Saturday, July 27, 2013

Mervyn Peake, Gormenghast Novels

I read Titus Groan (1946), the first of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast novels, in a constant state of baffled amazement, or possibly amazed bafflement.  The thing about this book is, what the hell is the thing about this book?  Peake's work is characterized as "fantasy" because what else could you possibly call it?, but it certainly has nothing in common with anything else I've ever read under that aegis, and indeed nothing else I've read, period.  Oh, there are obvious influences, but none of them really get to the core of what it's all about.  Throughout the whole thing, I kept thinking that at some point, it would clearly resolve itself into something at least somewhat familiar; something that I could understand in relation to anything else I've read--but nope.

What's the plot? is a question that one might ask, but that's sort of beside the point, and in any case, I think it would probably be best to just read without any preconceptions about what's going to happen.  Also, any kind of plot summary is going to inevitably drastically mischaracterize the book.  But in broad terms, you have the ancient, sprawling castle, Gormenghast, that presumably governs the surrounding environs, though it's not at all clear what if any actual governance is taking place.  This castle is sunk in a world of atavistic tradition, operating according to seemingly nonsensical ritual, and the fact that the novel is frequently glacially paced reflects the nature of the setting.  Anyway, the earl, Sepulchrave, and his wife, Gertrude (an' if that name makes you think there might be a bit of Hamlet in here, a winner is you) have just had a son, the titular Titus; at the same time,  a boy from the kitchens, Steerpike, is scheming to gain power within this little ecosystem.

There's no question: there are times in which I found Titus Groan to be pretty intensely tedious.  However, Peake's meticulous, methodical prose style accumulates, is the only way I can put it, creating an effect quite unlike anything I've ever read, and there are a number of set-pieces--most notably an unbelievably tense late-night duel in the upper reaches of the castle--that pay off quite handsomely.  I'm not going to get into all the novel's characters, but many of them are extremely memorable.  Steerpike in particular (whose name, I feel, has to be name-checking Steerforth from David Copperfield, though actual equivalencies between the characters are scanty) is one of the most mesmerizing villains I've ever seen in any fiction ever; his sociopathic Machiavellianism is just breathtaking.

I found Gormenghast (1950) to be a bit more accessible than Titus Groan, partially, no doubt, because I was more familiar with what Peake was doing, and partially because there are dangling plot threads from the first book to be picked up, giving me at least some idea of what was coming.  The book basically concerns Titus' coming-of-age and Steerpike's continued manipulations.  It, too, is quite brilliant, let there be no doubt of that.  The story continues to beguile, and it features comic and grotesque moments more extreme than its predecessor.  That said, I think it's nonetheless a bit weaker than the first book.  For one thing, the increased focus on Titus does no one any favors; he's the least interesting thing here, and his whole Becoming-A-Man, there-must-be-more-than-this-provincial-life schtick is pretty tired.  Also, a lot of attention is given, with very little payoff, to the professors who teach Titus and the other children in the castle ("other children?" Yes, this time around, the castle feels significantly more populated than it did; in Titus Groan you got the impression that the only people actually living there were the small core of named characters and a handful of servants).  The most likable, sympathetic character in this and the first novel is one Dr. Alfred Prunesquallor, whose relentlessly light, facetious patter covers up a penetrating and compassionate mind.  But here, we get this really long subplot involving his sister Irma's efforts (eventually successful) to marry one of the professors--which never relates to anything else in the novel or has any sort of punchline or conclusion.  Perhaps, if not for the goddamn fucking Parkinson's that killed him, Peake would've returned to this in future novels, but at is it is, it's just a joke without a punchline.

The final book, Titus Alone (1959).  Man, that's a whole 'nother kettle o' fish.  There are two things about this book: one is that, by the end of the fifties, Peake's disease left him unable to write, so this book was put together from his drafts by his wife, the artist Maeve GIlmore.  The book tells a mostly coherent story, but it is a bit disjointed and incomplete-feeling in parts, and one strongly suspects that Peake would've revised it substantially had he been able.  Two is that, while the first two books are of a kind, this one is radically different: Titus, having left the castle to see the world and whatnot, is suddenly plunged into this vaguely post-apocalyptic, science-fiction-y setting that is wildly unlike anything that had come before.

Some people hate the book for one or both of the above reasons, but I liked it a lot.  There's no question that it's inferior to the first two, but even if there are aspects of the story that don't exactly convince, Peake's imagination is as fervid as ever, and it's a fascinating read overall.

There exist a few pages that Peake managed to write that would've been the fourth book that Peake wrote in 1960, before his condition precluded any writing.  It's heartbreaking: his mind was clearly still there, begging to express itself, but he just couldn't.  However, after his death, in 1968, Gilmore wrote a fourth novel, sort of based on her idea of what her husband would've done, to the extent that that that was knowable.  It was clearly a very personal thing for her, and it wasn't intended for publication.  In fact, it disappeared until 2010, when some grandchild found the manuscript in an attic, and in 2011 (Peake's centenary), Titus Awakes was finally published.  A dicey prospect, for sure, but how could one not, at least provisionally, be excited about such a thing?

Unfortunately--and I really, really hate to say this about what is so obviously a labor of love--Titus Awakes really isn't very good.  The prose style is actually okay; it's clearly not Peake, but Gilmore acquits herself well enough in this regard, and it's not an embarrassment.  But compare it to Titus Alone.  This is the obvious point of comparison, as both concern Titus' peregrinations in the wider world.  For all its problems, Titus Alone is a wildly imaginative book, with plenty of memorable moments.  Whereas Titus Awakes is…not.  Titus bounces around here and there, but all the incident he encounters is just relentlessly banal.  There are no memorable characters or situations--the only exception being a poignant passage where Titus, an orderly at a mental ward, encounters an "artist," unable to function physically, being checked in by his wife, and the two of them are clearly Peake and Gilmore themselves (and that wouldn't even be particularly interesting either sans context).  I suppose this would be of greater interest if one was really, really invested in Titus himself--but who the heck does that apply to?  Still, given that the book really wasn't meant for me, I think I have little basis for complaint.

I had the Overlook Press omnibus of Peake's novels sitting on a shelf for a long, long time before digging in.  It's pretty foreboding-looking, you know.  But I did, and I'm glad I did, and you should too if you want a truly unique aesthetic experience--and why wouldn't you?  They're often compared to Tolkien, in the sense that both are foundational "fantasy texts," but the two writers have nothing in common, and it's easy to see how many fans of Tolkien's comparatively accessible work would be baffled and irritated by Peake.  The other operative difference is that, unlike Tolkien with his many, many epigones, nobody, oddly enough, seems to have attempted to copy what Peake was doing.  Perhaps the task just seems too daunting.  You could never read Tolkien in your life and yet still have a fair idea of what he was about just by cultural osmosis.  Not so Peake.  More than half a century later, his work still feels completely fresh and startling.


Anonymous Anonymous pontificated to the effect that...

Very nice on Peake, nice to see somebody reading him these days, and I too was disappointed in Titus Awakes (damn—your website won't let me underline or italicize the title). Despite your thoroughness, however, you've missed one of the Titus books—well, appendage or pre-novella, Boy in Darkness. Seek it out, you might enjoy it. And then turn yourself loose on Mr. Pye. There's even a BBC film of that one with Derek Jacobi which I'm aching to see, but my DVD player can't handle PAL.
Best wishes—Geoffrey Blum

1:46 AM  

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