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Books I've Been Avoiding: Overlooked or Over-hyped?
by Neil Walsh
[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Books I've Been Avoiding: Overlooked or Over-hyped? columns.]

The Reason for this Column

I'm going to let you in on a personal secret: The Gormenghast Trilogy is the real reason I started this column in the first place. I've heard about the series for many, many years. So many authors have cited Mervyn Peake as a significant influence, that I knew I should really read him and find out what all the hype was about. But on the other hand, I had also heard disturbing reports from readers about how tedious and progressively unreadable the series ultimately becomes. I had heard rumours that Peake went insane while writing the series, and that the final book makes no sense at all.

Then, some years ago, I read Michael Moorcock's essay, "An Excellence of Peake," on the Fantastic Metropolis website. Moorcock dismissed these rumours, and explained the actual situation. Peake wasn't crazy; he had Parkinson's. It's a disease that can manifest in many different symptoms, such as impaired mobility and fine motor coordination, impaired speech, mood disturbances (especially depression and anxiety), drooling, and in later stages can include slowing of thought processes, and difficulties with abstract thought, memory and behavioural regulation. I'm not sure specifically how the disease manifested in Peake, but certainly it's not hard to understand how someone with several of those symptoms could seem somewhat "crazy" to anyone unfamiliar with the disease. As a result of Peake's inability to communicate effectively, he was unable to oversee the final editing of Titus Alone, the third book in the series. To complicate matters, the third book was very different from the two that had come before. A well-meaning editor decided to cut out whole characters and scenes in a misguided effort to make the work seem more like Peake's previous novels. The result was, apparently, somewhat jumbled and chaotic. I don't know, I didn't read that edition. What I learned from Moorcock was that a later editor, Langdon Jones, working from Peake's original manuscript, restored the book in an edition published in 1970.

I managed to track down a second-hand copy of the Folio Society edition of The Gormenghast Trilogy from 1992 (second printing 2000), with an introduction by Michael Moorcock and following the Langdon Jones restored text for Titus Alone. Finally, I was ready to tackle a thousand pages of a massively influential author, with the assurance that I was going to be able to read the closest thing to the text he wanted me to read. Of course, it's something of a commitment to read a thousand pages of anything. So the books sat on the top shelf of my "unread books" bookcase, collecting dust and looming over me for... well, too long.

Last year, when I started this column, my objective was (rather selfishly, I'll admit) to clear out some of the backlog from my unread books. I consciously intended to get to Gormenghast within the first few months. Yet still it continued to silently menace me from the top of the bookcase.

Counter-Logic

I recently started a new job. I'm not taking over from someone who left; it really is a new job -- it didn't exist before. Which means that right now I'm trying to determine and/or define my role. Meanwhile, there's about 140 years or so of historical bureaucracy defining how things are happening around me. So everyone who works with me, they all know what they're doing. Trouble is, they don't always know why they're doing it.

Right now my job is absurdly busy. I frequently don't even take a break for lunch, which used to be when I got a lot of my reading done. But I've always believed the theory that the best time to quit smoking is when you're already under the most pressure. Based on that line of thinking, I decided now that I have no free time I should finally read Gormenghast.

Titus Groan (1946), Gormenghast (1950), Titus Alone (1959, revised 1970)
Mervyn Peake

Titus Groan, 1946 first edition Mervyn Peake (9 July 1911–17 November 1968) was born in China of British parents. Peake and his family returned to England in 1923. He studied art and initially became known as a portraitist and illustrator in London during the 1930s and 40s. He became an art teacher, which is how he met his wife Maeve Gilmore, also a prominent artist. In addition to his art, Peake wrote poetry, and later short fiction, plays, and novels. His most famous work are the Gormenghast books, which were intended to follow the central character of Titus Groan throughout his entire life, from birth to death. Unfortunately, Peake's own untimely death (and ill-health for many years prior) prevented him from completing the project as conceived.

Gormenghast Trilogy, 2007 Vintage edition He served in the second World War in the Royal Artillery and later with the Royal Engineers. It was during his service that he began working on Titus Groan. After the war, he was one of the first British civilians to witness the horrors of the Belsen Nazi concentration camp.

By the mid-50s, Peake's health was clearly in decline. He had suffered more than one nervous breakdown, but more significantly he had developed Parkinson's Disease. He gradually lost the ability to draw, and by the time Titus Alone was published in 1959, he was too ill to oversee the final editing of the work. After Peake's death, Langdon Jones painstakingly compared the handwritten manuscript to the published work and managed to restore the book, in a 1970 edition, to what Peake had actually written.

Gormenghast Trilogy, 1992 folio edition In addition to the Gormenghast books, Peake produced Mr. Pye (1953), several volumes of poetry, including Shapes & Sounds (1941), Rhymes without Reason (1944), The Glassblowers (1950), The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb (1962), Poems & Drawings (1965), and A Reverie of Bone (1967), plus many other works, including several published posthumously.

When I read the first dozen or so pages of Titus Groan, my initial reaction was the same as when I had finally some years ago picked up Herman Melville's Moby Dick: 'nobody told me this was funny!' I had heard for years about the brooding Captain Ahab and his sinister obsession with the white whale. I never suspected how engaging the narrator would be, nor how amusing Melville's style was. Similarly, when I began Titus Groan, I quickly realized this was not going to be the dark and oppressive, turgidly gothic tale I had been anticipating. Yes, it has strong gothic influences, but far stronger and clearer is the influence of Dickens, who was of course capable of being immensely funny. Even Peake's names are suitably Dickensian: Titus Groan, Lord Sepulchrave, Mr Flay, Rottcodd, Doctor Prunesquallor, Professor Deadyawn, Muzzlehatch -- they're such beautifully colourful and funny names. And the prose is, like Dickens, wordy, but in a way which is so exceptionally clever that you wouldn't want him to tell his story any more succinctly, as that would deprive you of more than half the fun.

For example, within the first few pages, we meet Rottcodd, who resides in a dusty and rarely visited area of Gormenghast Castle where they store the carvings. Rottcodd is a solitary creature who takes regular naps in his hammock. He sometimes goes years without a visitor, and then:

"One humid afternoon a visitor did arrive to disturb Rottcodd as he lay deeply hammocked, for his siesta was broken sharply by a rattling of the door handle which was apparently performed in lieu of the more popular practice of knocking at the panels.... Gripping his feather duster in his right hand, Rottcodd began to advance down the bright avenue, his feet giving rise at each step to little clouds of dust. When he had at last reached the door the handle had ceased to vibrate. Lowering himself suddenly to his knees he placed his right eye at the keyhole and, controlling the oscillation of his head and the vagaries of his left eye (which was for ever trying to dash up and down the vertical surface of the door), he was able by dint of concentration to observe, within three inches of his keyholed eye, an eye which was not his, being not only of a different colour to his own iron marble but being, which is more convincing, on the other side of the door."

Sure, you could have said essentially the same thing in about 20 words, but how deliciously funny Peake's phrasing is. The other eye, by the way, belongs to Mr Flay. Much later in the book, there's another moment where Flay's eyes (both of them this time) have a similar but far more intense encounter. The scene, as described, is essentially superfluous, and yet the way Peake conveys the burning hatred in that meeting of gazes is wonderfully evocative:

"Swelter's eyes meet those of his enemy, and never was there held between four globes of gristle so sinister a hell of hatred. Had the flesh, the fibres, and the bones of the chef and those of Mr Flay been conjured away and away down that dark corridor leaving only their four eyes suspended in mid-air outside the Earl's door, then, surely, they must have reddened to the hue of Mars, reddened and smouldered, and at last broken into flame, so intense was their hatred -- broken into flame and circled about one another in ever-narrowing gyres and in swifter and yet swifter flight until, merged into one sizzling globe of ire, they must surely have fled, the four in one, leaving a trail of blood behind them in the cold grey air of the corridor, until, screaming as they flew beneath innumerable arches and down the endless passages of Gormenghast, they found their eyeless bodies once again, and re-entrenched themselves in startled sockets."

Imagery of this sort must have leapt unbidden to Peake's highly creative mind, and being an accomplished poet he had no difficulty translating such mad, delightful or sad images into language. For example, when he describes Swelter, the monstrously fat cook, walking though the corridors of the castle you can all but hear "his flat feet sucking at the stones like porridge." Or again, in his depiction of one of the Dwellers (those who live outside the castle), a young woman on the brink of losing her bloom of youth, his use of simile is so precise and so powerful:

"The dreadful and premature age that descended so suddenly upon the faces of the Dwellers had not yet completely fallen over her features. It was as though it was so close upon her that the beauty of her face cried out against it, defying it, as a stag at bay turns upon the hounds with a pride of stance and a shaking of antlers."

It's his descriptions of his larger-than-life characters where Peake's humour really shines through. For example, when we first meet the teacher Perch-Prism, we are informed: "His nose was pig-like, his eyes button-black and horribly alert, with enough rings about them to lasso and strangle at birth any idea that he was under fifty. But his nose, which appeared to be no more than a few hours of age, did a great deal in its own porcine way to offset the effect of the rings around the eyes, and to give Perch-Prism, on the balance, an air of youth."

If you read for break-neck plotting and non-stop action, this isn't the series for you. But if you delight in well-honed, evocative and atmospheric prose, if you read for the simple love of language, then Titus Groan and Gormenghast cannot fail to please. The story is at times ponderously slow and oppressively heavy. But that's the whole point. Gormenghast, after all, is a massive and sprawling castle that either is or seems to be carved out of a mountain. It's a dusty, echoing, labyrinthine set of buildings with so many forgotten rooms and corridors that people can quite literally become lost and die in some of the less frequented passages.

Gormenghast is ruled by the Earl of Groan, but the Earl is ruled by tradition. The key functionary in the castle is the Master of Ritual, who consults a library of data in order to direct the Earl in the pursuance of innumerable and unceasing daily rituals. It's utterly absurd at times, the senseless things the Earl must do each day simply because that's the way it's always been done. It's kind of like this: Because it's the first Friday after the full moon, you must go down this flight of stairs at precisely 9:46 a.m. and stand for 3 minutes on the bottom step before turning to your left and walking down the hall to the third door on the right. But because the wind was from the southeast this morning, you must open the door with your left hand... Etc. Only the Master of Ritual knows all the minutia of what needs to occur, and the Earl must slavishly follow whatever tedious absurdity tradition dictates.

When the book opens, the Countess of Groan has just been delivered of a son, Titus, heir to Gormenghast. But, much like Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy, the story of Titus Groan is not really the story of Titus Groan. At least, not right away. In fact, by the end of the first book, Titus is not yet 2 years old. The central figure of the first book is, in fact, Steerpike. An intelligent and scheming kitchen lad who aspires to much greater things, Steerpike has very few scruples about going after what he wants.

The second book, Gormenghast, takes Titus from infancy to the point where he becomes a young man. It also follows Steerpike and his machinations. The lives of these two primary characters are so tightly interwoven that there's simply no untangling the knots without recourse to Alexander's solution. Both Titus Groan and Gormenghast have wonderfully climactic scenes of violence. It's not all just weighty, wordy fun. There's also some nasty brutality to spice things up a bit. Both books work together to form a fairly complete story. In fact, when I put down Gormenghast I thought to myself, 'well that was a very satisfying conclusion.' But then there's another book.

Do you know how The Lord of the Rings is so different in tone from The Hobbit that it almost seems like they're not by the same author? Well, same thing for Titus Alone, only more so. And I think that may be what causes problems for many readers of Peake. You see, the first two books take place entirely in this gloomy, gothic castle and the community in the vicinity of the castle. Gormenghast is isolated from anything else that may be out there in the world, and the world of Gormenghast seems like it could be in medieval Europe, or possibly as late as the early Renaissance. There is one reference to firearms, but as they are not trotted out, it's not clear if we're taking about matchlock muskets or automatic pistols. The former seem more likely.

At the end of Gormenghast, Titus rejects the stodgy ritual of Gormenghast to travel in the wider world. As Titus Alone opens, Titus arrives at a city. And it's a city with automobiles, helicopters, ray-guns and invisible spy-globes. It seems a bit jarring at first to be thrust into such a vastly different world than Gormenghast. But, again, I think that's exactly to Peake's purpose. Titus has left this drab stone world to explore a far more vibrant and varied one. Of course it's going to be weird for him, so the best way to impart that sense of discord in the reader is by throwing all expectations out the window and flipping any sense of security on its head. While Gormenghast has stagnated, the rest of the world has advanced. Now Titus (and the reader) must struggle to catch up.

Even more alarming is that no one has heard of Gormenghast. It doesn't appear in any atlas, and everyone doubts the veracity of Titus's story. He is picked up and charged for vagrancy because he can't give an adequate account of himself. He is told by the magistrate:

      '...your name is hardly probable. Now is it?'
      'It is my name,' said Titus.
      'What, Titus Groan, seventy-seventh Lord?'
      'Why not?'
      'It is unlikely. That sort of title belongs to another age. Do you dream at night? Have you lapses of memory? Are you a poet? Or is it all, in fact, an elaborate joke?'

At first I though maybe Peake was having fun with himself, maybe mocking his earlier work a bit. But the magistrate's question become more and more pertinent as Titus Alone progresses. No one believes in Gormenghast, to the point where even Titus begins to doubt it. And in doubting everything he ever knew, everything that made him what he is, he begins to doubt his own sanity. At times, like Stephen Donaldson's Thomas Covenant, Titus doubts the reality of what he is experiencing: "'My dreams?' cried Titus. 'I have no dreams! Oh God! I have no dreams! It is you who are unreal.'" At other times, or perhaps at the same time, he doubts the reality of Gormenghast and all the memories in his head, and wonders if he isn't simply mad. The reader, to a certain degree, shares this confusion. The book is much shorter than the first two in the series, short enough that you aren't quite given enough time to become comfortable with this new world. Even by the end, it still seems jarring (and far more dreamlike) when compared to the first two books. You never really feel like you know exactly what's going on, just as Titus feels like he is no longer in control of his world. Because, in fact, he isn't.

Overall, Peake has created with Titus Alone a disconcerting effect, but one that is extremely effective. Just make sure you read the Langdon Jones edition.

Where are the Other Books?

Well, I've said far more than I intended to about The Gormenghast Trilogy, and I could go on at much greater length. I've tried not to include any major spoilers for those who, like me, might have been avoiding this series. And I hope I may have encouraged a few folks to look into it, either for the first time, or to go back to it with fresh eyes.

But I know you were probably expecting me to also look at some half-forgotten work and compare it to Gormenghast. I thought about finding something that could be easily compared to Peake's work, but there was quite simply too much to choose from. For example, Steven Brust's The Brokedown Palace (1986) is clearly evocative of the massive and decrepit castle of Gormenghast. It was my favourite Brust novel when I read it more than 20 years ago, although he was at the time and is still now better known for his Vlad Taltos books. Tom Arden's The Orokon series, and in particular Book 1, The Harlequin's Dance (1997), is especially reminiscent of the Gormenghast books, although that may be because Arden shared Peake's affinity for Dickens. Indeed, it isn't hard to see the evolution from Dickens through Peake to the likes of Steven Erikson in his Tales of the Malazan books, or J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series. Whether consciously and directly imparted or otherwise, it seems very clear to me now that Peake's Gormenghast series has certainly influenced much of the fantasy that followed.

It's unfortunate for us that Peake was unable to complete the project he intended, since the Gormenghast books are only a trilogy in that there are three books, not because he intended to write a trilogy. I would be keenly interested in where Peake would have taken us (Titus and his readers) next. But we are fortunate in that the books we have conclude in a satisfactory manner, rather than merely setting up for another sequel.

For the Sake of Itself

I'm not sure if my theory about having no free time being the best time to read thousand-page novels would hold up to close scrutiny. I also started Proust's million-word opus Remembrance of Things Past and made my way through 800+ pages of French Revolution in the past month. There will be time enough to sleep once all my reading is done.

In reading Gormenghast, I've not only been able to see the influence that I had heard about for so many years, I've also come to understand that doing things just because that's the way they've always been done isn't good enough. Sometimes striking out on your own, rejecting mindless conservatism in search of something different, can be important and even necessary. Even if whatever else you find is equally absurd.

The more I read of Gormenghast, the more I could relate to Titus. In my new job, I feel as if I'm being led by the Master of Ritual down the dark and dusty corridors for the sake of being led down the dark and dusty corridors. Maybe it's time to kick open the doors and windows, and let in the light and fresh air.

Copyright © 2008 Neil Walsh

Neil Walsh has a day job that entails a great deal of reading, but nothing so interesting as the Gormenghast novels. In addition to those, in his spare time he only managed to read two other novels, Nova Swing by M. John Harrison (2006), and Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow (2008), plus a graphic novel, Proposition Player by Bill Willingham, et al. (2003). Neil's picks for most-promising new comic book series from March are Echo by Terry Moore (Abstract Studio), and Screamland by Harold Sipe, illustrated by Héctor Casanova (Image Comics). Non-fiction books he read this month include Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution by Simon Schama (1989), Bingo Boys & Poodle Fakers: A Curious Compendium of Historical Slang (2007), as well as Paris Then and Now by Peter & Oriel Caine (2007), plus he looked at but did not read (as the text is in Japanese) Fushigi Circus, an art book about the work of Mark Ryden (2006).


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