’s reaction is disappointing, Flay then heads to the Great Kitchen, where he knows that there will be, if not surprise at the novelty of the birth, at least some appropriate amount of celebratory reaction. It’s not much, as plots go, and 33 pages of story with only, essentially, a single event is an unfashionably (by today’s standards) slow start to any novel. However, there’s so much emotive and atmospheric worldbuilding detail and sly characterization of the first few characters we meet that it’s hard to resent the lack of actual story.
- Birds – There are owls in the Tower of Flints; Rottcodd uses a feather duster; there are birds (ravens, starlings, a white rook) in the Lady’s chamber; Rottcodd’s head moves back and forth “like a bird’s”; Flay has a “scarecrow frame”; Steerpike is Swelter’s “impatient lovebird.”
- Pathology/Illness – The buildings in the first sentence “swarmed like an epidemic”; the Tower of Flints is “like a mutilated finger”; the sculpture competition is “rabid”; the afternoon that Flay visits Rottcodd is “unhealthy”; the kitchen has a “sickening atmosphere”; Swelter was at the back of Flay’s mind “like a tumor”; Swelter’s first word is to call the kitchen boys, “Gallstones!”
- Humidity – It’s a hot, humid day when Flay goes to see Rottcodd; the Great Kitchen is oppressively humid.
Some Notes on Names:
I suspect Mervyn Peake’s naming conventions in this series will provoke either love or hate reactions in readers. I am firmly in the love camp, myself, and I appreciate the wryly ironic comedic absurdity of it all.
- Gormenghast – An ugly word that suggests both “gorge” and “ghastly” and that seems designed to cram as much information as possible about the place into its name.
- Flay – A single syllable, but a full, real word. Whether you understand it as “to skin,” “to beat,” or “to brutally criticize,” it seems appropriate for our Mr. Flay.
- Rottcodd – Suggests both death and the smell of something vile. I’m curious to see if Rottcodd appears later in the novel, as this seems like it could be a foreshadowingly symbolic name.
- Sepulchrave – From “sepulcher,” obviously, so another death name, with a suffix that could lay equal claim to origins in “craven” or “raving.” Or even “raven,” I suppose, which would fit in with the bird motif.
- Groan – The family name of the Earl. Like “Flay,” it’s a single syllable real word that seems intended to be understood for any or all of its various connotations.
- Swelter – A name that implies heat and wetness, size—especially in contrast to the simply named Flay—and a certain grossness. Swelter’s first name is Abiatha, perhaps from the Biblical Abiathar, which means “excellent father.” This would make sense in light of Swelter’s affectionately abusive paternal-ish relationship with the kitchen boys, and it would also jive with their seemingly religious devotion to him.
- Steerpike – Suggests agency with “steer” and sharpness (like a weapon) with “pike.”