Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Review of Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake

Titus Groan was a creaking, tittering, masterful display of Gothic grotesque unlike the literary world has ever seen.  Gormenghast, the second of Mervyn Peake’s Titus novels, is every bit as delightfully detailed.  Filled with the most peculiar of personalities, scenes of the haltingly bizarre, and the most sublimely fantastic of moods, the story of the castle’s final deterioration is arrived at via Titus Groan’s, the Seventy Seventh Lord of Gormenghast, coming of age.

Set a handful of years after the conclusion of Titus Groan, Steerpike, at the opening of Gormenghast, forever lurks in the shadows for reasons the reader can only guess at, his secret tunnels and peepholes in walls giving only a scattering of clues.  Locked in a faraway room by the cunning young man, the twins Cora and Clarice live in despair.  Irma, Dr. Prunesquallor’s ageing spinster of a sister, claws at the mirror, seeing only her beauty and lack of a husband, driving her brother mad in the process.  The Thing, Keda’s daughter from Titus Groan, haunts the mud-dwellers, wrecking havoc on their carvings, while in the castle’s school, a crowd of teachers fill their room with smoke and complaints, their egos not much more mature than the boys they teach.

Beginning the novel with only a handful of years under his belt, Titus is found questioning his presence in school from the very opening.  Preferring the open air and horseback riding, the hours in class are only made bearable by the laxity of Prof. Bellgrove’s unique style of teaching.  Sleeping while the boys cavort, Titus takes a liking to the old man’s method.  Fuschia still enamored by Steerpike, she nevertheless discovers affection for her younger brother the more adventures they have together, and the older, more mature Titus becomes.  But torn ever wide open by the dichotomy in his soul, it takes the culmination of Steerpike’s machinations to make the heir to Gormenghast choose sides.  The castle’s heritage is never the same. 

What some consider the birthplace of the New Weird, Gormenghast picks up from TitusGroan and continues the story of Titus in the same baroque, impossibly-bizarre-to-describe style.  The novel is filled with fantastic scenes of the same register.  The boys flying through the classroom while Bellgrove sleeps, the teachers in the smoking room, the three acolytes (Spiregrain, Throd, and Splint) and their crazy master, a certain murder scenario, and a number of other scenes capture moods and paint pictures like no other work of fiction I’ve ever read, and, to some degree, must be experienced to be understood.

Thematically, Gormenghast continues to contrast routine vs. unpredictable life.  For the majority of the novel, Steerpike is a much more interesting character than Titus.  Possessing agency (as malevolent as it may be), the reader may even find themselves secretly rooting for the crazy young man in some ghoulish way.  A microcosm juxtaposing Keda’s relationship problems in Titus Groan, Irma’s yearning for a husband, and the consequences of her plight, point in the same direction but with the other hand, highlighting the contrast between routine and a life more dynamic.  But ultimately it is Titus, what he learns, and the choices he makes which cement Peake’s underlying commentary.  Rebelling against empty ritual, Steerpike becomes both his friend and foe, a person he loathes yet understands, the blood and salt of life flowing in the aftermath. 

In the end, Gormenghast is dripping with every drop of flavor of Titus Groan.  Peake’s style as smooth, glacial, and yes, filligreed, readers looking for more will walk away with that same half-mad smile on their face.  Having to pick up the pace to get Titus from boyhood to (young) adulthood, Gormenghast shifts through a number of years, but does so without sacrificing anything significant, culminating in a conclusion that feels both like a natural ending to the Titus Groan story and the beginning of Titus Alone.  Though Charles Dickens and Lewis Carroll dance on the wings, the imagination of Mervyn Peake is unrivaled.

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