Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake

How to rate this one? Three stars or four? Well, I'm unlikely to read this again, so I guess three. Or am I? Maybe I'll try it again some day. Four?

I find the Gormenghast books a bit exhausting, and they fall under the category of books that I respect, but that I don't particularly like. The characters are all too distant, the writing too ornate, the world too much like a painting by someone who can capture moments, but not depth of feeling.

And yet I found the second volume slightly more accessible than the first, and will go on to read the third at some point, because I'm just stubborn that way. At least there was an identifiable drive to Gormenghast - Titus' rebellion against Gormenghast itself, its ritual, its physical form, and its inhabitants. But given that, even to Titus himself, the other characters exist less as actual people and more as reminders of his own psyche, I find it hard to care about them, and by extension, him.

Peake's character sketches are amusing, but somewhere around the two hundred page mark, I start to want something more.

And yet the word pictures that all that ornate writing creates are striking. There are turns of phrase that leave me breathless. I just wish they added up into something a little bit more. Thousands of words are spilt on Irma Prunesquallor's search for a husband, the party at which that happens, and the first meeting of her and her future husband. And then...they disappear. Except for a couple of brief mentions.

I like sprawling stories about lots of characters, but it's a delicate juggling act to move between them. With Peake, it's more like he hurls one ball at a time directly at the reader, and then forgets it exists, except when, on occasion, it nudges his foot as it rolls back.

Read as part of the BBC Big Read

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