Reading is by and large a solitary pastime (unless you’re in a bookgroup, but from experience even that doesn’t help if you’re the only one to have bothered to have read the book). But I’ve gotten used to this over the years, and accepted that unless I want to talk about a book that’s been a real blockbuster, the chances of me finding someone who has read a book that I really love are slim. It happens a lot with recently published books – the only person I’ve been able to speak to about John McGregor’s brilliant collection This Isn’t The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You was someone I lent it to. No-one else seems to know who he is.
The only time I find this surprising is with older books and older authors – when people have had plenty of opportunity to read the books and get to know to love them like I do. Sometimes I just can’t understand why authors are not better known – such as Mervyn Peake, whose Gormenghast series I’ve just finished re-reading. It’s isn’t like he’s completely unacknowledged – two volumes (Titus Groan and Gormenghast) are listed in 1001 Books To Read Before You Die and they were also turned into a BBC series about fifteen years ago.
But Peake remains a largely unknown figure – I can only think of three other people I know who have read any of his books. His books are essentially fantasy, set in the sprawling Gormenghast Castle which spends so much of its time running on routine and impenetrable ceremony it provides a claustrophobic surrounding to some of its inhabitants.
This all means that I was thrilled to see an article by Marcus Sedgwick in the Guardian a couple of weeks ago extolling the virtues of Mervyn Peak (which you can find here). The article speculates as to why the Gormenghast series didn’t really take off, when Lord of the Rings – released eight years later – has remained so enduring. Peake’s own publisher suggested it was because whilst “Tolkien stood on the mountain top, directing his forces on the plains beneath him, Peake was down on the battlefield, in the trenches, eye to eye with his troops.”
I’m not qualified to compare the two because the furthest I have made with Tolkien is The Hobbit and the first ten pages of The Fellowship of the Ring. But it is this “eye to eye” perspective that I think makes Gormenghast so engaging. They are a sprawling series of books looking at the daily lives of a wide number of inhabitants of the castle, within a very dramatic story-arc of ambition and murder. Although the characters are a bunch of eccentrics, they are exceptionally human. Each one is flawed but, with the exception of Steerpike (and even his villainy can be understood), in an endearing way.
The books are funny but to my mind also contain a quite subtle political commentary. Is it better to conform with societal norms and expected behaviour or try to strike out on our own to reach our own potential? At what cost should we try to preserve traditions – at what point do they become so trivial as to lose their meaning? (As a massive political geek) I remember when the Blair government changed proceedings in the House of Commons meaning that you no longer need to wear a collapsible opera hat to raise a point of order during a division (no, really), but I’m sure many traditionalists objected to the change.
They are a cracking read and if you have never heard of – or read – any of the books, track down Titus Groan: it seems that you’ll be part of a relatively small but very happy band of followers.