The OF Blog: Mervyn Peake, Titus Groan

Friday, March 13, 2009

Mervyn Peake, Titus Groan

The moon slid inexorably into its zenith, the shadows shrivelling to the feet of all that cast them, and as Rantel approached the hollow at the hem of the Twisted Woods he has treading in a pool of his own midnight.

The roof of the Twisted Woods reflected the staring circle in a phosphorescent network of branches that undulated to the lower slopes of Gormenghast Mountain. Rising from the ground and circumscribing this baleful canopy the wood was walled with impenetrable shadow. Nothing of what supported the chilly haze of the topmost branches was discernible - only a winding façade of blackness.

The crags of the mountain were ruthless in the moon; cold, deadly, and shining. Distance had no meaning. The tangled glittering of the forest roof rolled away, but its furthermost reaches were brought suddenly nearer in a bound by the terrifying effect of proximity in the mountain that they swarmed. The mountain was neither far away nor was it close at hand. It arose starkly, enormously, across the lens of the eye. The hollow itself was a cup of light. Every blade of the grass was of consequence, and teh few scattered stones held an authority that made their solid, separate marks upon the brain - each one with its own unduplicated shape: each rising brightly from the ink of its own spilling. (p. 234)
The passage quoted above is a representative sample of the prose found within Mervyn Peake's first Gormenghast novel, Titus Groan. Published in Great Britain and the United States in 1946, Peake's novel represents a strain of fantasy writing that was preceded by the Gothic writers (on the cover of my 1946 American Edition, the subtitle is "a gothic novel") and which has several elements in common with the Weird and New Weird traditions. The richness of the language ("treading in a pool of his own midnight"), the visual nature of the writing which describes surroundings to such a degree that the reader finds him/herself wanting to pause a bit to contemplate how "the hollow itself was a cup of light," all of this being containing a tincture of strangeness, antiquity, and corruption. In these novels, the sensory experiences play a large role in shaping reader experiences.

But this is not to say that Peake's writing is heavy on the prosery and light on the plot and characterization. While doubtless there have been some who have complained that Titus Groan and its sequels are too picturesque to make for a good, plot-driven novel, in my first re-read of Titus Groan in nearly five years, I found myself getting caught up in the character interactions and events much more than I did the first time I read it.

Although this novel is titled Titus Groan, its titular character isn't even born until over halfway into the novel. As the story begins, the 76th Earl and Lord of Gormenghast, Sepulchrave, is anxiously awaiting the long-desired male heir. Gormenghast Castle, where virtually all the activity takes place, is a dark, gloomy setting at first glance, with strange servitors obeying quaint traditions. Around this, characters such as Titus's older sister, Fuchsia, and the ambitious, callous 17 year-old Steerpike, hover and flit about as each tries to grasp the import of Titus's impending birth.

Instead of creating an imagined world and peopling it with imagined cultures, Peake's story is much more inward-looking than what I noticed while I was re-reading Tolkien's trilogy. Peake's preciseness with his metaphors creates the illusion of an ancient, hidebound tradition with only a few penstrokes. I found myself marvelling over how the characters were drawn to fit their crumbling, ruinous surroundings. Fuchsia in particular interested me. In turns envious and curious about the infant Titus, wondering about her place in the Gormenghast hierarchy, her falling in with Steerpike led to several powerful scenes, such as this one near the end of the first volume:

She had herself searched - searched. She had grown far older during the last few weeks - older in that her heart had been taxed by greater strains of passion than it had ever felt before. Fear of the unearthly, the ghastly - for she had been face to face with it - the fear of madness and of a violence she suspected. It had made her older, stiller, more apprehensive. She had known pain - the pain of desolation - of having been forsaken and of losing what little love there was. She had begun to fight back within herself and had stiffened, and she began to be conscious of a vague pride; of an awakening realization of her heritage. Her father in disappearing had completed a link in the immemorial chain. She grieved his loss, her breast heavyh and aching with the pain of it; but beyond it and at her back she felt for the first time the mountain-range of the Groans, and that she was no longer free, no longer just Fuchsia, but of the blood. All this was cloud in her. Ominous, magnificent and indeterminate. Something she did not understand. Something which she recoiled from - so incomprehensible in her were its workings. Suddenly she had ceased to be a girl in all save habits of speech and action. Her mind and heart were older and all things, once so dear, were filled with mist - all was tangled. (pp. 388-389)
In this one paragraph, so much of the novel's power has been distilled. Laid bare are the worries, the fears, the sense that the Groans are bound. Revealed is the pain, the inability to comprehend much of what surrounds Titus's family. The desire to overcome, coupled with the inability to do so, has created an image of ruin that goes far beyond that of the castle's outer appearance. Fuchsia's conflicted mental state here represents so much of what has and is transpiring in the novel.

When I reached the end of Titus Groan, I found myself wanting to know more. More about the Groan family, more about the machinations taking place within its ancient customs, more about the characters such as Steerpike. The richness of Peake's prose added so much to the atmosphere surrounding this odd family's strange customs that it felt simultaneously more remote and more immediate at the same time. All in all, a setting and a story to which I shall be eager to return in the near future when my copies of Gormenghast and Titus Alone arrive.


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed the setting and characterizations in Titus Groan, but I found myself unable to finish the novel. The plot simply plodded along too slowly for me. I often have this problem in earl portions of books though, particularly the first in a trilogy or series like this one. But perhaps it's time for me to revisit Peake's writing.

Larry Nolen said...

I hope you do, Seth. I held back quite a bit for this volume, as there is a lot I want to address when I read/review Gormenghast in a week or so, but I found the story itself to be easier going on a re-read, as the plot became a bit clearer to me.

Anonymous said...

I started reading Titus Groan recently, but I had to stop - unfortunately, because just the opening scenes struck me as great writing and worldbuilding. I already got the other two volumes, so I´ll be doing reviews of the entire trilogy as well, but probably not in the near future, alas. In the meantime, I will be waiting eagerly for your reviews here, Larry.

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