My Favourite Moments In Novels No.2
Some years ago I wrote an essay on Gormenghast and why I loved it so much (naturally, I’ve lost the book it appeared in, and have no recollection of its title). I first read Mervyn Peake’s pinnacle of British fantasy writing when I was about fifteen, and it has lived with me ever since.
There were several things I loved about Titus Groan; first, it was entirely plausible, and rooted in something real. When it comes to fantasy I’m not good with dragons, spells or vague demonic threats of evil. Second, it occupied an utterly believable geographical space in my obsessive-compulsive mind. Third, it felt like an inverted version of ‘Hamlet’, a play with which I was very much obsessed at the time. Think about it; Steerpike is Hamlet, Fuchsia is Ophelia, the Countess Gertrude is (a giveaway, this) Queen Gertrude, Cora & Clarice are Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, and so on. Well, maybe.
The books are filled with hand-on-heart moments, but I remember Steerpike’s climb to the roof of the castle with such vividity that I can even recall where I was sitting when I read it. Steerpike the amoral kitchen-boy who will bring about the destruction of Gormeghast by his refusal to honour its traditions, climbs the building and reaches a vast field of flagstones;
‘As he dropped and then leaned back to support himself against the wall, a crane arose at a far corner of the stone field and, with a slow beating of its wings, drifted over the distant battlements and dropped out of sight. The sun was beginning to set in a violet haze and the stone field, save for the tiny figure of Steerpike, spread out emptily, the cold slabs catching the prevailing tint of the sky.’
This is the first time in the novel that we have been freed from the claustrophobic grip of the castle’s interiors, and it bursts across the reader like a blast of sun-warmed air.
The trilogy is not without its problems; I never warmed to the third book, with the loss of Steerpike, the appearance of motor cars and the abandonment of the trilogy’s chief points of interest, and the so-called fourth ‘lost’ book is a travesty. Therefore in my opinion it’s best to consider volumes 1 and 2 as a single, perfectly formed novel.
The TV version is partially successful, but why has there never been a film?