Mervyn Peake


Titus Groan

Book 1 of The Gormanghast Trilogy


It really fits for me that this book was written by a professional illustrator. It reminded me not so much of other books as of the anime movie ‘Spirited Away’, or of a cartoon version of Alice in Wonderland. Action is so secondary to description – vivid, sensory description. There is a constant oppressive mood – not merely in the population of grotesques, but in the stream of pejorative adjectives. Were Peake to insert words before subjects like ‘rainbow’, ‘puppy’ and ‘light’, I’d expect something along the lines of ‘malevolent’, ‘ghoulish’ and ‘cancerous’ (or even ‘aspersing’, ‘preternatural’ and ‘internecine’: Peake certainly loved a thesaurus). The characters are ghostlike, perhaps part of a theme that people are so transient compared to tradition or even buildings. They don’t seem quite human, they are so defined by (generally wretched) appearance and perseverations. Gormenghast itself dominates everything in oppressive (as opposed to comforting) permanence.


I was surprised to see this in the BBC’s top 100 list, although I can see that it would polarise readers: I can’t say I’ve read anything like it before. There is a plot of sorts as the Machiavellian Steerpike rises, with enticing hints of crossing future events, but the book is hardly driven by story. Rather it saturates the mind’s eye with uncomfortably detailed image after image. Perhaps that’s why I’m unlikely to go on with the next two books (though I am tempted - compelled – is it something like your eyes being pulled towards misery or an accident?) – I’ve never had a particularly visual imagination. Although perhaps someone more empathetic to this sort of lurid, macabre thing would be repelled!


December 2007