in Opinion | 06 MAY 06
Featured in
Issue 99

Edifice Complex

Mervyn Peake’s recently re-issued classic novel, Titus Groan is both less and more than a traditional Gothic tale

in Opinion | 06 MAY 06

Sixty years on from the publication of Mervyn Peake’s novel Titus Groan (1946) it is safe to say that there has never been a literary edifice quite like the vast, ponderous castle of Gormenghast that squats monstrously across this book and its two successors, Gormenghast (1950) and Titus Alone (1959), recently reprinted by Vintage. While Titus Groan ostensibly concerns itself with the first two years in the life of its eponymous hero – the 77th Earl of Groan – it is Gormenghast itself that is etched in the most three-dimensional terms, immobile yet burgeoning, a gigantic, many-celled being, like a horrible cancer or dark coral. From the early description of a tower that arises ‘like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven’ to the deserted passages 500 pages later, ‘each hall a mouth that gaped and could not close. The stone jaws prised and aching. The doors like eye-teeth missing from the bone’ Gormenghast provides a living, breathing maze – the architecture of the novel in the guise of architecture – through which the book’s characters, ‘the passions in their clay’, wander, as if scraped from the thick walls themselves.

It is hard to understate the suffocating atmosphere of decrepitude and decay that pervades the book, which can be seen as a testament to Peake’s other careers as poet and artist. The persistent intensity of language – in which words as arcane as the structure itself, such as ‘propinquital’, ‘recrudescent’, ‘ullage’ and ‘abactinal’ are brought in to prop up the overhanging ramparts – is combined with surrealistic visual flourishes, such as the distant turret half-filled with rainwater in which a white horse and its foal are seen swimming.

Such monstrous and lyrical touches in service to a structure have led many to label Peake’s novels Gothic; as the only genre of literature explicitly to necessitate a man-made structure at its heart, this is understandable. The genre’s founding novel, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), laid down many of the themes to be found in subsequent Gothic tales. There is the antique setting, the ending of a familial line, the confinement and persecution of a vulnerable female in a sinister and labyrinthine building, and the cruel and unusual torture of the aforementioned vulnerable female. Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and Matthew Lewis’ The Monk (1796) sustained and intensified these details, transforming the Gothic castle into what the scholar Chris Baldick has called a ‘folk-psychology set in stone’. Within the Gothic tale no room is just a room, all cellars carry hints of repressed desires and all attics are havens of neuroses.

When Edgar Allan Poe overhauled (and downsized) these conventions, most notably in The Fall of the House of Usher (1839), he explicitly linked the theme of dynastic extinction with the characters’ environment itself. From a backdrop to the keynote cruelties buildings came to have a distinct symbiotic relationship with the protagonists themselves, and the double meaning in Poe’s title became clear. The Gothic building became an allegorical structure, an actual house of degeneration, with the living space darkening and contracting into the dying space of the mortuary and tomb.

Yet while the castle of Gormenghast consistently hints at, and incorporates, Gothic elements, it somehow manages to stay resolutely apart from them. The sheer relentlessness of the oppressive atmosphere Peake creates is on a scale that far exceeds even such Gothic excesses as H.P. Lovecraft. (As one contemporary critic said, ‘Peake’s okay if you like your blackness utter.’) While Freudian allusions may hover at the edge of its vision, they are soon absorbed back into the stone, unfulfilled.

Such negations of the Gothic code do not stop there. Titus Groan appeared in the wake of World War II, and despite the fact that Peake was the first war artist to see the horrors of Belsen, his book consistently shrugs off the chance to be an allegory of the fall of Western civilization. Libraries may burn, and insanity may strike, but the reader never feels Peake gesturing towards a bigger picture. Gormenghast is quite vast enough a canvas for these deeds to take place in. For while Peake shares the Gothic concern with exploring fear and terror, paramount is the complete engagement with the ‘alphabet of arch and aisle’.

Indeed Peake’s greatest achievement is his decision not to probe topical themes or the contemporary consciousness. As Anthony Burgess has written, ‘his books nourish the private imagination; they do not exemplify the development of an art.’ Titus Groan is both less, and more, than a traditional Gothic tale. And in its effects it bears more similarities to Gothic architecture itself than to the literature that shares its name, being monumentally atmospheric, utterly self-absorbed and with the rare ability to inspire awe.

George Pendle is a writer based in New York.