Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake
Titus Groan is a chewy book. While I’m one of those readers who can buzz through something by, say, Jim Butcher or Terry Brooks in a couple of hours, Titus Groan took me the better part of two months. I don’t mean that as a knock; other books have taken me this long simply because I found them unbearably tedious (Dostoevsky leaps aggravatingly to mind) or frustrating (the first 5 chapters or so of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One), but not this one. Simply put, reading Titus Groan is just hard work. I chalk this up to multiple factors, the greatest of which is simply Mervyn Peake’s style of writing. Peake was a poet as well as a novelist and illustrator, and it shows in both his voluminous vocabulary and his particularly evocative imagery. He also makes use of long narrative and descriptive passages and often cryptic dialog, to the point where one cannot rush through it even if inclined to; it would be like trying to sprint through a rainforest without benefit of a machete.
The vast majority of the book is set in the twisting passages, dusty rooms and verdant grounds of Gormenghast castle. Nothing ever changes in Gormenghast, to the point where even the life of the hereditary Earl is prescribed in a never-ending series of rituals that must be carried out without deviation, despite nobody having any idea why they evolved or what will happen if they are not carried out. The entire existence of Gormenghast and all its inhabitants is one of crushing stagnation, and Peake heightens this feeling through constant images of rot and decay, crumbing walls and dust-filled galleries, and characters who go about their lives day in and day out for no reason other than that they know nothing else. The book opens and closes from the point of view of Rottcodd, the curator of the castle’s Hall of Carvings, a sort of museum to the finest work of the otherwise-wretched tribe who lives in squalor outside the castle walls. Every day he dusts the carvings, and they are immaculate…but the dust is piled inches deep around the bases of the displays, for he doesn’t bother with those. Every day is the same, to the point where he realizes one day that an entire year has gone by during which he has neither seen or spoken with another human being; his existence is a microcosm of the life of the castle as a whole. This carefully-maintained balance is thrown into disarray by two disparate events, one momentous and one trivial: the birth of the Earl’s long-awaited son and heir, the titular Titus, and the escape of the kitchen boy Steerpike from his culinary servitude. While Titus’ birth briefly energizes the court, giving them new rituals to perform and relieving his melancholy father of his final unperformed duty (the production of an heir), his arrival is still expected and accounted for in the grand cycle of Gormenghast, but the ambitious and amoral Steerpike is an agent of chaos and disrupts castle life all around him through his unending social climb; his machinations provide the external impetus to a plot that would otherwise be entirely inertial.
Reading the book one feels as if in a dreamscape, where everything is slightly (or not so slightly) surreal, and this feeling is heightened by the strangeness of the dialog and even the names of the characters; you know you’re in for an interesting time once you’re introduced to Rottcodd, Nannie Slagg, Dr. Prunesquallor, and Sepulchrave the 76th Earl of Groan. The cast of major characters is fairly large, yet never becomes unwieldy. Partially this is because of the memorable and unique names that Peake assigns to them, and partially because many of them have very distinctive speech patterns that quickly and effectively aid the reader. Dr. Prunesquallor, for example, punctuates his sentences with inane laughter; his sister Irma says almost everything twice; the Earl’s manservant Flay is taciturn to an extreme; Nannie Slagg is given to piteous cries and complaints. It also helps that the physical descriptions of the characters, like of the setting, are vivid and descriptive to the point of caricature. I can’t help, for example, but envision Flay as Gru from Despicable Me, or the countess Gertrude as the Witch of the Waste from Howl’s Moving Castle, or Nannie Slagg as the old woman from Blazing Saddles (she of the “Have you ever seen such cruelty?” line). In fact it feels like the only character who doesn’t get significant face time is Titus himself, who spends the entirety of the book as an infant (he apparently is a much more active participant in subsequent novels).
The Gormenghast series (not a trilogy, although there are but three books, since Peake intended more before he died) is often cited by modern fantasy writers as an important influence, and it’s easy to see why. The plot is tight, the characters memorable, and the language lush and gorgeously descriptive. Titus Groan is about as far from the stereotypical elves-and-goblin, let-me-tell-you-at-length-about-my-D&D-campaign fantasy novel as one can get, yet fantasy it clearly is. Peake stakes a strong claim that modern fantasy can hold its own with more “serious” literature, and no serious fan of the genre should go any longer without reading his work.