Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Titus Groan

Apologies for the hiatus; more on that later, perhaps.

So on to my first book review of 2014: Titus Groan, the first book in Mervyn Peake's mid-20th century Gothic trilogy.  Or, his Dickensian-style prose trilogy.  Or maybe his fantasy trilogy.  His grotesque trilogy?... It's been described as all of these and more.  Suffice it to say that categorization of this book is not simple, but the work itself is, without question, worth reading.

The novel opens with the birth of the titular Titus Groan, 77th Earl of Gormenghast.  Gormenghast is a remote earldom with the Gormenghast Castle - a mostly-deserted Gothic monstrosity - at its center, located seemingly long ago, somewhere unattached to our linear time or physical location, though without any time warps or other magic.  In fact, life at Gormenghast Castle is decidedly un-magic in any way.  Castle life, rather, revolves around endless rituals which must be performed in a particular way at a particular time, and for no particular reason that anyone alive could possibly remember.  And we are not talking about a population of the young and sprightly.  These are some OLD, gnarly dudes.

So the birth of Titus to Lord Sepulchrave, the 76th Earl of Gormenghast, and Countess Gertrude, his enormous wife, changes things up a bit.  In addition to there being new, and rather uncommon, rituals to perform, the level of activity simply picks up a bit.  The other occurrence of note on this day is the arrival of Steerpike, a 17-year-old Machiavellian youth who escapes the dingy kitchens to try his luck elsewhere in the castle.  If his red eyes don't give it away immediately, his actions soon tell you which side of good and evil he's on.

The novel's action takes place over the next 18 months, so Titus remains more prop than actual character throughout, but there are plenty of true characters to go around.  Steerpike's primary foil Mr. Flay, the very tall and spidery-moving steward to Sepulchrave, who has another nemesis in the fat, grotesque castle chef Swelter.  The castle's Doctor Prunesquallor, smart and toothy with a sharp wit he points at the less intellectually endowed, but who shows a fondness for Titus' older sister Fuchsia.  Prunesquallor's sister Irma, angular, unattractive and hell-bent on being a lady.  Nanny Slagg, tiny and self-depricating, whose finest hat is adorned with glass grapes.  Sepulchrave's twin sisters Cora and Clarice, always clad in purple, "their faces, identical to the point of indecency, were quite expressionless, as though they were the preliminary lay-outs for faces and were waiting for sentience to be injected."  Also, Gertrude has a hundred white cats and allows birds to roost in her ample bosom.

Peake weaves a story about this motley crew that is incongruously enjoyable, but it's not the plot itself that makes the book such a treasure.  It's the writing - Peake's prose - his humor, his description, his choices of words.  It's the Castle as a setting that becomes a character in its own right.  It's the glimpses seen of the world outside the Castle walls, whetting the appetite for more.  The major plot tentpoles are seen coming for miles, but you can't peel your eyes away when they come to pass.  Peake's writing is masterful.

Next up: I have this book as a trilogy and it weighs a ton, so I'm afraid it'll stay home for spring break.  I'll read the second installment, Gormenghast, soon.  But first, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.  I've never read it and very much look forward to doing so.

No comments: