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The Gormenghast Novels : Titus Groan (1946), Gormenghast (1950), Titus Alone (1959) ()

Anthony Burgess : 99 Best Modern Novels (1934-84)

There's nothing else in all of literature quite like the Gormenghast trilogy.  A weird, totally original blend of fantasy, gothic, and allegory, with characters out of Dickens by way of Hieronymous Bosch, and looming over it all the mammoth, decaying architecture of Gormenghast, the Groan family castle.  The first two books in the series concern the newly born heir, Titus, 77th Earl of Groan, born into an aristocratic family which is completely bound by ancient and inane rules and ceremonies, and the efforts of one rebellious kitchen hand, Steerpike, who is determined to bring the whole artificial edifice, physical and cultural, crumbling to the ground.  In the third volume, Titus leaves Gormenghast to seek his fortune in the outside world, a less claustrophobic, but still quite strange and intimidating landscape.

Mervyn Peake was raised in China, where his father was a medical missionary.  Coincidentally or not, he was born there in the year (and month) that the child emperor (recall Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Emperor) was overthrown.  One can only imagine how bizarre a childhood he must have had, a Christian English boy growing up amidst the poverty of revolutionary China.  He returned to England for college, where he studied art and adopted something of a bohemian persona.  He joined an artists colony on the Island of Sark, the setting for his novel Mr. Pye.  As he began to develop a reputation as an artist, Peake left Sark, in 1935, to become a teacher at Westminster School of Art, where he met his wife, Maeve.  World War II broke out just as he began to come into his own, and though he volunteered with the understanding he could be a war artist, he was instead placed in a series of inappropriate jobs until he had a nervous breakdown.  He did make it to Germany at the end of the War, arriving at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in time to do sketches of the wraith like survivors and to have the horrors of the place seared into his soul.

He'd begun writing Titus Groan while he was in the army and it was published in 1946.  Gormenghast followed in 1950 and both were critically acclaimed.  He'd always had an aura of doom about him and was obviously not all that mentally sturdy, but the lingering psychological effects of what he saw in Germany (he returned after the War while the country was still devastated) and a combination of illnesses, including Parkinson's, made his later years quite awful.  Titus Alone, the final volume of the trilogy, was published in 1959, his last major work, though he would linger for another ten years.

The allegory of Gormenghast is fairly straightforward, and seems to parallel what Peake had himself witnessed.  A once great society rots from within, beset by bureaucracy and senseless ceremony.  A servant from the lowest ranks of the society rises up to challenge the established order, but turns out to be more evil than the existing regime.  I note--though I doubt it's significant, since I saw it mentioned nowhere else--that you can transpose a few vowels to make the title read "German Ghost."  At any rate, it is the case that Peake was in China as it's Empire crumbled, returned to Britain in time to watch it sink after the War, and saw the horrifying aftermath of Nazi Germany's Steerpikean nightmare.  In a sense then, Gormenghast tells the story of the Century, of the fall of the upper classes of the old order and their replacement by the even more horrid workers.  Though Titus manages to stop Steerpike, he nonetheless abandons Gormenghast to seek a brighter future.

The greatness of Peake's work though does not lie in the story, it instead rests on his accomplishment as a visual storyteller.  This is the most painterly form of literature imaginable.  It helps that he did illustrations for the books himself, but even without his drawings, the books seem to move from set tableau to set tableau, more like a series of paintings than like a fluid narrative.  This great strength of his work is also a significant weakness, because the tale is so two dimensional.  With Tolkein, there's such depth to the story--not surprising considering that he created mythology, languages, history, etc. for each of the peoples in the trilogy--that the reader is always conscious of the sense that the teller of the tale could veer off onto any tangent for hundreds of pages without faltering.  Gormenghast has more of the feel of a movie set; particular images are brilliantly imagined and realized, but there's nothing behind the image.  You never really feel that Peake has given a moment's thought to either the 75th or the 78th Earl of Groan.

This weakness becomes glaring in the third book of the trilogy, Titus Alone, as Peake sends his young hero out on a quest, the purpose of which is unfathomable.  Though it does afford the author to end his tale with a nuclear-like holocaust and the admonition that Gormenghast's greatness persists in Titus Groan's mind, should he have the courage to recreate it.  Some fans may find the suggestion to be blasphemous, but I think most readers will be well served by just reading the first two books.  In fact, in the BBC's fine television production last year, they left out the third volume.  Peake's writing is so original and so marvelous that you owe it to yourself to experience it, but the tale is not so compelling that you need pursue it to its very end.

N. B.--a reader writes :

  I liked your review of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy. However, I'd
like to point out that Peake wrote Titus Alone, the last novel,while
suffering from Parkinson's Disease, from which he later died. It ruined his
genius before killing him, and though he still had talent while writing
Titus Alone, the magic was gone. I think most Peake fans would agree that
the first two novels are without compare, and that as a reader you can
safely and sensibly stop there. If you do forge ahead to the third, you feel
a lurching drop which is quite sickening and sad.
  Marc Lemay (11/17/01)


Grade: (B+)


Mervyn Peake Links:
    -Mervyn Peake
    -Peake STUDIES : the periodical devoted to the life and work of  Mervyn Peake (1911-1968)
    -Gormenghast Castle
    -Mervyn Peake : A Reverie of Bone (Langdon Jones)
    -Scriptorium : Mervyn Peake (Librynth)
    -Fuchsia's Secret Archive
    -Mervyn Peake (1911-1968) (Bohemian Ink)
    -WEBRING : Mervyn Peake Webring
    -Gormenghast : a fantasy opera
    -Gormenghast : Webbed representation of Gothic architecture. Its purpose: to enhance the user's understanding of Gothic literature by exploring its spatial characteristics
    -PROFILE : Peake Practice : He never earned much money and he looked like a tramp. He grew up in Chaina among dragons but later moved to Croydon. He wore red waistcoats and bright orange ties. His life was cut short by illness, brain surgery and prematuire senility. He gave us Gormenhast and changed the world. His name was Mervyn Peake, and he may have been the 20th centry's greatest fantasist (John Walsh, 14 January 2000, Independent uk)
    -ESSAY: Peake practice: An artist with the soul of a pirate (January 15, 2021, The Spectator)
    -ESSAY: The gentle genius of Mervyn Peake: His unsettling illustrations reveal a kindly man with the soul of a pirate (Daisy Dunn, September 2020, The Spectator)
    -REVIEW : of The Gormenghast Trilogy (David Campling)
    -REVIEW : of The Gormenghast Trilogy (Spaceports)
    -REVIEW : of Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake
    -REVIEW : of Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor by Mervyn Peake (Kate Kellaway, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW : of Mervyn Peake: My Eyes Mint Gold - a Life by Malcolm Yorke (Hilary Spurling, booksonline uk)
    -REVIEW :  Mervyn Peake: My Eyes Mint Gold: A Life by Malcolm Yorke (John McEwen, The Spectator)
    -REVIEW : of Vast Alchemies: The Life and Work of Mervyn Peake by G Peter Winnington (Duncan Fallowell, Independent uk)

    -BBC Online : Gormenghast
    -Gormenghast : BBC America
    -Gormenghast (PBS) : Gormenghast
    -Weird world: GOTHIC DRAMA: It eluded Sting and Terry Gilliam, but now the BBC is to show Gormenghast, a tale so ghoulishly complex some said it could never be screened. Kevin Courtney looks forward to what he hopes may be a millennial milestone in TV drama
    -FEATURE : Welcome to the gothic world of Gormenghast  (Line One)
    -REVIEW : of Gormenghast (PAT ST. GERMAIN, Winnipeg Sun)
    -REVIEW : of Gormenghast (Gisèle Baxter)
    -REVIEW : of Gormenghast (Langdon Jones)

    -ARTICLE : Peake performance : For Richard Rodney Bennett, writing the music for Gormenghast was a colossal job. But a sleepless night in New York solved the problem (Robert Hanks, 15 January 2000, Independent uk)
    -ARTICLE : BBC flop 'Gormenghast' shortlisted for six Baftas  (Jade Garrett, 5 April 2001, Independent uk)
    -REVIEW : Castles in the air : All literary adaptions are problematic, but it takes a brave director to attempt the vertiginous vision of Gormenghast. Will Andy Wilson's TV adaptation satisfy Mervyn Peake's fans? ( 07 January 2000, Independent uk)

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