Monday, February 27, 2012


I realized that the vast majority of posts over the last few weeks have been about 2-body problems, either mine or others. Dwelling on my family's separation was not good for my psyche. So I'm going to try doing other things in this space for a while. Let me know if you like anything new I try, or would like to see anything in particular.

Mervyn Peake, and his Gormenghast trilogy, has achieved a change in my reading habits I did not think possible. Let me start by saying that he is an absolute master of language. He approaches the reader's mind as an easel, his prose is his brush.
A bird swept down across the water, brushing it with her breast feathers and leaving a trail as of glow-worms across the still lake. A spilth of water fell from the bird as it climbed through the hot air to clear the lakeside trees, and a drop of lake water clung for a moment to the leaf of an ilex. As as it clung its body was titanic. It burgeoned the vast summer. Leaves, lake and sky reflected. The hanger was stretched across it and the heat swayed in the pendant. Each bough, each leaf - and as the blue quills ran, the motion of minutiae shivered, hanging. Plumply it slid and gathered, and as it lengthened, the distorted reflection of high crumbling acres of masonry beyond them, pocked with nameless windows, and of the ivy that lay across the fact of that southern wing like a black hand, trembled in the long pearl as it began to lose its grip on the edge of the ilex leaf.

Yet, even as it fell the leaves of the far ivy lay fluttering in the belly of the tear, and, microscopic, from a thorn-prick window a face gazed out into the summer.
Unlike the scenery, he paints his characters in absolutely grotesque detail, as I fear any one of us would appear if every speck of dirt under our fingernails were brought into focus.

The chef of Gormenghast, balancing his body with difficulty upon a cask of wine, was addressing a group of apprentices in their striped and sodden jackets and small white caps. ... The long beams of sunlight, which were reflected from the moist walls in a shimmering haze, and pranked the chef's body with blotches of ghost-light. The effect from below was that of a dappled volume of warm vague whiteness and of a grey that dissolved into swamps of midnight - of a volume that towered and dissolved among the rafters.  ... One of the blotches of reflected sunlight swayed to and fro across the paunch. This particular pool of light moving in a mesmeric manner backwards and forwards picked out from time to time a long red island of spilt wine. It seemed to leap forwards from the mottled cloth when the light fastened upon it in startling contrast to the chiaroscuro and to defy the laws of tone.
The only really likeable character in this story is the prose. I picked up and put down this series three times before, unable to get past the character introductions in the first fifty pages. As a character driven reader, how on earth could I read a novel, let alone three, about such a hideous cast. It was only after hearing a BBC rendition of the series, where the plot came into focus at the cost of the descriptions, did I realize that their stories are worth following.

I'm somewhere in the middle of the second in the series. Peake almost writes like the "classics" I sat through in high school English, where the authors were paid by the word and published in serials. However, unlike Melville's word count enhancing treatise on whale oil, the poetry in Peake's descriptions are powerful, gripping, and possibly truly timeless.

1 comment:

  1. interesting comment. I actually never finished the book, one of the few, but saw the series with Jonathan Rhys-Mayers in it and liked it then. I didn't really explore why I couldn't handle the books... I was in the middle of my thesis writing so I blamed it on that. (I only read books that I felt connected to since I was stressed and not feeling too happy in general at the time)