Have you ever wandered round your local book shop and thought that every book looked the same? That the next big thing is the same as the last one? It’s not entirely accidental. Publishing is an industry awash with me-too products. Publishers love to describe a book by what has gone before, so that any pitch of a new novel inevitably becomes something along the lines of “Captain Caveman meets Anna Karenina.” They believe that they can only get a book into the readers’ hands by arguing that “people who liked Finnegan’s Wake will love this”. As a result, it’s all the more surprising when we encounter someone whose work really is different to everyone else’s. Such a person is Mervyn Peake, the master of Gormenghast.
I remember very well the first moment I encountered the work of this mysterious, glorious, uncompromising author. It was a hot day in summer, and I was leaning on a wooden desk splattered by long-dried ink and scarred by penknives, taking an English exam. It may have been a GCSE or an A-Level. All of a sudden, I turned the page to the blind reading passage to encounter a text the like of which I had never seen before, and I think, I never will again.
Before my eyes, the black ants of typed text stamped back and forth, threw off their regular lines and transformed into a forest of dense green foliage. A bizarre creature was moving or flying or bounding before the eyes of the startled protagonist. It was a section from Chapter 19 of Gormenghast where Titus Groan first encounters The Thing, a Kaspar Hauser-esque wild child who has been deserted and left to her own devices in the forest. Shaking with excitement, I stumbled out into the bright afternoon of freedom, with three words tattooed in biro on my wrist: “Mervyn Peake Gormenghast”.
Peake belongs to no world but his own. His work is utterly different to what has gone before and what will come after. He has no contemporaries, no rivals and no followers. His work, like the vast edifice of Gormenghast Castle, occupies its own space in our world and yet out of it, known and yet forgotten.
As modern people, we are surrounded by stories. We have access to more drama through television alone than Peake’s contemporaries had in their entire lifetimes. This means that we have developed a silent storyline in our head. Most viewers have the framework of a murder mystery or a romance in their mind before they ever turn on their television set. Almost unconsciously, when we read or enjoy stories, we follow a well-trodden path, as we slot the new character names into the well-worn archetypes and incidents that make up the narrative. There are rules to narrative structure, and we know and expect the author to follow them.
Peake breaks all the rules, and rejects that well-trodden path. This makes his work tremendously exciting. We as readers have no idea where he is taking us. Just look at the deaths that characters suffer in the course of the Gormenghast novels: they are drowned, stabbed, starved, poisoned, struck by lightning, burnt to death, and in one particularly alarming incident, eaten by owls.
There is always something different, something surprising around the next corner. Peake bewilders us, and rejects the infantilised world of story-telling. As any parent knows, children love predictability. They will often ask to hear the same story read to them time and time again. There is a security that comes in knowing what will come next. There is no such security in the world of Gormenghast.
Especially not in the traumatic shadow land of Titus Alone, the third book in the series.
There has been a recent trend for later scribblers to write sequels or prequels to already published works. This is often to complete the work of those authors who thwart the publishing plan by the annoying habit of dying. It’s all part of the well-considered publishing ethos of “more of the same.” In many cases, this new work is little more than a pastiche.
Imagine for a moment if Peake had given up writing after completing Gormenghast, the second book of the series. Many years later, a publisher decides that it is worth continuing with this story, and commissions a well-known (if poorly compensated) writer to bash out a third title. If there is one hypothesis that we can make in this situation, it is that our new writer would not have written anything like Titus Alone. In fact, had a putative new author submitted the manuscript of Titus Alone, there’s a very good chance that the editorial team would have rejected it out of sight. With its sudden appearance of helicopters and cars, its swearing and its references to bodily functions, its vague setting and dreamlike intentions, Titus Alone feels like another book entirely, something quite different to its illustrious predecessors.
Titus Alone reveals something vital about Mervyn Peake, as both author and artist.He was on a different journey to that which anyone else could have imagined. This is why Peake will never go out of fashion, and will keep getting new readers. Although many people will be appalled by the Goya-esque darkness, torture and misery of Titus Alone, there is no doubt that it is a work of genius, with its own unique texture and tone. Titus Alone is not like anything else on earth. It is not even Titus Groan meets Gormenghast. As with all Peake’s work, I’m enormously surprised that it was ever published at all. Surely, a large part of that success lies in his wonderful prose style: his descriptions of herons in chapter 12 of Gormenghast might well be the most beautiful thing I have read all year.
[As an aside, Peake’s widow did privately write a fourth volume in the Gormenghast series, released last year (2011). ]