Friday, November 13, 2020

Titus Groan, Gormenghast and Titus Alone (The Gormenghast Novels Omnibus) by Mervyn Peake

These novels have the reputation of being the Ur text of one of the non-Tolkienian branches of fantasy literature. I picked up a copy of an omnibus of the three novels in the sequence Peake wrote and some critical literature over a decade ago (I think) when I first heard of his influence. Now, having finally read them, I get what people mean. While it seems to be written in a premodern world (at least for the first two volumes) it is not pastoral or rural. China Mieville’s New Crobuzon novels, and Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi come immediately to mind as works that I love that have a little of this in their DNA. Titus Alone, the third book, is notoriously different from and not as good as the first two. This is seemingly attributed by most to Peake’s declining mental faculties. But, given how much of a left turn it is from the first, I’m not sure it would entirely work as part of the sequence if Peake was at the top of his game. That said, it is not nearly as bad as its reputation would indicate, and if it were not in the Gormenghast sequence I think it would stand as a very good book indeed. But as a continuation of the series to which it belongs it doesn’t quite work.

The first two volumes are the masterpieces they are reputed to be. The characters are grotesque, somewhat in the style of Dickens but more exageratedly gothic, almost caricatures. But as the novels progress they become more than that. Peake’s character development and world building are similar; a character starts as all tics and mannerisms but as they move through Gormengast castle both they and it gradually form in the mind as a seemingly real world. The main antagonist of the series has a hero’s introduction. It looks as if he will rise from kitchen scullion to some type of heroic rank. And that is the arc he tries to give himself. But it is by way of scheming sociopathy. 

All three books have the tone of satire. The endless rituals to which the characters are subject are rendered in hilariously harsh language worthy of Flannery O’Connor. It was not immediately clear to me towards what target that satire was aimed. In the third book the freedom from ritual longed for by several of the characters is somewhat literalized. My first thought, given my religious background and subsequent apostasy, was to see it as the story of a formerly religious person or society unable to come to terms with modernity. After some online discussion, I almost completely buy that it was in large part about the British monarchy stumbling as it moves into the modern, and probably specifically the postwar period. Like many metaphors, though, it could fit several things, including that post-religious reading. But it is not an allegory, or at least not primarily that. That biting satire is there, but the world of Gormenghast is more than just that. It is a place that lingers in the mind long after the reading. 

And all this is rendered in dense, beautiful prose. The writing alone would make the reading of the books worth it. The first book is the story of Gormenghast and its inhabitants during the first year of life of Titus Groan, the heir of the Earl. The second begins seven years later and sees Titus through to his late teen years. That second book adds a psychological thriller/examination of a sociopath strand without breaking tone with the first book. And what happens to Gormenghast itself in the climax is nothing I saw coming and was breathtaking. These two worked for me a hundred percent and I will be returning to them over and over, I suspect. The third book has grown on me with a couple of weeks distance from the reading and further thought. I don’t think it works as part of the trilogy, but I do like it in a different way. Great reading experience.

Titus Groan- Canon Worthy

Gormenghast- Canon Worthy

Titus Alone- Recommended 

Books read 105-107/110

Owned but previously Unread 2020 78/75

In An Omnibus and Everything Else 2020 27-28/35

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