The novel Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake… I macheted my way pretty far into the luxurious vegetation of its set pieces and character sketches, but I finally had to give it up. When I’m eighty pages into a book and nothing’s happened yet, I’m inclined to put it down and go do something more exciting— like the laundry.
I realize that this is a beloved book— or actually series of books. And I’m not trying to knock it. For those who revel in the creation of idiosyncratic characters and magical places, this is their book, for when it comes to creating scenes and personages, Peake has an admittedly extraordinary gift. But it is a gift given in over-abundance, like an engagement ring on the first date. Character after character is introduced, room after room of Castle Gormenghast is minutely detailed, but it becomes a feast too rich, a gorging in ghastly need of a vomitorium. To say it directly: I kept turning the pages, thinking that, assuredly, the main characters have now at last all been introduced and the story will finally take off— only to have more and yet more characters introduced and nothing… really… happening.
Other qualities of Gormenghast…
Peake is a very funny author. His humor leans toward the British style: wordplay and oddball characters with oddball thoughts. He reminds me of Tom Robbins and here and there of J.K. Rowling (yes, I realize both these authors, chronologically speaking, should remind me of Peake and not the other way around). All three authors are able to think like women. And both Robbins and Peake are masters at throwing off humorous witticisms that often have a philosophical bent or a social commentary at their core.
Peake often writes like a poet. This is a man obviously in love with words. Perhaps a little too in love. Long descriptive and poetically lavish passages can make for obfuscation instead of clarity when they are served-up in novel form. On the other hand, Peake’s lyricism can —and often does— paint some vivid and outstanding images. Peake is a master at providing those details that make characters come alive and locations manifest in front of our eyes. The way he describes the deteriorating castle—you can almost smell the decay. The problem is, again, one of overload. Instead of just the right detail here and there, he floods us with descriptary that can prove overwhelming and action-delaying when the author is tossing at you numerous —what was it? twenty-five?— characters.
Perhaps those of you who adore Peake and his characters (for I have to think it is the characters that people adore, or perhaps the castle environs, and not the plots) will forgive more my disparagements if I honestly tell you that the other book Gormenghast called to mind while I was reading it was… War And Peace. Not the expected literary connection to make, I’m sure, but here’s why I thought of Tolstoy while reading Peake…
1) both are outstanding wordsmiths
2) both create so many characters that it can be hard to keep them all straight. When I read War And Peace, I had to start a list of characters and jot down their relationships with each other for use as a combo bookmark and reference source while I read the book. I started the same with Gormenghast, and then figured out that, to me, it wasn’t worth the trouble.
3) both Tolstoy and Peake attach to each character some specific characteristics that are then referenced throughout the book when that character reappears. The difference is –and I think this is telling—Tolstoy would pick just one or two identifying traits to staple to the forehead, as it were, of each character, whereas Peake assigned numerous identifiers to each character.
I hear there’s a BBC series based on the Gormenghast books, and I would like to see it if so. Peake’s great characters forced to go at a faster clip in a faster medium, together with the visualization of Peake’s exquisitely drawn Castle Gormenghast… That could destroy the moron in the oxymoron of “great television.”