Friday, June 10, 2011

Gormenghast Readalong: Week One of Titus Groan

Jackie at Farm Lane Books has taken on the thankless task of hosting a positively huge summer readalong of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, comprising Titus Groan, Gormenghast and Titus Alone.  The timing of the readalong is, intentionally I am sure, very timely.  2011 is the centenary of Mervyn Peake’s birth and, in addition to the publication by the British Library of Peake’s Progress, a selection of his writings, edited by his widow, Maeve Gilmore, will also see the release this month of Titus Awakes, a fourth Gormenghast book.  Titus Awakes was largely written by Gilmore, using notes left by Peake and was discovered last year by their granddaughter in an attic.

The Gormenghast trilogy centres on the inhabitants of Gormenghast Castle, a huge Gothic pile, within whose walls a largely self-contained society lives, governed by Sepulchrave, 76th Earl of Groan.  Week 1 of the readalong takes us through the first 100 pages or so of Titus Groan, the first in the trilogy.  The eponymous Titus is the newborn heir to the Earldom of Groan and the book opens with Flay, the chief servant of Lord Sepulchrave, making a trip to announce the birth of Titus to Rottcodd, curator of the Hall of Bright Carvings.

I have to confess here that I tried to read Titus Groan many years ago when I was at school and failed miserably, giving up after only a few pages.  The novel is slow moving and much of the first part of the book is given over to scene setting, introducing a number of characters and describing parts of the castle itself.  Indeed, the castle is almost a character in itself and is the centre of the lives of all of its inhabitants.

Peake was an artist and illustrator, first and foremost, and, so far, the descriptive passages of the book are incredibly visual, richly detailed in an almost textural manner.  Peake’s use of language is extraordinary and lends itself perfectly to the depth of imagery so far.  In particular, there is a passage describing the scenes in the kitchens of Gormenghast after Titus’ birth that is so vivid and visceral that I could almost smell and taste the atmosphere.

Having said that, if I’m being totally honest, part of the reason I gave up on Titus Groan the first time around was that there was so much description that not a great deal else was actually happening.  I’m glad I persevered this time though as I’m really starting to get immersed in Peake’s world and am taking the time to enjoy the text.

I’ve also been struck by the near-Dickensian names he gives his characters – Sourdust, Prunesquallor, Steerpike – and the subtle counterpointing of humour and darkness.  Ultimately, Gormenghast appears to be the home of grotesques and I am finding it hard at this point to empathise or identify with any of the main characters.  Titus, who is clearly intended to be the main protagonist of the trilogy, is only a newborn Keda, his wet nurse, who is the only near-normal character so far, is actually just a little bit boring.  The joy and fascination of the book is that of observing the workings of the castle and witnessing the slow development of characters like Steerpike, a fiercely ambitious kitchen boy.  He is starting to show a level of cunning and manipulation that holds out the promise of him becoming a wonderful villain.

Peake is often compared to Tolkien and described as a fantasy writer.  There are, however, fundamental differences between their approaches to fantasy.  So far (and I have no reason to suppose that this will change), there is no magic in Peake.  There are no orcs, elves or wizards.  It appears that any evil will come from inside the human characters rather than from an external, magical agent.  To that extent, I would query whether Peake should be described as a fantasy writer, rather than a writer of the gothic fantastic.  I actually feel uncomfortable with the notion of Tolkien and Peake being put in the same category.

Some commentators have gone as far as to say that if you like one you can’t (or won’t) like the other.  This premise must be wrong but I can see a kernel of truth in it.  Tolkien’s world is an open, expansive world.  His world is full of woods and animals, mountains and open plains.  He peopled his world with different races and species (largely so he could develop his created languages) and he drew detailed maps of countries and lands.

As far as I can tell (and these are early days), Peake, on the other hand, looks inward.  His world is largely enclosed within the castle walls and even the outside world is referenced by its relationship to the castle.  His focus seems darker and lies on the natures of his characters.

The next resting point in the readalong is next Wednesday and will take us another 100 or so pages on in the narrative.  I am intrigued to see what will transpire.

If you want to read more first week thoughts, please visit:
  1. Jackie at Farm Lane Books;
  2. Bellezza at Dolce Bellezza;
  3. Margaret at Books Please; and
  4. Birdie at Birdie's Nest


Jackie (Farm Lane Books) said...

(finally made it here after numerous attempts :-) )I started this read-along after seeing Sebastian Peake speak at a recent literary event in London. I guess he was only there because of all the celebrations going on this year, but that is the only reason it is so timely.

I find your comparison to Tolkien interesting as I couldn't finish Tolkien when I tried. My husband loves LOTR and I have persuaded him to give Gormenghast a try so will be interested to see if he can enjoy both. I look forward to reading the rest of the book with you. :-)

Falaise said...

Jackie - Thanks for persevering. I'm not sure what is going to with access to the blog. I thing I may have put the wrong address in when I posted on yours!

Regardless of whether you intended it or not, the readalong is perfectly timed and I am so glad you decided to host it. Like your husband, I am a big LOTR fan so it would be interesting to hear his reactions to Gormenghast.

Jackie (Farm Lane Books) said...

I'm not sure what is happening with your blog - the address you entered is correct, but 90% of the time I can't get through :-( It says there is a google security error. At least I seem to be getting through OK now.

Falaise said...

How strange. Anyway, I'm glad you're getting through now!