March has largely been dreary and cold (at least where I am), so I declared it Fantasy month, which in turn made it time to tackle Titus Groan for the 2016 Classics Challenge.
When I discovered this Classic
A relative gave me a copy of Titus Groan when I was a teenager, and deeply in love with Lord of the Rings. I remember that I struggled through the novel out of politeness, but little else about it. Not surprising really, since Titus Groan has little in common with the heroic fantasy I savoured at the time.
Why I chose to read it
I felt like it was time to take another look at a Fantasy Classic.
What makes it a Classic
I think that Titus Groan is considered a Classic because it was one of those early Twentieth-Century Fantasy novels that paved the way for the expansion of the genre. It holds it’s own, after all these years, because Mervyn Peake created a detailed world, and because his story is so different from the standard Fantasy quest novels that followed Tolkien.
What I thought of this Classic (may contain spoilers)
The action of the novel starts with the birth of Titus Groan, heir to Gormenghast, and covers the first year or so of his life. The author gradually gives us a sense of the place, building up small details as he introduces us to the many characters who inhabit Gormenghast, and slowly reveals the plotting that brings Titus to his inheritance at a young age. Most of the changes, which begin poisoning the old traditions, come at the instigation of Steerpike, a kitchen boy who escapes the kitchen, and his confined status, to place himself at the centre of power.
My first problem with this novel is the pace. There are lengthy paragraphs of description, which I find dull (I managed to read seven other books in the time it took me to wade through this novel). Perhaps the detailed descriptions are helpful to people who’ve never seen a castle or stately home, but I found that they slowed the narrative down. It’s not always clear how much time has passed, in fact the author occasionally skips back to older events when the point of view shifts to a new character, which again muddies the narrative flow.
Another problem I have with the novel is that all of the characters are so deliberately grotesque and unlikeable. I don’t expect to like every character in a book, but I expect that at least one character will gain my sympathy; Fuschia caught a glimmer of it toward the end, but I spent most of my time thinking that these miserable people all deserved to be shut up in the rotting castle where they found themselves.
A final disappointment is that, for all the talk of ancient tradition, and paragraphs of description, Gormenghast felt flat and disconnected from anything. What country is it in? Where does their food come from (typically places like this would receive tithes or buy their food from farmers in the surrounding lands)? Where did the Countess come from? Why does no-one from outside Gormenghast (beyond the Carvers who depend upon it in some mysterious way) attend the ceremonies for Titus’ birth or investiture? Perhaps this is addressed in the sequels, but the apparent deadness of the place didn’t inspire me to read on.
Will it stay a Classic
I think that Titus Groan is too firmly established to lose its place as a Classic now, but I suspect it will remain a novel to be enjoyed by connoisseurs of Fantasy, rather than experience the ‘cross-over’ success of titles like The Lord of the Rings, or G.R.R.Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series.
Who I’d recommend it to
I can’t honestly say that I’d recommend this to anyone, but if asked I’d mention that it probably suits readers who enjoy slow novels that are heavy on description.
My additional reading included Andrzej Sapkowski’s The Last Wish (a collection of short stories featuring Geralt of Rivia – highly recommended if you enjoy the Witcher games), Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon, and Robin Hobb’s Liveship series. All of which were much more enjoyable than Titus Groan.
April will be a busy month, with both a house move, and my birthday, so I’m thinking I might go with something short. On the other hand, my books will all be packed away, so this might be a good opportunity to return to the Victorian’s and their penchant for triple-deckers. Suggestions gratefully received as always.