Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake (1950) 381 p.
Gormenghast: the second titanic novel in Mervyn Peake’s brilliantly unique fantasy trilogy. I enjoyed Titus Groan quite a lot, but Gormenghast has the sophomore’s blessing: having grown accustomed to Peake’s writing style, and knowing more properly what to expect, I enjoyed this novel even more. But really, they’re inescapably linked; they very easily could have been a single book, and indeed I’m reading the series as part of a hefty single-volume Vintage edition.
Titus Groan covered the first year in the life of Titus, the 77th Earl of Groan, who will one day inherit the rulership of the ancient, crumbling, city-like castle of Gormenghast, and who loathes the boundaries of his gilded cage. Gormenghast is a little wonky with the passage of time, but appears to cover ten years, beginning with Titus aged seven and finishing when he is seventeen. Gormenghast remains an enormous, rambling, labyrinthine castle with a myriad of characters and storylines to match, but there are two key threads: Titus’ growing misery at the fate his birth has laid out for him, and the Machiavellian ambitions of the ruthless Steerpike, who escaped the kitchens in Titus Groan to worm his way into the service of the Master of Ritual, and in Gormenghast sets his aims higher still.
Peake’s writing style is a key element in what makes these books unique, or rather, what successfully makes this gargantuan castle and its bizarre inhabitants feel like the cast of an epic tale rather than an odd little artistic experiment by a gifted eccentric. Ponderous, wordy, elaborate, drawn-out: there is no doubt that Peake could cut most of his sentences down in volume by three quarters, but to do so would be to destroy exactly what makes his writing so brilliant. Here’s an example, which may be the longest quote I have ever inserted into a book review, but which I think illustrates the style of Gormenghast perfectly – especially since it happens to be simultaneously horrifying and hilarious. Deadyawn, the ancient and wheelchair-bound headmaster of Gormenghast’s school, arrives in a classroom with the faculty for a surprise visit; mere moments ago the schoolboys where playing a game beneath the nose of their sleeping teacher which involved the use of a waxed and slippery floorboard, which now remains upturned.
How merciful a thing is man’s ignorance of his immediate future! What a ghastly, paralysing thing it would have been if all those present could have known what was about to happen within a matter of seconds! For nothing short of pre-knowledge could have stopped the occurrence, so suddenly it sprang upon them.
The scholars were still standing, and Mr Fly, the usher, who had reached the end of the passage between the desks, was about to turn the high chair to the left and to run it up under Bellgrove’s desk where Deadyawn could speak to his oldest professor, when the calamity occurred, and even the dreadful fact of Titus’ disappearance was forgotten. For The Fly had slipped! His feet had fled from under his perky body. His cocky little walk was suddenly a splayed confusion of legs. They shot to and fro like a frog’s. But for all their lashing they could get no grip on the slippery floor, for he had trodden on that deadly board which had been returned – upside down – to its place below Bellgrove’s desk.
The Fly had no time to let go his grip of the High Chair. It swayed above him like a tower – and then while the long line of the staff peered over one another’s shoulders and the boys stood at their desks transfixed, something more appalling than they had ever contemplated took place before them.
For as The Fly came down in a crash on the boards, the wheels of the high chair whirled like tops and gave their final screech and the rickety piece of furniture leapt like a mad thing and from its summit something was hurled high into the air! It was Deadyawn!
He descended from somewhere near the ceiling like a visitor from another planet, or from the cosmic realms of Outer Space, as with all the signs of the Zodiac fluttering about him he plunged earthwards.
Had he but had a long brass trumpet at his lips and the power of arching his back and curling upwards as he neared the floor-boards, and of swooping across the room over the heads of the scholars in a riot of draperies, to float away and out through the leaves of the plane tree and over the back of Gormenghast, to disappear for ever from the rational world – then, if only he had had the power to do this, that dreadful sound would have been avoided: that most dreadful and sickening sound which not a single boy or professor who heard it that morning was ever able to forget. It darkened the heart and brain. It darkened the very sunlight itself in that summer classroom.
But it was not enough that their hearing was appalled by the sound of a skull being crushed like an egg – for, as though everything was working together to produce the maximum horror, Fate had it that the Headmaster, in descending absolutely vertically, struck the floor with the top of his cranium, and remained upside down, in a horrible state of balance, having stiffened with a form of premature rigor mortis.
The soft, imponderable, flaccid Deadyawn, that arch-symbol of delegated duties, of negation and apathy, appeared now that he was upside down to have more life in him that he had ever had before. His limbs, stiffened in the death-spasm, were positively muscular. His crushed skull appeared to balance a body that had suddenly perceived its reason for living.
The first movement, after the gasp of horror that ran across the sunny schoolroom, came from among the debris of what was once the high chair.
The usher emerged, his red hair ruffled, quick eyes bulging, his teeth chattering with terror. At the sight of his master upside down he made for the window, all trace of cockiness gone from his carriage, his sense of propriety so outraged that there was nothing he wanted so much as to make a quick end to himself. Climbing on the window-sill, The Fly swung his legs over and then dropped to the quadrangle a hundred feet below.
A quote that long really breaks the bounds of good taste in a book review, but I can’t resist. I find it hilarious. The Fly’s immediate, silent, wordless suicide is the icing on the cake, a scene straight out of Monty Python. It’s also worth mentioning how pitch-perfect Peake’s names are for his strange, amusing characters – Deadyawn, Flannelcat, Opus Fluke, Rottcodd, Perch-Prism, Bellgrove – a cross between Dr Seuss and Charles Dickens.
I’ve seen other reviewers comment on how much Peake’s prose style appears to be influenced by his primary calling as an artist and illustrator; how so much of Titus Groan and Gormenghast involve the careful construction of painted scenes with words, a series of motionless, epic moments bound together to form a story. I’ve used the word “unique” too many times in this review, but there’s no other way to describe the world of Gormenghast Castle: not quite Gothic, not quite Dickensian, not quite Baroque. The BBC made an adaptation of the series about fifteen years ago, which I don’t know anything about apart from the fact that it was poorly received. I’m not surprised, because these books are unfilmable. They’re far too weirdly unique to properly exist anywhere outside a reader’s head.
I’ve avoided reading too much about the third and final book, Titus Alone, but I’ve heard that Peake’s health was declining as he wrote it and that it’s a very different sort of book from its predecessors. Some people hate it, some love it. We shall see. In any case, even if it turns out to be a clanger, Titus Groan and Gormenghast will still comprise one of the 20th century’s greatest works of literature. They are, quite simply, must-read novels.