Rating: 2.5 stars
Read for The Reader’s Room Winter Challenge
This is the fourth Gormenghast book. Peake died after completing only three of his series, which has for a long time been thought of as a trilogy. It turns out his intention was to write more, to follow Titus further into his life. A fragment of the fourth book exists, a fragment which Peake’s widow Maeve Gilmore took and expanded into a novel.
The fragment is reproduced at the start of the book. It is magical. Pure Peake. Titus dreams of Swelter and Flay and his dream is as balletic as Peake’s prose. Then Gilmore’s voice takes over and, in comparison, is leaden in its self-consciousness. There is no flight here, no soar. Titus’s world becomes mundane.
It was always going to be a risk for me, reading this fourth installment in the Gormenghast series. I first read the trilogy as a teenager. A lot of it went over my head, but the language and presence of colour as a character thrilled me. I re-read it in university and understood it better. I re-read it again when the BBC adaptation was aired in 2000 and gloried in its dark cleverness.
Safe to say, then, that I love those first books. Peake’s books.
Gilmore isn’t a bad writer. The book is readable. I took a break and started reading again from chapter two to give myself distance from Peake’s fragment, and found that I could settle into reading on. There was a lot of exposition. A sort of ‘Previously on Gormenghast’ that irked me a little. Another thing that struck me was how female the book is. It reads very differently to Peake’s books. Titus isn’t Gilmore’s creation, and she doesn’t seem to have had much of a handle on what makes him tick. Consequently, she renders him as one of those remote, silent men who can’t or won’t articulate what’s going on inside. It’s as though Gilmore is looking at him and trying to work him out, rather than inhabiting his mind and letting us know him from within.
The book also feels quite fragmented, episodic in a way that doesn’t flow. Events happen, Titus meets people and is conflicted between wanting company and wanting solitude, he has some experiences, comes across at times like a selfish little shit, then moves on. There isn’t much in the way of interconnected narrative to join these episodes together beyond Titus reminiscing about the people he knew in the previous three books. There’s some hamfistedness on the part of Gilmore trying to create new characters who echo old ones. Her imagination seems quite limited.
It made me wonder whether her writing this novel was a form of therapy. Her way of dealing with her grief and remaining connected to Peake. I wondered whether each stage of Titus’s journey was a stage in her grief cycle. Her lack of understanding for Titus, tinged as it is with a sense of desperation about trying to understand him, would make sense to me, if so. There was also a sense of Gilmore attempting to create an allegory about modern life which, because she was writing in the 1960s, feels really dated and irrelevant. Titus’s encounter with a masked gang felt like an attempt to replicate or reference A Clockwork Orange.
Throughout, there is a lost, dreamlike quality to the book that I don’t think is deliberate. I don’t think it’s part of the plot structure. If there even was a plot structure that Gilmore was following. In some ways it made me think of Kobo Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes, the people were so unlikeable. Titus is quite unpleasant, and the women he encounters are weak and subservient. There were things about it that reminded me of Kafka’s The Castle, too. The difference between those books, which make for uncomfortable but compelling reading, and this one is that I found a lot of this book tedious.