In one sentence: A rich, complicated world full of fascinating characters that rewards the patient, focused reader.
This review will contain spoilers!
In many sentences:
From the beginning this book attracted my attention. The story opens with a description of Gormenghast mountain, and the Mud Dwellers that love outside it. Next it focuses upon the Bright Statues that they carve, which brings us to Rottcodd, who tends the room where the statues are housed. There Flay comes to reveal the news of Titus’s birth, and then the story follows Flay on his way to the Great Kitchen, and Swelter and Steerpike. This continues until, eventually, we meet all the important characters in the book, including baby Titus himself.
The whole opening felt like the beginning of a movie, where the camera pans from a wide shot of landscape, slowly weaving its way through the castle, until we finally see the stars of the show. It was a great opening, and I can’t think of any book that’s ever started quite that way before. It also sets the reader up with the information that one of the main characters of the book is not a person, but instead the castle and Gormenghast itself. While all the characters are important, it’s interesting to read the book with the idea of the setting being the protagonist, rather than any individual person.
In general, I also loved the way the castle felt so dusty and old. I really go the sense that the years of stagnation and rigid tradition were taking their toll on the castle, and it was slowly but surely crumbling away. Most of the characters actually supported (or at least did not attempt to prevent) this degradation. Steerpike seemed to be the only way exacting any change upon the world around him, though his means to do were less than noble.
Speaking of Steerpike, I think one could make the case that he is a sociopath, in his amazing ability to read and interpret the emotions of those around him, but completely lacking any empathy for these emotions. Everyone, even the Earl himself, are merely tools that Steerpike can use for his advancement within the grounds of Gormenghast. It should also be noted that it was great how he was always able to read people intuitively, within only moments of having met them.
This is a fantastic book, but there are a lot of caveats to that. It is not a book full of fast-paced action and exciting moments. There are two aspects of the work that, if they sound appealing to you, would make this an absolute must read.
First, the language, word-choice, and writing are all fantastic. Peake has a way of developing scenery, imagery, characters, dialogue, and everything in between with real beauty. His style, however, is often subtle and dry. This, combined with the extremely long sentences and obscure words, means that you always have to be giving the book your fullest attention to get any enjoyment out of it. There will be many long stretches where the plot is barely advancing. It’s not boring, however, as these are the moments when Peake is at his best in terms of word choice, humor, and style.
Second, you have to be a fan of interesting characters. In much the same way that Catch-22 is great because of the characters that litter the book, so is Titus Groan wonderful because of its characters. Again, I’m not saying the plot is bad (there are many intriguing moments), but the characters, their quirks, their eccentricities are fascinating from beginning to end.
Just to "prove" that I really did enjoy the plot of Titus Groan, I would only like to say that my plan all along was to read this book, and then move on to something else before finishing the Gormenghast Trilogy. Upon completing it, however, I was sorely tempted to change my plan and immediately read the next book. I cannot wait to see where the plot goes, and to yet again spend time with these amazing characters and this fascinating world.
As an aside, there are forty pages in the book (282-315) where it suddenly transitions to being present tense. This is the period of Spring, leading up to the first breakfast celebration for Titus. The present tense portion ends with the Reveries during the breakfast. I bring this up because I can only imagine that Peake did this for a reason…but why? It is just meant to represent the "newness" of Spring? The Immediacy of it? Or was it just for the purpose of leading up to the stream-of-consciousness section of the Reveries? I’d love to hear what others might think about why this happened, because there must be a reason.
I highly recommend everyone at least give this book a chance. It’s really great, and it will immediately become apparent if it’s something you would be interested in or not.
Notes: a great example of the importance of tradition in Gormenghast: "It was not certain what significance the ceremony held, for unfortunately the records were lost, but the formality was no less sacred for being unintelligible." (230).
More in the same vein: "The others were involved with counting the portentous minutes before their own particular clouds broke over them, yet at the back of their personal troubles, hopes, and fears, this less immediate trepidation grew, this intangible suggestion of change, that most unforgivable of all heresies." (320)
I thought this was pretty funny: "If ever man stalked man, Flay stalked Swelter. It is to be doubted whether, when compared with the angular motions of Mr Flay, any man on earth could claim to stalk at all. He would have to do it with another word." (329)
This seems important for the rest of the series (Fuschia thinking this): "What was it about them that quickened her – those people of the Outer Wall? Why did she feel ill at ease? It was as though they held a dark secret of which, one day, they would make use; something which would jeopardize the security of the Castle." (385). My guess is it is (or has something to do with) the alabaster child of Keda.
"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."Mervyn Peake the First Line of Titus Groan
Mervyn Peake the Last Line of in Titus Groan