Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Gormenghast, by Mervyn Peake


This books follows the adventures of young Titus Groan, the seventy-seventh Earl of Gormenghast--a role to which he is by no means reconciled. As Titus resents (and occasionally rebels against) his lordly responsibilities, the cleverly malevolent Steerpike plots his own advancement, by whatever means necessary. His schemes take him through the vast expanse of Gormenghast--a sprawling, decrepit castle of truly mind-boggling dimensions.  But Steerpike's subtle machinations have not gone unnoticed, and Dr. Prunesquallor and exiled valet Flay are hot on his trail.  In other news, Dr. Prunesquallor's spinster sister is on the hunt for a suitor.

The Gormenghast novels are notoriously difficult to categorize.  There are definite gothic influences, to be sure, but there is a flavor of high fantasy about the series, even though it contains no magic or supernatural elements (unless you count the sheer size of Gormenghast itself), and no non-human intelligent races (though several human characters seem a mere hair's breadth from goblins or dwarves or gnomes or elves).  The focus on the hierarchical social structures, and the 'drawing room' nature of many of the sequences has led some to dub this a fantasy of manners.

This novel has considerably more action than the first book (Titus Groan), though it's still longer than it needs to be.  Peake was a poet and artist as well as an author, and his love for detailed imagery and the written word lead him to wax eloquent and poetic (and long winded) as he paints an intricate word picture of the settings in and around Gormenghast.  Don't get me wrong--his writing is exquisite.  There's just a lot of it, and at more than 400 pages, it takes a while to get through it all.

In other words, it's not the sort of book that lends itself to being read in snippets--it is not a commuter book, nor is it good reading for those last few minutes before you drop off to sleep. It cannot be hurried along.  Which is admittedly frustrating, as it takes a while for the action to really kick in.  This is the sort of book you read in long, languid stretches, curled up in an overstuffed armchair by a fire on a rainy day or a winter's eve.  With a cup of tea.

Still, if you've got the patience (and time) to wade into this tome, it is most definitely worth your while.  Peake, in addition to being a skillful (if verbose) wordsmith, has a killer sense of humor, and there is plenty here to tickle your funny bone.  Steerpike is a formidable villain, and the climactic showdown is much more compelling (and satisfying) than the more slow-moving Titus Groan.

Bottom line: This book is deserving of its reputation, but it takes significant fortitude to slog through.  If you like high fantasy, gothic literature, and comedies of manners, you will probably like this book.  Just be prepared for a long and occasionally arduous read.

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