Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake

The Tower of Flints, 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.

A decrepit castle the size of a small city. An noble lineage ruled by obscure ritual. A retinue of servants, all insane in their own unique ways. Gothic and absurd, Titus Groan is a lush fantasy novel with as much in common with Alice in Wonderland as Lord of the Rings.

Published in 1946, Titus Groan is the first book in Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy. It tells the story of ancient Gormenghast castle, where over the centuries, life has fossilized into an endless series of ceremonies. Any meaning the rituals once had was forgotten generations ago, but they're still clung to with a spiritless sense of duty by the seventy-sixth earl of Groan, his family, and their servants. It is what has always been done, and so it is what must be done forever.


The book opens on the day Titus, the seventy-seventh earl of Groan, is born. Nobles and servants alike celebrate the new life with a drunken free for all, getting brief relief from dreary ritual. But a new danger emerges form the chaos alongside the new heir. Over the next year, the kitchen boy Steerpike lies and schemes, gaining more and more influence on the rulers of Gormenghast.

For me, Titus Groan's dense, poetic language was the both the agony and ecstasy of reading this book. At times, it was all I could do to hack through the jungle of adjectives and endless asides, desperately looking for a verb. But just when I would be about to give up, Peake reveals a glimpse of a literary Machu Picchu, some huge tumbledown-beautiful thing from another time.

Withdrawn and runinous it broods in umbra: the immemorial masonry: the towers, the tracks. Is all corroding? No. Through an avenue off spires a zephyr floats; a bird whistles; a freshet bears away from a choked river. Deep in a fist of stone a doll's hand wriggles, warm rebellious on the frozen palm. A shadow shifts its length. A spider stirs.

Published eight years before Lord of the Rings, Titus Groan wasn't influenced by that landmark book, and so it lacks a lot of the things we associate with fantasy novels in general. There's no magic, no elves or mythical creatures. The plot is slight, lacking quests, daring sword fights, or even a clear hero. Instead, it's a "fantasy of manners" written in lush prose where the looming castle itself becomes the central figure. And even if Peake's style can be infuriating in stretches. It can be beautiful too and is always completely unique.

(Cross-posted on my blog.)


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1 comment:

a. fortis said...

Intriguing! Although in some ways it sounds like a dense slog, some of those quotes you posted are pure poetry. I like the premise, too...I'll have to check it out sometime.