Archive for book challenge

Titus Groan – Nannie Slagg’s outing

Posted in Flashback challenge, Gormenghast journey with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 13, 2010 by echostains

nannie Slagg played by June Brown in the BBC adaptation

Back to the story.  I am now more than half way through ‘Titus Groan’, the writing is miles behind though…. This chapter deals with Nannie Slagg undertaking to get baby Titus a wet-nurse from the dwellings outside the castle.

The acacia trees, silhouetted on her right, cut patterns against the mountain and on her left glowed dimly with a sort of subterranean light.  Her path was striped like the dim hide of a zebra from the shadows of the acacia trunks.  Mrs Slagg, a midget figure beneath the rearing and overhanging of the aisle of dark foliage, awakened small echoes in the neighbouring rocks as she had moved, for her heels beat a quick uneven measure on the stone path.

Whenever Nannie Slagg is mentioned,  her height (or lack of it) is always alluded to.  I should still like to know how tall the old nurse is.   I am sure I saw a picture somewhere of her perched on Prunesquallor’s knee and she looked miniscule.

The Dwellers live in mud huts and always ate their suppers out in the open on long tables arranged in rows.  The actual terrain outside the castle walls is curious – drab grey dust and cacti which sounds more like a desert:-

From the lush shadows of the acacia drive Mrs Slagg had suddenly broken in upon an arid world.  She saw the rough sections od white Jarl root and their bowls of sloe wine standing before them.  This long tubular Jarl root which they dug each day from a wood in the vicinity, stood upon the tables every evening, sliced up into scores of narrow cylinders.  This, she remembered with a flutter that her social status was very much in advance of that held by these poor mud hut dwellers….

I have searched in vain for ‘Jarl root’, but it seems to be a delicacy that Peake invented.  I would think it would be like bamboo which panda’s eat or bamboo shoots.  Full of fibre probably. They are using spoons to eat with, so it must be quite soft.  It doesn’t seem very appetising, but it’s all they have.  The Castle people are luckier with Swelter’s cuisine, though it shall be seen that the Dwellers do get a few scraps from those enormous kitchens thrown them 

Nannie is very proud to announce the purpose of her visit to the Dwellers and let’s them know in  no uncertain terms of the honour that is being bestowed upon them.  That a wet-nurse from among them shall be selected to feed the heir of Gormenghast:-

We are all proud.  All of us.  The Castle,’ (she said this in a rather vain way) ‘is very very satisfied and when I tell you what has happened, then you’ll be happy as well; oh yes, I am quite sure you will.  Because I know you are dependent on the castle’

Mrs Slagg was never very tactful.  ‘You have some food thrown down to you from the battlements every morning, don’t you?’  She had pursed her mouth and stopped a moment for breath.

A young man lifted his thick black eyebrows and spat.

‘So you are very much thought of by the Castle.  Every day you are thought of aren’t you?  And that’s why you’ll be so happy when I tell you the wondrous thing that I am going to tell you.’……

It is decided almost immediately who shall be going with Mrs Slagg back to the castle.  Her name is Keda.  Her story is next.

‘Titus Groan: The 76th Countess of Groan’

Posted in Flashback challenge, Gormenghast journey with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 25, 2010 by echostains

Gertrude by Mervyn Peake

Peake excites our anticipation  of seeing the Countess, by allowing us a look through the keyhole into the room of white cats.  The black door of her room has a white cat emblazoned on it and on the landing outside, pictures of birds adorn the walls. The interior of the room is not as orderly though.  Bird seed is piled up, there  are wax stalactites and a tottering pyramid of tallow.  Peake  gives us the most wonderful description of the room and our first physical encounter with the Countess;-

“As the candles guttered or flared, so the shadows moved from side to side, or up and down the wall, and with those movements behind the bed there swayed the shadows of four birds.  Between them vacillated an enormous head.  This umbrage was cast by her ladyship, the seventy sixth Countess of Groan.  She was propped against several pillows and a black shawl was draped around her shoulders.  Her hair, a dark red colour of great lustre, appeared to have been left suddenly, while being woven into a knotted structure on the top of her head.  Thick coils still fell about her shoulders or clustered upon the pillows like burning snakes.”

What a curious woman the Countess Gertrude Groan  is!  Obsessed by cats and birds to the exclusion of her children.  She certainly does seem to have a way with the wild birds which flock to her.  I wonder if subconsciously she longs for freedom herself?  If she does, she would be the last person to do anything about it – she seems to have accepted her lot.  From her description we  know that she is a huge person with green slanting ‘cat’ eyes and wild dark red hair.  This part was played by Celia Imrie in the BBC series.  I thought the actress put over a wonderful sense of the presence of this character.

Celia Imrie as Gertrude

Her favorite bird is a rook called ‘Mr Chalk’ who the Countess has a particularly tender relationship with.  She  talks to the bird like he was her own child;-

“Three weeks it is,” continued the Countess, “three weeks, I’ve been without him;  wasn’t good enough for him, Oh no, not for Mr Chalk, and here he is back again, wants to be forgiven!  Oh yes!  Wants a great treeful of forgiveness, for his heavy old beak and months of absolution for his plumage.”

In this chapter we get a glimpse into the Countess’s personality: we feel her strength and unusually for her, even some tenderness .  The Countess sticks to the rules, even though they sometimes interfere with what she really want to do (converse with her animals).  She has no time for chit chat and Prunesquallor in particular gets on her nerves – she likes to get straight to the point.  This is how she deals with poor old Nannie Slagg (more of her later);

“What?” shouted Lady Groan.  “What d’you want?  What are you hitting my door for?”

Whoever it was,  raised her voice nervously and cried, “Nannie Slagg. it is.  It’s me, my lady, Nannie Slagg.

What d’you want?” repeated her ladyship, settling herself more comfortably.

I’ve brought his Lordship for you to see,” shouted Nannie Slagg a little less nervously.

“Oh you have, have you?  You’ve brought his lordship.  So you want to come in, do you?  With his lordship.”  There was a moment’s silence

What for?  What have you brought him to me for?”

“For you to see, if you please my lady,” replied Nannie Slagg.  “He’s had his bath.”

Lady Groan relaxed still further into the pillows.  “Oh you mean the new one do you?” she muttered.

“Can I come in?” cried Nannie Slagg.

Hurry up then!  Hurry up then!  Stop scratching at my door.  What are you waiting for?”

“A rattling at the door handle froze the birds along the iron bed-rail and as the door opened they were all at once in the air, and were forcing their way, one after another through the bitter leaves of the small window.”

HERE is the wonderful website of Gormenghast

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

“Flashback Challenge: Titus Groan/Gormenghast: First impressions”

Posted in Flashback challenge, Gormenghast journey with tags , , , , , , on January 12, 2010 by echostains



As soon as I read or should I say re read, the first few pages of the ‘Gormenghast’ novel, I was immediately back among the ghosts: the characters that had died.  Lord Sepulchrave among the bats, Sourdust, Clarice and Cora and others all lost in the first book Titus Groan.  I realised then that I just HAD to start from the beginning, even though ‘Gormenghast‘ is my favorite of the two books.  The level I have chosen for the ‘Flashback Challenge’ is the Literati, that’s over 6 books.   Well, I guess that  ‘Titus Groan’ will be the ‘over’.  I am going to chart my progress and review my hopefully new impressions as I go along. Originally I had planned to put this on the Echostains blog but I fear it shall take up a lot of room.  Here is what I’ve written so far.  I started reading last night (7th January 2010) 

Well I am reading the first of my books for the Flashback challenge, Titus Groan.  At the moment I am deeply ensconced in the room of Bright Carvings with a strange little fellow with a bullet shaped head, I believe his name is Rottcodd.  He is the curator of this room.  I must say he is really keeping these halls immaculate.  No sooner does a  mote  of dust fall,  it is smitten by Rottcodd.  That feather duster of his is a formidable weapon, he even sleeps with it under his arm  – I really must be careful he doesn’t see me. 

 I wonder at all these bright carvings.  These are the cream of the crop: the others are burned.  The prize? The prize awarded to the winning three carvers is  the absolute privilege of  being allowed to walk the battlements of Gormenghast castle on a certain day of alternate months, PLUS the honour of having their work displayed in this museum (which is really nothing more than a long loft).  How loudly  the little man snores in his hammock, undisturbed, forgotten by the rest of the castle.  Doesn’t he know that today is a special day?  This eighth day of the eighth month is the day a Groan is born and Lord Groan’s butler is here to bring the news.

flay the faithful retainer

  Creaky, shiny coated loyal Flay, the master’s personal servant.  How old is this man? the book doesn’t say.  He cannot be so old really because despite his creaking joints, he manages to live in the woods for some time when he gets banished.  Christopher Lee played this part in the BBC adaptation with great success – inspired casting!

Going down into the kitchen, the senses are assaulted by a steamy quagmire of broths, blood from the slaughterhouse and sweet loaves, mingled with drunken singing and revelry all celebrating the birth of the son and heir to Gormenghast, Titus Groan. 

 I love this first re encounter of the castle kitchen.  The grey scrubbers with faces all alike scrubbing away as one huge wave.   The sounds, the smells – and I haven’t even met the gigantic Swelter yet – and I am really looking forward to seeing him after a few years absence.

Best description of the kitchen (lots to choose from);- 

“On a fixed table running along a length of the wall were huge bowls capable of holding fifty portions.  The stock-pots were perpetually simmering, having boiled over, and the floor about them was a mess of sepia fluid and egg shells that had been floating in the pots for the purpose of clearing the soup.  The sawdust that was spread neatly over the floor each morning was by now kicked into heaps and soaked in the splashings of wine.  And where scattered about the floor little blobs of fat had been rolled or trodden in, the sawdust stuck to them giving them the appearence of rissoles.  Hanging along the dripping walls were rows of sticking knives and steels, boning knives, skinning knives and two-handed cleavers, and beneath them a twelve foot by nine foot chopping block, cross hatched and hollowed by decades of long wounds. 

 Rissoles – a very descriptive image, like they’ve been dipped in flour ready to fry. It is taken for granted that all these knives are razor-sharp by the idea of them giving ‘ long wounds’ 

 Best dialogue;- none in ‘The Great Kitchen’ chapter as Flay who doesn’t say much at the best of time is merely observing.  

Best dialogue from ‘The Hall of the Bright Carvings’;-  

Rottcodd flicked ash from his shoes with a feather duster and tilted his bullet head.  ‘Ah’ he said in a non-committal way.    

 ‘You say ‘ah’, said Flay, turning his back on Rottcodd and beginning to walk down the coloured avenue, ‘but I tell you, it is more than “ah”  

 “Of course,’ said Rottcodd. “Much more, I dare say.  But I fail to understand.  I am a curator.’  At this he drew his body up to full height and stood on the tips of his toes in the dust.  

 A what?’ said Flay, straggling above him for he had returned.  ‘A curator?’  

 ‘That is so’, said Rottcodd, shaking his head.  

 Flay made a hard noise in his throat.  To Rottcodd it signified a complete lack of understanding and it annoyed him that the man should invade his province.  

 ‘Curator’ said Flay, after a ghastly silence, ‘I will tell you something, I know something.  Eh?’  

‘Well?’ said Roddcodd  ‘I’ll tell you’ said Flay.  ‘But first, what day is it?  what month and what year is it? Answer me.’  Rottcodd was puzzled at this question, but he was beginning to become a little intrigued……..‘Come closer Rottcodd, I will tell you.  You don’t understand Gormenghast, what happens in Gormenghast – the things that happen – no, no.  Below you, that’s where it all is, under this north wing…..’  

 There is not a lot of dialogue in this first chapter, but from what there is you can get an impression of Rottcodd’s personality (insular and mostly disinterested in anything which invades his world or disrupts his routine) and a bit of a false impression of Flay’s.  Flay doesn’t make long speeches, this is probably the most he has said all day.  

 Gormenghast itself is a puzzle, there are many descriptions that give an impression of the castle.  I shall put these together in a separate post.