Undermajordomo Minor – Patrick deWitt
I had been unsure whether to get this book and then shortly after Christmas it appeared in one of those basement priced Amazon deals and so like a lizard spotting a careless fly I snapped it up. I found it a curious affair and didn’t enjoy it as much as I did deWitt’s other book I have read, the Sisters Brothers.
This book is something of a gothic fairy tale. Rather like in Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, the landscape is dominated by a huge castle, the crumbling Castle von Aux, and the book is populated with strange, grotesque characters. Even the protagonist, Lucien Minor or Lucy – one of deWitt’s traits is to play on the sexual ambiguity of names – is an inveterate liar. The setting is probably somewhere in central Europe – you can imagine it as some dusty, forgotten outpost of the Holy Roman Empire – populated with people to whom morals are anathema. But the characters are not all bad – there is some strand of goodness or kindness hidden in them, you just have to look for it. Ambiguity runs through the book.
Lucy leaves home but not before one of his lies, about the boyfriend of the girl he loves, unravels in a humiliating fashion. He takes up the position of undermajordomo at the Castle, assisting the majordomo, Mr Olderglough, in his work, such as it is. Life in the castle has gone to rack and ruin since the Baroness left and the Baron has become increasingly insane, creeping around the castle’s corridors unclothed and eating rats and writing forlorn love letters to his wife.
Lucy engineers the Baroness’ temporary return and there is a riotous party in the Hall involving scenes of what can only be described as sado-masochistic sploshing. On the way to taking up his appointment Lucy observes two thieves working their way round a packed railway compartment. He fails to confront them but eventually becomes firm friends with them – Memel and Mewe – falling in love with Memel’s daughter, Klara.
Life at the castle is dominated by the Very Big Hole into which some of the characters, including Lucy, fall down. Is it supposed to be allegorical? It is difficult to tell but there is a sense that it symbolises rebirth.
The book has some funny moments but the humour is black and literary rather than laugh out loud. And too many of the scenes are only loosely connected to what plot line there is giving the book a bitty, episodic feel, a sense heightened by deWitt’s use of short, pithy chapters. The story is less structured and complete than that of the Sisters Brothers – there are too many loose ends. And to make matters worse, one of his stylistic foibles, to use a simile and then tack “because it was” at the end, gets irritating after a while.
It was an interesting modernist take on gothic literature but a pale imitation of Peake at his best. I didn’t dislike the book but was rather glad that I had bought it at Amazon’s bottom dollar price. It seemed like a thin story and that was because it was.