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I've been spending a good deal of time driving up and down the M6 just lately. As I tend to set off at the crack of dawn on a Sunday, there isn't much in the way of good listening on the radio at that ungodly hour so I've taken to borrowing audio books from the library to help take my mind off the mind-numbing boredom of motorway driving. On my most recent trip, one of the audio books I listened to was Titus Groan, the first instalment of Mervyn Peake's dark fantasy series, Gormenghast.
I've listened to several other recordings produced by Naxos and have been very impressed by the quality not only of the books available but also of the narrators and in that respect this one is exceptionally good. More of the narrator later because he's key to the success of this recording.
Rather unexpectedly, a baby has been born to Lord Sepulchrave, the 76th Earl of Gormenghast and his countess, Gertrude. The child, Titus Groan, is heir to a crumbling city state, hidebound by rituals which have origins lost in the mists of time, and he proves to be a catalyst for change throughout the city and its population. For years the status quo has been maintained but all that is about to change and much of it is masterminded by Steerpike. Steerpike is a kitchen boy who is looking for a way out of the kitchens and an entry into the very seat of power and he will use anything and anybody to achieve his aims, including members of the very dysfunctional ruling family of Groan.
The author and his creation:
Titus Groan was originally published in the late forties in a Britain struggling to repay its debts and rebuild the economy following World War II, so a time of austerity somewhat like today and the story setting of Gormenghast Castle definitely has a cold, grey and austere feel to it. The characters, however, are some of the most eccentric and colourful you'll ever meet.
Mervyn Peake was a novelist and artist and his original drawings accompanied the text. These drawings showed pinched-faced, hunch-shouldered grotesque characters and his original concept was to create a cycle of books detailing Titus's life from cradle to grave. Titus Groan covers the first two years of Titus's life up to his 'Earling'.
I grew up as a child of the radio age and some of my earliest memories are of listening to Children's Hour where often stories were read in serial form and it's a pleasure I've never grown out of. I think those of us who grew up listening to radio often pay more regard to speaking voices than, possibly, children from the television age and certainly when listening to an audio book, the quality of narration can make or mar a story. This book is read by Rupert Degas and his narration is very much in the style of those early listening days.
I'd never heard of Rupert Degas but a quick Google search shows he's appeared in lots of radio, TV and theatre productions as well as doing voice over work. With a voice such as his, I'm guessing he's rarely out of work. He has a beautifully modulated tonal quality, neither too light nor too deep which he uses for the general narration but the voices he gives to the characters' dialogue are superb and he gives each a unique and distinct voice. These range from being light enough to pass for female to the deeply menacing and slightly sybillant tones he uses for the more malevolent and grotesque characters.
If ever a book was written to be read aloud, this is it. There is so much scope for a narrator to flex both his vocal range and his ability to read beautiful English prose which combines the lyrical with the darkly fantastical all delivered with a soupçon of subtle humour and Rupert Degas' delivery makes this a wonderful listening experience.
This may be a fantasy but it's definitely adult fantasy and probably not suitable for very young children because of the darkly sinister undertones. All of the characters in and around Gormenghast are grotesques. The original book had accompanying illustrations by Peake and Rupert Degas manages simply through the versatility of his voice to conjure up images of those bizarre pinched-featured creations.
Many modern fantasy writers, I'm sure, take Peake as one of their influences but listening to this recording I was struck by how the writers who must have influenced Peake come through in the narrative. There are definite shades of Alice in Wonderland here, especially with regard to Countess Gertrude who has a certain similarity to the Red Duchess in her uncaring attitude towards her child.
"Slagg", said the Countess, "go away! I would like to see the boy when he is six. Find a wet nurse from the Outer Dwellings. Make him green dresses from the velvet curtains. Take this gold ring of mine. Fix a chain to it. Let him wear it around his wry little neck. Call him Titus. Go away and leave the door six inches open."
The grotesqueness of many of the characters could also easily be attributed to the influence of Dickens and I'm pretty sure that Peake's choice of names for his characters such as Lord Sepulchrave, Flay, Prunesqualler and Rottcod, owe more than a nod in that direction.
Whatever Peake's influences, the story is uniquely his own and his description of Gormenghast brings the crumbling ruin of the castle and its inhabitants, both the aristocratic Groan family and their servants, to vivid life. The characters, though wildly fantastical, have traits which are somehow endearingly repulsive and Steerpike, whose Machiavellian manoeuvrings form the basis of the plot, combines charm with ruthless ambition, making him one of literature's true monsters.
I read these books in my teens and although I enjoyed them, I have to say I found them hard going in parts because the descriptive language sometimes get in the way of the story. This recording is abridged and I'm guessing many of these quite longwinded descriptive passages have been omitted though this doesn't interfere with the telling of the story in any way and probably makes it flow all the better for its brevity. Although this is abridged, the recording still has a running time of just over 5 hours but it's compulsive listening and you'll be amazed how quickly the time passes as you wander the dark corridors of Gormenghast Castle meeting the mad Lord Sepulchrave, his dysfunctional relations and his servants and you'll fear for the future of little Titus as Steerpike manipulates everyone around him in his quest to rise to the peak of power.
This is a wonderfully evocative recording of this modern classic fantasy and I'll certainly be listening to the follow up recordings of the other two books in the trilogy. Titus Groan can be bought online in CD format from around £5 or can be downloaded direct from Naxos for £11.