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Stella Matutina
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Review Rerun: Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake 
16th-Nov-2012 07:00 am
The observant readers among you may note that the review below makes mention of my desire to read GORMENGHAST "good and soon." Nearly four years after the piece's original publication date of January 22nd, 2009, the book still languishes unread upon my shelf.

Sigh. I'd say I hope to read it soon, perhaps via my segmented reading method, but I doubt you'd believe me. Someday, though, I'll get further into the series than TITUS GROAN. Someday. And when that day comes, I'll do my best to tell you all about it.

In the meantime...

Cover art for Titus Groan, featuring a pencil sketch of a young woman with thick, dark hairTitle: TITUS GROAN
Author: Mervyn Peake
Series: book one of Gormenghast
Publisher: Penguin
Publication Year: 1946
Pages: 506
Status: keeper

LibraryThing Info

Titus Groan for purchase on The Book Depository

Titus Groan for purchase on Kobo

Titus Groan for purchase on Amazon.ca

I have the world's best copy of TITUS GROAN.

Seriously. The swank Overlook Press edition, with its matte cover plastered with birds and cats and vectory plants, is pretty and all, but it ain't got nothin' on my copy.

I have the Penguin Modern Classics edition, and it is a glorious ruin. There's a ragged tear in the side of the front cover. The back cover and the spine are faded to the colour of a particularly insipid lima bean. They're also creased, lined, scuffed, impressed, raggedy, and just about worn to bits. he pages are yellowed; many of them have been frequently dog-eared. And as if that weren't enough, the book smells.

I can't think of a better packaging for this intricate, moldering story.

But you don't much care what my perfect book looks like. (And by the way, the binding is still solid. This baby ain't fallin' to pieces any time soon, despite its glorious ruininess.) You want to know what this perfect book is about.

And, um, I'm not sure I can tell you. TITUS GROAN doesn't lend itself to summary, being, as it is, about all sorts of things, all at once. We've got Titus himself, the newborn heir to the crumbling castle of Gormenghast, who wallows in babydom while his older sister, Fuschia, who wallows in her imagination. Then there's Nannie Slag, the ancient and tiny nurse, who takes to Titus like a cat to milk. And speaking of cats, Titus and Fuschia's mother, Countess Gertrude, cares far more for her herd of white ones than she does for either of her children. Their father, Lord Sepulchrave, is obsessed with ritual and lives his life according to the dictates of his librarian, Sourdust. His twin sisters, Cora and Clarice, desire power above all things, but are incapable of gaining it on their own.

But I suppose Steerpike, the ambitious kitchen boy, is really at the heart of this book. He's got a toe in every pie and a finger on every pulse. While searching for links to include in the Other Reviews section down below, I came across kronos999's review on LibraryThing. Of Steerpike, kronos says: "[he] brings with him the force of change and it is difficult to decide whether to love or hate him for it... Either way, don't trust him."

That pretty well sums it up.

These six thous and three characters live their lives in and around the hermetically sealed Gormenghast, hereditary seat of the Groan family. Their story is dark and detailed, as intricate as it is bizarre. It's a daunting read by most peoples' standards, but it is most definitely worth your time.

I mooched my perfect copy well over a year ago, then held off because I was intimidated by the language. Many other reviewers mentioned Peake's dense prose, and a quick survey of the first page seemed to confirm their analyses. I figured I was in for at least five days of hard reading. Six or seven seemed more likely.

But you know the thing about preconceived notions? They usually crumble when faced with the thing itself. Yes, Peake is wordy. I've heard it said that he never uses two words when eighteen will do, and this is most definitely true. Yet for all that, he's surprisingly readable. The book is broken into segments that usually run ten pages or less, making it fairly easy to plot one's my reading. It's easy to convince oneself to read just a little further since, after all, it's only another six pages until the next segment... I couldn't exactly whip through the text, but I still managed a solid hundred and fifty pages per day.

Structure aside, the whole thing is terribly interesting. Gormenghast is a world all its own, and Peake limns it with absolute conviction. The castle's rituals and traditions seem strange and grotesque to us, but the characters believe in them to the core. They navigate via a most peculiar moral and social compass in which all their actions and interactions seem to have been twisted a quarter turn to the left of what we in the western world would do if faced with a similar situation. And these rituals, and the characters who enact them, are unquestionably the focus here. Peake is far less interested in time than in space. He's perfectly willing to use up a page or six on some small, inconsequential detail that is nevertheless vitally important to the characters or their setting. It makes for some fascinating reading.

On top of that, it's occasionally quite funny. This long, ponderous sentence had me in stitches. I shot out of bed and grabbed a pen so I could underline it straight away:

Lowering himself suddenly to his knees he placed his right eye at the keyhole, and controlling the oscillation of his head and the vagaries of his left eye (which was for ever trying to dash up and down the vertical surface of the door), he was able by dint of concentration to observe, within three inches of his keyholed eye, an eye which was not his, being not only of a different colour to his own iron marble but being, which is more convincing, on the other side of the door.

And yes, the whole book is like that. The whole book.

Don't worry; you get used to it pretty quick.

As much as I enjoyed the book as a whole, I must say that the last hundred and fifty pages didn't do quite so much for me as the first chunk. I'm sure this was due, in part, to a lack of momentum. I slept right before Titus's birthday Breakfast, a lengthy scene in which Peake abandons the past tense in favour of the present. Alas, he has some trouble sticking to his chosen tense; every few sentences or so, he slips back into the past in a most jarring fashion. It bugged the hell out of me, and I had a lot of trouble getting back in to the story.

That issue aside, though, this was excellent. I enjoyed it a great deal, and am looking forward to reading GORMENGHAST good and soon. It garners a high recommendation from me, but be forewarned: if you're expecting anything like a traditional fantasy story, you will be sorely disappointed.

4 stars - loved it

Other Reviews:

Bookspot Central
David Louis Edelman
inside books
Libri Touches
OF Blog of the Fallen
Tony Williams's Poetry Blog

A fair few more have emerged since I compiled this list. You can find many of them on the Book Blogs Search Engine

Back In the Day:
16th-Nov-2012 04:36 pm (UTC)
I have never even heard of this before. I obviously missed the original review. I will have to check it out!
16th-Nov-2012 05:49 pm (UTC)
It's one of the progenitors of modern fantasy. Much of the stuff out there springs either from Tolkien's example or from Peake's. :) It's worth reading for that alone, though the rest of it is also pretty durned great.
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