‘Titus Groan: Swelter – poetry in slow motion’

Mervyn Peake's wonderful Swelter drawing

 Deep in the bowels of the castle,  Flay looks on furtively at  the drunken revelry  going on around him.  The celebration of the birth of the heir to Gormenghast is well underway now. The kitchen has celebrated all day and it really shows. 

Peake is at his most descriptive here: you can almost feel the heat raging from those open doors  as joint after joint are forced into the already bulging ovens. 

The floors are littered with mixing bowls,  grease and mounds of food covered in sawdust.  The Grey Scrubbers who see to the cleansing of the kitchen are blind drunk and are now sleeping it off.  There are eighteen of these men.  They are deaf by birth and their faces resemble the grey slabs that they scrub.  I find them intriguing.  I always imagine them scrubbing in a line – as one body, or like one relentless wave ebbing slowly backwards as they scrub.

The big quivering mound of white flesh, holding forth with a bottle in his huge fat hand, which he swigs from is Abiatha Swelter.  What a strange Christian name Abiatha is, I must google it and see if it’s a real name. 

Peake’s depiction of the fat cook is almost Dickensian.  The cook is so wordy and disgusting at the same time.  The taciturn Flay is no match for him.  I really enjoy the contrast between these two characters: one fat, the other stick thin, one verbose the other almost monosyllabic.  The only common ground they share is their loyalty to the stones and tradition of Gormenghast.  They are woven like slubs into the fabric of the place – though perhaps in Swelter’s case – a fat silk worm content in his own roomy chrysalis.

swelter-as-played-by-richard-griffiths in the BBC adaptation

The characterisation of Swelter is masterly.  For example – the cook addressing the kitchen boys;-

“Now tell me thish, my stenching cherubs.  Tell me thish and tell me extshtra quickly”

Stenching cherubs is a great description of the young scullions, coupled with description of the smells and sounds – the senses are heightened and the being immersed in the whole noisy stinking cauldron of the kitchen.

Shilence,’ roared the chef.  ‘Shilence, my fairy boys.  Silence, my belching angels.  Come closer here, come closer here, come closer with your little creamy faces and I’ll tell you who I am.”

He then proceeds to tell the rapt audience exactly who he is – Abiatha Swelter!

Best description concerning the chapter ‘Swelter’ well, one of many;-

Swelter lowered his head yet again into the hot spindrift and then held up his right hand weakly.  He made one feeble effort to heave himself away from pillar and to deliver his verses at a more imposing angle, but incapable of mustering the strength he sank back. and then, as a vast inane smile opened up the lower half of his face, and as Mr Flay watched him, his hard little mouth twisted downwards, the chef began to gradually curl in upon himself, as though folding himself up for death.  The kitchen had become as silent as a hot tomb.  At last, through the silence, a weak gurgling sound began to percolate but whether it was the first verse of the long-awaited poem, none could tell for the chef, like a galleon, lurched in his anchorage.  The great ship’s canvas sagged and crumpled and then suddenly, an enormousness foundered and sank.  There was a sound of something spreading as an area of seven flagstones became hidden from view beneath a catalyptic mass of wine-drenched blubber’.

This makes me think of a great whale being harpooned or punctured air balloon capsizing.  For Swelter to cover seven flagstones he is either a considerable size or the flagstones in Gormenghast are smaller than normal ones – and I doubt that!

Best dialogue; again, spoilt for choice;-

“I am Swelter’ it repeated, ‘the great chef Abiatha Swelter, shcook to hish Lordshipsh, boardshipsh and all sortsh of ships that shail on shlippery sheas.’  Abiafa Swelter, man and boy and girls and ribbonsh, lots of kittensh, forty years of cold and shunny, where’sh the money, thick and hairy, I’m a fairy! I’m a shongster! Lishen well, lishen well!”

It is obvious from this diatribe that Swelter is blind roaring drunk.  I couldn’t imagine what ‘shunny’ was at first.  The man is a poetry in slow motion!  Swelter is one of my favorite characters in the book, and he just seems to get better and better.

Update:  I have just Googled the name ‘Abiatha’ and it is indeed a real name.  It’s a Hebrew expression meaning ‘abundant father’  He is indeed abundant, and a ‘real’ father to those poor kitchen boys….

HERE is the wonderful website of Gormenghast

Lot’s of information about Peake and his work at Peake Studies

Handy site for finding the meaning of names HERE

One thought on “‘Titus Groan: Swelter – poetry in slow motion’

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: