Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake

I originally bought the three books that make up the Gormenghast Trilogy a few years back on Exclusive Books' annual sale. Only now did I get around to reading the first book, Titus Groan. All I knew was that the books were supposedly fantasy. Even so, this book was completely different to anything I could have imagined. Truth be told, Titus Groan is like nothing else out there.

The book was first published in 1946, and is considered a fantasy classic. However, there is not much that puts us in mind of what I usually associate with fantasy. No magicians, no evil orks, no dragons... Yet the universe create, Gormenghast, is undeniably fantastic.

We enter this world as Titus, the new heir to the Earling of Gormenghast is born. Meticulously we follow servants around as they go about their daily duties while the happy news is spreading. One person isn't very happy, though. That is Titus' taciturn big sister Fuchsia. Nanny Slagg is now hard kept to keep the demanding Fuchsia happy, while beaming over the newborn.

Gormenghast literally stands on tradition, and Titus' father, Earl Sepulchrave, spends his days performing the daily rites expected of him, before retreating to his beloved library. His wife Gertrude is the classic cat lady, despite being married. Under their noses, drama is brewing in the castle. Titus' wetnurse has some personal issues to attend to. Swelter the chef has murderous fantasies. One of his former "minions", Steerpike, has managed to escape the kitchens, and is now making his steady way up towards power. Sepulchrave's sisters, the twins Cora and Clarice are cooped up in their rooms pondering the neglect and fall from fame. Meanwhile, an ignored Fuchsia is trying to find herself in a world of mostly old people.

The prose in this book is on another level. Stunningly and vividly written, Peake really puts us into the scenes and makes Gormenghast come to life for the reader. But this is also a surprisingly funny book. Some of the characters are downright hilarious and unforgettable for it. Nanny Slagg's constant moaning about being unloved and unappreciated. Cora and Clarice being manipulated by Steerpike. Doctor Prunesquallor and his spinster sister having a conversation. Not to mention the epic showdown between Swelter and Flay.

You kind of expect a book whose title is the name of one of the characters, to be mostly about that character. For Titus Groan this is very much not the case. The book spans in time to when Titus is just over one year old. The little we see of him is through ceremonies, and through the lives of the people around him. But towards the end we get to see that Titus is special. We just don't know how or why yet. I guess the next books in the trilogy, Gormenghast and Titus Alone will give us the answers.

This is a book to be savoured. Let Peake lead you by the hand into this oh so strange but so interesting universe. No need to rush - the words are there, and the plot will thicken soon enough. Just enjoy.

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