Faced with the ever-tiresome thought of researching for a new essay, I turn again to my blog. After a long debate, I eventually settled on writing about a classic, and rarely discussed, fantasy novel, Mervyn Peake’s Titus Alone. I first found this book, or, really, the trilogy, at a second-hand bookstore, hidden away amongst the shelves; my curiosity was piqued once I discovered Anthony Burgess wrote the foreword. Afterwards, I discovered that almost every library network in Australia happens to have a critical edition of it, with numerous literary essays at the back, and so was not the obscure collection of novels I believed it to be.
Mervyn Peake, to start things off, was a painter, poet, and novelist, from the thirties till his death in the sixties. He was a war-artist during the Second World War, present at the liberation of several Nazi concentration camps – which one can see the horror of at the end of Titus Alone, and his wife Maeve Peake was also a renowned artist and writer of her time.
One of Peake’s illustrations for the series
The trilogy – Titus Groan, Gormenghast, and Titus Alone – follows the unsurprisingly-named Titus Groan, 77th Earl of Groan, and Lord of Gormenghast, a grand, decaying, Gothic castle. Bizarrely, Titus Groan begins with the birth of the titular character, and continues to narrate the rise of Steerpike and the clashes of other characters, before culminating with Titus’ coronation as a child, while Gormenghast covers Titus’ growth from childhood to adulthood, and Titus Alone covers Titus’ wanderings throughout the wider world of Peake’s imagination.
The setting for the first two novels is the grand, Gothic sprawling castle, large enough almost to be a world unto itself, as it is to its inhabitants. This vast, decaying edifice is filled with a variety of eccentric, tragic characters, who thrive in the shadows and darkness of the place. The first book, though beginning with Titus’ birth, describes mostly the interactions of the other characters, and the rise of the antagonist of the first two books – the cunning and twisted Steerpike, as well as violence and feuds between other characters, which all comes to its fruition in Gormenghast.
First things first, Mervyn Peake has a very particular style. He writes in an incredibly verbose manner, and is of that hip mid-twentieth century school which thinks it’s a great idea to use medical terminology, and other such obscure sources of words, to really bring out the descriptions. Despite the constant stopping to look up obscure medical words, which are still only used occasionally, Peake has an incredibly grand style. His verbosity does not,though, grate on one’s nerves; instead, the reader is drawn into the immense, archaic, grand, old world Peake depicts, the writing serving as a brilliant medium to display the ancient ruins of the setting in which the story takes place. The writing, in a way,conjures up this strange feeling, and truly becomes another part of the tired, decrepit world. As an example (I had to pull these from the internet, since I only borrowed the trilogy from the library awhile back):
“Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls. They sprawled over the sloping arch, each one half way over its neighbour until, held back by the castle ramparts, the innermost of these hovels laid hold on the great walls, clamping themselves hereto like limpets to a rock. These dwellings, by ancient law, were granted this chill intimacy with the stronghold that loomed over them. Over their irregular roofs would fall throughout the seasons, the shadows of time-eaten buttresses, of broken and lofty turrets, and, most enormous of all, the shadow of the Tower of Flints. 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.”
I think I conveyed what I meant, in this example. The writing is grand, dark, and draws the reader into the web of the world; while such writing may not fit all books, and may, indeed, be bad writing for some works, it performs admirably with the denseness of the setting. Brilliantly, Peake brings out the very castle itself as an ever-present, brooding thing, almost another character watching the lives of the others, pulling and perhaps manipulating; some passages have describe nothing other than the shadowy home, contrasting the bustling life of birds and animals, and the bright sun that pierces the small ruined parts, with the deep darkness of Gormenghast that surrounds the characters, pervading their every moment. Even later in the novel, Peake conjures true images of horror; through his vivid and ponderous style, he brings sickening scenes and themes of madness, creating a haunting image of both. Further, the description of the climactic duel, amongst the thousand cobwebs and large spiders that infest the decayed room of Gormenghast, I would state as one of the best descriptions of a duel. Although action is sparse in the novel, this one scene is more than enough, mixing thrill and horror with his brilliant Gothic stylings.
I hate to bore the reader with a handful more of examples, but it is the only way of giving the sense of grandness, and alluring writing of Peake.
“In the presence of real tragedy you feel neither pain nor joy nor hatred, only a sense of enormous space and time suspended, the great doors open to black eternity, the rising across the terrible field of that last enormous unanswerable question.”
“There is a love that equals in its power the love of man for woman and reaches inwards as deeply. It is the love of a man or a woman for their world. For the world of their centre where their lives burn genuinely and with a free flame. The love of the diver for his world of wavering light. His world of pearls and tendrils and his breath at his breast. Born as a plunger into the deeps he is at one with every swarm of lime-green fish, with every coloured sponge As he holds himself to the ocean’s faery floor, one hand clasped to a bedded whale’s rib, he is complete and infinite. Pulse, power and universe sway in his body. He is in love… The rich soil crumbles through the yeoman’s fingers. As the pearl diver murmurs, ‘I am home’ as he moves dimly in strange water-lights, and as the painter mutters, ‘I am me’ on his lone raft of floorboards, so the slow landsman on his acre’d marl – says with dark Fuchsia on her twisting staircase, ‘I am home.'”
There are many stories, all which intertwine, around the first year or so of Titus’ life, and it would take a far longer blog post than I care to write to describe them all; so, I shall chicken out and instead say that Peake has a gift for fitting humanity into all the characters, and giving them all a life of their own. He does this through small descriptions, all too familiar sometimes, and mixing them with stock archetypes of literature. It’s hard to describe without the book in front of me, and so the Dear Reader must take my word for it, unless the Dear Reader reads Peake for the Dear Reader’s self. In addition, Peake can create empathy for all, or at least most characters, and give one an insight into the all too human motives, hopes, and feelings of the characters.
The novel also is obviously, to me, the work of a man who had lived through the Second World War, and come out onto the change of the following decades. The characters throughout are all chained by the tradition of the Gormenghast; some, like the Master of Ceremonies, are devoted to it, others, such as Steerpike, are controlled by it, and seek to break out and wreck the tradition. Interestingly, I always felt, tradition is neither demonised nor praised- for example, Sepulchrave, the father of Titus, is incredibly morbid and broken, and finds solace and comfort in tradition; it is even tradition that helps keep madness at bay, once tragedy strikes him. Yet Titus, as one will find through the few parts he is mentioned, or even more so in the second novel, is trapped and controlled by the tradition, and yearns for the freedom to break free.
There’s more to the book than this short post; it is a classic work of fantasy and Gothic literature, and a great book of the last century. It can be a heavy read, but it is one well worth reading; the descriptions, verbose and ponderous, are excellently done, contrasting and describing and making the reader chained to the darkness of Gormenghast.