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Old 3rd Oct 2005, 22:40   #1
Paul
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Default Mervyn Peake

Well, I've been lurking about the forum for a few days now, reading all the reviews and adding several pages to my TBR pile in the process, so I figured it was about time that I contribute.


This weekend I finished reading the Gormenghast novels by Mervyn Peake. It's hard to know where I should even begin when describing these books. For those unfamiliar with them, the story takes place in the sprawling, dilapidated castle of Gormenghast. A parade of bizarre characters (think Lewis Carroll meets Dickens) make their way through the dusty halls, slaves to rituals and traditions whose origins were long ago forgotten.

The two central characters are Titus, the 77th Earl Of Gormenghast, who is attempting to come to grips with his inherited title, and Steerpike, an aspiring kitchen boy with sinister ambitions to overthrow the whole castle from within.

Although this is essentially the basis for the entire central plot, the bulk of the reading experience occurs in the spaces between. These works are definitely unlike anything I've read before, which is a good thing. Peake's use of language is absolutely amazing. While reading, I had to remind myself to slow down and just appreciate what he was doing. The only way I can describe them is to say that the reader becomes completely immersed in each scene. There are whole chapters where seemingly nothing really happens, just a glimpse into some dusty, secluded part of the castle and yet when I closed the book after reading each night and looked around I found myself a bit disoriented, like I had just woken up from a dream and needed to get my bearings again.

Peake was an artist, illustrating such works as Treasure Island and Alice In Wonderland, and this way of seeing the world is readily apparent in the lush, atmospheric descriptions of the castle. The first sentence is as good an example as any:

"Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of 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. They sprawled over the
sloping earth, each one half way over its neighbor until, held back by the
castle ramparts, the innermost of these hovels laid hold on the great
walls, clamping themselves thereto like limpets of a rock. These dwellings,
by ancient law, were granted the chill intimacy with the stronghold that
loomed above them. Over their irregular roofs would fall throughout the
seasons, the shadows of time-eaten buttresses, of broken en lofty turrets,
and enormous of all, the shadow of the Tower of Flints. This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven. At night the owls made of it an echoing throat; by day it stood voiceless and cast its long shadow."

Although there were times where I found myself a little frustrated with the slow pacing and verbiose language, having finished the books I now understand why it was worth it. It's hard to explain and there's no way I could do justice to the experience. All I can say is try them. One of two things will happen. Either you'll grow bored and quit within the first 50 pages or you will find yourself trudging along, wondering if it's all really necessary and suddenly the phone will ring, or a dog will bark and real life will intrude, and you'll resent it. You won't remember how or when you became so immersed, you'll only know that it happened and you're thankful that it did.
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Old 3rd Oct 2005, 23:33   #2
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Default Re: Mervyn Peake

Welcome Paul, and thanks for this review. I have a telephone-directory sized omnibus paperback of the Gormenghast trilogy knocking about somewhere, which may seem less daunting now I'm soon to be a person-who-has-read-Anna-Karenina, so I might just take up your recommendation. Gil, I think, has praised it too on these pages...? I have also read Peake's Mr Pye, which was entertaining and a little disturbing, and a lot shorter than Gormenghast.
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Old 3rd Oct 2005, 23:59   #3
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Default Re: Mervyn Peake

I read and enjoyed the first book, many years ago, when I was a student, with lots of time to spare.

I was fascinated by his characters and the strange ritualistic world they occupied. I only found one of the character's storing boring - the girl who was a wet nurse and then exiled and the two wood carvers fought over her. Those passages just seemed to drift and drift - "get on with it kill yourself" - I felt like shouting.

I also found his language a little indulgent. And then I found it cinematic. I read the book about 20 years ago and I can still remember the "thrill" of reading about the old Earl as he ascended into the tower of owls and was shredded and sliced therein; and the image of one of the characters who had to bandage his knees to prevent their characteristic cracking betraying him as he murderously stalked another character; and the sound the chain made round Swelter's face as he was struck with it.

And then I picked up the second novel, and the spell was shattered. For me the book had a Renaissance setting. When I read about the young Earl's teachers in their nineteenth century staff room, it just fell apart for me.

Pity really.
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Old 4th Oct 2005, 0:22   #4
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Default Re: Mervyn Peake

Thanks for the welcome, John Self. Your "telephone-directory sized omnibus" sounds suspiciously like the one I just finished. Take heart, several hundred pages consist of an introduction and other essays, leaving the actual text around a paltry 1000 pages or so. As an Anna Karenina veteran that's hardly daunting right? I haven't read any of his other works but maybe after a break I will track down a copy of Mr. Pye.

Flutty, I agree with most of your thoughts on the books. Isn't it strange how you can be almost to the point of skimming a few passages to get to the point and then suddenly find yourself completely captivated.

The sections about Titus' teachers were also some of my least favorites but if you ever find the time and the desire, I would recommend trying the second book again. Despite some slow parts, the culmination of events at the end was actually quite thrilling and I found myself finishing it in a bleary-eyed marathon.
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Old 4th Oct 2005, 9:42   #5
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Default Re: Mervyn Peake

Titus Groan, the first book, was definitely the best for me, Ghormenghast less gripping and Titus Alone disappointing. But the whole thing, which I read in... let me see... 1958-59 - I had to wait for Titus Alone - is just an amazing piece of work. Paul correctly identifies, with that opening paragraph, the density and richness of Peake's prose. One of my friends is a leading authority on Peake, and I am lucky enough to possess a few photocopies of manuscript pages. I can confidently say that Peake was a rather disturbed individual. One thing which may have contributed to this is the fact that he was a war artist, and entered concentration camps with the early Allied troops, making sketches of what he found there.
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Old 11th Oct 2005, 21:01   #6
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Default Re: Mervyn Peake

Welcome Paul,

I loved Gormangast and Titus Groan, and then like Gil had my gothic dreams shattered with Titus Alone. But, I think this was more to do with my personal mindset at the time rather than the book - I will try again, but suspect I will have to do the full run up and read them all again.

As to the teachers, I seem to remember thinking that the dry dusty monotonousness tone of those sections matched perfectly the characters they were depicting and decided I didn't really mind in that case.

I was lucky enough to see an amazing theatre production of Gormengast done in a black box set ... I fail to describe how they evoked that ponderous architecture and epidemic of mean dwellings but they did. Owls and cats and rising water the old king and haughty queen. It remains to this the best theatre I've ever seen!
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Old 13th Oct 2005, 0:16   #7
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Default Re: Mervyn Peake

Quote:
Originally Posted by Digger
Welcome Paul,

I loved Gormangast and Titus Groan, and then like Gil had my gothic dreams shattered with Titus Alone. But, I think this was more to do with my personal mindset at the time rather than the book - I will try again, but suspect I will have to do the full run up and read them all again.

As to the teachers, I seem to remember thinking that the dry dusty monotonousness tone of those sections matched perfectly the characters they were depicting and decided I didn't really mind in that case.

I was lucky enough to see an amazing theatre production of Gormengast done in a black box set ... I fail to describe how they evoked that ponderous architecture and epidemic of mean dwellings but they did. Owls and cats and rising water the old king and haughty queen. It remains to this the best theatre I've ever seen!
Thanks Digger. I too was disappointed with Titus Alone but fortunately I had read enough about the series beforehand that I was somewhat prepared for the jolt. I've heard it argued that people were so upset about the change of setting from Gormenghast itself that they were unwilling to give Titus Alone a fair shake, that if it had been written first it would have been well received. Although I did find myself pining for the meandering halls and bizzare characters of the castle, it was more the writing style itself that I found lacking. Obviously this is due to Peake's failing health but knowing this didn't prevent me from feeling let down. It would have been interesting to see where Peake would have gone with the series had he been able to extend it.

I would have loved to see that production. It's hard to believe they could pull it off without an enormous budget and several days! Along those lines has anyone seen the BBC production? I'm reluctant to watch it and ruin the wonderful images that Peake painted for me but I am curious...
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Old 13th Oct 2005, 8:24   #8
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Default Re: Mervyn Peake

I watched some of it, and in fact recorded most of it; every occasion I have tried to watch it, I get stuck after about an hour and a half (and it would be sooner, were it not for a fine appreciation of Jonathan Rhys-Meyers...) In fact I would have recorded over it, were it not for Jonathan R-M.

This is probably because I am not such a Peake fan (though I did read two of the trilogy in my early teens) and because the whole thing looks so weird and deliberately eccentric. The visuals were very memorable but it's hard to persist when the story and nearly all the characters seem so batty.
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Old 4th Jun 2010, 18:31   #9
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Default Re: Mervyn Peake

Quote:
Originally Posted by Paul View Post
Although there were times where I found myself a little frustrated with the slow pacing and verbiose language, having finished the books I now understand why it was worth it. It's hard to explain and there's no way I could do justice to the experience. All I can say is try them. One of two things will happen. Either you'll grow bored and quit within the first 50 pages or you will find yourself trudging along, wondering if it's all really necessary and suddenly the phone will ring, or a dog will bark and real life will intrude, and you'll resent it. You won't remember how or when you became so immersed, you'll only know that it happened and you're thankful that it did.
Yes, sort of. I can only go by Titus Groan, having finished it last night, but while I can't say I would have always resented the interuptions offered by dogs or phones, I do agree that for all the grinding work that went into reading the book, I still found myself pretty captivated by the sheer strangeness of the thing. I mean, it's a really odd book, isn't it? There's the nebulous, floating structure, and the fact that, if you think about it, there are only about four or five big plot points, or set-pieces, or whatever you want to call them, in the whole story.

And then there's the way Titus Groan finally comes together, with all its loose ends leading out towards Gormenghast, causing my relief over having finally finished the first book to soon gave way to "So...I wonder what happens next?"

The language can get incredibly thick at times, and I found the sections about Kedra to be close to unreadable. It was like Cormac McCarthy (who I love) at his most cosmically obscure, but without people shooting each other in the face to break things up. I badly wanted to skip those passages, but didn't. Which is the other thing: I found that I could get to the end of a paragraph, or even paragraphs, knowing that my eyes and brain hadn't really absorbed all the words, but still confident that I'd retained Peake's meaning. I would re-read those paragraphs, and generally found that I was right the first time. I'm not sure what this says -- that Peake was maybe a tad repetitive, or long-winded, or his language has immense subliminal power, or I'm a genius -- but it's not something I've encountered with other books I've struggled to read. I couldn't tell you a damn thing about Will Self's My Idea of Fun, and probably couldn't have done so a week after finishing it, but I feel as though, some years down the line, I'll still be able to summarize Titus Groan pretty well, to anyone who might ask.

Anyway, it's a strange experience, reading that book. I can't give it less than . I just can't!
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