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4.3 out of 5 stars
The Gormenghast Novels (Titus Groan / Gormenghast / Titus Alone)
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213 of 225 people found the following review helpful
on August 15, 2000
Format: Paperback
The first two Gormenghast novels are unlike any other books I've ever read. They seem to be fantasy, set in a huge crumbling castle and involving a huge, crumbling aristocratic family. But unlike most fantasy, there's no quest -- no saving the princess, no strange journey, not much of a plot to speak of.
It's less reading than pure immersion -- you sink into this castle and its characters, follow them about their daily lives, get to know them and the castle. Peake's prose is intensely visual; he's an eloquent tour guide, pointing out the strange sights and marvels around every corner.
There is a plot, of course, but it moves slowly across the two books, detailing a scheming kitchen boy's rise to power in the decaying monarchy. As I said before, the plot's not the point -- the characters, the atmosphere, the *experience* are what will keep you reading. I've never lived in a book like I did with these.
Unfortunately, the last (and shortest) of the trilogy takes a different tack with much less success. "Titus Alone" follows the heir to the Gormenghast throne as he leaves the castle and ventures into the world. Peake makes two major mistakes: he leaves behind the castle, which is the main character in the previous books, and he focuses on the picaresque plot instead of Titus' character. A little science fiction also creeps in, and seems wildly out of place. "Titus Alone" is just a series of sometimes amusing scenes. They don't develop Titus' character or introduce us to any memorable people -- a stark contrast to the first two novels, which are full of strange and wondrous folk.
The notes in the edition I have say that Peak hadn't finished Titus Alone when he died, and that his estate edited it for publication, so that may explain its inferiority.
My disapointment in the last book, however, doesn't affect my love for the first two. Definitely pick up these books and dive into Peake's strange world -- but mind the shallow water at the end.
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105 of 114 people found the following review helpful
on January 14, 2000
Format: Paperback
"Titus Groan" by Mervyn Peake is among the greatest works rendered in the English language. It is a work of fantasy, yet resembles nothing that came before it or since. Although this masterpiece is acknowledged by critics and a coterie of obsessed readers (such as myself), it is, sadly, almost unknown in the United States. It is,perhaps, too British or too eccentric. Gormenghast is an ancient castle, about the size of a city, which, as far as we know, is the only thing on the planet. Having no known point of reference to the world we know gives the novel its characteristic unreality-- its surreal atmosphere. The characters are uniformly grotesque: the taciturn, cadaver-like Mr. Flay, the vulgar and grossly obese Swelter, the slightly deformed yet brilliant villain Steerpike. Titus is the heir to Gormenghast-- the seventy-seventh earl of Groan-- and this is his story (although the first book of three ends with the hero only two years old). The focus is on the visual descriptions, and the world of Gormenghast is vividly shown through Peake's breathtaking command of the language. Peake was a graphic artist by profession and his skill with paint and pencil somehow translates into images that resonate in the reader's mind long after he or she has finished reading. Ultimately, it is impossible to shake the experience of visiting Peake's imaginary world. I read this book for the first time at age 17 (I'm now 42) and have been haunted by it since. Gormenghast is like a nightmare world and no sane person would ever want to live there; yet, how strangely beautiful and compelling it is! Gormenghast draws one back to it time and time again. It is what I call "the lure of Gormenghast." "Titus Groan" and its sequels "Gormenghast" and "Titus Alone" comprise the Gormenghast Trilogy. These books will most likely have to be ordered through Amazon.com or some other service, but the trouble is well worth it. For anyone who loves the English language and its endless possibilities, the Gormenghast Trilogy is exquisitely essential.
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59 of 62 people found the following review helpful
on December 15, 2011
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
I postponed buying this new hardcover illustrated edition of the Gormenghast Trilogy for several weeks, hoping that someone would post an Amazon review describing it physically, or that Amazon would allow us to look inside it, or that the publisher would be a little more descriptive on its website, but no one came through, so I took the plunge and bought it anyway, and I just unwrapped it. Here's a review telling you what I had hoped someone else would tell me:

1) The binding is (wine and white) paper over board.

2) Signatures are clearly visible, but I can't see any stitching.

3) In a few spots in my copy, the binding appears to be on the verge of breaking. I will be surprised if it survives unbroken through one reading. It's hard to glue together a book this thick and have it hold, I think.

4) The printing is crisp and clear, and the paper is acceptable: Probably a little below what you'd expect from Everyman's or the Library of America, but above the quality of the current Penguin's hardcover classics, for example. It's clearly superior to what's in Overlook's paperback edition.

5) The artwork is fairly sparse and idiosyncratic, but it's by the author, so what can you say?

I'm glad I went ahead and bought this edition.
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47 of 52 people found the following review helpful
on January 7, 1997
Format: Paperback
For sheer, sustained, imaginative power; an unfailing attention to character detail (Dickens' caricatures had none of this realism); a brooding, dark humour that goes deeper
than any other work I can think of against a backdrop of unimaginably stifling rigidity and routine, Gormenghast has not been bettered by anyone in any genre. Full-stop.
Titus Groan acts almost as an appetizer for the grandeur of the second in the trilogy. The immensity of the crumbling castle, it's labyrinthine corridors, rooms and even roofs is conveyed by Mervyn Peake with such believability that it's image never leaves you,
even years after it's read. Yet it is the goings-on within it's grey walls that leave the greatest impression. I can still see the scheming Steerpike, the sour Fuschia, Swelter the cook, the Prunesquallors and Titus 77th Earl of Groan as clearly as if I'd just met them.
One can almost feel the stifling grip the castle holds over Titus as he struggles to break free of the asphyxiating tradition of his home. To even try to convey what this trilogy is about would be
trite and pointless. The odd world of Gormenghast has to be experienced. Read them and be changed.
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44 of 49 people found the following review helpful
Format: Paperback
There's nothing else in all of literature quite like the Gormenghast trilogy. A weird, totally original blend of fantasy, gothic, and allegory, with characters out of Dickens by way of Hieronymous Bosch, and looming over it all the mammoth, decaying architecture of Gormenghast, the Groan family castle. The first two books in the series concern the newly born heir, Titus, 77th Earl of Groan, born into an aristocratic family which is completely bound by ancient and inane rules and ceremonies, and the efforts of one rebellious kitchen hand, Steerpike, who is determined to bring the whole artificial edifice, physical and cultural, crumbling to the ground. In the third volume, Titus leaves Gormenghast to seek his fortune in the outside world, a less claustrophobic, but still quite strange and intimidating landscape.
Mervyn Peake was raised in China, where his father was a medical missionary. Coincidentally or not, he was born there in the year (and month) that the child emperor (recall Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Emperor) was overthrown. One can only imagine how bizarre a childhood he must have had, a Christian English boy growing up amidst the poverty of revolutionary China. He returned to England for college, where he studied art and adopted something of a bohemian persona. He joined an artists colony on the Island of Sark, the setting for his novel Mr. Pye. As he began to develop a reputation as an artist, Peake left Sark, in 1935, to become a teacher at Westminster School of Art, where he met his wife, Maeve. World War II broke out just as he began to come into his own, and though he volunteered with the understanding he could be a war artist, he was instead placed in a series of inappropriate jobs until he had a nervous breakdown. He did make it to Germany at the end of the War, arriving at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in time to do sketches of the wraith like survivors and to have the horrors of the place seared into his soul.
He'd begun writing Titus Groan while he was in the army and it was published in 1946. Gormenghast followed in 1950 and both were critically acclaimed. He'd always had an aura of doom about him and was obviously not all that mentally sturdy, but the lingering psychological effects of what he saw in Germany (he returned after the War while the country was still devastated) and a combination of illnesses, including Parkinson's, made his later years quite awful. Titus Alone, the final volume of the trilogy, was published in 1959, his last major work, though he would linger for another ten years.
The allegory of Gormenghast is fairly straightforward, and seems to parallel what Peake had himself witnessed. A once great society rots from within, beset by bureaucracy and senseless ceremony. A servant from the lowest ranks of the society rises up to challenge the established order, but turns out to be more evil than the existing regime. I note--though I doubt it's significant, since I saw it mentioned nowhere else--that you can transpose a few vowels to make the title read "German Ghost." At any rate, it is the case that Peake was in China as it's Empire crumbled, returned to Britain in time to watch it sink after the War, and saw the horrifying aftermath of Nazi Germany's Steerpikean nightmare. In a sense then, Gormenghast tells the story of the Century, of the fall of the upper classes of the old order and their replacement by the even more horrid workers. Though Titus manages to stop Steerpike, he nonetheless abandons Gormenghast to seek a brighter future.
The greatness of Peake's work though does not lie in the story, it instead rests on his accomplishment as a visual storyteller. This is the most painterly form of literature imaginable. It helps that he did illustrations for the books himself, but even without his drawings, the books seem to move from set tableau to set tableau, more like a series of paintings than like a fluid narrative. This great strength of his work is also a significant weakness, because the tale is so two dimensional. With Tolkein, there's such depth to the story--not surprising considering that he created mythology, languages, history, etc. for each of the peoples in the trilogy--that the reader is always conscious of the sense that the teller of the tale could veer off onto any tangent for hundreds of pages without faltering. Gormenghast has more of the feel of a movie set; particular images are brilliantly imagined and realized, but there's nothing behind the image. You never really feel that Peake has given a moment's thought to either the 75th or the 78th Earl of Groan.
This weakness becomes glaring in the third book of the trilogy, Titus Alone, as Peake sends his young hero out on a quest, the purpose of which is unfathomable. Though it does afford the author to end his tale with a nuclear-like holocaust and the admonition that Gormenghast's greatness persists in Titus Groan's mind, should he have the courage to recreate it. Some fans may find the suggestion to be blasphemous, but I think most readers will be well served by just reading the first two books. In fact, in the BBC's fine television production last year, they left out the third volume. Peake's writing is so original and so marvelous that you owe it to yourself to experience it, but the tale is not so compelling that you need pursue it to its very end.
GRADE : B+
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30 of 33 people found the following review helpful
on February 8, 2001
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
It was hard to know how many stars to give this trilogy, so I'll just tell you about it.
The writing is incredible. There are moment where I literally put the book down and said "MY GOD!" There is a poem in the first book that is the best frivolous poetry I've ever read (better than Lewis Carroll).
I was initially nervous at the large number of characters, because I'm not good at remembering characters, but each is so aptly and humorously named (Fuschia, Flay, Steerpike, and my favorite-named, Flannelcat) that they are easy to tell apart.
Gormenghast is a world of its own - a very strange mix of seemingly ancient and modern (seemingly anachronistic) things. There is a lot of humor here.
But, I have to caution, this is not a beach novel. It's not Piers Anthony. The plot moves very, very slowly and you have to really enjoy reading for the sake of reading. It reminded me of reading "Les Miserables", which I enjoyed but would have quickly abandoned if not for the fact that I really do enjoy reading...and reading and reading.
These books are very rewarding, and parts will stay in my mind and make up my worldview for the rest of my life - something you can't say about most "fantasy" books. But if you are looking for a light, easy read, with lots of exciting plot, you are barking up the wrong tree.
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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on December 14, 2001
Format: Paperback
We are swept along from scene to scene better than the best cinematographer could imagine. Each room of the huge castle is painted in all its beauty or horror, each dusty corridor is as real as can be imagined.
Peake's gift for words creates not just images, but we follow the thoughts of his characters and feel loathesome or melancholy or exuberant in all the textures that Steerpike and Sepulchrave and Fuschia do.
These are some of the strangest books I have read. They are heavier and darker than Tolkien's works, against which they are often compared. They are finely focused to the smallest details on the castle, and they have a scope that is both compressed and alarmingly huge.
There is a sense of immersion into the world of Gormanghast that is not present in any other book I have experienced. I could almost feel the heaviness of the air on the day Titus was born, and from then on the books drowned me and exalted me and left me breathless from one moment to the next.
It is obviously difficult to describe the way one feels for reading Gormenghast. The best that can be said is that Peake has created literature of the highest order. He may even have shattered every standard of literature with his strange creation. Whatever else I know of Gormenghast, I know it belongs on my bookshelf.
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128 of 161 people found the following review helpful
on December 8, 1999
Format: Paperback
Let me be categorically clear on this point: this is, far and away, the best book I have ever read. Let me try to convince you of the same. Peake challenges, assaults and titilates the senses, and harnessses a gargantuan imagination and an immense vocabulary to give birth to a million detailed portraits, interconnected and intertwined in a thick, dense, dark world of crumbling, decrepit, moss-eaten stone of Gormenghast. The words that Peake strings together to deliver his masterpiece drip with unrivaled poetic beauty, and a vividness that makes you tremble and try to reach out and caress just one block of stone that makes up the sprawling haven of static tradition that is Gormenghast.
Gormenghast is not a fantasy, but fantastical literature. There are no elves, no magic, no scocery, no mystic religion, and yet Peake renders a dark, complex world that knows no comparison (I resent any comparisons to J.R.R. Tolkien and his drab, dull trilogy). Peake's Gormenghast books are, as another reviewer aptly put it, "experienced," not read. They are not plot-driven or dialogue/character-driven (I may catch flack from Peake fans for this) but are merely experienced - Gormenghast the castle, its intangible qualities, and all the unique characters that revolve around it. And as much description that Peake pours into his depictions of this wondrous place, it is the information that he omits that makes his portraits all the more perplexing and wonderful. Is Gormenghast on Earth? Is there no religion? No military? What is beyond Gormenghast Mountain? Who wrote all those books in the library and from where was the information culled? Where the hell did Steerpike come from?
This is the only book that ever made me cry (information which, as a guy, I impart with reluctance). Not because it was sorrowful (which it is, at times) but because it is so beautiful. And also because its hilarious (the gaggle of bumbling, inept professors had me in tears). Gormenghast was never meant to be a trilogy - Peake succumbed to Parkinson's during Titus Alone - and the thought that the world of Gormenghast followed Peake into the depths of the Earth leaves me feeling as empty as the forgotten halls of Gormenghast castle.
Trivia: The Cure wrote a song based on the novel's character Fuschia called "Drowning Man," on their album "Faith."
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on March 11, 2007
Format: Paperback
These books (especially the first two...see the other reviews about the shorter 3rd novel, which is still great but quite different) are like nothing else I've ever read. The negative reviews here seem to stem from an expected similarity to Tolkien et al. But this is no normal fantasy, and in fact bears (in my opinion) more resemblance to Dickens than Tolkien.

To understand the slow, long, plodding descriptions and plot that takes 800 pages to unwind, it is important to realize that the main character here is the castle itself, not the various players within it (not even Titus, although the focus shifts to him as the second book concludes and moves on to the third). As such, the page-to-page focus is not on the plot itself as the characters press onward, but on the castle and the various lives and realities encompassed within it. Peake returns constantly to descriptions of the castle, in a way that might drive plot-hungry readers mad. Take this example from p.631:

"The days flowed on, and the walls of Gormenghast grew chill to the touch as the summer gave way to autumn, and autumn to a winter both dark and icy. For long periods of time the winds blew night and day, smashing the glass of windows, dislodging masonry, whistling and roaring between towers and chimneys over the castle's back.
And then, no less awesome, the wind would suddenly drop and silence would grip the domain. A silence that was unbreakable, for the bark of a dog, or the sudden clang of a pail, or the far cry of a boy seemed only real in that they accentuated the universal stillness through which, for a moment, they rose, like the heads of fish, from freezing water - only to sink again and leave no trace.
In January the snow came down in such a way that those who watched it from behind countless windows could no longer believe in the sharper shapes that lay under the blurred pall, or the colours that were sunk in the darkness of that whiteness. The air itself was smothered with flakes the size of a child's fist, and the terrain bulged with the submerged features of a landscape half-remembered."

If this bores you, you will not enjoy these novels. If this enchants you, makes you want to keep reading and keep sinking into the dreamworld of the castle, then buy this book immediately. It is one of my favorites. Peake's deep, complex reflection on the nature of change and time is one of the most beautiful books I can imagine, and the memory of Gormenghast castle is haunting.
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22 of 26 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon August 9, 2004
Format: Paperback
I was not immediately drawn into the Poe-ish world of Gormenghast (although I love the dark twistings of Poe's work), but plowed on, and after perhaps 100 pages it began to get interesting as I sat back and let the atmosphere soak in. The characters are very Dickensian (think Uriah Heep, not Samuel Pickwick), and the decay and gloom of Gormenghast is so creepily interesting!

The interest in the physical world of Gormenghast sustained me through "Titus Groan" and "Gormenghast," but the third book, "Titus Alone," is all about Titus in some weird city-world after he has left his ancestral home. Since I never developed a real affinity for the character of Titus, I felt this part of the book to be weak and I didn't like it very much.

Until the end of the second book ("Gormenghast"), I felt that this could have been a real place. True, the characters we had seen to date must have been trapped in the past, because there are no mentions of cars, planes, any kind of transport or technology. The Seventy-Seventh Earl could have been born in any time period, even our own, if you consider that the castle is so remote and self-sustaining that it could plod along without the outside world encroaching. However, the third book is full of fanciful futuristic things like flying globes that have sensors in them to gather data and little automated things like glass needles (I don't even remember what these were supposedly for), so it becomes clear that this whole thing is a work of "fantasy" - fantasy as in "fantastic, out of this world" and not fantasy as in "made-up."

It's not a casual read. I tried reading it while working out on the treadmill one day, but it really deserves to be read at night, in the mysterious dark.

If you are looking for something unusual and inventive, this set of books is worth a shot.
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