Monday, April 23, 2018

Titus Groan

Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake, 496 pages.
Peake wrote this first volume of his Gormenghast trilogy back in 1946. He completed the second volume in 1950 and the third in 1959. There is a fourth volume, of which I hadn't heard until now, that was published after the author's death. I'm not sure what the story was with that last volume, and I'm not interested enough in its story to look into it now. We live in an age of posthumous books, so many of which aren't worth anyone's time or effort, most of them seemingly bearing little relation to what the author intended to publish. I will wait to see if I make it all the way through the original trilogy before I hunt down information on volume four.
I read The Lord of the Rings when I was twelve or thirteen. My father had a set of LOTR with the Barbara Remington cover design. The fact that LOTR was a trilogy, and therefore trilogies were inherently good, coupled with the similarities (to me, anyway) between the Remington LOTR covers and the Bob Pepper-covered Gormenghast books, which my father also owned, convinced me that I should read Gormenghast. It took another forty-odd years, and several false starts, but my reading of this set of books is now underway.
There is a lot to love about this strange book. Gormenghast is a land unto itself. There's no no world-building here, not in the more modern fantasy novel sense. Gormenghast is the only place of which its inhabitants are aware. It is an almost endless moldering castle, part in ruins, part neglected and unremembered. The days of the inhabitants are filled with ritual; not particularly elaborate or glorious, but more mundane, celebrating something ill-remembered from the castle's murky past. The
characters, from ruling family-Lord Sepulcrave, the countess Gertrude, their daughter Fuschia, and Titus, the newly-born heir to the throne- to the retainers, Dr Prunesquallor, Mr. Flay, Sourdust, and Swelter are an odd, Gothic, and even macabre bunch. They are all locked in a battle, though they aren't aware of it immediately, with the displaced kitchen-boy, Steerpike, as he begins his quest for power.
Peake's writing is strangely Gothic. It's set in a strange and  threatening land, that is populated by the oddest of people, but for most of the characters and much of the time, the threat is internal. Nothing much is happening to anyone that's not everyday and pedestrian; their days are all wrapped in ritual, remote and linked to strange threats from long ago. Peake made it all come alive though. He was a very good writer.

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