David Louis Edelman David Louis Edelman

“Titus Groan” by Mervyn Peake

Kafka never reached his castle. K., protagonist of his last, unfinished novel The Castle, was hindered in his quest to reach the castle by petty bureaucracy, malevolent chance, and, not least, the sudden death of the book’s author from tuberculosis.

In Franz Kafka’s eyes, at least, the castle is forever unreachable. Even though K. has been summoned by the castle itself to conduct an important land survey, he will never make it inside the castle’s gates. Instead, he will live and die at the foot of the castle, prostrate to its whims and powerless to control his destiny.

Mervyn Peake, 1935. Copyright the Estate of Mervyn PeakeAnd how could one possibly imagine what awaits K. inside that castle anyway? You can’t describe the capricious will of fate in words. God doesn’t pose for snapshots.

But if Kafka never reached his castle, then Mervyn Peake (pictured, left, in 1935) surely did. Not only did Mervyn Peake reach the castle, but he wrote an exhaustive exploration of it in his novel Titus Groan (1946).

If I had heard of Mervyn Peake before, say, 2003, I knew him as an author of the macabre in the tradition of Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft, but hailing from the other side of the Atlantic. I can’t recall ever having seen a copy of Titus Groan or its two sequels in a U.S. bookstore, though admittedly I never sought them out. But when I read that China MiĆ©ville, Jeff VanderMeer, and Hal Duncan all count Peake among their major influences — VanderMeer even going so far as to rank his work #2 on his list of Essential Fantasy works — I knew I had to take a peek at Peake myself.

I expected bogeymen. I expected Creeping Horrors and Blood-Curd’ling Chills. I didn’t expect Franz Kafka.

I’m unclear how familiar Peake was with Kafka, whose works really didn’t find a wide audience in the English-speaking world until the Willa and Edwin Muir translations of the ’40s. But even if there was no direct connection between the two men, clearly they were channeling the same ghosts. Titus Groan is nothing less than the extension of Franz Kafka’s vision to its chilling nadir. It’s Franz Kafka narrated by a stuffy British professor in tweed who’s long ago retreated into the bitter chambers of his imagination and shut the doors, tight.

Titus Groan chronicles approximately two years in the life of the inhabitants of Gormenghast Castle. Where is Gormenghast? Does it reside in our world? And when does the story take place? Unknown, unknown, and unknown.

Gormenghast is a world so encrusted with ritual that any hint of spontaneity has been choked away. Sepulchrave, the 76th Earl of Groan and master of Gormenghast, spends his life as a slave to a series of meaningless rites and mysteries handed down by his predecessors. Kafka’s protagonists stood timorously outside mystery’s gates, waiting in vain for a chance to enter; Peake’s protagonists inhabit the mystery, they live and breathe it, they are the mystery.

(And when you say “mystery,” don’t think we’re talking about God, as Kafka was; Gormenghast has no God. It has no magic. It’s a world utterly devoid of the divine, a world of ritual that seemingly only exists for its own sake and not for the gratification of any higher power.)

The hallmarks of what has become known as the Kafkaesque — the stultifying obsession with self, the inability to communicate with one’s fellows, the frustration with a world ruled by faceless fate, the gallows humor — can all be found in Gormenghast. But there’s a certain egalitarianism at work here that’s not found in Kafka’s work. There are no insiders and outsiders here; Titus Groan shows us a world in which everyone is a self-contained, autonomous, impenetrable unit. Kafka’s Gregor Samsa awakes to find himself transformed into a giant insect, and thus shunned by and cut off from society; Peake’s Sepulchrave lives in a world where everyone is a giant insect, where society itself is but the discordant babble of giant insects.

Titus Groan by Mervyn PeakeAnd so we have Doctor Prunesquallor, who communicates in enigmatic bursts of soliloquy and then provides his own laugh track. We have twin sisters Cora and Clarice, who speak to one another only for the purpose of self-examination. We have the Earl’s daughter Fuchsia, who secludes herself in a series of attics above her room that only she can find. We have the servant Flay and the cook Swelter, whose poisonous feud feeds on itself in silence over months until it reaches its inevitable murderous conclusion.

Into this world comes the Machiavellian youth Steerpike, a kitchen hand who yearns to rise above his station. And rise he does, through careful scheming that undoes countless centuries of tradition and ritual at Gormenghast, to the ruin of all (except Steerpike).

So is Titus Groan a meditation on self-improvement? A call to arms against tradition and conformity? A polemic against capricious fate?

It is, in fact, none of those things. It’s a hermetically sealed story from which no hint of a moral or message escapes. It’s a book smuggled from inside the castle itself, where we are not allowed. It’s a linguistic artifice of the highest order that’s both grindingly dull at times — Peake can spend an entire page describing the expression on a man’s face — and eminently fascinating.

One hears these words applied many times to this or that work of art, but in this case it’s absolute truth: Titus Groan is a completely and utterly unique work of literature.

Enter at your own peril.

(Further reading: Check out the official Mervyn Peake website set up by his estate. I have not yet read the second and third novels in the Gormenghast trilogy — Gormenghast and Titus Alone, respectively — as they’re still sitting in my “in” pile. Under, ironically enough, books by China MiĆ©ville, Jeff VanderMeer, and Hal Duncan.)

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  1. Armchair Anarchist on July 3, 2006 at 9:35 am  Chain link

    A compelling and unique work of literature indeed; nothing in the world of literature is even close.

    But I’d contest the lack of an escaping meaning or moral; I believe some British academics have seen it as a satire on British society at the time of writing, and (with the aid of the admittedly poor grasp of history I have) I think I can see where they’re coming from.

    But meaning be damned; it’s still fine fiction, and that’s the important thing. Glad you enjoyed it.

  2. David Louis Edelman on July 3, 2006 at 9:42 am  Chain link

    The interesting thing about the book’s meaning/moral (as Anthony Burgess rightly points out in the introduction) is that Peake throws so many red herrings at the reader.

    At times you think you’re reading a satire about class warfare or religion or the conformity of society; and then Peake purposefully thwarts your expectations. It’s almost a meta-novel in that way, a novel about what a novel should be; but of course, Peake thwarts that expectation as well.

  3. Armchair Anarchist on July 3, 2006 at 6:35 pm  Chain link

    A slippery piece of work indeed…Gormenghast is (arguably) even better, though you may find Titus Alone a little clunky, if full of interesting ideas (it almost verges on Moorcockian SF, to be honest). His surreal/absurd poetry is well worth a read too, if you can find it. Hard to get hold of, though, even over here.

    Happy reading!

  4. […] I’ve finally completed Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast Trilogy and thought I’d share my impressions. (Read my review of the first novel, Titus Groan.) […]

  5. Hans on June 12, 2009 at 4:50 am  Chain link

    It’s rather well-known that Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island was one of Mervyn Peake’s favorite youth books. However, when I read the Gormenghast novels I cannot help but see it that way, that Kafka’s work made about the same impression on him, and in terms of his style, far more so. I’m quite happy about it, as I admire Kafka’s style and I think it gives Mervyn Peake’s novels some of his most distinguished trademarks around writers of the fantastic, although not without him applying such masterful effects to his own ends, and with his own dickensian grammar and blakean poetry and deeply original characterisation. I think Mervyn Peake was a connaisseur of the expressionist scene, and perhaps as the essay title “From Beowufl to Kafka” suggests about anything else in literature. It is at least good enough to give you such a strong impression when reading the work.

    It is easy to dislike his works but I happen to have fallen in love with it.

  6. Links for 04-07-2006 | Velcro City Tourist Board on January 1, 2011 at 12:05 pm  Chain link

    […] – Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake David louis Edelman has just discovered Mervyn Peake. He’s rather pleased with the discovery […]

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