Last week, browsing yon olde booke shoppe, I came across a battered but beautiful copy of Mervyn Peake’s novel Gormenghast. I can’t remember how or where I heard of Peake’s trilogy of not-quite-fantasy novels, but when I spied the spine I pulled it, loved the cover, and asked Twitter if the novels were any good. The answer seemed to be a resounding, Yes.
I picked up a Penguin Modern Classics edition of the first part of the trilogy, Titus Groan, along with the beautiful Ballantine edition of Gormenghast today. I also couldn’t resist a first edition of Sontag’s Under the Sign of Saturn.
I started Titus Groan today, and after pushing through its thick opening paragraphs, started to really dig it. The opening sentences are a bit of a hurdle. Here’s the first paragraph, thick and even foreboding in its diction and syntax:
Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls. They sprawled over the sloping earth, each one half way over its neighbour until, held back by the castle ramparts, the innermost of these hovels laid hold on the great walls, clamping themselves thereto like limpets to a rock. These dwellings, by ancient law, were granted this chill intimacy with the stronghold that loomed above them. Over their irregular roofs would fall throughout the seasons, the shadows of time-eaten buttresses, of broken and lofty turrets, and, most enormous of all, the shadow of the Tower of Flints. This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven. At night the owls made of it an echoing throat; by day it stood voiceless and cast its long shadow.
It was “the owls made of it an echoing throat” that made me want to keep going. Peake, like Faulkner or Cormac McCarthy, is a wordslinger. A few pages in he made me look up the word “recrudescent.” I was proud of myself a few pages later when Peake busted out “catalpytic,” which I guess I sort of knew (“a catalyptic mass of wine-drenched blubber” was the phrase). Describing some castle drudges getting drunks, he notes that they “attacked the bungs as though unweaned” which cracked me up. By the time little Titus is born, the book seems to make more sense to me: funny, thick, imaginative, but also abject, a bit gross, grotesque even, drunk on its own thick language.