Mervyn Peake – The Gormenghast Novels (1946-’59)

mervyn peake gormenghastConsisting of:

  • Titus Groan (1946)
  • Gormenghast (1950)
  • Titus Alone (1959)

“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.”

Mervyn Peake is not so much a writer, but more a painter. A painter of scenes who uses words instead of paint. As each chapter starts, Peake takes up a figurative paint-brush and in broad strokes he sketches a room; then scrutinizes it from a distance; then advances like a predator with his fingers raised high to strike upon his paralyzed keyboard, but when he reaches the keys he puts a few well-chosen words where they belong with a loving touch and a twinkle in his eye. Such are his chapters built up.

His chapters are sometimes not more than a single scene, or a single conversation, stretched out over many pages. You can imagine that the Gormenghast novels do not have an elaborate plot because there is simply no time and space for it. The book is already thick as it is. But it does not matter, for it is the atmosphere that matters. The tale is set almost entirely within a claustrophobic castle of enormous proportions, Gormenghast, with its mysterious shadows and creaks from old age, howling drafts, twisting alleys and stairs. The characters are near caricatures, grotesque but compelling.

Mervyn Peake created something wholly original by plunging the darkest chasms of his imagination and painted a surrealistic, macabre masterwork that somehow connects to deep roots of the subconscious. Gormenghast paved the way for gothic subcultures and its influence is clearly to be found in the Harry Potter novels. Along with for example J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Gormenghast is seen as one of the founding works of the fantasy genre, and some consider it to be one of the greatest works of the English language.

gormenghastReading Gormenghast is not easy. I cannot read for long stretches because the mood and darkness of the place becomes too oppressive and I have to put it away again. But I cannot stay away from it for too long because Peake’s descriptions have enveloped my mind. I have never been so fully immersed in another world. I’ve been told that the BBC has adapted it as a series but I have never seen it.

Peake wanted to create a lengthier cycle of books with Gormenghast, but unfortunately Peake suffered from dementia which quickly worsened and he died early. The third book, Titus Alone, was written during his deteriorating health and the difference in quality between the first two books and the third is noticeable. It is also shorter. The fragments of a fourth book have been found, Titus Awakes, but it has been published only recently without much enthusiasm. The whole cycle should have been about the main character Titus who grows up in the castle and then leaves and explores the outside world, but the character didn’t came far.

No book can prepare you for the Gormenghast novels, because they are unlike anything ever written. Highly recommended.

(Picture by Alan Lee)

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11 Responses to Mervyn Peake – The Gormenghast Novels (1946-’59)

  1. Peter says:

    A nice little write-up.
    Titus Awakes was written by Peake’s widow, but stupidly advertised as another Gormenghast book, which it is not, at all.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Brilliant read thanks 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. A personal fave. Ought to be more heavily popularised, as it is regrettably rather little-known.
    The BBC mini-series is cute, if flawed. I’d recommend it, all the same.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. mbc1955 says:

    The BBC series was visually splendid, and I found it fascinating. I had never been able to read the books beforehand but did complete them after viewing it.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. frankprem says:

    Hi Jeroan. Great review of an amazing set of books. It’s a series that I couldn’t leave alone when I first read them, but have had trouble re-reading. It’s like it’s in the psyche and won’t tolerate a fresh look.

    I wasn’t aware that Titus Awakes was by the widow, either. Learning all the time, me.

    Cheers and thanks for the review, Frank

    Liked by 1 person

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