In the ancient halls of Castle Gormenghast, ritual and tradition rule with an iron fist - even over the Earl of Groan, Lord Sepulchrave. As his son, Titus, is born, and the rivalry between Groan's manservant Flay and head cook Swelter comes to boiling point, the forces of order which have held sway for centuries seem strained to their limit. Into this atmosphere steps Steerpike, a young man with ideas far above his lowly station as a kitchenhand.
Having only a passing familiarity with Gormenghast, I came to Titus Groan not even aware that Peake wrote it in the 1940s. It seeks to evoke and indeed seems to have been written in a much earlier age; the prose is beautifully constructed, as much architecture as literature.
The world it describes is fantastic: an enormous castle sparesly populated by a handful of nobles and perhaps a few score servants, all descended from lines which stretch back hundreds of generations. In every direction lies inhospitable terrain; the castle and its kingdom are isolated. Its history, once rich, is now tired and predictable; this is summed up early on by the ritual of the bright carvings. These glorious wooden miniatures, created by the otherwise listless peasant folk who dwell in the castle's shadow, are presented to The Earl once a year; he selects a favourite and the rest are burnt. The winner, however, is only slightly better off; it is placed in the "Hall of Bright Carvings" and the only eyes ever to lay upon it are thos of Rottcodd, a servant as forgotten and isolated as the hundreds of carvings he dusts each day.
The cast is small, and exquisitely drawn; each has a life and personality that leaps off the page. Few are truly sympathetic, though the Earl himself, who suffers severe depression and later delusions, and his daughter Fuschia, at least by the novel's end, come closest. Keda, one of the bright carvers who becomes Titus' wetnurse, has a brief and tragic existence, mad bittersweet with a dash of romance and mystery. Probably my favourite character, though, was Flay. I recognise that this is in part because the BBC television adaptation (which I've not seen; it incorporates Titus Groan and the second novel, Gormenghast) features Christopher Lee as Flay, but his stoic attitude, obedience and eagerness to please somehow endeared themselves to me. As for the title character, he is born in the first pages, and the book closes with his crowning as the new Earl, still a baby. Despite these two events he is hardly involved in the affairs of the book at all, and all the other major characters have parts to play in the narrative; there's no real protagonist, though it is true that Steerpike drives much of the action through his machinations. He's a brilliantly dislikable character; clever in his limited fashion, selfish and mean.
There's an element of the fantastic about Gormenghast; the world makes little distinction between ritual and superstition, and there's no clear line between metaphor and extraordinary truth. The bright carvers, for example, are said to lose all their youthful appearance and vitality immediately upon coming of a certain age; this may be poetic, but it is written as fact, and nothing about the world of Gormenghast makes such a biological impossibility hard to believe. Whether it sits on our Earth or some other world makes little difference to Gormenghast: it is a pocket of existence with its own endless rules and regulations, and any other world is of no consequence to it.
I don't think there's another book quite like Titus Groan - well, except perhaps its two sequels. But I did try starting Gormenghast, and almost immediately something struck me about it as not quite the same. I'll come back to it at a later date, though interestingly I've received reports from fans that the series never reaches the heights of the first book again, and that it builds to a very satisfying climax at the end of Titus Alone. I'll be finding out for myself.