Mervyn Peake, Titus Groan (Tusk/Overlook, 1946)
[originally posted 26Feb2002]
Few fantasy epics are as revered as Mervin Peake’s Gormenghast novels, and for good reason. Gormenghast’s first novel, Titus Groan, is four hundred pages of such sterling descriptive language, such deliciously surreal diction, that it’s easy to forget that fifty pages have passed since the last event occurred. Peake gives himself away a little over halfway through with one singularly important sentence: “It was not certain what significance the ceremony held, for unfortunately the records were lost, but the formality was no less sacred for being unintelligible.” Indeed.
Titus himself, while always the central focus of the novel, is barely getting into the toddler stage as the book closes. We spend much more time getting to know some of the key players in the quotidian intrigues that give Gormenghast its color. Most notably, we are apprised of a longstanding hatred between Flay, the first servant to the Earl of Gormenghast, and Swelter, the head chef. Also, we are introduced to Steerpike, an escaped kitchen servant, who at first seems nothing more than a catalyst for the hatred between Flay and Swelter (after escaping Swelter, the first person Steerpike encounters is Flay, who instead of returning him, imprisons him), but ends up being the catalyst for many, if not all, of the changes we see in Gormenghast over the course of this novel.
While only three books in the series were published, and the very beginnings of a fourth, Titus Awakes, have been uncovered in Peake’s papers, it is obvious from the scope of Titus Groan that Peake had planned an epic of unimaginable length and detail. This is not a novel for those who have little patience with books where the plot is slow-moving; for lovers of the language in which books are written, Titus Groan is a must-read, perhaps the only other twentieth-century work that can stand up stylistically to the works of H. P. Lovecraft.
Long live Gormenghast! ****