Saturday, February 11, 2012

Books: Titus Groan

I find it hard to believe that I last read Titus Groan when I was thirteen or fourteen. I always meant to re-read it, but never did. (My parents' copy of Titus Groan went missing, which didn't help.) So while I'd say it's a favourite and important book to me, it was half my life ago that I read it.

Titus Groan is still not quite like anything else I've read. Strangely, it reminds me slightly of JG Ballard, though I can't say why. The exaggerated, slightly hallucinatory quality, perhaps.

When I first read the book I found it very hard to read. The prose of Titus Groan is like its setting: ornate, sometimes tortuous, often obscure. This time round, I found it much easier going, though there was still the odd word I didn't know ("hanger"). I also found it exceptionally strange and unrelentingly dark.

The biggest changes in my experience of the book were in the humour and the characters. I think the first time I was so submerged by the darkness that I didn't appreciate the humour. This time I realised how genuinely funny some of the characters and absurdities are. On a number of occasions I was chuckling out loud.

In a similar way I appreciated the characters better. Some are clearly evil or vile, both enabled and constrained, by their situation. Others are unusual, certainly, but pushed to extremes to cope with their situation. The Countess' withdrawal from human contact as a way to withdraw herself mentally from the drudgery of ritual and those whose company she is forced to keep. The twins' nature encouraged into spite and ignorance. Flay, taciturn and hard, but loyal and even dear to those who know him.

Most of all though, the doctor and Fuschia. Despite aloof, affected appearances, the doctor is a thoughtful, compassionate man. As he himself thinks, the others have responsibility towards ritual, but he has responsibilities towards them and their wellbeing. Of all, Fuschia is most tragically trapped. The doctor's intellect at least provides an escape of sorts. Fuschia feels the oppression of Gormenghast, but has only childish escapes, no-one to teach her or provide an example to follow, and no-one to offer or receive the tenderness that would relieve her (save, in all counts, the little Prunesquallor can offer). All this leaving her horribly vulnerable to Steerpike's manipulation. The book leaves you with a sense of foreboding for these two. If the Gormenghast is bad, the realisation of Steerpike's ambitions would be worse.

The adult characters all the characters either suffer a withering of the spirit, or restrain and canalise it, into brutality, birds and cats, an obsession with being a lady. It's this prospect that faces Fuschia. And it's this that is made physical in the Bright Carvers and their sudden decline from vibrant youth to premature age.

Of Steerpike himself, I am not sure how much there is to see beyond the fact he is a psychopath.
Steerpike is not alone in feeling nothing for other people. His success rests on the fact that he cares nothing for the system. For all the other characters, good and bad, Gormenghast is a part of them, just as they are part of it. Steerpike is constantly referred to as an outsider, even though there is no hint of anything odd in his origins (just a kitchen boy). Rather, he is an outsider because people subconsciously realise he cares nothing for Gormenghast.

The only other character to want (in a vague way) to throw down the system like this is Fuschia, and it's what makes her seem so vulnerable to Steerpike. On the other hand, he is unable to recognise the casual cruelty that repulses her and counteracts his efforts to charm.

There is an ambiguity in the book here, that only the most heartless character is able to challenge a heartless system. Does respect for others mean respect for the system, either for itself or for their sakes? Are all revolutionaries cruel, or even psychopathic? Or is Steerpike simply the only person with all the right characteristics - intelligence, art, luck, motivation?

One thing that made me prevaricate about reading the book a little was the feeling that it was a cold, dark winter book. That's not really true though. Titus Groan crosses many seasons and weathers. The only common feature of the weather is that it conspires to oppress the characters; it is always overwhelming either in its violence, like the titanic downpour during Swelter and Flay's confrontation, or in its relentlessness. Even more than the harsh, sparsely described landscape, the weather provides an expressionistic accompaniment to, or rendering of, the events.

Perhaps the weirdest thing about re-reading Titus Groan is that I found that literally all the events I remember from the trilogy come from the first book. Flay and Swelter, Flay's cat-throwing banishment, the burning of the library, the death of Sepulchrave. I am wondering what on earth goes on in the second book that I have forgotten, and whether it will be familiar to me when I read it.

One thing that hasn't changed is that I still can't describe the book in a satisfying way, in a way that really gets across how it feels.

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