Discussing reviewing the other day I repeated my preference for a niche market - a column called 'Esprit d'escalier', say - where you review books not weeks or months but years or even decades after publication, i.e. when you finally get round to reading them.
Which is as flimsy a way as any to introduce the following remarks (not a review) about Mervyn Peake's Titus Groan, a mere sixty-two years after first publication. I'm barely a tenth of the way through, but so far I'm enjoying it a lot; here are a couple of reasons why.
There's a scene early on in which Flay the manservant goes to see Rottcodd the curator in his loft-hermitage, to tell him about Titus's birth. Rottcodd is largely unconcerned, in contrast to the revelry, sanctioned by tradition and owing to respect for tradition, going on elsewhere in the castle. When Flay thinks about this there is a moment when the fantastic world of the novel comes into contact with our world, a comparison pregnant with political, social and artistic substance:
Suddenly, for a moment, the memory of Rottcodd in his dusty deserted hall stole into his consciousness and he was shocked to realise how much he had really preferred — to this inferno of time-hallowed revelry — the limp and seemingly disloyal self-sufficiency of the curator.
What I find beguiling about this comparison is the way its near-theoretical lucidity is not achieved at the expense of muddy, concrete detail. It seems to express a familiar and substantial dichotomy, but not quite a commonplace or conventional one: between community and individual, tradition and the individual intellect (no, Eliot, no!), catholicism and protestantism - it suggests all of these things, but also personal temperament and the conflicts that can arise in a personality (Flay believes in tradition but dislikes the people who constitute it). It also bears on the role and position of an artist who places value in a society (real or imagined) while standing some way apart from it. I could go on, but probably without getting any closer to specifying just what it is that makes this sentence resonate, except to say that it has to do both with the text's interpreted (wider, social) 'meaning' and its 'narrow' concern simply to create the reality of its characters.
The other thing I want to talk briefly about is Peake's style - ostentatious, rhetorical, rococo, baroque - which is some ways is a prose analogue of one sort of poetry which I am increasingly interested in reading and writing. Thinking of it in terms of the last of those adjectives - baroque - Peake conjures the fantastic, cod-historical world to a large extent through his prose style. The most obvious means of doing this are the furniture of his world (the castle, for instance) and the choice of vocabulary (describing the painted ceiling of the Stone Hall, in a passing wordplay, as a welkin). But there is a danger that this sort of thing descends into hammy pastiche, a danger which Peake avoids by his un-idiomatic usage, for example in the delicious description of Prunesquallor's conversation,
... his insufferable laughter punctuating every other sentence whatever its gist.
'Whatever its gist' - to see the word 'gist' deployed so naturally and yet unfamiliarly to mean (something more precise than) 'meaning', is breathtaking and less easily done than may appear. This invigorating shaking-up of the language seems to me a baroque feature, and therefore one which supports albeit obliquely the setting and the tone and style of the book. The same sort of effect occurs in 'Lord Groan's menu was otherwise' - not 'different' - though here it is closer to the merely rhetorical. But then if you insist on the rhetorical being 'mere', you're failing to meet the book on its own terms.
This exuberant style is one whose flaws it is easy to forgive, such as the slightly distressing approach to punctuation. In particular there are clauses corralled off by a comma at one end and not at the other:
It is there, at the long table that he takes his breakfast.
He did not seem to notice the delicacies spread before him, nor when for a moment or two at a time his head was raised, did he appear to see the long cold dining-hall nor the servants at their tables.
In the latter example the first 'nor' is causing trouble - the punctuation looks sound because the comma after 'raised' appears to close a sub-clause opened by the comma after 'spread before him'; but the sub-clause actually begins after that first 'nor' - 'when for a moment or two at a time his head was raised' (notice too the clause-within-a-clause of 'for a moment or two at a time', an example of the deliberate complexity, which I'll come to below, of Peake's style). Then there's the theoretically clumsy repetition of 'nor' in the same sentence but not the same series: there are really two nor-constructions here ((1)didn't notice the delicacies nor did he see the things and (2), (expanding on 'things') saw neither the dining-hall nor the servants).
Yet such complaints are not really to the point. Peake's punctuation is irritating in places, but I think it is more Elizabethan (baroque) than modern in approach: the balance between clarifying sense and managing sound and rhythm is more weighted to the latter than most modern prose styles. In the description of Prunesquallor's mannerism it would be acceptable and even desirable on the modern system to have a comma after 'sentence':
... his insufferable laughter punctuating every other sentence, whatever its gist.
- but disastrous for the sound and feel of the line, introducing a slight prissiness to the narration in place of the headlong plunge of the original. And this takes us on to another feature of the writing which I take to recall the baroque, the indulgence of long, complex sentences for their own sake - an approach to syntax which mirrors the full, rich world being described. (Note how full, and rich, the worlds of Shakespeare and Donne seem - an impression almost totally determined by style and language, since they are substantially the same as our world.) Peake makes a virtue out of the sort of thing that Peter Gast called 'some such entirely insane piling up of words'. This quotation is made slightly tenuous by the fact that Gast was referring to a sentence from a Wagner libretto - except that the style of Titus Groan has a certain operatic quality - which is another way, like 'rococo' and 'baroque', of stealing from the vocabulary of other arts to describe its linguistic excess.