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The Gormenghast Novels (Titus Groan / Gormenghast / Titus Alone) Paperback – December 1, 1995
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Mervyn Peake's gothic masterpiece, the Gormenghast trilogy, begins with the superlative Titus Groan, a darkly humorous, stunningly complex tale of the first two years in the life of the heir to an ancient, rambling castle. The trilogy continues with the novels Gormenghast and Titus Alone, and all three books are bound together in this single-volume edition.
The Gormenghast royal family, the castle's decidedly eccentric staff, and the peasant artisans living around the dreary, crumbling structure make up the cast of characters in these engrossing stories. Peake's command of language and unique style set the tone and shape of an intricate, slow-moving world of ritual and stasis:
"The walls of the vast room which were streaming with calid moisture, were built with gray slabs of stone and were the personal concern of a company of eighteen men known as the 'Grey Scrubbers'.... On every day of the year from three hours before daybreak until about eleven o'clock, when the scaffolding and ladders became a hindrance to the cooks, the Grey Scrubbers fulfilled their hereditary calling."
Peake has been compared to Dickens, Tolkien, and Peacock, but the Gormenghast trilogy is truly unique. Unforgettable characters with names like Steerpike and Prunesquallor make their way through an architecturally stifling world, with lots of dark corners around to dampen any whimsy that might arise. This true classic is a feast of words unlike anything else in the world of fantasy. Those who explore Gormenghast castle will be richly rewarded. --Therese Littleton
This is the first complete, single-volume paperback edition of the restored novels and includes twelve critical essays and an unfinished fourth novel. As the divided paperbacks of previous years are proving increasingly hard to come by, this will prove a far superior edition for many newcomers, presenting the poetic fantasy trilogy in a single-cover format which makes the entire sequence easier to digest. -- Midwest Book Review
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At seven, Titus is no less recalcitrant. There is a surge of rebellion welling up inside of him, struggling to extricate him from the suffocating weight of his hereditary ritual. His mother still expresses non-existent affection or attention to him as the individual person Titus, only regarding him as the 77th Earl of the House of Groan. With the demise of his father in the first novel and an older sister Fuschia, who by a quirk of sex is excluded from inheriting any of the familial titles, all weight and expectation is placed on his shoulders as the only surviving male heir.
We are brought up to date with Steerpike’s plans to wreak havoc on the castle. He is now assistant to Barquentine, the Master of Ritual who inherited the position after his father, Sourdust, was burnt to death in the fire years earlier that Steerpike manipulated the mentally stunted Sepulchrave sisters, Cora and Clarice, into starting. He is patient and has been biding his time, which seems to be a necessary approach to anything regarding the glacially paced activities of Gormenghast. He is plotting the demise of Barquentine while romancing Fuschia, another measure requiring immense delicacy as Fuschia is mercurial and difficult to seduce. Fuschia is also, despite her chronological adulthood, still remarkably adolescent in her level of emotional maturity. The only person she loves unconditionally at this point is her younger brother Titus.
Much of the first half of the novel is taken up with the activities in the school, centering primarily among the instructors and their headmaster Bellgrove. They are as fussily eccentric, vain and grotesque as the other occupants and much space is devoted to their personal quirks. The doctor Prunesquallor’s sister Irma has determined that that her youth is slipping away and that there’s no time to lose in getting married. She has focused on the faculty of the school, inviting them to an elaborately planned party, at which she will, she feels, subtly audition them as suitors. Headmaster Bellgrove struggles between his natural urges to express emotion and his duties as a figure of authority that merits respect and must not show vulnerability. He focuses on Irma and she is only too happy to be singled out, not necessarily a point of distinction in that she, the hostess, is the only female present. Their courtship on the grounds of the estate is depicted in a comic tone, yet it beautifully dissects the varied emotions each of them are experiencing as they calculate their moves.
While this is beautifully written and razor sharp in its psychological depiction, it is a distraction from the primary thread of the story. The courtship grows into an engagement which culminates in a marriage and we see the gradual erosion of romance between them and the increased friction and mutual irritation as each other’s most annoying qualities become more apparent.
Peake’s prose is thrilling even when his action is tedious. Here are a few phrases that dance off of the page:
“jungle-headed Mr. Splint”
Tears are described by one character as “grief’s gravy.”
“Death’s icicle impales him now.”
“Suddenly he stretched his arms out on either side, the fingers splayed like starfish as though he were wakening them to a kind of hypersentience of tingling life.”
By the second half of the novel, when we return to Steerpike’s schemes on one side and Titus’ internal struggles on the other, the novel becomes engaging again. These are the two pivotal characters and their parallel struggles and inevitable conflict with each other provides the spine of the story.
Titus is at this point an alienated adolescent and has already skipped class and ridden out into the forest, where he has encountered both the exiled servant, Flay, who has surreptitiously crept into the castle a few times to observe the doings of the site of his former life, and the Thing, a wild girl, his foster sister, daughter of his nursemaid Keva, left to fend for herself as an outcast after the suicide of her mother. The Thing represents freedom to Titus and an invitation to join the world outside of the castle.
While Steerpike’s murders and ensuing pursuit has alerted the castle into action and elicited the stony Countess to rise to the occasion of being a leader in a time of crisis, Titus’s frustration has grown to the point where he has summoned the courage to tell his mother that he wants to renounce his earlship and leave Gormenghast for other lands. His mother does not express emotion or surprise but merely says, “There is nowhere else... you will only tread a circle... everything comes to Gormenghast.”
The last fifty pages or so are full of action that makes up for the inert quality of much of what has preceded it. While Steerpike is inevitably defeated tragedy strikes elsewhere and Titus is more resolute in his determination to depart. By the conclusion of the novel, the ritualistic monotony of Gormenghast has become literally lifeless and one senses that this change is inevitable. A confluence of factors has precipitated the development but what will continue in the castle can only be imagined because Titus has left for other lands and his adventures will be depicted in the final Titus novel, ‘Titus Alone’.
What I found impossible to read in Gormenghast, though, were the interminable descriptions of and interactions between the professors and headmasters of the school, possibly thanks to not having experienced the antique British education system--thank goodness. Other than skimming or skipping those sections wholesale, this is Peake still writing amazingly, for those who appreciate his slow-paced style. There is an air of inevitability about the plot with a lot of tension still thrown in, so I consider it well worth giving a try if you couldn't get enough in the first book. But, by all means, unless you are in love with grotesquerie mixed with aged schoolmasters, don't feel guilty about giving some chapters a pass.
BUT, the only reason I gave it a rating of 4 is that -- being a successful professional writer and editor -- I have noticed several instances of typos, spacing issues, misspellings (yes, I know how the Brits spell many words differently) and even what appear to be a few wrong words. Not having a printed copy at hand for comparison purposes, I can't be sure of the latter. I don't know the technical process & editing methods Amazon uses to convert books to digital format for Kindle -- but somehow, some (though relatively few) mistakes are being made. It's not a big problem -- I'll certainly be ordering other books for my miraculous Kindle (LOVE it!) in the future. Most folks probably won't even notice such fairly minor mistakes. But some of the more literarily erudite souls among your customers will certainly find them at least mildly irksome, as I have -- or, at the other extreme, even to be an outrageous disservice to a great author.
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I felt like I was constantly being strung along with plot intimations that never...Read more