I think the Gormenghast trilogy has been on my radar for a little while, but I never actually realized what it was about. Either that or I'm getting it confused with Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha. In any case, I picked up this book because a member of my book club chose Gormenghast, the second book of the trilogy. I decided that I couldn't stand to start a trilogy in the middle, so I ended up reading the whole thing.
Titus Groan is the best place to start, even if you might think that it seems skippable. Do not skip it.
This is the introduction to Gormenghast, which is an enormous castle located in a mountain valley and apparently disconnected completely from the wider world. The castle is the main character. Titus Groan is the 77th Earl of Gormenghast, and he's barely a presence in this book: it begins with his birth and he never ages beyond toddlerhood throughout the entire thing.
There's a large cast of excellently-named characters other than Titus: his sister Fuchsia, the villainous Steerpike, Flay the butler, Sepulchrave the 76th Earl, Doctor Prunesquallor and so on. If there's an overarching plot it's just Steerpike's striving for power, but really the book is a series of vignettes that develop the portrait of the castle and its inhabitants.
I did struggle with the pace of this book. Just when you've read thirty pages of nothing in particular, author Mervyn Peake throws in a truly arresting image or scene. I usually don't have the patience for diamonds in the rough when it comes to books (I'd rather just have the diamonds than do the work of digging them up), but the ones here are worth it.
Titus Groan lays the perfect foundation for Gormenghast, which does everything that the first novel did, but better. It's funnier, it's spookier, it's more exciting.
It's a bit more of a coherent narrative, concerning Titus' coming of age as the 77th Earl. There are diversions into his schoolroom and into the Doctor's sister's romance with the Gormenghast school headmaster, Steerpike's ongoing plotting, and so on. Again, the castle is the main character and the book mainly consists of vignettes, so the pacing issues don't disappear in the second book, but I would say there's an improvement.
The other improvement here is that there's some thematic coherence to the story, and it's all about desire and striving. The Doctor's sister desires a husband, Flay desires to continue serving Gormenghast, Fuchsia desires someone's love, and Titus desires something more. Steerpike desires something between controlling everything and burning it all down.
The climax of this novel is not what you would expect.
Of necessity, there are some spoilers ahead, so if the first two books sound interesting then feel free to skip ahead to the next section.
This is where things behind the scenes of the Gormenghast trilogy get sad, because Mervyn Peake suffered from dementia that was already affecting him significantly when he began Titus Alone. What he ended up writing does not measure up to the first two books.
Titus, having set out into the world after leaving Gormenghast castle, finds himself among other people. And this world he finds is a strange one. It's clear that this is not our world, and the amount of different things going on also make it clear that Gormenghast exists in its own bubble within this strange world. There are people driving cars.
The real downfall of this book is that Titus is not an interesting enough character to carry the story alone, and Peake isn't able to build a world around him that's as fascinating and creepy as Gormenghast. It's by far the shortest book in the trilogy and it felt so long.
This trilogy is not going to be for everyone. I really enjoyed it and I still don't think I'll have the energy to pick it up again for like twenty five years or so. I'm a sucker for spooky buildings in fiction and somewhat ponderous prose, though, and so this was right up my alley.
But you don't need to bother with Titus Alone. When I do reread this sometime in the late 2040s, I definitely will not be revisiting the third entry in the trilogy.
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