Before I get round to posting a review of Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan — which, by the by, I’m enjoying immensely and have nearly finished — I thought I would share with you a few posts dealing with aspects of this first book of the Gormenghast trilogy. Aspects that include time, place, structure … and names.
In times past I used to peruse New Scientist at friends’ or at the doctors’ for the exciting ideas thrown up in all the sciences, however much or little I understood the ins and outs. A thread which was covered in the 90s was the concept of nominative determinism — the idea that people’s names, particularly their surnames, were a factor that predisposed them to follow a particular occupation. Some of these names — Cook, Butcher, Archer for example — would have been borne by some male ancestor who had that job, but many seem to be just puns, curiosities that go into that section of the universal memeplex labelled ‘Ain’t Life Odd?’ You know, a vicar called Vickers, or a poet called Wordsworth.
But fiction has the propensity to be stranger than fact.
Dickens is known for the oddly named personages in his novels, and we all have our favourite characters, don’t we? Wackford Squeers is a most apt name for a pupil-bashing teacher in Nicholas Nickleby, Abel Magwitch is the convict who frightens young Pip in Great Expectations and Uriah Heep matches the unctuous personality of the clerk in David Copperfield. These monikers only work and the individuals made so memorable if they are singularly odd: any one of these would have less impact on a reader than, say, Peter Jones or John Smith.
In his Gormenghast trilogy Mervyn Peake is a worthy successor to Dickens in his naming of both principal and supporting characters. Let me give you a few or more examples. Take Steerpike, for a start. Here is someone who metaphorically would take the bull by the horns, and the pike, with its wicked teeth, is a good aquatic equivalent. But as well as pike-steering talents, said lad has a name reminiscent of Shakespeare: where the spear-shaking playwright controlled the words, actions and thoughts of his dramatis personae Steerpike uses his sharp wit and tongue like that long thrusting spear which so overawed opposing medieval armies, manipulating and demoralising the inhabitants of Gormenghast Castle.
The Earls of Groan already have a lugubrious family name, for whom levity must be a stranger. Sepulchrave, the 76th Earl, has a suitable portmanteau forename composed of sepulchre and grave (the last of course a double pun, meaning both ‘serious’ and ‘hole for burial’); he cannot help but live up to — and die of — his name. His newborn son, Titus, while bearing a classical praenomen, reminds me of the Latin titulus, an inscription or caption, which has given us the English ‘title’ — which thus confirms that the baby is entitled to be regarded as the 77th Earl.
Titus’ elder sister is called Fuchsia. We all know this as a flowering shrub producing drooping red blooms and that it is named after a botanist called Fuchs (fuchs is German for ‘fox’). Naturally this moody gypsy-like individual characteristically wears red dresses. (In fact her mother Gertrude, as well as bearing the name of a tragic Shakespearean queen, sports a head of russet hair the colour of a fox.) Fuchsia’s very dim maiden aunts, the twins Cora and Clarice, may have been given their names purely for alliteration; in addition, though, Cora means ‘maiden’ in Greek (which they both certainly are) and Clarice is a derivative of various European words meaning ‘clear’ (which the twins certainly aren’t).
My attention was straightway drawn to Abathia Swelter, chef in the Castle’s vast kitchen. A mountain of a man in terms of excess weight, he does indeed sweat and swelter in the hothouse that is the Great Kitchen; armed with a murderous two-handed cleaver his first name is aptly reminiscent of the word ‘abattoir’, whether or not that was Peake’s intention. He is the nemesis of the Earl’s retainer-in-chief Flay, a thin spare man who may well look as though the flesh has been flayed from his bones (the bones in his knees crack alarmingly at every step).
Other names I suspect have been chosen because they appealed to Peake as invested with syllables he could roll around his tongue. The siblings Alfred and Irma rejoice in the name Prunesquallor. Fuchsia rejoices in referring to Alfred as ‘Dr Prune’ and that seems to be an appropriate ekename: though plummy of voice he nevertheless comes across as a dried-up fruit. Then there’s Titus’ nurse, Nannie Slagg. Nowadays that is a common derogatory name for a woman, but Peake’s choice of the name seems to rest on the fact that the poor nurse sees herself as a disregarded discarded piece, the slag left over from the smelting process that nobody wants and gets trodden into the dirt.
I won’t analyse all the characters in Titus Groan, largely because so many defy analysis. What are we to make of the Castle’s servants called Rottcodd, Sourdust, Barquentine, Shrattle and Pentecost, for example, or the names of the peoples in the Outside Dwellings? If we can only guess at their meanings we can still be sure that in the world of Gormenghast their punishment, as servants, is to have jobs that fit the crime of their given names. And Gormenghast itself? This is truly a twilight-lit (Welsh gwrm, ‘dusky’) world within which occur ghastly doings to render us aghast.