Five by Five Books #4: “Titus Groan” (1946) and “Gormenghast” (1950) by Mervyn Peake

(Note: This is one of an occasional and ongoing series of reviews of my favorite novels, structured by covering five facets of my reading experiences, each in five sentences).

What’s it about? This two-tome story cycle tells the coming-of-age tale of Titus Groan, Seventy-Seventh Earl of Gormenghast, an anachronistic realm ruled from days immemorial by Titus’ forebears, whose seat of power is a vast, ancient, crumbing castle, rife with long-forgotten halls, chambers and secrets. The opening book, Titus Groan, is set entirely between Titus Groan’s birth and his first birthday, with the infant Earl serving less as a character than as a catalyst — seemingly small occurrences surrounding his birth set in motion an ever-growing series of circles and circumstances that come to full blossom in the second book (Gormenghast), eventually threatening the ritual-bound cultures of the ruling Groans and their earldom itself. The books’ characters are introduced as extraordinary Dickensian grotesques for the most part, though the key players gain both depth and breadth as the story advances; Titus’ older sister, the Lady Fuchsia, stands as a particularly complex and heart-breaking literary creation of unparalleled pathos. The story’s main antagonist — the ever upwardly mobile ex-kitchen boy Steerpike — is one of the great villains of 20th Century literature (his accumulated misdeeds also make him one of the most openly sociopathic characters you’re likely to encounter in a book read for pleasure), while the conflict between the Groan family’s loyal retainer, Mr. Flay, and the corpulent chef Abiatha Swelter is delicious in its repugnance and resolution. Beneath and beyond everything else is Castle Gormenghast itself, a literary setting so rich and so perfectly imagined that it almost becomes a character in its own right, its dusty stone hallways serving as the veins and arteries through which the story flows to its unexpected and powerful climax. 

Who wrote it? Mervyn Peake (1911-1968) was an exceptionally gifted English novelist, illustrator, poet and artist whose creative career was unfortunately truncated by premature dementia associated with Parkinson’s Disease. Peake was born in China to Congregationalist missionary parents, and exhibited precocious skills as both a visual and textual story-teller which were nurtured through formal education at the Croydon School of Art and Royal Academy Schools. In the 1930s — while dividing his time between London and the Channel Island of Sark — Peake gained a strong following in both literary and artistic circles through highly acclaimed theatrical commissions, solo exhibitions and the publication of his first book, the self-illustrated Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor. He applied to serve as a combat and campaign artist after the outbreak of World War II, but was instead conscripted into service with the Royal Artillery and Royal Engineers; he was eventually invalided out of the Army following a nervous breakdown, though he was eventually commissioned to create a series of works for the War Artists Advisory Committee. Peake wrote and published Titus Groan and Gormenghast in the latter half of the 1940s, intending them to be the first two volumes of a much longer series; only the novella Boy in Darkness (1956) and the slim, fragmentary, controversially edited Titus Alone (1960) were completed of the Titus tales before Peake’s failing health finally silenced him.

When and where did I read it? I first read these two books (as well as Titus Alone, which is generally marketed as the third book of “The Gormenghast Trilogy,” though it bears little stylistic resemblance to the earlier two books beyond shared characters) in my tiny bedroom in old military quarters at Mitchel Field, a decrepit World War I airbase that seemed to reek of the same rot and rust that pervaded Gormenghast. I know I was reading these books in September 1979, because that’s when Jethro Tull’s Stormwatch album came out, which I listened to over and over again at the time, so that the songs on that album are all indelibly linked to Peake’s stories in my mind to this day. I checked the books out from the Nassau Community College library when it was in one of the old military buildings on the base, which I visited frequently because there was a beautiful blonde college clerk who worked there and who I crushed on hugely. If admitted to that building today, I could quickly and easily walk straight to the spot on the shelves where the books resided, so strongly was that spot imprinted by repeated visits to extend the due dates on these long books, and also to flirt with the clerk. The editions of Titus Groan and Gormenghast that I initially read at Mitchel Field (I’ve read and owned multiple versions since then) was a beautiful, heavy old version, hardbound in black fabric, with plates of Peake’s illustrations within; I’ve not seen these editions again since 1979, but would snap them up in a heartbeat if I did.

Why do I like it? Oh, I could wax poetic at length in answering this question, but in keeping with the “Five by Five” premise, I’ll just cite five key favorite points, beginning with plot pacing: it’s slow, for sure, but the central story creeps inexorably forward through numerous asides and detours, so that its occasional concussions and climaxes are truly, deeply shocking and memorable. Second: Peake supplements his core story arc with beautiful illustrations and magnificent poetry, creating a rich and fully-realized world that deploys all of his formidable artistic skills in the process; to some extent, Titus Alone is a failure simply because it is primarily set outside the amazing world that Peake constructs in the first two Titus books. Which brings me to my third favorite point: as mentioned above, Castle Gormenghast is a character in its own right, and I do not think I had (or have) ever read a book that spent so much of its narrative on setting scenes, which sounds dull, I know, but is actually riveting in its obsessiveness. Fourth favorite: I love the incredible development of the central characters throughout the story arc, with the heroes of the latter chapters being largely inconceivable based on how you first encounter those same characters 1,000+ pages earlier. And finally (for here, at least, since I could certainly say more), it all comes down to Peake’s prose: I just love the way this guy writes, and I would cite him as one of the most important influences on my own own knotty and florid narrative style.

A five sentence sample text: “Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls. They sprawled over the sloping earth, each one half way over its neighbour until, held back by the castle ramparts, the innermost of these hovels laid hold on the great walls, clamping themselves thereto like limpets to a rock. These dwellings, by ancient law, were granted this chill intimacy with the stronghold that loomed above them. Over their irregular roofs would fall throughout the seasons, the shadows of time-eaten buttresses, of broken and lofty turrets, and, most enormous of all, the shadow of the Tower of Flints. This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven.”

ALL FIVE BY FIVE BOOK REVIEWS:

#1: Engine Summer by John Crowley (1979)

#2: Skin by Kathe Koja (1993)

#3: Nova by Samuel R. Delany (1968)

#4: Titus Groan/Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake (1946/1950)

#5: The Islanders by Christopher Priest (2011)

#6: The Flounder by Günter Grass (1977)

#7: The Mabinogion Tetralogy by Evangeline Walton (1936 to 1974)

#8: Smallcreep’s Day by Peter Currell Brown (1965)

Click on Mervyn Peake’s illustration of the Lady Fuchsia below to order a copy of the excellent Overlook Press edition of The Gormenghast Novels, which also contains an outstanding assortment of critical essays and appreciations by the likes of Quentin Crisp and Anthony Burgess.

Lady Fuchsia Groan, ink drawing by Mervyn Peake.

Lady Fuchsia Groan, ink drawing by Mervyn Peake.

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