Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake (1946) 367 p.

Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy (Titus Groan, Gormenghast and Titus Alone) is apparently a well-known and highly regarded work of British fantasy, although I first heard of it only a few years ago. It seems to be one of those works which is relatively obscure outside literary and academic circles. It’s often compared to JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, though I’m not sure why – apart from being weighty tomes written by British authors in the mid-20th century, the only thing they have in common is being fantasy, and they’re very different kinds of fantasy indeed.

Titus Groan takes place in the vast, ancient and isolated castle of Gormenghast, inhabited by the Earl of Groan, his royal family, and a vast retinue of servants. The novel takes place during the first year in the life of young Titus Groan, a newborn heir to the throne, spread out across the points of view of a dozen of the castle’s more important inhabitants. Without a doubt, the castle itself is Peake’s greatest creation: an enormous, rambling mountain of bricks and mortar, imbued with an air of long centuries of neglect, decay and decline, hidebound in tradition and a mere shadow of what it once perhaps was.

There is no magic to speak of; no fantasy elements save the fact that the novel takes place in this completely fictional world, in a castle which appears to inhabit a wasteland with no other castles, towns, cities or nations ever mentioned. Indeed, Gormenghast is so insular that the thought of other places never even seems to occur to those inside the castle walls. Nitpicker that I am, I couldn’t help but wonder about the nitty-gritty of how Gormenghast functions. There’s a scene, for example, where a character with fat hands uses a coin to knock on a door, and all I could think of was why coins would exist in a small, closed society like Gormenghast.

But it’s best to ignore irrelevant questions like that. Peake paints a marvellous picture of his creation, which never feels less than real, no matter how bizarre it may be. He has a richly detailed but also deeply ponderous writing style, reminiscent of 19th century authors. Here’s the opening paragraph:

Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls. They sprawled over the sloping arch, each one half way over its neighbour until, held back by the castle ramparts, the innermost of these hovels laid hold on the great walls, clamping themselves thereto like limpets to a rock. These dwellings, by ancient law, were granted this chill intimacy with the stronghold that loomed above them. Over their irregular roofs would fall throughout the seasons, the shadows of time-eaten buttresses, of broken and lofty turrets, and, most enormous of all, the shadow of the Tower of Flints. This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven. At night the owls made of it an echoing throat; by day it stood voiceless and cast its long shadow.

There are long, long passages of description in this book, of both the castle and its many rooms, and of the strange people who inhabit it. I can easily see how this would put some readers off, but I found it ultimately satisfying, and it makes the pivotal moments of conflict and action stand out all the more. I won’t pretend it wasn’t sometimes tedious, but the overall effect was of a deeply memorable and powerful piece of fiction. It reminded me very much of Moby-Dick: long-winded and detailed, occasionally boring, but unquestionably solid literature. I need a bit of a break from it, but I’ll definitely be reading Gormenghast soon.