What better testament to the power of literature, than Peake’s melancholy Sepulchrave who goes insane and thinks himself an owl, after his beloved library is burned to ashes?!? In the beyond bonkers, elaborate world of The Gormenghast Novels, ritual and tradition govern everything, and Sepulchrave (the 76th Earl of the novels’ universe) finds his only solace in books. In donating this book to the world I hope it will be a refuge and distraction from the monotony of routine for many readers across the planet, as it has been for me…
Gormenghast is a great crumbling mass of stone and grandiose architecture, inhabited by one of the most surreal and extreme sets of characters you are likely to come across in any novel. This is a world I have occupied and adored for many years, reading and rereading the novels since my teens. I invite you join to me there! Let’s be frank, the trilogy is looooooong, but it is the sort of book that you can dip in and out of over time – leave on a bedside table or save for soapy, candle-lit baths. It definitely is NOT a kindle-kinda-book, you’ll want to turn the pages for real with this one! I have a confession to make here: I have never finished the rambling third installment Titus Alone, which even Peake himself faded out on and never fully finished writing. If whoever finds my copy gets to the final page (…that would be page 1023!) then please upload your thoughts on the site and let me know what happens to Titus.
You can see where I left the book in a public place in this picture………..did you find it?
Insider’s tip: The Gormenghast Novels are also excellent read outloud. Peake delights in language (more on this later) with luxuriant and poetic descriptions, but it is chiefly the dialogue that makes it such a joy to read outside your head and to someone else. From obese Chef Swelter’s sweaty, flabby stutter to Doctor Prunesquallor’s manic laughter and affected linguistic flourishes, Peake’s character’s are born through their rich range of theatrical voices. Even the names – Gertrude Countess of Groan, Keda, Sourdust and his son Barquentine – sing on the tongue and express so much.
The driving, destructive force that propels you through the creaking corridors and limitless vistas of the citadel/state of Gormenghast is Steerpike – a machiavellian protagonist and a villain who you may find it hard to hate. We experience the castle’s kitchens, schoolrooms and ancient hierarchies from the ground upwards as Steerpike climbs up the power ladder, manipulating people and situations as he ascends.
We encounter a Countess who prefigures the internet’s cat obsession (she is constantly surrounded by hundreds of feline friends); we witness an embittered grudge between two servants escalate into violence in the twilight; we grimace as a Stockholm-syndrome of sorts takes control of Clara and Cora, the batty identical twins who are bullied into arson; we watch young Titus, the infant Earl, rebel against the castle traditions and we pity Nannie Slagg as she bumbles about in her efforts to protect him. I don’t want to give anything of the eccentric plot away here, but will only say that by the time you reach its bloody climax you’ll be unsure where you stand: with the decaying traditions and crumbling bricks of Gormenghast or its merciless and immoral, young assailant.
To my mind, Peake’s creative majesty makes other universally popular fantasy novels – Harry Potter, Lord of The Rings, Game of Thrones – look imaginatively barren and unoriginal. The genius of Gormenghast lies in its proximity to a reality we all know and recognise. Its narrative is a story well-trodden in both art and history. The tale of the low-ranking, socially excluded nobody who rises to take on the dusty establishment. The concerns of the bizarre and otherworldly figures are also not so dissimilar from our own. In base terms the ridiculous Irma Prunesquallor just wants to be loved, Fuchsia is a lonely daydreamer and Flay is the dark horse who you think exists only for the sake of his job, until the plot twists to reveal his true colours. For all its unsettling familiarity, Gormenghast transports us to a totally parallel place, where everything is warped and amplified to take on proportions of the grotesque and insane. Peake describes everything in such fanatically minute detail, that the writing feels like realism and the reader is utterly absorbed in this uncanny, caricature of a universe.
Another reason for my deep and enduring love of this book is Peake’s playful and exuberant use of language. He spends whole passages rambling on about the corridors and towers, like somebody taking their time over a fine meal, adding endless condiments and aperitifs. This is a common trope of the fantasy novel – some wise guy famously parodied Tolkien, writing 20 pages of waffle about a journey up the M1. However, for me, Gormenghast is different. There is nothing dry about the writing, meaning the lengthy, languid descriptive parts flutter by in pure, lexical pleasure. I’m also pretty sure that, like Lewis Carroll (…and of course, Shakespeare) before him, Peake was partial to nonsense language and made up words to suit his purposes, when English didn’t provide him with an accurate way to express his madcap sentiments!
A lot of readers and critics may well try to make Steerpike, the castle and the rest of the shenanigans that go on inside it, into an analogy for various different historical occurrences or moral quandaries.The Dickensian names and real-world parallels make this tempting. However I am pretty convinced that Peake intended The Gormenghast Novels to mean nothing at all – and that is exactly why they mean so much to me. As a literature graduate who ordinarily delights in dissecting the complexities of authors’ intentions and literary innovation, Gormenghast is a breath of fresh air: an intelligent and exquisitely well-written novel, for the sheer sake of it. Peake plays with language for the joy of words and creates an imaginary world filled with truly extraordinary characters and occurrences, for the love of escape alone.