.... Here are some of the richest, most controlled fantasies of the language, a treasure-house of experience; they should be in every library, required reading in secondary schools, a familiar part of the literary heritage .... everyone with some feeling for language, some imagination, should be drawn irresistibly into their pages, and should remember the books for the rest of their lives.
-- Langdon Jones in New Worlds, 1967
While in the army in 1940, bored by petty discipline and frustrated by the monotony of daily life, Mervyn Peake started writing Titus Groan, the first of the three novels which would come to be known as the Gormenghast Trilogy.
Peake often wrote in blank books called "publisher's dummies," and he filled the pages of his manuscripts with sketches and drawings of the characters and scenes of his story. Each chapter was sent home to his wife, artist Maeve Gilmore, to read and safeguard.
Titus Groan was published in 1946 to ecstatic reviews. Groan is a dark and singular reverie on a grand scale. Its spectacular milieu of imagination and nightmare is extremely detailed, surreal, and visually precise. Peake wrote with the eye of a painter. Gormenghast was published in 1950 and won the 1950 Royal Society of Literature award (and the 1951 Heinemann Award for Literature along with Peake's collection of poetry, The Glassblowers).,. Titus Alone, written during Peake's struggle with terminal illness, was published in 1959. Although the books made a profound impression on a number of eminent writers and artists, they did not reach a vast public or greatly improve his often precarious financial status. But from the beginning, Peake's books attracted a loyal following which continues to grow.
The books are an curious amalgam of fantasy, comedy, and horror, but they don't fit easily into any known genre. No other work rivals the elaborate phantasmagoria of these British classics which novelist Anthony Burgess called "uniquely brilliant" and Punch described as "the finest imaginary feat in the English novel since Ulysses.... The books must be appreciated on their own terms outside the normal categories of fiction as a gigantic feat of sustained invention, a vicarious dream of extraordinary vividness, (and) a triumph of visual writing."
"The Gormenghast trilogy is about Titus Groan and his ascent toward manhood," wrote Robert Ostermann in the National Observer. "But to speak of these novels as being 'about' anything is as inadequate as saying The Odyssey is about a man trying to get home to his wife. Such fiction is first and foremost about itself.... These novels are not an echo or an imitation of life. Their life is their own -- a bizarre, often awe-full life. And it imposes itself with obsessive force on the reader."
Peake did not originally set out to create a trilogy. If he had remained healthy, he would likely have tracked Titus into old age with a fourth and fifth book. But in the three books he did produce, he created a strange yet substantial kingdom of nightmare and fairy tale, filled with bizarre characters, curiosities, and distortions. It was only after his death in 1968 when the Gormenghast novels were reissued by Penguin that Peake began to achieve the success and recognition he had been unable to attain in his lifetime.
Today, a sense of myth surrounds the books which has given them the status of modern classics. They have been translated into many languages.
His talents were used to describe and inform the world in all its variety; to celebrate the human spirit -- and that, I believe, is why these books are assured of immortality.... [They] remain a joyous celebration, the achievement of a man who delighted in the world and its works, who believed profoundly in the value of human individuality and who dedicated himself to recording it in all its strange and beautiful manifestations.
-- Michael Moorcock, 1997
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