Cecily's book reviews

In general I've written reviews of every book I've read since I joined GoodReads (RIP) in May 08, along with one or two I read prior to that. More recent reviews tend to be longer (sometimes a tad too long?). I always carry a book, though I don't get as much time as I'd like to get engrossed - life is busy, but in a good way. Too many of my favourite authors died without writing enough! Apart from reading, and writing about reading, I enjoy Scrabble, good restaurants, woodland, and attending the theatre.
The Illustrated Gormenghast Trilogy - Sebastian Peake, China Miéville, Mervyn Peake Currently rereading as part of summer 2013's Great Gormenghast Read. It's only just started, so it's not too late to join in: http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/101455-the-great-gormenghast-read

A thing of beauty, like the words it contains: beautifully bound, with sumptuous illustrations. I'm often wary of illustrations in adult books, but Peake was an artist and illustrator as well as a writer, so I make an exception in this case.

Two of my three favourite books (and a third that I like) in one volume, with an excellent introduction by China Mieville (and Sebastian Peake's note about the illustrations).

The content is covered in separate reviews:

Titus Groan: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/23324003

Gormenghast: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/23324007

Titus Alone: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/23324032

And all my Peake/Gormenghast reviews (including biographies/memoirs) now have their own shelf:

These books are in many ways uncategorisable: often classed as fantasy, the first two have the feel of historical fiction, but with a twist of magical realism. (Confusingly, the third volume has futuristic aspects.) What is perhaps more surprising is that in the decades since Titus Groan was first published, there haven't been any successful books in the same uncategorisable category.


Miscellaneous quotes from Titus Groan

• “Lord Sepulchrave walked with slow strides, his head bowed. Fuchsia mouched. Doctor Prunesquallor minced. The twins propelled themselves forward vacantly. Flay spidered his path. Swelter wallowed his.”
• Swelter’s voice is “like the warm, sick notes of some prodigious mouldering bell”.
• Cracks in the wall “A thousand imaginary journeys might be made along the banks of these rivers of an unexplored world”. (A similar idea in Boy in Darkness, when Titus looks at a mildewed spot on the ceiling.)
• The Countess’s room was “untidy to the extent of being a shambles. Everything had the appearance of being put aside for the moment.”
• “His [Sourdust] face was very lined, as though it had been made of brown paper that had been crunched by some savage hand before being hastily smoothed out and spread over the tissues.”
• The Earl’s life, and to some extent everyone else’s, is governed by detailed and largely pointless arcane ritual. “The second tome was full of blank pages and was entirely symbolic... If, for instance, his Lordship.. had been three inches shorter, the costumes, gestures and even the routes would have differed from those described in the first tome.” “It was not certain what significance the ceremony held... but the formality was no less sacred for it being unintelligible”.
• “She [Fuchisa] appeared to inhabit, rather than to wear her clothes.”
• “as empty as an unremembered heart” (the “stage” in Fuchsia’s attic).
• The twins’ faces “were quite expressionless, as though they were preliminary layouts for faces and were waiting for sentience to be injected”.
• An extraordinary metaphor at the end of this one about Irma Prunesquallor: “more the appearance of having been plucked and peeled than of cleanliness, though clean she was... in the sense of a rasher of bacon”!
• “Treading in a pool of his own midnight”.
• “We are all imprisoned by the dictionary. We choose out of that vast, paper-walled prison our convicts, the little black printed words, when in truth we need fresh sounds to utter, new enfranchised noises which would produce a new effect.”
• Burned books are “the corpses of thought”.
• “lambent darkness” is a good oxymoron.
• Lightning is, “a light like razors. It not only showed to the least minutiae the anatomy of masonry, pillars and towers, trees, grass-blades and pebbles, it conjured these things, it constructed them from nothing... then a creation reigned in a blinding and ghastly glory as a torrent of electric fire coursed across the heavens.”
• “The outpouring of a continent of sky had incarcerated and given a weird hyper-reality of closeness to those who were shielded from all but the sound of the storm.”

Miscellaneous quotes from Gormenghast

• “porous shadow-land... not so much a darkness... as something starved for moonbeams.”
• “There is nowhere else... you will only tread a circle... everything comes to Gormenghast.”
• “suckled on shadows, weaned as it were on webs of ritual”
• “He was pure symbol... even the ingenious system of delegation whereon his greatness rested was itself worked out by another”
• He “had once made a point of being at least one mental hour ahead of his class... but who had long since decided to pursue knowledge on an equal footing”.
• “a smile she was concocting, a smile more ambitious than she had so far dared to invent. Every muscle in her face was pulling its weight. Not all of them knew in which direction to pull, but their common enthusiasm was formidable.”
• words that are “proud with surrender”.
• “Their presence and the presence of their few belongings... seemed to reinforce the vacancy of their solitude.”
• “A window let in the light and, sometimes, the sun itself, whose beams made of this silent, forgotten landing a cosmos, a firmament of moving motes, brilliantly illumined, an astral and at the same time solar province. Where the sunbeams struck, the floor would flower like a rose, a wall break out in crocus-light, and the banisters would flame like rings of coloured snakes.”
• “the very lack of ghosts... was in itself unnerving”
• It’s positively Wodehousian in places, “made one wonder how this man [Fluke] could share the self-same world with hyacinths and damsels” and his [Perch Prism’s] “eyes with enough rings around them to lasso and strangle at birth any idea that he was under 50”.
• Around the lake “trees arose with a peculiar authority” an one spinney was “in an irritable state”, another “in a condition of suspended excitement” while other trees were variously aloof, mournful, gesticulating, exultant and asleep.
• The boys changed ammunition to paper pellets only after the THIRD death and “a deal of confusion in the hiding of the bodies”!
• “A cloud of starlings moved like a migraine across the upper air”
• “A symbol of something the significance of which had long been lost to the records”
• “Countless candles dribbled with hot wax, and their flames, like little flags, fluttered in the uncharted currents of air.”
• The wick of an enormous oil lamp was “as wide as a sheep’s tongue”!
• “the long drawn hiss of reptilian rain”
• In the snow, “the terrain bulged with the submerged features of a landscape half-remembered”
• “as empty as tongueless bells”
• “as a withered spinster might kiss a spaniel’s nose”

Miscellaneous quotes from Titus Alone

• “The very essence of his vocation was ‘removedness’... He was a symbol. He was the law”. (Magistrate)
• “sham nobility of his countenance” (Old Crime)
• “a light to strangle infants by”
• The “merest wisp of a man... his presence was a kind of subtraction. He was nondescript to the point of embarrassment”. (Scientist)
• “a man of the wilds. Of the wilds within himself and the wilds without; there was no beggar alive who could look so ragged and yet... so like a king” (Muzzlehatch)
• “What lights had begun to appear were sucked in by the quenching effect of the darkness.”
• “A flight of sunbeams, traversing the warm, dark air, forced a pool of light on the pillow.”
• “The sun sank with a sob and darkness waded in”
• “What light there was seeped into the great glass buildings as though ashamed.”
• “The old and the worn, who evolved out of the shades like beings spun from darkness.”
• “his responses to her magnetism grew vaguer... he longed to be alone again... alone to wander listless through the sunbeams.”
• “that he abhorred her brain seemed almost to add to his lust for her body”
• “He was no longer entangled in a maze of moods.” (Titus)
• “Head after head in long lines, thick and multitudinous and cohesive as grains of honey-coloured sugar, each grain a face... a delirium of heads: an endless profligacy.”
• “I don’t like this place one little bit. My thighs are as wet as turbots.”!
• “a loquacious river”.
• A floating spy cam is a “petty snooper, prying on man and child, sucking information as a bat sucks blood.”
• “a voice of curds and whey”
• Brief but unexpected sexual references ("scrotum tightening", "his cock trembled like a harp string") and when he first regains consciousness and sees Cheeta, his greeting is "let me suck on your breasts, like little apples, and play upon your nipples with my tongue"
• Cormorant fishing – as in China!
• “they were riding on the wings of a cliché”

From Mieville's introduction to this edition
With its first word the work declares itself, establishes its setting and has us abruptly there, in the castle and the stone. There is no slow entry, no rabbit-hole down which to fall, no backless wardrobe, no door in the wall. To open the first book is not to enter but to be already in Mervyn Peake's astonishing creation. So taken for granted, indeed, is this impossible place, that we commence with qualification. "Gormenghast," Peake starts, "that is, the main massing of the original stone," as if, in response to that opening name, we had interrupted him with a request for clarification. We did not say "What is Gormenghast?" but "Gormenghast? Which bit?"

It is a sly and brilliant move. Asserting the specificity of a part, he better takes as given the whole - of which, of course, we are in awe. This faux matter-of-fact method makes Gormenghast, its Hall of Bright Carvings, its Tower of Flints, its roofscapes, ivy-shaggy walls, its muddy environs and hellish kitchens, so much more present and real than if it had been breathlessly explained. From this start, Peake acts as if the totality of his invented place could not be in dispute. The dislocation and fascination we feel, the intoxication, is testimony to the success of his simple certainty. Our wonder is not disbelief but belief, culture-shock at this vast, strange place. We submit to this reality that the book asserts even as it purports not to.
It is in the names, above all, perhaps, that Peake's strategy of simultaneous familiarising and defamiliarising reaches its zenith; Rottcodd, Muzzlehatch, Sourdust, Crabcalf, Gormenghast itself... such names are so overburdened with semiotic freight, stagger under such a profusion of meanings, that they end up as opaque as if they had none. 'Prunesquallor' is a glorious and giddying synthesis, and one that sprays images – but their portent remains unclear.

Mieville on fantasy and Peake's relationship with it (thanks to Traveller for this quotation):

"Tolkien is the wen on the arse of fantasy literature. His oeuvre is massive and contagious - you can't ignore it, so don't even try. The best you can do is consciously try to lance the boil. And there's a lot to dislike - his cod-Wagnerian pomposity, his boys-own-adventure glorying in war, his small-minded and reactionary love for hierarchical status-quos, his belief in absolute morality that blurs moral and political complexity. Tolkien's clichés - elves 'n' dwarfs 'n' magic rings - have spread like viruses. He wrote that the function of fantasy was 'consolation', thereby making it an article of policy that a fantasy writer should mollycoddle the reader.

That is a revolting idea, and one, thankfully, that plenty of fantasists have ignored. From the Surrealists through the pulps - via Mervyn Peake and Mikhael Bulgakov and Stefan Grabinski and Bruno Schulz and Michael Moorcock and M. John Harrison and I could go on - the best writers have used the fantastic aesthetic precisely to challenge, to alienate, to subvert and undermine expectations.
- China Mieville

"... The madness is illusory, and control never falters. It is, if you like, a rich wine of fancy chilled by the intellect to just the right temperature. There is no really close relative to it in all our prose literature. It is uniquely brilliant, and we are right to call it a modern classic."
- Anthony Burgess, in his 1988 introduction to Titus Groan

And finally:

A richly-illustrated article about Peake from the Paris Review:

And the official Gormenghast site:

Currently reading

The Illustrated Gormenghast Trilogy
Sebastian Peake, China Miéville, Mervyn Peake
Mervyn Peake