08. December 2015 · Comments Off on On Gormenghast and Giving Up · Categories: Books · Tags: , ,

The Illustrated Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn PeakeThere comes a time when you have to admit that something is just not to your taste.

Gormenghast is hailed as a masterpiece of fantastic fiction, a classic of the genre. I’ve tried for years to get through one single book of the trilogy, having decided that I needed to read it in light of its many accolades. I have the distinct feeling that those who like these novels are the same folks who read Dickens for pleasure. The density of prose is similar, since Charlie got paid by the word. But even Dickens felt compelled to craft an actual plot.

Imagine if you will that you have sat down to a 12-course dinner. That an entire evening’s feasting and entertainment is about to be set before you. Then you slowly realize that every single course is a) the same thing, and b) an entire gallon of gravy in which a single bit of meat is suspended and that must be consumed in full before moving on. That’s what reading Peake feels like. The structure of each chapter is invariable. A vast proscenium is erected with velvet curtains, baroque curlicues and gilding in which a single character is vignetted, with such supporting cast as necessary to react to their lone plot point. At which time the set is torn down and reconstructed anew for the next tiny tidbit of story.

As an author, he is one hell of an illustrator.

Gioachino Rossini once said of Richard Wagner, “Wagner has lovely moments but awful quarters of an hour.” Such is the world of Gormenghast. For every delicious morsel of text, one must digest several pounds of dense, florid descriptive prose that paints a gorgeous mental picture but advances a plot, conflict, or character not one little bit. Peake had never met a multi-syllabic adjective he didn’t like. The words flood every page with descriptions of mannerisms, locations, and expressions. Entire chapters are spent to enable the delivery of a handful of lines of dialog. It’s like watching a film where every line uttered is preceded by a five minute sweeping establishing shot and followed by ten minutes of reactions from the cast. The tedious pace is ultimately what ended my affair with this book.

This tome is going to have to go to someone else for whom plot and character development is secondary to the ecstasy of wordplay. There may be a gem of a story hidden somewhere in the shambles of Gormenghast Castle, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to spend months lost in its labyrinthine corridors and warren holes trying to find it.