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.

Book Beginnings

This morning I finished reading Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake, a fantastic book, which I’ll write more about soon. And as I’m nearing the end of the other books I’m currently reading I’m thinking about what to read next.

One, of course, will be the next book in the Gormenghast trilogy – Gormenghast. The opening paragraph is:

Titus is seven. His confines, Gormenghast. Suckled on shadows; weaned as it were on webs of  rituals: for his ears, echoes, for his eyes a labyrinth of stone: and yet within his body something other – other than this umbrageous legacy. For first and foremost he is child. (page 7)

This sets the scene, following on from Titus Groan, which began with his birth and ended with his second birthday. Five years have passed since the ending of Titus Groan and this book promises to develop his story as evil spreads throughout Gormenghast. I just know it’s going to be good.

But I like to have more than one book on the go. As well as my own books, I’ve got a fair number of library books out at the moment all vying for attention and some are due back soon. So I was thinking of reading one of those next. But out shopping today I went into the British Heart Foundation charity shop and bought We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates. I’ve been looking for this book for several years as I read somewhere it’s one of her best books. I was so pleased to find a good copy in the shop. It begins:

We were the Mulvaneys, remember us?

You may have thought our family was larger, often I’ve met people who believed we Mulvaneys were a virtual clan, but in fact there were only six of us: my dad who was Michael John Mulvaney, Sr., my mom Corinne, my brothers Mike Jr. and Patrick and my sister Marianne, and me – Judd. (page 3)

That’s a good start – introducing the family. I like family sagas. Described on the back cover as a ‘book that will break your heart, heal it, then break it again‘, it may be a roller-coaster ride and I’m anticipating it will be very good.

Book Beginnings is hosted by Katy at A Few More Pages, where you can leave a link to your own post on the opening lines of a book you’re currently reading.

Gormenghast – Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake

This week is the start of the Gormenghast Read-Along:

Titus Groan: The Hall of the Bright Carvings ‘“ Near and Far (p15 ‘“ p136 in my edition, Vintage 1998)

I was a bit concerned that re-reading this book would spoil my memory of it. I needn’t have been, I’m finding it just as entrancing, whisking me off to the strange world that is Gormenghast.

Gormenghast, that massing of stone, the castle, surrounded by an ‘epidemic‘ of mean dwellings swarming round its walls, with its ‘irregular roofs‘, ‘time-eaten buttresses, of broken and lofty turrets’, and the enormous Tower of Flints:

This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven. At night the owls made of it an echoing threat; by day it stood voiceless and cast its long shadow. (page 15)

These first few chapters set the scene and introduce the characters, all eccentric, grotesque even and above all – strange. The castle is filled with excitement at the birth of an heir to Gormenghast, although not everyone welcomes it with delight. Indeed, Mr Flay, Lord Gormenghast’s personal servant, calls it a ‘Challenge to Change!‘ and he doesn’t want ‘Change!‘ And neither does Fuchsia, Titus’s older sister, and on hearing of his birth she refused to believe it. She’s a girl of

about fifteen with long, rather wild black hair. She was gauche in movement and in a sense, ugly of face, but with how small a twist might she not suddenly have become beautiful. Her sullen mouth was rich and full – her eyes smouldered. (page 51)

The descriptions are very visual, with a strong expression of colour and solidity and there is an emphasis on the importance of ritual and tradition.

List of characters so far (in order of appearance):

  • the craftsmen who created the Bright Carvings, the forgotten people living outside the Castle.
  • Mr Rottcodd, the curator of the Bright Carvings.
  • Mr Flay, the thin, bony and taciturn servant of Sepulchrave, Earl of Gormenghast.
  • the Grey Scrubbers, a company of 18 men who clean the kitchen, deaf slablike men.
  • Abiatha Swelter, the fat, drunken slob who is the head chef – Flay and Swelter dislike each other intensely.
  • Steerpike, a kitchen boy whose aim is to escape from the kitchen, loathing Swelter.
  • Doctor Prunesquallor with a high pitched voice and an alarming laugh.
  • Fuchsia, Lord Sepulchrave’s daughter.
  • Countess of Sepulchrave, Gertrude, dark red hair, huge, surrounded by birds and white cats.
  • Nannie Slagg, a little ancient woman, nurse for Titus and before that Fuchsia.
  • Titus, newly born baby with extraordinary violet eyes.
  • Lord Sepulchrave, bound by tradition, long olive coloured face, a melancholy man.
  • Sourdust, the librarian, knotted beard very lined face as though made of brown paper.
  • Keda, a woman from the Dwellings of the Bright Carvers, Titus’s wet-nurse.
  • Lady Cora and Lady Clarice, Sepulchrave’s sisters, resentful of Gertrude, wanting what she has that they think should be theirs- power.

Normally I like a book to move along swiftly – this one doesn’t, but I’m perfectly happy reading it slowly, enjoying the scenes it conjures up in my mind.

Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake

Jackie at Farm Lane Books Blog is hosting a read-along of Mervyn Peake’s trilogy Gormenghast beginning with Titus Groan. The reading schedule is on Jackie’s blog – reading approximately 100 pages a week.

I first read Gormenghast when I was at school. I’d found the books in my local library and devoured them, amazed at the story and it’s macabre, dreamlike and fantastic setting. The strangeness of it captivated me.

Years later I watched the BBC’s serialisation Gormenghast (the first two books) and bought the books to re-read them. For one reason or another I didn’t so when I saw Jackie’s read-along I decided to join in. As you can see from my photo I haven’t even unwrapped books 2 and 3. I hope I enjoy them as much as I did the first time round.

Weekly Geeks – Reading from the Decades

This week’s Weekly Geeks is about examining a book (or books) which were published in your birth decade. Tell us about a book that came out in the decade you were born which you either loved or hated. Is it relevant to today? Is it a classic, or could it be? Give us a mini-review, or start a discussion about the book or books.

The first author I thought of who had written books in the 1940s was Enid Blyton and one of the books she published in 1946, my birth year is The First Term at Malory Towers. The Malory Towers books (she published 6 between 1946 and 1951) were amongst my favourite Enid Blyton books.

I read all of them avidly! The lives of these girls at boarding school were so different from mine. It sounded wonderful, by the sea, at a school that looked like a castle with towers built on the cliffs in Cornwall.

This is boarding school fiction written well before J K Rowling was born. I loved all the books about Darrell Rivers’ adventures at Malory Towers from the age of twelve, when she first went there. It’s been years since I read them but I still remember wishing I could go to a school like that. There is more information on this book and other Enid Blyton books at The Enid Blyton Society.  I had started to write this post and stopped to watch Country Tracks and amazingly part of the programme was about Dorset where Enid Blyton once lived. Even though she located Malory Towers in Cornwall she was actually describing the landscape of Dorset. Ben Fogle was looking at places connected to Enid including the swimming pool cut out of the rocks that features in Malory Towers. The real pool was dug out of the rocks in the 1930s when a headmaster wanted to stop his boys from jumping into the sea from the rocks.

 I no longer have my copy, but I do have two of the series – In the Fifth at Malory Towers and Last Term at Malory Towers, in which Darrell is the headgirl of the whole school. I’m tempted to read them again, but maybe I won’t enjoy them as much now as I did before and I’ll find them terribly dated.

The next book I first read when I was in my teens and it is Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake, the first in his Gormenghast series. I found this book in the library, attracted to it by the unusual title. I thought it was brilliantly fantastic and read all three of the series. A few years ago I bought all three books.

Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake

This is from the back cover of Titus Groan:

Titus Groan, heir to Lord Sepulchrave, has just been born. A Groan of the strict lineage, Titus is seventy-seventh, he will inherit the miles of rambling stone and mortar that form Gormenghast Castle, and its surrounding kingdom. His world will be predetermined by complex ritual, the origins of which are lost in time; it will be peopled by the dark characters who inhabit the half-lit corridors. Lord Sepulchrave, a figment of melancholy, and his red-haired Countess; Swelter the chef and his bony enemy, Flay; Prunesqallor, castle physician, and his etiolated sister, Irma, and Steerpike, the Machiavellian youth.

This is a strange world and I loved it. I think it has stood the test of time, mainly because it is timeless, set in its own world. And, of course, I’m keen to read them again too.

My third choice is one I read only this year – The Hollow by Agatha Christie. I think this is one of the best Christie books. It is a country-house mystery with plenty of characters who could be the murderer and it kept me guessing, almost to the end. I wrote about it in February. This is also a book I’d love to re-read.