Mervyn Peake – Titus Groan


Poet, painter, illustrator and gadfly, Peake was rarely able to work on any one thing for very long. That there are now four books in what used to be the Gormenghast Trilogy isn’t really surprising when you remember that the third ‘novel’ was, like the new one, pasted together after his death from fragments that seemed to be flying off in all directions. The real surprise is that the first two parts work as books at all.

It’s also worth asking how far he wrote the books in order to have a subject worthy of his style of illustration after he’d done Alice and Treasure Island. The whole book seems to be drawn in charcoal. It’s taken Dickens at his most over-wrought and metaphor-choked and used that as a starting-place, making the sounds of the words as important as the images they convey. (I always think George Orwell’s sniffy description of Dickens as magnificent gargoyles on rotten architecture was taken by Peake as a challenge, to write about a crumbling place from the point of view of the grotesques who clung to it). Peake was raised in pre-war China and this sense of enclosed cities run on obscure rituals and unimaginably ancient customs seeps from the text. Titus, the 77th Earl of Groan, doesn’t do much in this book as he’s only a baby, but around his birth revolve all sorts of rites and ceremonies that give us a way in to this apparently unchanging, gnarled, cobwebbed estate. Meanwhile, an ambitious scullery-boy, Steerpike, sets about making his way up the pecking-order with single-minded ruthlessness. With the consequences of these two events bumping into each other, we get a view of a looking-glass England entombed in this one vast mansion. Small, long-running feuds escalate and increasingly freakish details are presented for our inspection, without comment. Events cause the next events to happen but calling the sum total of these a ‘plot’ is short-changing the reader.

By Tat Wood