Although I couldn’t say whether or not The Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake is a well-known book, I could say that most of my friends have never heard of it. It’s also rarely on any of the shelves of the bookstores I’ve looked in. And, though I haven’t read them all, I’ve never seen it on anyone’s must read list.
Hopefully, that is about to change.
As its name suggests, the story is broken down into three books: Titus Groan (1945), Gormenghast (1950), and Titus Alone (1959). For the most part, it follows the lives of the people within Gormenghast Castle, focusing primarily on the ruling family. It begins with the birth of Titus, the heir to Gormenghast, and continues from there.
We are introduced to characters with memorable (and inventive) names like Lord Sepulchrave, Lady Groan, Fuchsia, Mr. Flay, Steerpike, Nannie Slagg, Swelter, Sourdust, Prunesquallor, Irma, Cora and Clarice. We are shown their daily interactons and the monotony of it all, seeing as how they always have to follow strict customs and regulations. Then we are told of how Steerpike, one of the boys from the kitchens, wants to change all of that.
Although the books border on something close to fantasy or magical realism, there aren’t really any magical elements in it. It’s simply a bizarre enough story to draw that distinction. Also, I think a lot of it may have to do with the quirky descriptions of the castle and its inhabitants.
Starting off as an illustrator (including the pictures in Alice in Wonderland and Treasure Island), Peake has an unbelievable knack of explaining everything like it’s one of his drawings.
The lawns beneath the west wall where he stood were black with dew, but where, at the foot of one of the seven cedars, a grazing shaft of sun fell in a little pool of light, the wet grass blazed with diamonds of every colour.
Like a vast spider suspended by a metal chord, a candelabrum presided over the room nine feet about the floor boards. From its sweeping arms of iron, long stalactites of wax lowered their pale spilths drip by drip, drip by drip.
Descriptions like this continue through out the series. And, while there are several great twist and turns in the plot, it is definitely these that speak to me most.
I should point out that this isn’t so much the case for me in the third book, Titus Alone. From what I understand, Peake’s mental and physical health severely declined while he was writing it, so Titus Alone had been put together by editors from the use of his manuscript and notes. Though it is interesting to see where he wanted the story to go, it lacks a lot of the things that I loved about the previous two books. I can’t help but think that he would have made some changes/additions before publication.
Now, of course I understand that not everyone will feel comfortable with his style of writing, but I do believe that it’s something that you can easily get lost in, given the time. And, what’s more, I think it will give you such a unique experience to be able to see such images so cleverly drawn with words.
It is most definitely on my must read list and will, more than likely, continue to be so for a long, long time.