Friday, March 23, 2007

book of books - Titus Groan

The reason for picking up a thick trilogy volume that had laid on the bookshelf ever since it was purchased in 2000 was because of such a passionate review of the book by Stephen Lang on his blog. This book was a tie-in with a televison show that cost millions and had a reasonably impressive cast but failed to inspire and in some cases, mine included, actually put you off wanting to read the books. But making the effort is well worth it.

It is impossible to talk about Titus Groan without dwelling on the characters that can be broadly split into two camps – the groan family and the servants. Plus of course the castle and the surrounding geography.
In the Groan family the book starts with Titus being born, an heir to the earldom of the world of Gormenghast. His father the Earl and mother the Countess already have a daughter Fuchsia, a dreamer and incredibly immature. The father is a depressed book lover and the mother is obsessed with the odd combination of white cats and birds. There are also two twin sisters of the Earl but they are isolated and jealous of the Countess and their lack of power.
In terms of servants the most important are the keeper of traditions Sourdust, Flay the Earl’s servant and the doctor and his sister. Nannie Slagg is in charge of Titus’s upbringing and introduces Keda as a wet nurse into the castle. There is also Swelter the head cook and with him comes an escapee from the kitchen Steerpike who is hungry for power and is the catalyst for the changes that start to plague the Groan family.
On top of that there is the incredible world of the castle of Gormenghast, a massive castle that has numerous rooms and places that are also accompanied by the surrounding landscape containing woods and the land occupied by the bright carvers who seem to be some sort of tribal people carving wooden statutes in the shadow of the castle.

Plot summary
Titus is born and the castle is thrown into disarray, which is heightened by Steerpike’s craven lust for power that takes him from working for the doctor to becoming master of the twin sisters. He convinces the sisters that the best way for them to get power is to burn down the library. During the fire Sourdust dies, the books are burnt and as a result the Earl of Groan loses his mind. Against this background Flay and Swelter fight out a deadly duel that leaves the fat cook dead but Flay banished from the castle. Throughout the book the characters are explored and what is established is that in various different ways they are all prisoners of tradition and the castle itself. The book ends with Titus being made Earl after his father’s disappearance, to go and live with the owls, and Steerpike positioned to gain more influence.

Is it well written?
This is a piece of imaginative wordsmithing on a level with the likes of Lord of the Rings and Narnia for being able to construct a complete world. It might not have the ambition of those two books but as a location the castle is constantly unfolding there is a depth of vision that is impressive. It is easy to access and there are moments of both humour, usually based around the doctor, action with the fight between Flay and Swelter and occurrences of evil scheming involving Steerpike. The challenge for a writer of a book in this style is not just getting the reader to engage with the characters, which is hard enough, but also getting them to believe in a completely different world.

Should it be read?
It deserves to be because it is something that has real beauty to it. There are moments when you are almost breathless with the way he paints a picture of the environment of Gormenghast. Although it is fantasy the characters do transcend the situation and anyone who has worked in an office will recognise their own Steerpike, depressed leader figure and the comedy character that is the doctor. The only problem that some readers might find is that because this is a trilogy it is not the sort of book you set out to read in isolation and you have to make a commitment to reading the next couple of books because obviously there will not be answers provided at the end of this volume.

Ambition and cruelty against a backdrop of the fantastic and strange with murder, love and plenty of doses of oddness.

Version read – Vintage paperback

1 comment:

Stephen said...

You're right -there is a real beauty to it. There are a lot of grotesque characters in the book but I even found something oddly beautiful in them, something I think the BBC series failed to capture. Even though Irma is truly potty I liked her because I couldn't resist warming to her, and I like Fuchsia for similar reasons.
I also felt a real empathy for the twins - although probably I didn't get such a true sense of Gormenghast's characters until I was reading the second volume.
Readers are put off by the word 'trilogy', and the first two books are real doorstops - although they are in a sense two halves of the same book. The third part is something entirely unique and stands on its own. It's left most readers perplexed (including me).