Mervyn Peake's masterpiece is tragically forgotten, but the epic of life and culture in the sprawling castle Gormenghast—an edifice part symbol, part living organism, part nightmare of the past and present apocalypse—is one of the great works of the 20th century. Filled with characters as diverse as those in a Dickens novel and with an insular invented world more complex than any in literature, The Gormenghast Novels remain a monumental achievement of artistic daring and presumptuous ambition.
Titus Groan is the duke heir-apparent of Gormenghast, a massive structure housing all manner of eccentrics, crazies and fortune-seekers. The castle is goverened by an elaborate system of tradition and ritual that no one understands but everyone observes. By the time Titus is old enough to have independent thoughts (he's born halfway through the first novel) he begins to feel a severe sense of displacement and lost identity, that though his world is defined by and is the castle, he is somehow a stranger in his own land. This sense builds to dread and then to angst as he falls further out of innocence and deeper into a disconnected attitude of observational doubt.
All three novels (Peake died writing the third—he wasn't going to stop there) showcase a sustained prose style somewhere between Kafka, Dickens and Joyce that is truly astonishing; the beauty of the language alone is enough to recommend this omnibus novel. Yet Peake's vast work is also important on a philosophical level, as an examination and an indictment of the flawed European society that led to the carnage of the World Wars, a society in which traditions remained but without substance, so that adherence to them became meaningless, and worse than meaningless, detrimental to the whole cultural fabric. If Gormenghast the castle is Europe, young Titus Groan is the utterly disaffected, angsty European everyman, doomed to a decadent and ultimately dying inheritance.
The Gormenghast Novels is one of those rare works that is both incredibly rewarding as social commentary, and an independently fascinating product of the imagination. While Peake is ultimately a humanist, and succumbs often to despair, he also recognizes the redemptive nature of the human imagination, unfettered from the constraints a merely self-perpetuating society will attempt to shackle it to. As a criticism of that society, and a loosening of those bonds, The Gormenghast Novels succeed entirely.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
Did you find this review helpful?