The Gormenghast Novels: Titus Groan, Gormenghast, Titus Alone by Mervyn Peake
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I found this book used for $5. It's a beautiful edition, weighty, with creamy pages. It will undoubtedly cut an imposing figure on your bookcase. The Washington Post Book World review suggests that "many readers" consider it "the true fantasy classic of our time." I wonder who those many readers are. As a caveat, I've yet to read Gormenghast and Titus Alone, so maybe it's best taken as an entire oeuvre, but after reading Titus Groan, I don't feel I have the stamina to make it through the next to books. This is in stark contrast to J.R.R. Tolkien's novels, which I positively inhaled. I couldn't wait to finish one to get to the next.
So what makes Mervyn Peake's work different? Certainly there are things to like about Titus Groan. Robertson Davies says "Peake is a finer poet than Edgar Allan Poe," and whether true or not, it is an apt comparison. Peake's writing is lush beyond compare, utterly exquisite horror writing, swarthy with neogolism. In particular, Peake delights in his characters. Each has a Dickensian name that serves as a constant reminder and indictment, while further description is like a dissection: finely detailed and a little disgusting. I can "hear" Prunesquallor's laugh, I'm duly annoyed by and sympathetic to Mrs Slagg, and I'm positive the aunts Cora and Clarice were Roald Dahl's models for "Spiker and Sponge."
Take this section where he describes the movement of Swelter, the castle's psychotic and obese head chef:
"He insinuated himself through space. His body encroached, sleuth-like, from air-volume to air-volume, entering, filling and edging out of each in turn, the slow and vile belly preceding the horribly deliberate and potentially nimble progress of his fallen arches, (p. 330)."
The language is so poetic that it's imminently quotable. I could have opened to a random page and pointed. However, this quote also gets at my main difficulty with enjoying this novel. It was too "horribly deliberate." The writing overwhelms the story.
Most of the plot developments are announced far in advance and the reader is left watching pathos develop. And develop it does, but sadly, beyond the language level, it rarely excites.
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