The Gormenghast Trilogy, by Mervyn Peake

I first had a go at reading the Gormenghast trilogy about 24 years ago, at the age of 19, when I was reading a lot of science and fantasy fiction. I gave up less than 100 pages in: my memory was that I found it too slow moving and hard work to read.

It’s part of the Big Read 100, so this time I was committed to finishing it. I’m not sure I would have finished it this time otherwise…

gormenghast1

I made slow and steady progress through the first half of book 1 (Titus Groan). It didn’t grab me, and felt like a bit of a chore to stick with it. But from there until the middle of book 2 (Gormenghast) I really bogged down. I took a break a couple of times and polished off several books, because I just didn’t fancy slogging through this. Why spend a paragraph describing something when you could spend several pages? The writing is very dense, and feels dated, though it may just be Peake’s writing style, rather than a style of the period.

The pace really picked up for the second half of Gormenghast though. I was hooked into the story, and found myself wanting to read just one more chapter. A lot of what had gone before had definitely set the scene, and gave everything a context. I’m deliberately avoiding talking about the plot, but everything builds towards the dénouement at the end of book 2.

Book 3 (Titus Alone) is a very different book: a different genre, and a very different writing style. The first two books were written closely together, but Titus Alone was published nearly 10 years after Gormenghast. All through the first two books, I had a certain image of Gormenghast, and its period. I saw it either in the late middle ages, or in a setting not wildly different from Lord of the Rings. And then on page 5 of Titus Alone we come across a car, and then a bit later planes and helicopters. Does everyone have the same “huh?!” moment I had?

I read Titus Alone fairly quickly. Partly this was down to the different writing style, I think. It’s almost a collection of sound bites, most chapters are shorter than 2 pages. It wasn’t really satisfying, and for me detracted from the rhythm I’d built up on the second half of Gormenghast.

I can imagine it’s hard for people to classify Gormenghast: dark Gothic fantasy? Considering just the first two books, it most reminded me of Dickens: nearly every character is a caricature, the way most characters are in Dickens. It’s what Dickens might have written for fantasy fiction, though Peake’s not as good a writer as Dickens.

Before the Gormenghast Trilogy, Middlemarch was the book from the Big Read 100 that had taken me the longest to read so far. Gormenghast has knocked it into second place: it took about 10 weeks, which is very unusual for me.

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2 Responses to The Gormenghast Trilogy, by Mervyn Peake

  1. I have only read the second book Gormenghast. I did enjoy it in my second reading but not the first one. I loved the sentence construction and some of the beautifully woven words such as ‘to conceive an idea is to risk a haemorrhage’

  2. echostains says:

    I would say that the Gormanghast trilogy were my favorite books.. but I’d be telling a lie. ‘Titus Alone’ for me had too many ‘huh?’ moments. I just couldn’t get into it at all. I hardly recognised the character that was Titus Groan. My favorite book was Gormanghast, it had everything, including brilliant characterisation and humour (Irma Prunesqualler’s soiree!) I too thought ‘Gothic’ about Gormanghast, and got quite a shock when I saw the BBC version had a kind of oriental backdrop! As Peake was born in China, perhaps it wasn’t that surprising. Some of his characterisations are very Dickensian, but I quite liked that.

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