Titus Groan – Mervyn Peake

Picking up the weighty tome known as The Gormenghast Trilogy, I was all for reading what I hear is one of the most critically divisive books (or series of books, if you look at it that way) of the 20th century.  This review though is only of the first book of the trilogy Titus Groan.

A synopsis isn’t an easy task for such a book as this, as not a lot seems to happen plotwise, but there is a huge interaction between characters and things are always in the offing in that respect.

The miniverse in which the reader finds themself is a landscape dominated by Gormenghast castle. This, for me, has to be one of the most memorable settings in any book, the way it is written about gives the imagination scope to explore but never discover all of its secrets.

Throughout the book the reader is treated to wonderfully memorable descriptions of the Gothic architecture, its labyrinthine structure changes with each sentence to give an ever evolving and sometimes vaguely unquantifiable nature to its ancient and crumbling structure of cold indifferent stone, brooding over its dominions.

It’s this difficulty to understand and clearly see the castle that brings about the mystery and the fascination, a bit like an M. C Escher painting with its strange perspectives. Gormenghast castle you will appreciate is something that (for example) Hogwarts would give its foundation stones to be, dwarfing everything with its immense presence, steeped in glory and ruin, a world where everything is possible and an infinite amount of stories can be formed.

Enough waxing lyrical about the premises though, the actual plot and writing deserve a mention too.  Imagine Charles Dickens, P. G Wodehouse and Lewis Carroll having a fight in an alley (with pens) that somehow produces a book.  That is the best way I have so far found to describe it and I think it works, but then again I would being slightly biased.

Despite the huge panorama outside, the reader is constantly dragged into the small places and sometimes claustrophobic spaces where the action happens, which gives a sense of equilibrium  when put into perspective all the huge turrets and gables of the towering construction they inhabit. There is always lots of darkness and shadow and the crushing weight of the centuries is almost palpable at times especially when listening to the trivialities of the characters lives.

Now here is a strange lot, with enchanting names that Dickens would have been proud of (such as Dr Alfred Prunesquallor), it is refreshing to meet a bunch of characters that don’t much like each other and are quite happy to live their own eccentric existences scheming and plotting away from inside the indifferent encasing stone. It almost felt like a soap opera at times, albeit a particularly verbose one.  Throughout though I never found myself warming to and by extension not caring about any of the characters enough to be emotionally invested in their fates.

The story itself is written in a very languid way, indeed it was about one hundred pages before any sort of plot starts to take place, not that there isn’t plenty to see with your mind’s eye. Those one hundred pages do a good job of bringing you into the complex social structure of the world and also make it feel alive and vibrant but also desolate and sad at the same time.

I find myself reminiscing about Moby Dick when I think of it, another slow book that frustrated me into demanding something happen and that the pace pick up a bit. Like Moby Dick Titus Groan has fantastic language, there is some really varied prose in there and a smattering of words that I expect won’t be familiar to many people these days.

When it comes down to it though, I didn’t find enough to keep me hooked for one, let alone two more books. Although there were some genuine moments of humour, lots of repeated themed imagery and that sense of archaic wonder that the book conjures, it left me relatively unmoved.  If you like a challenge though and feel like you want to experience some wonderfully arranged words you will more than likely get something more out of it than I did.  Like I said at the beginning this is a divisive book but one I assure all you readers that enjoyed it, I did ‘get’. It just wasn’t something that I could maintain a level of concentration for when there are so many other authors out there that deserve a read.

16 Replies to “Titus Groan – Mervyn Peake”

    1. It’s a strange book accessibility wise, perhaps (dare I suggest) a bit of editing would have done wonders for the readership that wanted that little bit more, or less in this case.


  1. Nice take on the books. I have to admit that I’m a big fan of the Gormenghast series, so I disagree with you a bit here. I loved this line though: “a bunch of characters that … are quite happy to live their own eccentric existences scheming and plotting away from inside the indifferent encasing stone.” That’s really true.
    Funnily enough, the series doesn’t get any more accessible as it goes on. I wrote a blog here on the nightmarish world of the final volume: http://alastairsavage.wordpress.com/2012/05/13/titus-in-the-land-of-nightmares/
    As the books go on, some of the characters become much more interesting. Dr Prunesquallor comes into his own in the later books: he’s just a bumbling source of comic relief in book 1. Flay also goes on a fascinating journey from palace insider to outcast hermit.


    1. Reading your post makes me a bit annoyed that I was so quick to pass my copy of the trilogy onto a cousin of mine. I think there was always a strong basis for the characters to essentially do anything as so little was actually done with them in book one (for sheer wordage per character, that is). So it is good that they go on predictable journeys from their genesis in book one. I think if I do end up delving into the later books I will make sure I have a lot of time on my hands.


      1. Get that book back! Seriously though, I think one problem with the Gormenghast series is that the lead character, Titus Groan, isn’t really all that interesting. Peake takes the Dickens route of having a dull lead character around which his grotesques, eccentrics and innocents can do their thing.


        1. Dickens was a bit mad like that. I never really noticed that before, but I have been having a nosy though the works I have read and that is a spot on analysis. I only met Titus as a baby. unsurprisingly I was unmoved by him, lol.


    1. Happily libraries will probably have a copy, it’s a strange one. You’ll need plenty of time for it and although I gave it two weeks on the first book of the trilogy I wouldn’t give it anymore if it’s not doing anything for you. I would put Dickens, P. G Wodehouse or Lewis Carroll before Peake again.


  2. I like the cover and the descriptions sound good and intriguing but sounds like it would be a bit long for me, even on an audio version, if there is one. I tend to lose focus after a while, but I do like good descriptions. i came across a good-looking children’s book earlier with good descriptions and metaphors but I can’t remember what it was called now.


    1. Let me know if you remember, I always love to check books out. I think I lost focus after a while as not a lot seems to happen and sometimes people wandered into the pub (for i sometimes read in there) and distracted me.


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