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Titus Groan

I heard or read someone recommend the Gormenghast novels at some point, but I don’t remember who it was, or if they were trustworthy. Based on that flimsy and possibly imaginary endorsement, I picked up the omnibus at the library. It’s not supposed to be a trilogy, but Mervyn Peake died before he could write the fourth book, so a trilogy is what we have. I only had time to read the first book, Titus Groan, before it was due back, and somebody requested it so I couldn’t renew it.

Whomever recommended it (possibly either Neil Gaiman or my subconscious) has excellent taste. The tone is dry and subtly sarcastic in a way I’d assume was inspiration for Lemony Snicket and others like him. If he hasn’t read it, he should; he’d probably like it. I know I did.

What most compelled me throughout the book was the dialogue, specifically his characterization through that dialogue, and his descriptions of the castle and its inhabitants. His descriptions are poetic and farcical; you can tell he’s having a lot of fun telling this story in an affected, mock gothic tone. The people move like Muppets in despair. He’s created a brilliant landscape washed in gray and charactertured sorrow, and I wish I’d written it.

The way he treats change and growth is interesting as well. There are slow changes throughout the book—Fuschia grows up, and becomes sad and responsible; Steerpike becomes more odious and grasping in such a way that I felt his ambition was there all the time, squatting like a tarantula, waiting for an opportunity to manifest. The changes finally culminate with Titus’s “Earling” ceremony (in which he becomes the Earl at about two years old).  Nothing changes about Gormenghast, Peake says over and over, but now something has.

Before the story starts, Gormenghast is stagnant, frozen in time, like Adolfo Bioy Casares’s short story about the man who stopped time to eke out a few more weeks with his dying daughter, though I can’t recall the name of that story at the moment. The main thrust of the book isn’t the rise of Steerpike, the fall of the Earl, the antagonism between Flay and Swelter, or the Lady Groan’s cat and bird menagerie; the main thrust is that what can’t be changed is now changing: Gormenghast has broken out of stasis. And that part of the story centers around Titus.

Peake hardly mentions Titus until the end, except as he relates to other characters, whether he’s crying or not, and that always in relation to his Nannie or Keda, his wet-nurse from the Bright Carvers. (Which, as an aside, is another brilliant, unexplained detail. Next to the castle lives a community of transient sculptors, whose lives are all and only about their sculpture and lovers.)  Titus’s apparent uninvolvement makes sense: he is an infant, after all, and so doesn’t do much but cry, eat, and produce various interesting liquids.

But he truly is the hero. In the last 30 pages he achieves complete supremacy, he pulls up the underlying thread of stagnation and makes it the central conflict of the novel. It’s brilliant. It’s the perfect set-up book. I reached enough closure with the various satellite plots to feel satisfied, but Peake left so much undone. That’s a wonderful way to end the first book in a series. The overwhelming tone of Titus Groan is one of anticipation, and of cresting importance. Things Are About To Happen. This is probably why they published the trilogy in omnibus. Sadly for me, I had to bring it back to the library. Some other slob wanted to read it, and I couldn’t renew it. Oh well. There’s always Alibris. Or, you know, the monolithic heap of all the other books I’m trying to read.

(There’s also living. I’ll do some of that too, I suppose.)

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