I don’t know whether to be ashamed or defensive or just plain angry that I’ve never read the Gormenghast trilogy before, that I somehow stumbled on to Neil Gaiman and Harry Potter before even hearing of Mervyn Peake, but it certainly justifies the resentment I’ve harbored toward those randomly googled online recommender engines and chaotic message boards that badly steered my reading all those unplugged years. But what’s an unplugged reader to do? Why do we have to be so obsessive with the genre terrain in order to navigate around the Sanderson/Abercrombie/GRRM-type sand traps? Are there class action lawsuits for this sort of thing?
Finding good books shouldn’t take this much work.
But as difficult as it is to discover Gormenghast, it’s even harder to let it go. Gormenghast will cloak you, inter you in its walls, and deprive you of the sensory input from your own world. You’ll hear the muffled pattering of footsteps in distant stone hallways, smell the damp of undiscovered chambers, feel the heat of flickering flames in a dried up library.
And you’ll see everything. Whatever the difference is between describing and enmeshing, Peake does the latter. A visual artist first, he paints with words—but not with words alone, because words are static things, and Peake’s world is dynamic, a “listlessness of convalescence” (G, 741). People, places, and things pulse. Even the architecture.
The bricks had breath in them. To walk across this quadrangle was to walk across an idea. (G, 499).
As for meaning, it is a Room of Roots in its own right. Gnarly, unmanicured, and possibly unbidden, this is a plot of significances, the messages tangled in the soil, in the air, in the walls of Gormenghast castle. Select a root to follow, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself on a different root later, and then another, and then another. Is this…
a tale of class criticism? (The wall that cut her own people away, as though to keep out a plague… TG, 98)
a subversion of morality? (Of an illegitimate child, a pariah, a thing of not yet twelve years old, but a raven, a snake, witch, all the same… G, 578.)
an examination of social roles? (Utterly unfeminine—no man could have invented it. TG, 46)
a coming-of-age fairy tale? (He knew that he was talking a forbidden language. He trembled with excitement of telling the dangerous truth. G, 709)
a metafictional account of the author’s own struggles? (Were they coeval; were they simultaneous? These worlds; these realms – could they both be true? TA, 19)
the words of an artist losing touch with his brilliance? (small conical breasts, snowball-breasted lady, sumptuous cleft, trembling breasts and bosoms, etc. etc. etc., or, is this just another example of a coming-of-age fairy tale? TA, pick a page. This one could have been called Titus, groan…)
Who can say how long the eye of the vulture or the lynx requires to grasp the totality of a landscape, or whether in a comprehensive instant the seemingly inexhaustible confusion of detail falls upon their eyes in an ordered and intelligible series of distances and shapes, where the last detail is perceived in relation to the corporate mass? (TG, 143)
The first book in the series is Titus Groan (1946). A babe is born, Titus, the seventy-seventh Earl of Groan. For a titular character, he is relatively invisible. A blank infant. Character drama swirls around him. In the second novel, Gormenghast (1950), Titus grows up, feels the weight of duty and expectation, desires anonymity. In this novel, Titus swirls the characters—or, maybe, actually Steerpike does– while the titular character, the castle, feels as alive and nuanced as any of the many scene-stealing characters.
The third novel is Titus Alone (1959), where Titus casts off the shackles of duty and steals into the real world. Written during Peake’s terminal struggles with dementia, it is broken, jagged, but made up of moments of artistic clarity. (It was a lipless smile. It was made up of nothing but anatomy. TA, 34. – he wrote THAT while ill.) I listened to the original publisher-approved version, and read the most recent re-RE-worked version and they both feel like drafts, at times like napkin notes. The jerky movements, like that of a child’s viewfinder toy, hint of recursive content, mirrored characters, and metafictional play, with strange differences in the two versions (the first publisher-approved version omits all mentions of “the scientist” and “the scientist’s daughter,” for instance). It’s still pretty damn wonderful. (There is a fourth novel, Titus Awakes, written by Peake’s widow, that I decided to skip.)
The series is dark and vibrant, funny and snide. The characters seem to move Peake’s pen for him, in entertaining and unpredictable ways. Some characters are textured and effervescent: Lady Groan, The Prunesquallors, the professors. Other characters are intricate and cagey: Fuschia and Steerpike. I still don’t know what to make of Steerpike. I guess I wanted some Robin Hood out of him, but Peake’s not the type to fall into a pattern.
Steerpike had an unusual gift. It was to understand a subject without appreciating it. (TG, 173)
As fresh and unique as it may feel, much of it will feel familiar to modern readers of fantasy. Reading Gormenghast AFTER reading many other famous fantasy writers (goddammit) will feel like a roadmap to what once felt like other people’s signature ideas. Peake’s DNA is everywhere. (That’s why you should read the classics.) (Even if it feels like mostly dudes.) (Especially because it’s mostly dudes.) (Because dudes keep refashioning the old stuff and sticking a new price tag on it.)
So, if you happen to be in search of The Great Modern Western Fantasy Novel amid the labyrinthine routes of industrial genre, you would do well to abide by this warning:
‘There is nowhere else,… You will only tread a circle, Titus Groan. There’s not a road, not a track, but it will lead you home. For everything comes to Gormenghast.’ (G, 747)
Here is the map. You are here. Start here.