77th Earl of Groan
April 16, 2008 5:19 AM   Subscribe

Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls.

Perhaps I can interest you in a bit of an introduction to one of the great minds of the 20th century?

Most famous for the novels Titus Groan, Gormenghast and Titus Alone, Mervyn Peake was also a brilliant and celebrated poet and artist. For an author who consistently appears in 'top author' lists, not nearly enough people have read him in my mind. I'll be the first to admit he's not for those readers who require great gobs of action and adventure in their literature but for those who appreciate a deft and delicate turn of phrase and who enjoy the true delights of what the English language is capable of in the hands of a master, the rewards of reading his works persist long after the final page is turned.

He was one of the first war artists to arrive in Belsen after the war and it obviously had an enormous influence on his later work, as did living on the island of Sark.

He has influenced artists from the Cure, Simon Le Bon and Sting through to Michael Moorcock, CS Lewis and Alan Moore and was (in my mind) one of three of the great artists to illustrate 'Alice in Wonderland' (see also: Dali and Tenniel). His illustrations for The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde and the Bleak House are also worth seeking out.
posted by steerpike (57 comments total) 60 users marked this as a favorite
Gotta be the first to say it - Eponysterical!

I loved the 3 books, it's been years since I read them but every so often images still spring into my mind.
posted by jontyjago at 5:27 AM on April 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

And let us not forget Captain Slaughterboard.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:34 AM on April 16, 2008

Looking for an audio book torrent just now, I came across a BBC television adaptation. FYI.
posted by DU at 5:45 AM on April 16, 2008

Why didn't he live on the island of Snark instead?
posted by Pants! at 5:47 AM on April 16, 2008

I've been meaning to read the Gormenghast novels. I'll make it a point to do so right after I finish my gigantic pile of STOP SMILING back issues.
posted by sciurus at 5:59 AM on April 16, 2008

Thanks for the post. One of my favorites. Even though I read these books years ago, not a week passes that I don't think about them. I heard the BBC tv adaptation from a few years back was execrable, which is a shame if it put people off reading the books.
posted by chinston at 6:06 AM on April 16, 2008

Self-linking?! Bannination time!

(I kid, I kid.)
posted by ntartifex at 6:11 AM on April 16, 2008

I first entered Gormenghast when I was about 17. That opening paragraph captivated me, as did the following encounter between Flay and Rottcod. I was a goner by the time Swelter and Steerpike came on the stage. Many people can't handle Peake's language and pacing, but I found it mesmerizing. There are also some flashes of weird humor, as when Dr. Prunesquallor has to deal with Professor Throd's paralysis at Irma's soiree. So many episodes stand out in those books... all the more pity that the third one is so fragmented and that the fourth one never got written.

The BBC adaptation (which I have on VHS) is well worth a look but it isn't quite what it should have been in some respects. That said, it does retain some of the flavor of the original. There's a wonderful fan site out there somewhere (my Google-fu is failing me) that has photos of sculptures of the characters.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 6:14 AM on April 16, 2008

Loved the first two. Like crazy love - I've read them over and over. Gormenghast is an amazing creation. But I hate, hate Titus Alone.

His editor fucked Titus Alone (here's Edelman, who wrote the introduction to the new Overlook edition, talking about it) after Peake's Parkinson induced dementia started taking over.

I have an older omnibus from Overlook, but it looks like I'm off to buy the new editions. They look great.
posted by i_am_a_Jedi at 6:19 AM on April 16, 2008

SF Site on the novels. I was going to link to Moorcock's essay (but you've already done that). Fantastic post.
posted by i_am_a_Jedi at 6:21 AM on April 16, 2008

Why didn't he live on the island of Snark instead?

Although he did illustrate The Hunting of the Snark. I designed / typeset an edition about ten years ago, that included a lot of sketches. For two weeks, I had a green box file full of original Peake sketches sitting on my dining table. It was a great honour, but I was extremely relieved to give it back to the publisher. I also spent my whole birthday scanning them.
posted by Grangousier at 6:23 AM on April 16, 2008 [2 favorites]

I'll be the first to admit he's not for those readers who require great gobs of action and adventure in their literature but for those who appreciate a deft and delicate turn of phrase and who enjoy the true delights of what the English language is capable of in the hands of a master, the rewards of reading his works persist long after the final page is turned.

It is neither for those readers (like myself) who have a gag-reflex to all science fiction and gothic fantasy. I hate it when skilled writers waste their talents on subject matter I could not be bothered to spend my time reading....
posted by three blind mice at 6:23 AM on April 16, 2008

Another author whose work was heavily influenced by Gormenghast was China Mieville.

I took have been meaning to read this series, at least the first two. I've also heard from others that the third is difficult at best.
posted by JeremyT at 6:24 AM on April 16, 2008

i_am_a_Jedi: that explains why I gave up on the third one. Interesting, thanks.
posted by Leon at 6:25 AM on April 16, 2008

Yay Mervyn Peake - he was the best fantasist.
posted by salimfadhley at 6:25 AM on April 16, 2008

Gormenghast strongly resembles a large Buddhist lamasery, with its endless ritual and curious carving competitions (though the real-life monks carve in yak's butter rather than wood, I believe). Just one example of how Peake's childhood in China influenced him: another, I think, is his handling of faces, as an artist. Most Westerners still carry the lingering transmitted influence of Greek ideals, and unconsciously regularise faces slightly: Peake, accustomed to Oriental faces and models, depicts Western faces in all their true craggy, bristly, irregular forms.

Alas, to be honest I agree that Titus Alone reads like a set of fragments bolted together by other hands and doesn't really match the first two Gormenghast novels; he was obviously too ill and possibly too traumatised by then to do the job properly. I believe there was originally to have been a fourth novel in the series.

Mr Pye, a subtle tale of God's mockery of evangelical hubris, is a better novel, though probably a lesser work of art, than any of the Gormenghasts, and well worth reading. The BBC dramatisation of that a few years ago was certainly a travesty.

Personally I love Peake's poetry, notably this one (from memory):

Lean sideways on the wind, and if bears your weight you are a daughter of the dawn.
If not, pick up your carcass, dry your eyes, brush down your dress, for that sweet elfin horn,
You thought you heard was from no fairy land. Rather, it flooded through the cellar floor,
From where your Uncle Eustace and his band of flautists turn my cellar, more and more,
Into a place of hollow and decay.
That is my theory darling, anyway.
posted by Phanx at 6:29 AM on April 16, 2008 [6 favorites]

If you haven't read Peake, your initial impression of Gormenghast may be that it is an overwrought, drear and densely packed piece of verbal rococo, but if you take a deep breath and keep going you'll soon find yourself in an exquisite and intricate web of words revealing a strange and wonderful place peopled with intriguing characters.
posted by MasonDixon at 6:35 AM on April 16, 2008

Incidentally, it's a shame he was so upset by the failure of The Wit to Woo, but in all honesty it was never going to be a success - it's really not very good.
posted by Phanx at 6:37 AM on April 16, 2008

I have to say, it's not a very flattering likeness. I think Holiday captured me better. I know others would disagree though. Depends on exactly how much of a pompous twit you think I am, I guess.
posted by The Bellman at 6:40 AM on April 16, 2008

I believe there was originally to have been a fourth novel in the series.

It was to be called Titus Awakes. Here's a couple of fragments of it.

A fifth book, called Gormenghast revisited, was also planned.
posted by i_am_a_Jedi at 6:41 AM on April 16, 2008

I loved Titus Groan, liked Gormenghast, but couldn't be bothered finishing Titus Alone, I mean cars???
posted by zeoslap at 6:43 AM on April 16, 2008

See where you are coming from on Titus Alone, but on a reread it's worth it.

I love Peak's characters, he's like Dickens in his detail.

A great writer.
posted by mattoxic at 6:47 AM on April 16, 2008

Letters From a Lost Uncle and Boy in Darkness are also well worth a look, for Peake fans. And admirers of his artwork could do worse than check out Mervyn Peake: the Man and his Art.

It’s odd how three of my favourite 20th-Century English authors were born in China: Peake, Denton Welch & J.G. Ballard…
posted by misteraitch at 7:04 AM on April 16, 2008

Talking of the link from Peake to Mieville, Gormenghast is one of the foundation texts of the New Weird movement, which may or may not exist and which may or may not have been recently codified in this anthology by Ann & Jeff Vandermeer.
posted by ninebelow at 7:12 AM on April 16, 2008

I read Gormenghast last summer, after a friend of mine nagged me about it for a solid year. Reading it in public is a good way to meet people--people who've also read it will eagerly introduce themselves to you.

Re: Titus Alone--loved loved loved the first two books, hated the third. Part of the problem with it (other than the cars, the bad editing, etc.) is that it reveals Peake's weakness--he can't write fully sexualized adult women. In the first two books he's great, as long as he sticks to young girls, elderly women, and spinsters, but in the third book he tries to write an adult love interest for Titus, and he collapses. (And isn't there a full-on hair-pulling catfight somewhere in that third book? I've forgotten.)
posted by Prospero at 7:30 AM on April 16, 2008

Gormenghast strongly resembles a large Buddhist lamasery...
I always though more of the Imperial palace and the ritual proscriptions and regimen under which the Emperor lived his life.
posted by Abiezer at 7:35 AM on April 16, 2008

Yes, a Gormenghast post. Excellent!
posted by Grod at 8:02 AM on April 16, 2008

..your initial impression of Gormenghast may be that it is an overwrought, drear and densely packed piece of verbal rococo

he's like Dickens in his detail.

Those two comments sum up entirely my experience of Peake. I'm a pretty avid SF/F reader and have attempted Gormenghast on many occasions only to come up short. Even trying to convince myself that it would be interesting in terms of the overall context of the genre, if not in and of itself, was not enough to allow me to gather the energy to slash through the densely packed thickets of prose.

He's one of those writers that seems to write a series of excruciatingly detailed scenes so top-heavy in descriptive minutiae that the underlying narrative becomes swamped. It's like watching a Disney movie where you have to watch the animator draw the backdrop to each scene in real time, followed by thirty seconds of narrative action, then cut to the next scene and repeat. It gets kind of tiring after a while. Having said all of that, he does have a fine turn of phrase, and I can appreciate what other people see in his work even if it's not to my taste.
posted by Jakey at 8:10 AM on April 16, 2008

I've been meaning to read these for years now. My stepdad used to rave about them, and when he passed away I received his copies. I haven't opened them yet, but every time I see them on the shelf I pause and think of him. Maybe it's that starting (and then finishing) them would feel like finally closing that chapter of life? If I never read them, then I still have the anticipation of sharing them with him.

Thanks for the post, and for the subsequent enthusiasm. Maybe it's finally time to curl up with Gormenghast and my memories of Bob, and enjoy a good long read.
posted by spinturtle at 8:16 AM on April 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

I can't agree that the BBC adaption was a "travesty". I, at least, loved it. And I've been a huge fan of Gormenghast (the first two books; the third doesn't really count) since I read them as a teenager.

But yes, give yourself over to them. They are monumental works of literary art.
posted by jokeefe at 8:31 AM on April 16, 2008

Regarding prospero's comment on Peake's women... Titus's sister Fuschia is one of the most infuriatingly author-fiat characters I've ever encountered. She's a tomboy, she's a sheltered princess; she's canny, she's innocent; she's onto Steerpike, she's into Steerpike, she's darkly suspicious of him, she has no idea what he's up to because she's such a sweet sheltered innocent of radiant light. Every time she threatens to develop into an interesting character, Peake knocks her on the head and drags her back to where he needs her to be for plot purposes.

I wandered away from the series about 65 chapters in, but her ultimate fate (according to that Wikipedia article) is exactly what I would have expected.
posted by ormondsacker at 8:50 AM on April 16, 2008

So good. So utterly wonderfully good.

Also worth noting their influence on Perdido Street Station, a favorite around here I think, which in fact made me resist liking that book for some time.
posted by freebird at 8:55 AM on April 16, 2008

Yeah I read Peake after I read Perdido Street Station because Mieville praised Peake so highly. But then again, he's a commie.
posted by i_am_a_Jedi at 8:57 AM on April 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

The BBC version is worth seeing for Christopher Lee's masterful Flay, Richard Griffiths' scary Swelter, and the brilliant costuming, makeup, and direction of the twins, Clarice and Cora. In fact I happened up a TV showing of Gormenghast one night without knowing what it was, and the first scene I saw with the twins just bowled me over. I had known about the books for years but never read them, and before going back to the video I picked up a recent edition and was captivated. Peake is one of the gifted writers I know at turning scene into language; the books are intensely visual.
posted by Creosote at 9:02 AM on April 16, 2008

I may have to buy another copy of these books, as I've loaned/given out my last version to a friend.

Thanks for this post. I've been meaning to revisit the books again. It's been a few years. I still shudder at the image of the sisters, locked up, waiting and waiting and waiting...

(And I thought the BBC miniseries was pretty bad. Steerpike was too evil from the word go.)
posted by papercake at 9:05 AM on April 16, 2008

How cool! Confession: I'd never known that Peake was also an illustrator. Thanks especially for the links to his engravings. These are brilliant, and I'll look at them more in the afternoon.
posted by washburn at 9:06 AM on April 16, 2008

the Cure, Simon Le Bon and Sting

Whoa, you almost lost me there, but I put Titus Groan on my library reserve list.
posted by lumpenprole at 9:34 AM on April 16, 2008

I read them as a teenager too and I've never forgotten them. I had no idea there was a BBC miniseries or that anyone had ever tried to convert them into film! I have to find that. When I saw this post the first thing I thought was oh, man, I so hope someone has made Gormenghast out of peeps or lego or papier mache or something or, better yet, an actual replica castle sitting on a cliff somewhere. They're such incredibly visual books; I could always imagine every step Fuchsia took.
posted by mygothlaundry at 9:47 AM on April 16, 2008

three blind mice, there is not a shred of fantasy to be had in the Gormenghast books -- no supernatural events or beings whatsoever.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 10:03 AM on April 16, 2008

His wife Maeve Gilmore, almost destitute after he died, went to the Tate Gallery to sell her husband's body of work. She was offered �1,500 for the complete collection. Disgusted, she stormed out. If there is any justice, Mervyn Peake: The Man and His Art may well ensure that such snubs are not repeated.

Talk about Greek tragedy. You fight with the gods for your gift but you never really win. The more gold they give you the more heartbreaking interest you accrue when they send death for you.
posted by tkchrist at 10:15 AM on April 16, 2008

Most excellent post. I loved all three novels and am in the midst of watching the BBC miniseries of same. It's...OK. Good to see Christopher Lee (as Flay).
posted by jquinby at 11:15 AM on April 16, 2008

Thanks, steerpike -- I haven't thought about Mervyn Peake for years. I agree with Phanx -- the novels never really did it for me, but I've always loved the poems. I've had snippets of them etched in since I was a teenager.
posted by tangerine at 12:42 PM on April 16, 2008

It's been ages since I read the trilogy. Totally engrossing. I still have those books that included illustrations, which I loved and copied. I probably have some of those sketches around somewhere. No one I knew ever read them or heard of the author. Till now. Nice.

I couldn't help noticing on ChrisBeetle's site, his glassblower [#5] illustrations resemble Toulouse Lautrec's sketches. Incredible. Too cool and a hella' post steerpike.
posted by alicesshoe at 3:01 PM on April 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Those of you who are deciding to give the books a read: it's important you understand that the third book isn't just bad the way Return Of The Jedi isn't as good as the first two Star Wars movies. Titus Alone goes far beyond that: it completely recontextualizes the other books, diminishing them greatly in the process.

I'm trying to not be too spoilery...er, imagine if, at the beginning of Return Of The King, we discovered that Middle-Earth was an elaborate simulation kept under a huge glass dome, originally intended as a vacation spot for citizens of a far-future world, but which has since been neglected and forgotten to the point where the inhabitants have no memory of the outside world.

(Uh, wait. That sounds sorta awesome, actually.)

Now imagine re-reading Fellowship and Two Towers with the knowledge that, no matter how exciting their adventures are, the fellowship are the descendents of RenFest enthusiasts who are journeying across a forgotten amusement park gone feral. And meanwhile, just beyond Middle Earth, the 35th century is in full flower.

That's *not exactly* what happens in Titus Alone, but it's similar. The book is best considered a footnote to the series, edited and published after Peake's death. It's possible that if he'd worked more on the novel, as well as gotten to write additional books in the epic, Titus Alone might have fit in nicely with Peake's grander plan. But as it stands now it should be treated as jarring Bonus Material at best.

Again, this isn't like, say, deciding to ignore the Matrix sequels. (How many more nerd references can I make!?) As shitty and franchise-destroying as those were, they were considered finished by the creators at the time of their release.

Read Titus Alone if you really love the first two--the book has its fans, according to this thread, which is definitely news to me--but it's really for the best if, as you read it, you don't think of the book as the disappointing end to a flawed trilogy, but rather as the miscellany of two nearly perfect novels.
posted by Ian A.T. at 3:04 PM on April 16, 2008 [3 favorites]

Regarding prospero's comment on Peake's women... Titus's sister Fuschia is one of the most infuriatingly author-fiat characters I've ever encountered.

I actually found Fuchsia to be just about the most emotionally affecting character in the novel- she was a unique, powerful spirit never given a single chance to find and develop herself. She shows all sorts of indications that she has the sharp mind and notable will of her mother, but she is always a child and never is able to view the world in anything but childish ways. She has a strong will, but it shows itself as childish rebellion. She has an inquisitive mind, but it is so hemmed in that she only has make-believe. Steerpike is an intrusion into her world, and that is why she falls for him. Such intrusions were her only chance to grow.

Most of the characters of Gormenghast are cramped like bonsai people into their own little neurotic spaces, and a great deal of the novel is about what happens when those spaces suddenly change shape a little.

Her accidental, meaningless death echoes the restrictions of her life. I felt all along that she was being built up to be someone that would break the bonds of her childhood and become someone amazing, and that made her death all the worse. It also reinforces how necessary Titus' escape is.
posted by perianwyr at 3:46 PM on April 16, 2008

Ian: please get on that, 'cos I'd like to see it in my local bookstore in a couple of years time.
posted by Leon at 3:50 PM on April 16, 2008

What perianwyr said about Fuschia-- she's the most changeable and alive of all the characters, I think. Confession without spoilage, I hope: I cried at that part, where, you know.
posted by jokeefe at 4:21 PM on April 16, 2008

I hate it when skilled writers waste their talents on subject matter I could not be bothered to spend my time reading....

Been years and years since I've read them, and I'm wondering if I might find them a little overwrought at this point. One things I (who do not cotton to SF or Fantasy) did like was the fact that there's no magic, nor dragons, nor extraterrestrials, no fairy tale creatures (well, okay, Death Owls) - in effect, it's a bit of alternative history, possibly China, possibly Byzantium, possibly someplace in between.

(BTW, it's worth pointing out as well that the BBC Gormenghast was Spike Milligan's final bow. At least, I think that's true.)
posted by IndigoJones at 4:31 PM on April 16, 2008

Ah yes, and don't forget the influence on Split Enz. Tad Williams (his Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series clearly influenced by Peake) did an intro to the recent reissue.

My master's thesis was on the series in the context of Gothic lit. I really liked Titus Alone (although the quality of prose certainly suffers) because it reinforces and underscores the nature of Gormenghast castle: inviolate, enduring, impenetrable by any outside force, but because of that boundary not penetrating the outside world either. All of the books are about these rigid boundaries (love Perianwyr's description above), but the third book is essentially about Gormenghast and the outside - does one annihilate the other, or could one interpose on the other? The back and forth on this issue is hypnotic. I get the feeling from the notes on Titus Awakes that this is a theme that would really be pushed forwards in the next book, had Peake lived longer.
posted by Paragon at 4:38 PM on April 16, 2008

Peake was a genius. My favourite poet by a long shot.
When tiger-men sat their mercurial coursers,
Hauled into shuddering arches the proud fibre
Of head and throat, sank spurs, and trod on air—
I was not there. …

When clamorous centaurs thundered to the rain-pools,
Shattered with their fierce hooves the silent mirrors,
When glittering drops clung to their beards and hair—
I was not there. …

When through a blood-dark dawn a man with antlers
Cried, and throughout the day the echoes suffered
His agony and died in evening air—
I was not there. …
posted by scruss at 5:02 PM on April 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Maeve Gilmore's memoir of Peake is terribly moving, and I have a lovely book by one of his dear friends which includes some wonderful examples of his art, although I can't seem to find it on Amazon. I think his poetry is underrated in comparison to the Gormenghast trilogy.
posted by andraste at 5:02 PM on April 16, 2008

Count me among the Peake-freaks. I thought the BBC adaptation did some things well-- the atmosphere of the castle, the art direction in general, some of the acting. And I liked the theme music.

Where it suffered was in the adaptation; the writing skimmed far too shallowly over the deep dark abysses of screwed-upness in Peake's masterpiece. Also, Steerpike could have been much more grotesque.

Kudos for this post!
posted by Pallas Athena at 5:16 PM on April 16, 2008

Another Peake fan here. I have the BBC adaptation on DVD. The jarring part for me is seeing Warren Mitchell, he'll forever be Alf Garnett in my mind.
posted by tellurian at 6:25 PM on April 16, 2008

I like the BBC adaptation, and I am a huge Gormenghast fan. Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Steerpike was amazing. But...

David Glass's kabuki version is infinitely better. I've only seen it once, at the Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds, but I've never forgotten it.
posted by Chasuk at 7:49 PM on April 16, 2008

Sort of apropos of nothing, I was taking the tour here a few years ago, and there's a point where the tour is on the 3rd (I think) floor. Looking out one of the windows there's an open area on the roof of the floor below that would be a nice place for a picnic, except the only way to get there is to climb out a window. I immediately thought of Gormenghast.
posted by blm at 10:52 PM on April 16, 2008

Hah, I thought exactly the same thing when I saw the Winchester Mystery House. Wrote about it, too.
posted by Paragon at 11:36 PM on April 16, 2008

I agree with ormondsacker on the character of Fuchsia (though she was my favorite, and I lost a lot of steam after she was dispatched), but I feel like most of the characters display the same sort of development flaws and miscarriages of logic... the doctor and the countess spend years wondering what it is that can be going so wrong? What is this dark worm eating away at the heart of Gormenghast? What? What? If only they could stumble upon some kind of clue. Heh.

I regret Steerpike's descent into an entirely one-dimensional character; I regret The Thing's abbreviated and perfunctory role as catalyst; I regret a lot of the dangling plot threads. Who was the old man who helped Keda? What the hell are the Death Owls? What happened to Irma and the headmaster after/during the flood? For example.

The main genius of the two books is really the labyrinthine, seemingly vast yet claustrophobic character of Gormenghast itself, forever building itself upon its own forgotten ruins, so utterly and inexplicably isolated ... and without that anchor I soon lost my forbearance with the capricious plotting and characterization and ended up abandoning "Titus Alone" after a couple of hundred pages. I loved the first two books, yes - but I suspect my affection isn't quite as unqualified as most Peake fans.
posted by taz at 4:32 AM on April 17, 2008

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