The Illustrated Gormenghast Trilogy

The Illustrated Gormenghast Trilogy - Mervyn Peake, Michael Moorcock These are deeply weird books that are difficult to describe or categorize. In the introduction, Anthony Burgess, who calls it a "modern classic," comparable to other celebrated British works of the 1940s such as those by Orwell or Waugh, says there "is no really close relative to it in all our prose literature." I actually bought the trilogy this is part of years ago because it was recommended on the "Seven-League Shelf" of "the cream" of modern fantasy works. But there's nothing supernatural in it. Only it's set in an imaginary world not quite ours, a Gothic Downton Abbey or Upstairs Downstairs about a decrepit warren-like castle and its grotesque inhabitants bound by elaborate and arcane ritual. The era is hard to place historically and the feeling of the book very claustrophobic. There doesn't seem to be a world outside Gormenghast Castle for its inhabitants. The title character, Titus, destined to become 77th Earl of Groan and Lord of Gormenghast Castle, is only just born when first 500 plus page novel begins and when that book ends he's not yet two-years-old. The characters have such Dickensian names as Sepulchrave, Steerpike, Sourdust and Prunesquallor and no one in the first hundred pages seemed likeable. Titus' mother tells the nanny to take away her newborn son and she'll see him when he's six--then calls her cats to her. The relationship between servants such as Manservant Flay and Chef Swelter and the machinations of kitchen boy Steerpike are positively Byzantine. Lady Fuchsia and Dr Prunesquallor did grow on me though--there was more to both of them than first met the eye and by the middle of the book I was hooked. The language is baroque and the pace defines "leisurely" except that makes it sound too informal and light. Mind you, the prose is, if over-descriptive, aptly descriptive. Everything is vividly painted. And I mean everything from the glass grapes on Nannie Slagg's hat to the cutlery, plates and napkins "folded into the shapes of peacocks" set out for breakfast in Stone Hall. I get why a friend of mine abandoned the first book before she reached 100 pages. There is a black humor threaded throughout, but the overall atmosphere is oppressive because all but a few of the characters are some combination of stupid, malignant or mad. I found the book more readable though as I got used to Peake's style and grew more fond of a few of the characters. I was warned that Titus Alone, the third and last part, "gets even... weirder," and I'd say that's the case, and it feels very different than the other two. The Publisher's Note says that Peake was already suffering from the illness that killed him when he was writing the story, and that the text had to be pieced together from a manuscript and notes--it was essentially a draft, not a polished, finished novel, and I think you can see that in reading this book. It's a lot sketchier than the other two books, with a third of the chapters less than a page, and some merely a few paragraphs, as if what he wrote was a mere outline he intended to flesh out later, and the third book is half the length of the other two. Ironically I think that did pick up the pace--this was a faster read than the first two books, but not I think a better read, even if the prose was still vivid and and the imagination still prodigious as seen in creations like the Under-River. The plot and characters, the style even, of the first two books for all their strangeness had their own internal logic, which I felt the last one lacked. Which is not to say this book didn't have its fascinations and flashes of the prior brilliance. So not a strong close, but as a whole I found the trilogy worth the read: unique.