The Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake
Vintage Classics: paperback published 1999: 953 pages
Gormenghast is the vast, crumbling castle to which the seventy-seventh Earl, Titus Groan, is lord and heir. Titus is expected to rule this Gothic labyrinth of turrets and dungeons (and his eccentric and wayward subjects) according to strict age-old rituals, but things are changing in the castle. Titus must contend with treachery, manipulation and murder as well as his own longing for a life beyond the castle walls.
It was my uncle that inspired me to read this book at long last. It’s been sat on my shelf for a good few years, and the very size of it always put me off. But a pub discussion about Titus Groan and his adventures meant I picked it up to find out what all the fuss was about.
The Gormenghast Trilogy is three books – Titus Groan, Gormenghast and Titus Alone*. The final part of the trilogy was never finished by Peake before his death and so has been reconstructed for the Vintage Classics edition by the publisher and a gentleman called Mr Langdon Jones (see p757).
Titus Groan, the first in the trilogy, tells the story of the birth and early years of Titus, the seventy-seventh Earl of Gormenghast – which is a great, sprawling castle of immense size, and its inhabitants and all activities are dictated by ancient tradition. It also covers the story of the appearance of Steerpike, a malicious, nasty creature bent on reaching the top, and introduces the complicated cast of characters set to drive Titus and Steerpike along, from the eccentric Lady Gertrude, to the tempestuous Fuschia, and the peculiar aunts.
Gormenghast was my favourite of the three; Titus is a young man, and Steerpike is climbing the social ladder at a rate of knots. Meanwhile, the characters, meeting and parting, continue to pull the story tighter around the pair, until the dramatic conclusion (no spoilers). This book also included the fantastically described storm and subsequent flood that eerily seemed to echo my own surroundings as I read it (thankfully without the flood bit at the end, but plenty of storming, as I read it shortly before Christmas during The Rain). This is where I learnt to love characters like the bizarre Doctor Prunesquallor and despise Steerpike so vehemently that the very mention of him made my skin crawl. It was where I wanted to scream at the characters blinded and charmed by Steerpike and cheer for the characters who saw who he really was. It was the book in which I began to follow the long corridors of Gormenghast in my dreams – though that could have been the large amount of Wensleydale for dinner – and where I could almost taste the dust and smell the age of the stones.
And then, last but not least, is the bewildered final part – Titus Alone. Gormenghast is gone. And instead of this ancient world, Titus is thrown among something much more modern and yet even more alien to the reader. New characters – larger-than-life and ever fantastic – appear and disappear as Titus fights the great mystery of Belonging. It’s a more confused story, with plenty of naval-gazing, that feels that it never quite takes flight, though the final scenes are so intense that you almost feel like you’re going mad with Titus.
Peake has a wonderful meandering way of telling a story; he can spend a whole chapter described a grove of trees, and then just a few sentences to encompass the vast entity of Gormenghast. Each character – a caricature in themselves – are loveable or vile, and Peake is quick to let you know which is which. There are times when the story seems to make no sense, or has little point, and you’re left thinking that it is pointless for 100 pages, when suddenly it all falls in to place and you’re left with a deep satisfied feeling of closure. Sometimes characters or events seem all but forgotten until a perfect moment of clarity.
Peake’s way of taking you through the story is artful to a fault – at no point do you feel that you’re wasting your time reading each and every word, though the fluctuations between tension and relief is almost exhausting at times. Sometimes paragraphs have to be re-read – whether to revel in the beauty of it, or to try to grasp the layers of meaning.
Peake’s writing strikes me as merely the surface of a great thought – that horrible iceberg cliché of the majority being hidden under water is strikingly appropriate here. Perhaps I enjoyed Gormenghast the most because it seemed to contain the most action. Perhaps I was more perplexed by Titus Groan because I hadn’t allowed myself to fully understand it, and Titus Alone was all the more intriguing for wondering what it could have been – what had Peake intended for it?
But each of the trilogy felt like they were the beginning brush strokes of something bigger; that if you just kept reading you might see more and more and deeper and deeper until you could comprehend an entire masterpiece, yet you’d reach the end of the story without having seen more than a corner of it.
It took what felt like forever to read this because it was so long and so complex. It’s not a book to read half-heartedly, and you’ll be all the more rewarded for it if you give it your undivided attention.
For me, that was both the blessing and the curse of this book. It’s been many years since I was able to commit such concentration to a story, which meant that it felt like it dragged at times – I prefer a book a week, not a book every six weeks (I am of a generation of people demanding immediate gratification, it seems). And it meant that if I skipped reading it for a few days, I lost some of the threads of the complex story. It bewildered, delighted and frustrated me in equal parts, and I don’t regret reading it, I just regret not taking a week-long holiday to read it!
Next book: At long last, I have approached The Great Gatsby. Many friends have told me to read it. So, to follow the epic meandering that is The Gormenghast Trilogy, I thought I would try the more concise wording of Fitzgerald.
*Follow the links to get each book individually from Waterstones.