|Friday, October 21, 2011 03:07 PM
|On the Viewer - Gormenghast
| by Fëanor
Even while I was reading Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast novels (hit the Gormenghast tag for my reviews), I was imagining what a film adaptation would look like. They are very visual, and full of incredible descriptions. I imagined Terrence Malick's slow, dreamy, thoughtful, visually stunning style to be the perfect match as far as director was concerned. The BBC did a miniseries adaptation in 2000 (not directed by Malick, sadly) that I knew I'd have to watch, even though I heard bad things about it. Christopher "Dracula" Lee appears as the Earl's manservant, Flay; Richard "Mr. Dursley" Griffiths plays the hideous, fat cook, Swelter; Jonathan "Rhys" Meyers plays the scheming rebel, Steerpike; and Stephen "Mycroft" Fry eventually shows up as the ridiculous Professor Bellgrove. Of the four episodes, I've only been able to make myself sit through one and a half. Could be the state of mind I'm currently in, but I'm finding it just a little too weird, depressing, and over-the-top to sit through. To be fair, the books are also weird, depressing, and over-the-top, so I feel like it's a pretty accurate adaptation. It's hurt a bit by what was obviously a very low effects budget, and by the limited time they had in which to tell the story. The books move at a slow, stately, almost glacial pace, and take their time creating atmosphere and really pushing you down inside Gormenghast until you feel like you live there. By contrast the show's pace is breakneck. I figure the hour and a half I've watched so far must have covered hundreds of pages of text.
I will have to pick it up again at some point, when I'm in a better mood, if only to get to the part with Stephen Fry in it.
|Sunday, December 28, 2008 11:18 AM
|Book Report - Boy in Darkness and Other Stories and Mervyn Peake: Writings & Drawings
| by Fëanor
Boy in Darkness and Other Stories
Poppy got this book for me some time ago because she knew I wanted to read "Boy in Darkness." It's a collection of short stories by Mervyn Peake, all of which had been previously published, but which are here collected together for the first time, and accompanied by illustrations by Peake, which were selected for inclusion by his family and friends, as well as various experts. The titular tale is an adventure in the life of Titus Groan, a character whose life Peake had already explored in great detail in three novels. (You can read my reviews of those here.) This story is set during Titus' childhood, perhaps some time before or during the events of the second Titus book, Gormenghast. The boy is never given a name in the story, but it's clear from context and from things Peake himself said that he is meant to be Titus. As usual, Titus is feeling trapped by the ritual and rules of the castle, and runs off into the wilderness, where he soon finds himself lost and hungry and thirsty. He meets a dirty, creepy, goat-like man-thing who calls himself (understandably) Goat. Goat tells Titus he wants to take him to meet some other people, and promises he'll be fed there, but it's hard to know whether he can be trusted, or what will happen to Titus once he gets to this place. Titus responds as he usually does in a crisis: he faints. So Goat picks him up and begins carrying him. On the way, he runs into a colleague of his, a hyena-like man-thing called Hyena. It turns out they were both once men and have been made the way they are now by the power of another creature called the Lamb. The Lamb finds the essential animal nature in people and brings it out, transforming them. He once had many animal people in his court, doing his bidding, but all of them have long ago died from the trauma of their transformations - all except Goat and Hyena. Goat and Hyena have since been spending all their time looking for someone else for the Lamb to twist to his will, and now begin fighting over the honor of presenting Titus to their master. Titus wakes up in the middle of all this and realizes these two guys are pretty dumb and he can probably outsmart them. The Lamb, it turns out, is a blind monster with incredible psychic powers which he uses to inflict pain and control people's minds. But his powers require concentration, and Titus is ultimately able to break that concentration long enough to do what must be done. The buildup to the final confrontation is very slow and long, but after the climax, Peake seems to lose all interest in the story. Everything is quickly resolved in short, bland, straightforward sentences, and before we know it Titus is back in the castle and has no memory of this little adventure.
I found the very slow intro to this story rather frustrating and dull, and was annoyed again at Titus' tendency to pout and stomp and demand special treatment, and to faint at the least provocation. The story started to get really interesting only in the latter half, where we meet the strange entity known as the Lamb, and get a look at his huge, cavernous domain, full of strange old pieces of metal and a weird and mysterious history. Is the Lamb living in the burnt-out husk of some kind of post-apocalyptic domain? Where does his strange power come from? What is he? It's fascinating stuff. And the final confrontation, though it seems to happen rather suddenly and unexpectedly when it finally does happen, is exciting. But the way that Peake chose to end the story is really puzzling. On the one hand, I can understand why he wouldn't be interested in writing all the details of how Titus gets out and gets back - I'm not sure I'd be interested in reading it, either - but it seems like he could have spent at least a little more time on it. As it is, it feels like he's just utterly disinterested in what he's writing, and is just trying to throw together a quick conclusion so the story can be done. There's no explanation for why Titus forgets everything; it just seems to be a convenient device to explain why this didn't come up in the later parts of the Titus novels. So the story has its moments, but overall is a bit disappointing.
Next up is "The Weird Journey," which is indeed weird. It tells of someone awakening to find his body moving of its own volition through a strange and disturbing landscape. The story is surreal, nonsensical, and silly, and occasionally tries rather unsuccessfully to invoke a sense of horror. "I Bought a Palm-tree" is also silly, but otherwise rather realistic - it feels almost like an excerpt from a comical memoir. It's about the wacky misadventures that occur when a man decides to buy a palm-tree. Sadly it's not as amusing as I think Peake wanted it to be. "The Connoisseurs" is a short bit of irony about the sad and ridiculous gymnastics of the human mind, and the nature of beauty and authenticity. Two antiques experts at first are entranced by a beautiful vase, but slowly convince themselves it must be a fake, and therefore ugly. The only way to determine for sure whether it is or not is to smash it open. It's a weird little paradox, like that inherent in most tests for witches.
The next story is "Danse Macabre," which is about peoples' clothes coming to life. It's written as horror, but ends up being more silly than scary. Ultimately the events of the story do have horrific consequences, but it's hard to care much about what has happened, because Peake never spends any time letting us get to know or care about the characters. We learn almost nothing about them, except that they once loved one another. Of course, this can be interpreted as something more than a horror tale; it's also about two people in a broken relationship being pulled back together almost against their own wills. The story is a bit eerie, with a vaguely interesting (if also rather ridiculous) premise, but overall I think it's a failure.
"Same Time, Same Place" has a character at its heart with a dilemma similar to that of Titus. He's a young man who can't stand his family or the repetitive traditions of his home, and wants desperately to get out and away. But when he does escape, he finds himself frightened and alone. Things seem to change for the better when he falls for a woman he meets at a restaurant. He meets her there again and again. She is always there before him, and always insists that he leave first, so he never sees her stand or walk, but this is of little interest to him, and they make plans to marry. By chance, on his way to the ceremony, he catches a glimpse of her through a window and learns the secret she's been hiding from him: she's essentially half a woman, and is attended by a group of other people who are also... biological curiosities. He's horrified, deserts her, and retreats to his home, embracing its boring normality with relief and love, never to leave again.
It's a very disturbing story. The room full of freaks is described with a great deal of disgust and horror. When the narrator passes them by again at the end, the fear is still there, but it's now accompanied by a great deal of sadness and guilt. It's a weird mix of emotions. It's hard to know what to feel. Sure, the main character was betrayed and lied to, so you can sympathize with him to a certain extent, but it's impossible not to hate his cowardly retreat, desertion, and self-imprisonment at the end of the story. Peake's main characters always seem to react first to a crisis by running away from it. It's an irritating habit. Plus, there's the vague sense that the freaks are being picked on just for being freaks, and that's not cool.
I can't say I enjoyed this story, and not just because it left me unsettled, disturbed, and unsatisfied. The writing is also rather weak. It feels like it's trying to be a gothic horror tale, almost in the style of Lovecraft, but it's failing.
I'm glad I read it, but this collection is really not very good. None of these stories are particularly satisfying; in fact, most are some combination of gimmicky, bland, weird, pointless, and ineffective. Except for a few brief moments in the Lamb's lair in "Boy in Darkness," none of them showcase Peake's facility with language and his amazing descriptive abilities. It's interesting to see Peake experimenting here, dallying with memoir, comedy, the surreal, nonsense, and even gothic horror. But none of it comes close to his work in the Titus novels.
Mervyn Peake: Writings & Drawings
This is a large coffee table book containing a biography of Peake, along with many examples of his writing and art, including works in progress, and both previously published and previously unpublished pieces. I have to admit that I just scanned the biography and the longer excerpts, and concentrated mostly on the poetry and the illustrations. Peake's poetry ranges from nonsense stuff for children, in the vein of Lewis Carroll, to more serious, unrhymed works. I'm sad to say he's not very good at either, although the nonsense is marginally better. What really stands out in this book are his incredible illustrations. His work is really quite imaginative, unique, and beautiful. There's one section showcasing a short epistolary children's story he wrote, accompanied by illustrations of an adventure in the polar regions, that's particularly wonderful. I would also love to see a full set of his illustrations for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. This is definitely a fascinating book that gave me another, even more detailed look at Mervyn Peake as a man and as an artist.
|Saturday, March 22, 2008 07:13 PM
|(Last updated on Sunday, November 30, 2008 07:44 AM)
|Book Report - Titus Alone & Titus Awakes
| by Fëanor
I have finally finished Mervyn Peake's Titus books. You can find my thoughts on the first one, Titus Groan, here and here, and the second one, Gormenghast, here.
The volume I have, which collects all of the books together, also includes a number of critical essays which I haven't quite finished yet, but which have already enlightened me a bit about the details of Peake's life, and gotten me thinking about the books in new ways. Peake's biography is a pretty sad story. He was a poet, artist, illustrator, playwright, and novelist, but he never really struck it big in any of those fields during his lifetime. While he was still writing Titus Alone, he was taken ill with a form of Parkinson's disease which made it impossible for him to continue writing and which ultimately killed him. Peake was not able to assist in the editing and polishing of Titus Alone for publication. His wife, unsure of what to do, simply approved all of the publisher's suggestions for edits, which led to a number of whole chapters and some smaller sections being cut out. Some of that text has since been restored. But still, it's hard to look at Titus Alone as a complete, finished work.
Titus Awakes, the proposed sequel, suffered an even worse fate; of the little of the story Peake was able to record to paper, only a page and a half was legible. This page and a half is included in the very back of my volume, along with Peake's very basic notes on the characters and events that might have appeared in the rest of the book, and in the later Titus books Peake had envisaged.
The only other extant writing about Titus by Peake is a short story called "Boy in Darkness," set between the events of Gormenghast and Titus Alone. I might have to track that down one of these days.
As for Titus Alone itself, it's a very odd piece of fiction, even more so than the first two books, and indeed very unlike them. It may be a bit of a spoiler to say this, but I think it's important to mention that during this book we never return to the setting of Gormenghast, and in fact it is revealed at the end that Titus himself never returns to that place for the rest of his life. I realized this fact rather early on, and it kind of horrified me. One of the most interesting things about the first two books is Gormenghast - its vast beauty, its strange atmosphere, its mysterious rituals. To spend the first two books building up the place until it seems like another character, and to then discard it entirely in the third book seemed insane to me. But in fact Gormenghast's absence is a continual presence throughout this novel. Practically all that Titus talks about or thinks about is Gormenghast, and everything he does is in relation to Gormenghast. In a way, the book is about the fact that it is not set in Gormenghast.
As the book opens, Titus has been wandering away from Gormenghast apparently for some years. During that time, he has been followed continuously (and will be followed throughout this book) by a pair of identical helmeted men. Who they are and where they came from is never explained, but my immediate assumption was that they had been sent from Gormenghast to find their wayward Earl and bring him back home. If that's so, then their final act of murder at the end of the book is a little puzzling. Maybe they're simply meant to be a symbol of authority and tradition attempting to bring things back under control.
While escaping from these men for what is apparently not the first time, Titus sees a city in the distance. Titus displays his usual fortitude and collapses in a faint into the bottom of a boat, which fortuitously floats directly up to a dock of the city, where Titus is removed from the boat (again thanks to luck, or fate) by a beggar. The twin helmeted men come for Titus again, but the boy is swept away from them and into the heart of the city by one of the major characters of the novel, Muzzlehatch.
Besides being one of the book's major characters, Muzzlehatch is also pretty much the book's only likable character. He is a huge man with a generous nature, and a love of adventure and of animals.
One of the first things we see of Muzzlehatch is his car, and this is just the first of the many shocks the book had in store for me. I mean, a car? I wasn't sure what we would find in the world outside of Gormenghast, but in the first two novels, the castle seems pretty clearly to be situated in a Medieval world - a world of horses and swords. Instead, the world that Titus stumbles into here is one of machines and electricity, airplanes and robots. It is, in short, a science fiction setting. To find not only that Gormenghast has been denied us, but that now we are also in a completely different genre is more than a little unsettling. And it's odder still that Titus himself, having grown up, I assume, without ever even having heard of any of these technologies or devices, and certainly without ever having seen them, doesn't seem to find them particularly surprising or hard to understand.
But back to Muzzlehatch's car. It's quite a fantastic contraption, and described as if it is almost alive; Muzzlehatch even ties it to a nearby tree or post when he's done with it. In other words he treats it like another one of his animals - of which he keeps an entire zoo at his house. These animals are nearly human in their emotions and actions, and Muzzlehatch has a strange power over them. He's quite a character. But instantly upon awaking, Titus flees from Muzzlehatch and his zoo. This will be the pattern of the book, repeated over and over. Essentially, Titus' journey is never one to anywhere in particular; it is always instead away from Gormenghast, and away from any other person or place that might try to offer him help or love or kindness - anyone that tries to ask anything of him, hold him down, or control him in any way. Titus is in no way a man of action. He is a man of reaction. Since he was a boy it seems he's spent most of his life fainting, passing out, and collapsing. He is a lost man, running from everything. He wants most of all to not be the Earl of Gormenghast - to not be a part of that gigantic, consuming machine of ritual - but at the same time, that machine is all that he knows, and all that he is. What can he be if he is not the Earl of Gormenghast? He spends the whole book trying to discover the answer to this, to find himself, even while he's obsessed with dreams of his past life. Perversely, now that he has gotten far enough away from Gormenghast that no one knows what it is, he is outraged by their ignorance. Why do they not treat him with the respect due his position? Don't they know that he's the one who hunted down and slew the madman Steerpike, enemy of Gormenghast? (This act - the only real action he ever performed - is his most treasured memory.) In fact, they don't know, and they find his stories of Gormenghast so unlikely that many believe they are just that - stories. In fact, they think he's a madman himself, and after a while, he even begins to suspect that perhaps Gormenghast is just a fantasy or a dream and that it never really existed.
A thought that eerily calls to mind the fact that Gormenghast is, of course, just a story. Which further calls to mind parallels between this book and the real world. Is Titus' perverse love/hate relationship with Gormenghast a symbol of Peake's own love/hate relationship with the fictional place he built? Did Peake think it had to be left behind for the Titus story to grow, only to realize that it was the very soul of the Titus story?
Perhaps I'm reading too much into things there. But it certainly feels as if Peake, the man, is more at the forefront of this novel than of any of the others. Part of him must at least be there in the character of the tired old writer, confined to his bed or a wheelchair, and surrounded always by towering structures made out of his own unsold books.
Whether the story is really about Peake himself or not, it continues with Titus stumbling into an even more science fiction-like part of the city, where he finds himself running from automatons into a deserted part of a large building, and from there observing a surreally crowded party where the rich and extremely eccentric are whiling away their time. He falls into the room and is on the verge of being arrested when he is saved miraculously yet again by Muzzlehatch, who appears just in the nick of time. Also helping him this time is the beautiful, bounteous Juno, a character who is so full of all of the classically good characteristics of a woman - loving, giving, and nurturing, and yet also sexual, alluring, and adventurous - that she seems to be an almost impossible archetype. As usual, Titus angrily rejects the help and love they selflessly offer him, and manages to get arrested after all.
And the story continues like this, with Titus getting himself into horrible trouble, somebody (usually Muzzlehatch) saving him, and Titus being rude and idiotic and running away again. Titus' perverse obsessions, and the arc of his character through the book, are interesting in an abstract sense, but annoying in practice; mostly you just want to slap him as he constantly whines and moans about Gormenghast, and collapses into faints and feverish dreams of Gormenghast, and insults the only people who love him. The final sequence, where he comes all the way to the last hill beyond which he knows the towers of his home rise - so close that he can even hear the bells ringing there - and then turns and runs away forever, is very moving and effective. And there are in fact a number of interesting concepts in the rest of the story - like the idea of someone building a faux Gormenghast and peopling it with horrible parodies of the people Titus knew there, in order to drive him finally into true madness - but most are executed just as poorly as the main character and premise. The story is badly paced, episodic, and full of seemingly meaningless and pointless (and not to mention boring and irritating) characters and scenes. The dialogue and narration is often melodramatic and unsubtle and clumsy. Many of the characters are half-formed and two-dimensional. Every once in a while there are glimpses of Peake's talent for visual description, and some interesting concepts well executed (as in that final scene), but mostly this is just a very disappointing novel that I found it rather hard to get through. It's quite a step down from the other Titus books.
As for the few pages of Titus Awakes that survived, it's hard to even give them much of a review. They pick up exactly where Titus Alone ends, with Titus running down the hill and away from Gormenghast. He then falls into a strange, seemingly symbolic dream peopled by some of the characters from the other novels - including Flay and Swelter. Which is odd, because if I remember correctly Swelter died before Titus could ever have really seen and known him. I also found it odd that Titus knew in Titus Alone that his father had died by being eaten alive by owls. I could be wrong, but I thought that was a secret that Flay took with him to his grave. Maybe at this point in the series, Peake had simply lost his hold on the continuity. Certainly this page and a half are full of typos, misspellings, and other errors.
It's very sad that Peake's illness not only ended the Titus series prematurely, but very probably took its toll on the quality of the final, "completed" book. Still, I'm very glad to have read this series, and definitely consider Titus Groan and Gormenghast to be truly great, and truly unique, epics of the fantastic.
|Saturday, February 23, 2008 06:38 PM
|Book Report: Gormenghast
| by Fëanor
In the first book of Mervyn Peake's Titus series (my impressions of which you can find here and here), we are introduced to the world of Gormenghast and to some of the most important people there. It is an enormous, rotting, haunted place, nearly crushed under the weight of its own history and traditions. It is a place of reverie and inertia, a world of its own - an amazing place. Into this place of changelessness enter three people who will be great agents of change: the newly born heir, Titus Groan, who even in his infancy is the enemy of tradition; the child of Titus' surrogate mother, who has no part in the first book, but will have a very important one in the second; and a young man who works in the kitchens named Steerpike. Titus Groan opens with Steerpike - unhappy with his master, the chef - escaping the kitchens, only to be locked into a room by the Earl's first servant, Flay, who, although also an enemy of the chef, is first and foremost the enemy of anyone who tries to break the rules and traditions of Gormenghast. And Steerpike's attempt to rebel against his lot puts him amongst that latter group of people. Steerpike quickly escapes the room, makes a perilous journey across the rooftops of Gormenghast, and finally sneaks through a window and into an attic room that Fuschia, the daughter of the Earl, thought was her own secret place where she could live out her childhood dreams of fantasy. It's the first time, but not the last, that he will shatter her delicate world of fantasy.
At this point we still sympathize with Steerpike as a man trapped in an unhappy life fighting back against the paralyzing and pointless customs of the castle, in search of escape and a little happiness of his own. But soon enough - as we watch him work his way into the good graces of Dr. Prunesquallor, and from there into the service of the twin sisters of the Earl, whom he soon transforms into his own servants - we discover that he is actually a cold-blooded, heartless creature, seeking only power, with an intensity and a cunning and a machine-like determination that is horrific.
It's his actions that drive most of the events of the first two Titus books. It's his actions that bring death and change to the dusty halls of Gormenghast.
In the second book, we watch Titus grow from a young boy into a young man, and he loses none of his defiant spirit, but instead adds to it a fully-formed desire to be free of the mantle of Gormenghast and its endless rituals, and to become his own man, and not a symbol - not an Earl. He is therefore both the symbol of Gormenghast, and the enemy of all that it is.
Joining both Titus and Steerpike as an agent of change and rebellion is the daughter of Titus' surrogate mother and wet nurse, a creature known only as The Thing. The Thing is the only real element of fantasy in any of the books so far. Born out of the passionate union of the wet nurse and one of the most talented of the Bright Carvers - who died fighting a rival for her love only hours after the conception of the child - she is somehow more and less than human. She's extremely small and frail, and she can fly. In fact, she's essentially a fairy - or an elf, which is the word actually used to describe her in the third book (yeah, I started reading that one already). She's rejected by her people as a cursed thing - less because she's such an odd creature and more because she's a child born out of wedlock - so she becomes a wild, free being, without a home or a language, living as she likes out in the wilds around Gormenghast. When Titus sees her briefly as a child, while running away from his home (not for the first or last time), she immediately fascinates him and becomes the object of his dreams and fantasies. She's the symbol of everything that is not Gormenghast, of everything he wants - freedom, passion, rebellion, the Other. When he sees her again many years later, what he thought was a dream he realizes is reality, and the urge to possess her, and to escape Gormenghast, rises up in him again even stronger than it's ever been. In many ways this second book is a coming of age story. Titus does not really become a man, but he at least leaves his innocence and his boyhood behind.
Whole new aspects of the life at Gormenghast are explored in this book, and the series takes on new subjects and proccupations. We are introduced, first of all, to the professors, and to the school that all the children of Gormenghast, including Titus, must attend. Peake uses these sections to exercise his gifts of parody and satire, and to great effect; most of the passages making fun of the musty, lazy, ineffectual educational system in the castle are truly hilarious, and work quite well as a bitterly sarcastic comment on the world of academics in general.
It's in this part of the book that we get introduced to the arrogant, absent-minded, bombastic, lovable character of Bellgrove - a professor who eventually becomes both the headmaster and one of Titus' closest friends. The love affair between Bellgrove and Dr. Prunesquallor's sister, Irma, is a nearly unbearably uncomfortable comedy of errors which works as a satire of romance and marriage. It was the toughest part of the book for me to get through, but in its own way it's as clever and well done as the rest of the novel, and even ends up being rather sweet.
But again, as in the first book, the most entrancing "character" is Gormenghast itself. The castle, the forest nearby, and Gormenghast mountain are described in vivid, painstaking detail, thanks to Peake's incredible ability to build a complete, real, physical world out of words. The castle is an endlessly fascinating warren of dusty, rotting tunnels, forgotten towers and rooms, inexplicable labyrinths. It and its surroundings are populated by a fascinating collection, not only of people, but also of animals, many of which are the special favorites of Countess Gertrude. Peake speaks of the castle breathing, and describes in breathtaking detail the way the light falls across its towers, or how various occurences of catastrophic weather affect the place - the snowstorm that keeps the castle bound in ice for weeks, as the birds drop dead from the trees; and, most amazingly, the flood that slowly fills the castle, floor by floor, until the trees outside are entirely submerged, the inhabitants drag their possessions up and up, and everyone must resort to travelling through the hallways in boats fashioned by the Bright Carvers.
These first two books - Titus Groan and Gormenghast - have actually been adapted into a BBC TV miniseries. I'm curious to see it, but I've heard mixed things, and I don't see how they could have captured the unique flavor and eerie beauty of the book. It seems to me the perfect director for a film adaptation of the Titus books would be Terrence Malick. His dreamy, introspective style and wandering eye for visual beauty would be ideal. He'd also need a huge budget to recreate Gormenghast in all its glory, and the movie would have to be about 20 hours long. But still. I think it would be great.
Of course, it helps that the source material is so excellent. Gormenghast is an amazing creation. It's an adventure epic, a gothic novel, a horror tale, a satire, a coming of age story, and a fantasy - all at once, and all equally effectively. It's a unique and beautiful work, and it's truly a shame that Peake did not live to complete the series. Still, I look forward to finishing the third book, Titus Alone. Look for the review here!
|Tuesday, November 27, 2007 12:11 PM
|Book Report: Titus Groan
| by Fëanor
I finally finished the first of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast novels the other day. My original impressions still stand - the novel continues throughout to be an incredible exercise in world-building, language-play, character development, and description. It is very long, and it does drag a bit every once in a while, but it actually does have a plot in which quite a lot happens. There's romance, murder, suicide, and intrigue; humor, terror, tragedy, and mysticisim. And everything proceeds with a sense of inevitability and Doom.
So yeah, it's not exactly a barrel of fun - it's actually quite dark and depressing. And it's certainly not a book I'd recommend trying to read a lot of all at once. But I found it an impressive and uniqe work full of creative genius, and I've already started the sequel.
|Wednesday, September 26, 2007 01:01 PM
|Thoughts on Titus Groan
| by Fëanor
Quite a while ago (I think Christmas?) poppy got for me a great big paperback book collecting all three of the existing Gormenghast novels (as well as a bit of the planned, but never completed, fourth novel; some critical essays; and two introductions, one by Quentin Crisp, and another by Anthony Burgess). It's a series I'd heard a bit about and had been curious about reading, so I was quite pleased with the gift, but I didn't actually get around to even opening the thing up until just recently (although I'm already also reading a book poppy just gave me for my birthday, so I'm getting better). The author, Mervyn Peake, is both a writer and an illustrator, so a picture drawn by him will occasionally crop up in the text. (So far I've only seen one, and it wasn't that impressive, but keep in mind that at this point I've read only a few chapters.)
The first book, Titus Groan, was published in 1946, the second four years after that, and the third nine years after that. But really, the world of Gormenghast, the people in it, and the way they speak are all so pulled out of time and so separate from our own world that the books could easily have been written as long ago as the 1900s and as recently as yesterday.
Some people apparently sort this series into the fantasy genre, but (so far, at least) it is not at all what would be considered traditional fantasy. It's not swords and sorcery, knights and dragons, that sort of thing. It's just another world - a very small, insular one, consisting of a castle and the houses surrounding it. A world, yes, trapped in a medieval sort of past. But a world also that's absolutely choking with the weight of time and dust and tradition and with the necessity of observing a whole host of strange and pointless rituals.
Now, as I've said, I haven't gotten too far into these books yet, but I'm already really struck by Peake's incredibly imaginative, extremely visual - and visceral - writing style. He has a really amazing ability to describe places and people such that you not only see them very clearly in your mind, you can actually feel the atmosphere around them, hear the sounds, sense the heat, and even smell the scents. Images in this book are already haunting me. The cluttered, messy room of Lady Groan, with its spider-like chandelier, the ever-growing cone of dripped wax on the table beneath it, the birds perching on the bed rung, and then the hordes of white cats swarming in. And the characters and what they have to say are just as memorable, complex, and fascinating. Very little has actually happened in the story as yet (except that the title character has been born - apparently he'll only be two by the end of the first book), and normally I find books that move very slowly and are full of descriptions rather boring. And maybe I will lose interest eventually. But for now this one has me absolutely riveted.