Thursday 7 November 2019

Titus Groan - Mervyn Peake (1946)

Rating: Sublime

It's hard to know where to begin with this amazing novel, the first in the Gormenghast Trilogy, except to simply say that it is unlike anything else I've ever read, even though it is obvious just how influential Peake's novels have been. Gormenghast is the name given to the massive rambling city sized castle that is a world unto itself. Gormenghast houses the Groan family, whom have ruled for centuries and whose lives are governed by a multitude of rituals and rules, many of which are hilariously and inexplicably bizarre. Although powered along by multiple plot strands Titus Groan is a character based novel. Titus Groan is newly born at the beginning of the novel and therefore the adult characters dominate the narrative. These characters have fantastic Dickensian names such as, Swelter, Fray, Lord Sepulchrave, Nannie Slagg and the one and only Dr. Prunesquallor. Never have I been so enamored by what are essentially grotesque, vain and unsympathetic characters. The main protagonist is a classic anti-hero - Steerpike, a kitchen urchin who escapes the clutches of the obese chef, Swelter, to go on to hatch Machiavellian plots to advance his influence over Gormenghast.

Titus Groan is brimming with memorable scenes and world-building that is highly imaginative and strangely compelling. Peake's prose is beautifully ornate, erudite and highly descriptive without falling prey to pretension or rank excessiveness. It took me about one hundred pages to become used to Peake's prose style; often sentences required re-reading, but then after that I was re-reading them for the sheer pleasure of the beautiful language. The novel's Gothic sensibility is enriched by tragedy, deadly rivalries, intelligent humour, one hundred white cats and a strange sense of poignancy that pervades the shadowy rooms and corridors of Gormenghast. I have a beautiful illustrated edition (Peake was also an accomplished artist) published in 2011, featuring an introduction by China Mieville and containing the other two novels - Gormenghast (1950) and Titus Alone (1959). I'll be definitely reading these novels in the near future, but meanwhile it looks like Neil Gaiman will be involved in a new attempt at adapting the Gormenghast novels for a television series in the near future, which, for once, totally makes sense.


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