by Mervyn Peake
(illustrated by the author).
Introduction by Anthony Burgess 1968.
Mandarin 1989 (1946)
So many insightful words have been uttered, printed, and shared about Titus Groan — and indeed about the trilogy as a whole — that it does seem pretentious to add any analysis and critique to what is simultaneously another entry in the long roll call of Gothick novels and a piece of baroque writing so individual it almost feels sui generis.
It is easy enough to attempt timelines, construct genealogies, discuss names or seek parallels with Gormenghast Castle in real-life edifices which the author may have himself experienced — in fact I have already done so — but much harder to do full justice to Peake’s vision of a crumbling structure peopled by inadequate and grotesque individuals who, nevertheless, deserve some sympathy, and to measure the beauty of the language he uses to describe it all.
I shall therefore restrict myself to giving random impressions of the work especially, as having left some time lapse after completing the work — to marinate, I tell myself — I’m finding the clear-cut outlines of the narrative blurring and fading.
Gormenghast has been ruled by one family for two millennia, and the birth of Titus Groan means the succession is secured:
“Your name is TITUS,” said Sourdust very simply, “TITUS the seventy-seventh Earl of Groan and Lord of Gormenghast. […] I dedicate you to your father’s castle. Titus, be true.”
But all is not right in the domain: everything is either stultifying or decaying above stairs, while below stairs arises a malcontent, Steerpike by name, who proves to be a Loki to Lord Sepulchrave’s Odin and the bringer of a kind of Ragnarök to Gormenghast Castle. Compared to the castle’s noble family — Sepulchrave and his wife Gertrude, their daughter Fuschia, his sisters Clarice and Cora — the main functionaries, the kitchen staff and other servants are merely there to serve, held in thrall by roles that have seemingly not changed in centuries; and this doesn’t fit with Steerpike’s inclinations. Change, he decides, is coming.
Peake prefaces the novel with a couplet from Bunyan’s prologue to Pilgrim’s Progress about choosing between picking at meat or raising one’s gaze to heaven (though he omits the immediately preceding lines):
Wouldst thou divert thyself from Melancholly?
Would’st thou be pleasant, yet be far from folly?
Would’st thou read Riddles, and their Explanation?
Or else be drownded in thy Contemplation?
Dost thou love picking meat? Or would’st thou see
A man i’ th Clouds, and hear him speak to thee?
Peake seems to be agreeing that there may be something more sublime than mundane existence; but I actually find sublimity in his leisurely portrayal of an earthly estate and its community slowly going to the dogs.
Behind the decay lies of course the author’s own experience witnessing human degradation in China during the second decade of the 20th century, and bomb damage in wartime London; he will naturally have contrasted those memories with the ostentatious ceremonial trappings of late British imperialism and archaic notions of aristocratic entitlement and privilege.
But I don’t see Titus Groan as particularly allegorical, it’s more in the nature of a documentary. In fact, being a painter as well as a poet Peake presents his novel almost like one of those teeming Bosch or Breughel canvases, or maybe like a museum diorama depicting a battle scene: the omniscient eye roams the castle grounds, peeping through windows, observing the routine actions of the figures, gazing at distant landscapes, taking its time to drink in the sights. Yet despite Gormenghast’s vastness it’s not a microcosm of its world, rather it’s a prison — one where just one or two individuals are able to escape its bounds to an uncertain future.
For here are constricting rituals, rigid hierarchies, straitjacket practices; positions of power are jealously guarded, for when they’re threatened violent deaths may ensue. We may unexpectedly became fond of certain characters despite their weaknesses, their waywardness, their wanton carelessness, and yet be as moved when a store of knowledge is lost through sheer malice than over the demise of one key individual. Here is a tottering society close to collapse though it doesn’t know it.
Although Titus is in the title his presence is little felt in these pages; and while Steerpike is the catalyst for change and dissolution there is a brooding presence one must see as a character in its own right — the castle itself. A compound of various sites and influences (including Chinese walled cities, Arundel Castle, maybe even Fonthill Abbey) Gormenghast is both a structure and a symbol: like the decaying Palace of Westminster with its stone labyrinth housing the body politic, it’s emblematic of a wider malaise.
In his 1968 introduction novelist Anthony Burgess placed Titus Groan in its literary context, emphasising its uniqueness among works published in the aftermath of a global context. Oddly, half a century on from his glowing assessment the novel’s themes of societal, material and personal disintegration are no less resonant than during the war years when the work was conceived.
This link will take you to my earlier discussions of the opening instalment of the trilogy; I next hope to embark on a much delayed read of the next volume, Gormenghast