Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake: a book review

Titus Groan 001

Sometimes it’s dangerous to re-read a book you loved the first time round. There’s always the possibility that you’re going to be disappointed that it wouldn’t live up to to your expectations, especially if the first time you read it was whilst you were in your teens.

With Titus Groan I needn’t have worried. I thought it was fantastic the first time and absolutely fantastic this time too.

The world Peake created in Gormenghast is real on its own terms. It has history, culture and its own rituals and traditions. The novel is poetical,  rich in imagination, description and characters. It all came alive as I read on and the same magic I felt the first time was still there.

It was first published in 1946 but because it’s about an imaginary world it hasn’t dated at all. Yes, it’s slow-moving, but with a book like this that’s essential as there’s so much to absorb. The names of the characters are Dickensian, farcical and eccentric. It’s a story of good and evil, raising issues about equality, age versus youth, tradition versus change, destruction and violence, and insanity. It’s grotesque in parts, sensual and tender in others. It is brilliant.

It’s impossible to summarise in a few paragraphs. It begins with the birth of Titus, soon to be the 77th Earl of Gormenghast and ends when he is almost two years old. His father, Lord Sepulchrave has endured despair and then madness after his beloved library was burnt down and Steerpike, a disrespectful youth, has clawed his way out of the castle’s kitchen to a position of some power, by manipulation and deceit.

Titus thus inherits that immense structure – Gormenghast Castle and its surrounding kingdom and the possibility of change is in the air:

There would be tears and there would be strange laughter. Fierce births and deaths beneath umbrageous ceilings. And dreams, and violence, and disenchantment.

And there shall be a flame-green daybreak soon. and love itself will cry for insurrection! For tomorrow is also a day – and Titus has entered his stronghold. (pp 505-6)

I wrote about the first few chapters with a list of characters in an earlier post.

Titus Groan:

  • Paperback: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage Classics; New edition edition (6 Oct 2005)
  • Language English
  • ISBN-10: 0749394927
  • ISBN-13: 978-0749394929
  • Source: I bought the book

And now, on to part two of the trilogy – Gormenghast.

Follow the Gormenghast Read-along on Jackie’s blog.

3 thoughts on “Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake: a book review”

  1. Margaret – Admittedly I’m not usually one for books about fantasy worlds. Still, this one deals with some important issues and raises some real questions. I’m going to have to look out for it.

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  2. It is great to know that this book is just as good second time round. I rarely re-read books, but can see this might be one of the few I do come back to.

    I agree that it hasn’t dated at all – it is quite rare for a book nearly 70-years-old to have nothing to suggest it couldn’t have been written yesterday.

    I’m really pleased that you seem to be loving it as much as I am. 🙂

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