Tuesday, January 19, 2010


Hey, look! I finished a book for the first time in a month.

When I read about the Gormenghast novels before deciding to tackle one, they were often described as 'Dickensian.' I suppose that's due to the huge number of characters and the fact they are set in a gigantic crumbling manse.

I would call Titus Groan 'Melvillian,' however, because the narrator's voice and the characters are damned peculiar, and the style shifts regularly from breezy and humorous to Gothic and morbid at a moment's notice. Melville, however, had concerns about good and evil (at least in the couple of books with which I'm relatively familiar); Mervyn Peake lets very little light into his dark palace.

Most of the characters in Titus Groan are neither good or bad. Their roles are limited by their place in the functioning of the castle Gormenghast, which for centuries has been ruled by the Groan family. The cook cooks, the keeper of the gallery dusts sculptures, the Earl's chief assistant fulfills his duties. When a male heir is born to the 76th Earl at long last, things begin to go haywire, and an unexpected struggle for power and influence begins.

I'd recommend this with qualifications. It's a very moody, atmospheric novel, and surprisingly interesting. But it is tedious at points, with dozens of pages dedicated to characters climbing around on roofs or climbing walls. I may wait a while to tackle part two of the trilogy. I must admit, however, that I'm quite interested to see what happens next.

1 comment:

Steven Hart said...

"Titus Groan" has the worst opening paragraph of any great book I've read. Mervyn Peake was above all a visual artist, and reading the Titus books one often feels Peake is too focused on describing every detail of the pictures formed in his head.

But, having said that, there are scenes in the book -- e.g., the silent duel between Flay and Swelter, the fire in the library, Steerpike's escape from the kitchen and his journey across the castle's immense rooftop -- that keep coming back to me at the oddest times.