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by Mervyn Peake

Titus, heir to the earldom of Groan, is born and spends the first years of his life in a pinnacled castle amidst rituals and grotesque persons
Download Titus Groan epub
ISBN: 0345270967
ISBN13: 978-0345270962
Category: Literature
Subcategory: Short Stories & Anthologies
Author: Mervyn Peake
Language: English
Publisher: Del Rey; 9th Printing edition (March 12, 1977)
ePUB size: 1890 kb
FB2 size: 1482 kb
Rating: 4.4
Votes: 131
Other Formats: mobi mbr lit docx

...and yet possibly not to every taste. To say that Mervyn Peake's writing is rich is an understatement. Peake, both poet and visual artist, paints words with a musicality that is often rhapsodic, in a fantastical and aweful world that draws in both the light and the dark aspects of those latter two words.

It can be heavy going, if you cannot catch the flow of the thing. I bought the Ballantine paperbacks in 1977 when they were one of the very few fantasy works available besides Tolkien and Lewis. I started Gormenghast numerous times but it never took. I sold the paperbacks in 2002, but was tempted by a seducing friend when it went on sale in the new Kindle edition, and sat down with it last October. I reached the Room of Roots with Steerpike by Halloween but life interfered and I did not pick up again til March 1 '17. I

I will take a brief pause before going on. As I said Peake is rich reading, and he is NOT elves and dwarves and magic swords and thrones (well, except for some fibs maybe), so be warned. He is rewarding, and worth the effort.

Do try not to take 40 years to get hold of the amazing fantasy that is Gormenghast.

PS. Don't know if this will be helpful, but though very different genres, I find Peake's mastery of the beauty and rigor of language reminds me much of the beauty and rigor of Patrick O'Brien in his Aubrey & Maturin novels.
There are no hobbits. No elves. No fauns. No orcs, dragons or white walkers. There are, however, assorted grotesque humans with Dickensian names such as Steerpike, Prunesquallor, Sepulchrave, Flay and Swelter. They all live in a vast edifice, Gormenghast Castle, atop Gormenghast Mountain in a world that is almost medieval but could occur in any pre-20th century era.

Mervyn Peake’s ‘Titus Groan’, published in 1946, is the first of a projected series depicting the growth and life of Titus Groan, the seventy-seventh earl of the house of Groan. Peake published one sequel, ‘Gormenghast’, in 1950, and another novel, ‘Titus Alone’, in 1959, in which the grown Titus travels far away from Gormenghast and takes place in far flung locales that bear little resemblance to the place of his birth. Peake’s struggles with Parkinson’s slowed his progress with the series so that the last ten years of his life he could barely write anything. His wife wrote a fourth novel, ‘Titus Awakes’, based on notes that Peake had left, a few years after his death in 1968.

The “royalty” of Gomenghast consists of a dynasty of Earls of Groan, with their families and heirs. Rooted in a tradition of ritual that has sucked out whatever life they once had. The seventy-sixth Earl of Groan, Lord Sepulchrave (the name evokes the words “sepulcher” and “crave”, evocative words that describe the demeanor of the Earl) is a melancholy man, rendered nearly inert by the weight of his rigidly structured life. He is a prisoner of his tradition, with a loveless marriage and no meaningful relationships with anyone. His only source of solace is the books in his library.

For the occupants and their servants in Gormenghast, ritual reigns more than any individual and change is a threat to this order and must be held at bay. Nevertheless, change is in their midst and is insidiously eating away at their ossified routines in the form of Steerpike, a former kitchen boy who has managed to escape his job, leave the castle and literally climb his way back into someone’s good graces and be placed in a position with the potential for advancement.

First, he crawls in the window of an attic room of the quarters of the earl’s fifteen-year old daughter, Fuschia, an impetuous, brooding and lonely child who is wary of Steerpike initially but reluctantly won over by his charm. She vacillates between borderline infatuation and fear and distrust throughout the rest of the novel.

Steerpike is introduced to Alfred Prunesqallor, the resident physician, a man with a frivolous, superficially verbose manner who is at heart a compassionate man with integrity. He lives in quarters with his strange, insecure and decidedly unattractive sister, Irma, who is immediately entranced by the lad. He works as an assistant in Prunesquallor’s pharmacy long enough to learn the difference between safe and toxic mixtures, then ingratiates himself with the earl’s twin sisters, Cora and Clarice. The twins are identical not only physically but in thought and impulse. They are also somewhat slow-witted, enabling them to be easily duped. In fact, in a series of chapters describing the reveries of individual characters at a ceremonial breakfast, after depicting Cora’s thoughts, the chapter describing Clarice’s consists of only one sentence:
“Her thoughts have been identical with those of her sister in every way save only in one respect, and this cleavage can best be appreciated by the simple process of substituting Cora’s for her own wherever it appears in the reverie of the former.”

Steerpike preys on their worst fears of exclusion and their hatred of their sister-in-law, the haughty and insensitive Lady Gertrude. It does not take much persuasion to persuade them to set fire to the earl’s library with Steerpike’s assistance at a ceremonial dinner at which everyone in the family, including everyone except the uninvited twins, will be present. The fire does proceed and Steerpike manages to escape and climb back in to come to the family’s rescue, helping them to evacuate the quarters and earn their gratitude. Prunesquallor, Gertrude, and Fuschia all sense that something doesn’t ring true about Steerpike’s nobility but can’t point their finger to anything specifically that provides evidence of duplicity.

The earl, losing his one source of joy, goes mad and comes to a tragic end, meaning that the now one-year old Titus must be appointed the next earl at a bizarre ceremony in the rain at Gormenghast Lake.

The castle is so vast that it takes up a few miles and is more labyrinthine and sprawling than anything that could be constructed in the real world. Entire lives can be lived in remote areas of the castle by occupants that never know the existence of some of the other occupants. For example, Rottcodd, the curator of the Hall of Bright Carvings (the collection of wooden statuary carved by the Bright Carvers, a community of villagers living just outside the castle), resides in quarters at the top of the castle and only knows of the birth of Titus because the servant Flay has gone up to tell him the news; likewise, the ‘earling’ of Titus a year later when he notices everyone is gone and sees them returning from the ceremony from his window. The opening of the novel is particularly evocative of the anthropomorphic structure:
“This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven. At night the owls made of it an echoing throat; by day it stood voiceless and cast its long shadow.”

Although one can detect similarities to Dickens in its use of eccentric names, and resemblances between Steerpike and his scheming literary predecessors Richard III and Uriah Heep, other than the fact that there is plenty of palace intrigue here as in many previous works, Peake’s Gormenghast novels are in a category of their own. Although Tolkien had been working on ‘The Lord of the Rings’ since the years between the world wars, ‘Titus Groan’ was published eight years before the first volume of Tolkien’s trilogy and, partly due to the difficulty of categorization, did not draw masses of readers although it earned a fair amount of critical acclaim. Peake’s prose is possibly even more evocative than his illustrations.

While the doings of the bizarre occupants of the castle are fascinating, Peake’s decision to present the fates of some peripheral characters such as some of the carvers, while intermittently interesting, are not as compelling as the Gormenghast characters and interrupt the momentum of the primary narrative. Despite the detours, ‘Titus Groan’ is a somewhat symmetrical novel, returning to the character that it opened with and beginning with Titus’ birth and ending with his earling a year later.

‘Titus Groan’ doesn’t exactly end as a cliff-hanger—it could be read as a standalone novel—but I would think that anyone that read to the end and liked it would be curious to find out what happens in its sequel, as there is plenty of unfinished business left unresolved by its conclusion. I certainly intend to proceed to ‘Gormenghast’ next.
This is the first book in a series about the Groan family in Gormenghast castle. This castle is a relic from bygone days, decaying both physically and spiritually. The people inside it live in a sort of self-imposed imprisonment from the rest of society, with their lives so dictated by tradition and ritual that it verges on the ridiculous, and, as such, have developed assorted mental and emotional infirmities. Into this demented situation is born a boy they name Titus. His father believes him to be uniquely ugly, his mother is too caught up in her own desires to be troubled with him, and his older sister is a hysteric that has trouble telling the difference between fantasy and reality. The innocent baby has only his old nurse to love him and his violet eyes that he was born with to protect him (legends about children with violet eyes say they have almost magical qualities). On the same day of Titus's birth, a young kitchen boy named Steerpike, through an act born more of desperation than courage, finds himself under the wing of Doctor Prunesquallor, the court physician. With this position, Steerpike is given the opportunity of seeing the intrigue and deception that can come with the birth of an heir, and to turn those circumstances to his own benefit.
The writing in this book is fantastic, with the author weaving words of description that rivals Poe, Lovecraft, and Tolkien all combined. However, the majority of this book is spent in waiting. Waiting for the characters to make their moves, waiting for the plots and deceipts to come to fruition, and, most of all, waiting for the real action to begin. For those who are used to fantasies full of sword fights and magical creatures, this book will be a disappointment. Though set in a creepy, dingy castle that almost reeks of magic and evil spells, the battlefields here are psychological, not physical. The author, unfortunately, passed away before he could finish the story of little Titus Groan, so we will never know what he really intended to happen to him. The fourth book, the last of the series, was actually written by his wife, though based on the outline and notes that the author left behind. While the story is incomplete, this is a book can be read as a monument to the excellent writing of an author who was taken from us too soon.