Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake

Titus GroanIf you imagine a sliding scale of fantasy from the Epic to the Gothic, the defining works at either end must surely be Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Peake’s Gormenghast books. Both Tolkien and Peake were illustrators (Tolkien on a much more amateur level), and both used (initially private) drawing as a means of immersing themselves in their created worlds. A quick glance through J R R Tolkien: Artist & Illustrator shows that Tolkien was mostly interested in, and accomplished at, landscapes. His humans and humanoids, when present, are often stiff, and usually take second place to the scenery, but his landscapes, though conjured with a decorative rather than a realistic style (and very much under the influence of the Golden Age of Illustrators), are much more convincing. Peake, on the other hand, was a professional illustrator, and his manuscripts for Titus Groan were peppered with evocative little sketches, mostly of his characters, in an attempt to capture their personalities and test the authenticity of the dialogue he wrote for them. Tolkien’s characters are people in a landscape, and you know that, should the people depart, the landscape would remain, just as magnificent, just as laden with myth and history. Middle Earth is a place you can imagine visiting for a while. But you can’t imagine visiting Gormenghast castle without the fear of it bringing out your Gormenghastian side, your urge to find your own lonely niche in its spidery attics and dusty, junk-filled side-rooms, and there stew in your eccentricities till cooked into a weird and ornery self-caricature. Peake’s characters and landscape are one — his cast of oddities are not so much in the shadow of the great castle, as it is the shadow of them, and they the shadow of it. So much do its limits make an entire world for them that when one of their number, crack-kneed Flay, is banished to the wilderness, he’s astonished to find that:

“Nature, it seemed, was huge as Gormenghast.”

Peake's own dustjacket design for Titus Groan

Peake’s own dustjacket design for Titus Groan

Knowing Peake is an illustrator, it’s tempting to say that the incredible vividness in which his world and characters are described must be the result of an artist’s eye and a well-honed visual imagination, right down to the details:

“a sweep of old cobwebs, like a fly-filled hammock…”

“a thin beam of light threaded the warm brooding dusk and was filled with slowly moving motes like an attenuate firmament of stars…”

“His face was very lined, as though it had been made of brown paper that had been crunched by some savage hand before being hastily smoothed out and spread over the tissues…”

or, one of the most evocative lines from the second book, Gormenghast:

“…a streak of lightning, like an outrider, lit up the terrain so that for a moment the world was made of nothing but wet steel.”

But read his descriptions closely, and you find that Peake feels his world as much as he sees it — both the physical weight of it, and the unseen tensions and moods that haunt it — though this of course may be what explains his ability as an illustrator as much as it explains his ability as a writer: both are translations of a keen inner sense of the is-ness of things, and the being-ness of people, rather than merely what they look like. And Gormenghast is a world as much shadowed with dark emotion as it is by lack of light. Here is doomed Sepulchrave in his doomed library, dwelling on doom:

“The library appeared to spread outwards from him as from a core. His dejection infected the air about him and diffused its illness upon every side. All things in the long room absorbed his melancholia. The shadowing galleries brooded with slow anguish; the books receding into the deep corners, tier upon tier, seemed each a separate tragic note in a monumental fugue of volumes.”

Fuchsia, by Mervyn Peake

Fuchsia, by Mervyn Peake

I first read Titus Groan when I was about 17. I read it again a year later, then once more just recently, and was amazed to find how vividly every incident and character had remained in my memory throughout the 24 year gap. Each character, though grotesquely fantastic, is also utterly, realistically human, a product of what Peake called “extreme individualism”, both infinitely strange and infinitely right, a perfect example of a type of person I’m sure I’ve met, but know I can’t have. That shark-eyed look of cold calculation you get from Steerpike (who was originally called Smuggerly in Peake’s earliest drafts) makes him the original of all Machiavellian social climbers and arch-manipulators; Fuchsia’s tempests of love and hate, resentment and forgiveness, (always full on, one then the other), make her the most awkwardly adolescent of adolescents; Prunesquallor so rightly accused (by his snapping sister) of being “drunk with [his] own levity” is perhaps the only character with the potential of seeing beyond the Gormenghastness of Gormenghast, if only he weren’t so Gormenghastian himself; the Twins as emotionally dead as marionettes; the drear solemn weight of mournful Sepulchrave; the stateliness and indifference of Countess Gertrude; the insignificant whining of Nanny Slagg — all so real, so human, so exaggerated, so true.

In a radio broadcast at the time of the book’s publication, Peake said:

“I enjoy the fantastic and the sheer excitement of having a sheet of white paper and a pen in one’s hand and no dictator on earth can say what word I put down…”

And, in a later essay (“How a Romantic Novel Was Evolved”), he talks of just what sort of words he found himself putting down as he began Titus Groan:

“A mixture of serious as well as nonsensical fantasy began to pour itself out, without object, sentences growing out of their precursors involuntarily.”

Growing out of their precursors — like the mass of Gormenghast grows from its own tortuous foundations. Has a novel ever so resembled its own subject? Titus Groan is a monumental fugue of words.

Comments (7)

  1. Aonghus Fallon says:

    Another great post, Murray. Just as I find it hard not to associate the more pyschedelic fantasies of Moorcock with anything other than the Sixties, ‘Titus Groan’ will be forever associated in my mind with Post-War Britain. The colour scheme is all muted greys – slate and stone and moss and lichen. That’s part of its charm. In that respect, I felt the TV series based on the trilogy did it a grave disservice.

    I found the book itself utterly engrossing – Steerpike, the penultimate battle between Flay and Swelter – but for some reason never got around to reading the other two.

  2. Murray says:

    I completely agree with you about the TV series, Aonghus. I’m tempted to say it’s one of those books that could just never be adapted successfully, but I saw an excellent theatrical adaptation of the first two novels many years ago.

    Funny you should say about never getting round to reading the other two. I read the next one, but never got round to reading the third! That’s why I read Titus Groan again just recently (and Gormenghast), to re-read those first two, then finally tackle the third. Gormenghast, the second novel, I have to say has an excellent second half, thoroughly as good as Titus Groan. But the first half feels a bit like it’s trying (slightly unsuccessfully) to get back into the mood of the first novel, which is a pity, as it may put you off.

  3. Aonghus Fallon says:

    I remember starting it and enjoying the description of the classroom (I hope I’m talking about the right book!) but it did go on quite a bit and – much as I had enjoyed the first book – I wasn’t quite ready for more of the same.

  4. The third book has some great set-piece moments but doesn’t hang together overall. The interesting question is whether that’s due to moving away from the Gormenghast, that the first two are actually similar but the setting keeps pulling you through.

    Needless to say, you are both right about the TV show. Even though the books are eventful there’s an overall feeling of ponderousness, of time hanging over you as heavily as the stonework of Gormenghast. In their desire to cram everything in and keep attention-defecit-disorder audiences, they completely missed all that.

  5. Aonghus Fallon says:

    I think a lot of it is due to moving away from Gormenghast, Gavin – as long as Gormenghast is the characters’ entire world, it packs a big imaginative punch.

    Most Gothic fiction seems to be dependent on interiors and building up a sense of claustrophobia; castles, dungeons, walled cities etc. Gormenghast is a curious anomoly in this regard inasmuch as it’s rather appealing – you want to explore it the same way you might want to explore a very large old country house.

  6. Andrew Kawam says:

    The Gormenghast books are my absolute favourite books (even the third one, which I know many people hate, but I feel is filled with more increasingly fascinating subtleties the more I look into it, which I feel like get marred in a lot of people’s minds cause of Peake’s Lewy-body dementia at the time of writing it causing us to only have seen the first draft, and the fact that there were intended to be at least five books in all with ‘Titus Alone’ being the middle one, not the final), and to my mind, probably up there with the works of people like John Crowley, Gene Wolfe, E. R. Eddison, Octavia Butler, David Lindsay, Ursula K. Le Guin, Samuel R. Delany, Philip Pullman, Diana Wynne Jones, Anna Kavan, Hope Mirrlees, Frank Herbert, Brian Aldiss, Thomas M. Disch, M. John Harrison, Leena Krohn, and Candas Jane Dorsey as the best novels of the fantastic of the 20th Century (he’s actually probably be at the top of my list if I was forced to choose just one, but I had to list some of those authors).

    It’s been circulating now for the past few years that Neil Gaiman, Toby Whithouse, and Akiva Goldsman have been working away behind the scenes on a TV adaptation of Gormenghast for Showtime, a proper version of which I feel like is long overdue (not to be too harsh on the BBC miniseries, but I feel that it was just too animated for me to take it seriously on its own merits). I feel like the only living directors (and if this new series ever does get made, the direction to me is really where it’s going to sink or swim) whose work I’ve seen that could feasibly pull of a sufficiently dense, sublimely brooding and eerily surreal atmosphere to stand on its own feet as a work of art anywhere near as well as the books would be Denis Villeneuve, Robert Eggers, Lucile Hadžihalilović, David Lowery, Jessica Hausner, Jonathan Glazer, Ana Lily Amirpour, and Darren Aronofsky.

  7. Murray Ewing says:

    I agree the BBC series what something of a letdown. Such great books, so vivid in character and prose through their words alone, it’s hard to imagine an adaptation that would really do them justice, but I’d certainly be glad to see someone make another attempt.

    I’ve just looked up an old stop-motion animation of a sequence from Titus Groan which I remember liking. It wouldn’t suit a full adaptation, but it’s got a weird grotesquerie to it that works, in a way. It’s only three minutes long:

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