Tuesday, 26 September 2000

Mervyn Peake: Titus Groan (1946)

Edition: Ballantine, 1968
Review number: 628

Having recently watched the TV adaptation of this novel and its sequel, Gormenghast, it was interesting to re-read Titus Groan. It emphasised two things that I had already thought: that the atmosphere of the novels were excellently recreated, and that the casting was very intelligent.

The novel is really about the massive castle of Gormenghast and the endless life of meaningless ritual it contains. It begins with the birth of Titus, the heir of Groan, and ends with his instalment as Seventy Seventh Earl of Groan at the age of two. The little plot contained in Titus Groan is hardly comprehensible without the second novel, when several threads become particularly important, principally the machinations of kitchen boy Steerpike. Gormenghast is related to Peake's ideas about pre-Communist China, where he spent a good deal of his childhood. The ritual of the castle mimics that which surrounded the Emperors, though the latter had at least a religious purpose, proper performance supposedly guaranteeing good fortune for the country. That of Gormenghast is empty, and often seems to be invented by the keepers of the ritual, Sourdust and his son Barquentine (sensibly coalesced into one character in the TV version). Purposeless it may be, but it takes every moment of the Earl's time; someone somewhere must be really running things (what the kitchens produce imply immense riches), but that is not what the novel is about. It is about living a life pointlessly circumscribed by convention - and the ritual drives Sepulchrave (Titus' father) mad.

This madness produces the only really human moment in the novel, when Sepulchrave has his neglected daughter Fuschia arrange pine cones, thinking that they are books of poetry in his destroyed library. The two of them are the most fully formed characters, everyone else being some kind of grotesque exaggeration. (They also have exaggerated aspects, Sepulchrave being permanently melancholy, and Fuschia a romantic teenager beyond realistic possibility.)

Peake conveys a strong sense of atmosphere, as any successful writing about place must do. His style is deliberately obscure and florid to this end; at times, it does feel over elaborate (Gormenghast is better in this respect), but most of the time the images of the castle and its inhabitants are so fascinating that they overcome this.

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