Henry Reed reviewed Titus Groan for his "New Novels" column in the May 4, 1946 issue of the New Statesman. This review is frequently quoted, because Reed says, "I do not think I have ever so much enjoyed a novel sent to me for review."
He is less enthusiasticthough still finds good things to sayabout stories by William Sansom and Rosamond Lehmann, and Nabokov's The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. Roger Savage, incidentally, cites Nabokov's book as a possible influence for Reed's radio play, A Very Great Man Indeed (1953), since both works relate the entanglement of a biographer with his subject (p. 178).
Titus Groan. By Mervyn Peake. Eyre and Spottiswoode. 15s.
Three. By William Sansom. Hogarth. 8s. 6d.
The Gipsy's Baby. By Rosamond Lehmann. Collins. 7s. 6d.
The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. By Vladimir Nabokov. Poetry London. 8s. 6d.
In the face of Titus Groan I feel like a soldier who has sworn so much that he has no words left with which to describe the act of shame. I mean that I should like to describe the book as fascinating, but the semantic of the word has become so disgustingly eroded that it is inconceivable that it any longer conveys any meaning. I am therefore forced to say that Mr. Peake's first novel holds one with its glittering eye. It begins by saying: Part One: Gormenghast. No part two is discoverable throughout the entire length of the book (well over four hundred pages) and the hero is much younger than even Tristram Shandy by the time the book ends; he has in fact not spoken up to that point. The reader is left to anticipate further volumes. I hope they will come; I do not think I have ever so much enjoyed a novel sent to me for review.
The book, which is about the ancient family of Groan, who live in a vast castle in an unidentifiable landscape and at an unnamed time, is as nearly pure story-telling as any book I have read since childhood. I admit that every now and then I was uneasily conscious that by the contrast of the megalomaniac aristocrats and the hut-dwellers at their gates, a contemporary contrast might be adumbrated; and the internal struggle for power inside the castle itself might also "imply" something. But I shut these thoughts out as often as I could, and chide myself for being a victim of the intellectual inhibitions of my time. In any case even a Marxist might find so riotous an embellishment of his favourite themes a little frivolous.
The emphasis of the story lies principally in the machinations of the intelligent upstart, Steerpike, who escapes from the kitchens of Gormenghast and the domination of the loathesome cook, Swelter, and becomes the assistant of the castle doctor, Prunesquallor. He worms his way into the trust of the neglected twin sister of Lord Sepulchrave, and incites them to set fire to his lordship's library. Sepulchrave, "whose days are like a rook's nest with every twig a duty," leads a melancholic life, attending to a ritual traditionally planned for him, its origins lost in the mist of centuries; the fire accelerates his decline into insanity, and Titus, at the age of one, succeeds to the earldom. The book concludes with the ceremony of the "earling": a disturbing occasion for Titus's family and retainers, for Titus throws the sacred insignia into the lake on which the ceremony takes place, and turns his attention to the bastard infant daughter of Keda, a hut-dweller who has been his wet-nurse. On this provocative note the first instalment ends; I look forward eagerly to its later developments.
Titus Groan, though long and Gothically detailed, is not wayward; it has a genuine plot in the strictest sense, and it persuades you to read on simply in order to know what will happen; in spite of its setting, there is nothing particularly dream-like about it. Its gallery of characters is wonderful. The old nurse, Nannie Slagg, appears oftener than can easily be put up with, and the mysterious Keda, with her two lovers who kill each other, is not a success: she recalls, rather strongly, Meriam, the hired girl in Cold Comfort Farm; though her part in the action will doubtless later be revealed as indispensable. Otherwise the characters are a joy: Swelter, Flay, Prunesquallors, Steerpike, Barquentine, the Countess, and not least the thwarted and deluded twins, Cora and Clarice. ("I like roofs," said Clarice; "they are something I like more than most things because they are on top of the houses they cover, and Cora and I like being over the tops of things, because we love power, and that's why we are both fond of roofs.") The book is also remarkable for its gigantic set-pieces of action. Steerpike's daylong climb over the great roofscape of Gormenghast, and the final conflict of Flay and Swelter in the Hall of Spiders, are magnificently thrilling.
Mr. William Sansom's early story, The Wall, is one of the best pieces of writing the war has occasioned, and his other stories about the fire-service have a curious intensity, a kind of solid poetry, which is Mr. Sansom's own especial gift. There, his tendency to circle at great length round the same point becomes a virtue; elsewhere it is a dull, laborious vice, as in his Kafka fantasies and allegories. There is one of these fantasies in the present volume, called The Invited. It seems to me as dull and leaden as anything Mr. Sansom has written. He has abundant imagination and inventiveness, yet somehow he persists in muffling and distorting them; his stories uncoil themselves lethargically, and where one expects a tour de force, the tour de force doesn't appear. Fortunately, The Invited is preceded by two other stories. One of them is a fresh, clear and glittering anecdote of fire-service life, in which the statement is made, I hope truthfully, that it is legal to call out a fire brigade to get a cat down out of a tree. The other is a new and successful departure from Mr. Sansom's methods hitherto: a long reverie of a floor-cleaner in a French café, as she goes about her morning work. (It takes her from eleven to one to get the floor of the café done; and the café is moderately, or completely, full of people the whole time: we order these things better in England.) A story of small-town intrigue floats about above her head, and mingles with her memories and with her views of people's legs and of the floor which she is toiling her way across. Her sudden glimpses of the high-spots of the action are brilliantly done.
The Gipsy's Baby is a collection of five stories which have already appeared; taken separately, they are all rather slight, and it is clear that Miss Lehmann has no great interest in the short story as a form; together, they complement and light each other up, and they are executed with such grace and humour, such exquisitely exact observation, that one reads on through accounts of often trivial incidents, as Mr. Forster says he reads Jane Austen, with "the mouth open and the mind closed." The stories deal always with adult life seen though the eyes of a parent. Miss Lehmann has already shown what she can do with the first of these themes, on a larger and more serious scale (and with the same children) in The Ballad and the Source; the latter theme is, I think, new to her, and she imparts the vision with a curious astringent poignancy threaded through her fluent humour. In the first story she mentions E. Nesbit, the delightful author of The Treasure Seekers; Miss Lehmann herself shares E. Nesbit's gift of avoiding mushiness in presenting children; and of showing without evasion the dreadful and barley bridgeable gulf between children of different classes.
In The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, a novelist who comes to us with the blessing of Mr. Edmund Wilson, does what Mr. Maugham has done in one way or another several times already. he attempts to reconstruct the life of an imaginary famous artist, who has been misrepresented by another biographer. He collects material here and there, and unfolds his version with a cunning casualness. Unfortunately, neither Sebastian nor the other characters comes to life, and the amount of incident in the book is extraordinarily small. And though the outlines of Sebastian's books are engaging, the specimens of his prose which Mr. Nabokov is daring enough to show us do not suggest a great writer. Nevertheless there are good things in the book, among them the scenes where the writer tracks down Sebastian's last love; and one feels curiosity about Mr. Nabokov's other novels, several of which apparently exist in Russian.Henry Reed