‘There would be tears and there would be strange laughter. Fierce births and deaths beneath umbrageous ceilings. And dreams, and violence, and disenchantment.’
Mysterious, tragic, funny and playfully gothic, the first book in the Gormenghast series is an impressive piece of literary fiction. Set in the ancient and decaying castle of Gormenghast, the story follows events which occur after the birth of Titus, 77th Earl of Groan. A clever and malevolent young man, Steerpike, aims to claw his way to power in the castle. For a 500 page novel, there isn’t much plot to speak of (which explains how the 2000 BBC TV adaptation covered it in just two episodes). Slow paced with lengthy descriptions, the enjoyment is in the fantastic language and the eccentric characters. The book is best categorised as fantasy and you can leave it at that. However, consider that Mervyn Peake wrote it during the Second World War. He was conscripted, had a breakdown and then used his artistic talent for the war effort. The struggles for power within the castle, the crumbling walls, the conflict between generations and the sudden outbursts of violence take on another meaning.
There is a well-known error in the book; the first name of Doctor Prunesquallor starts off as Alfred and then changes to Bernard. Most readers will notice it, I think, although the editor obviously didn’t. Apparently Peake knew of his mistake and wasn’t bothered by it. Maeve Gilmore (the author’s wife) preferred it not to be corrected in later editions.
Titus Groan is not an easy read, having some unusual words and being somewhat Dickensian in its character descriptions. I recommend it if you’re a fan of gothic fiction and enjoy language.
First published in 1946. My edition has an introduction by Anthony Burgess and was published in 1989 by Mandarin.
This was a re-read.