Book Of A Lifetime: The Gormenghast Trilogy, By Mervyn Peake

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The Independent Culture

At the age of 15, I had an epiphany. I was halfway through the first book of the Gormenghast trilogy when it hit me, like a benign thunderbolt: writers can do anything they like.

Peake wrote of the "sheer excitement of having a sheet of white paper and a pen in my hand and no dictator on earth can say what I put down". In entering Gormenghast, one of the most vividly imagined and bizarre universes in literature, I sensed the truth of this.

And with it came the ambition to one day do for others something similar to what this remarkable oeuvre was doing for me.

I had always wanted to write. But I knew in that moment – and still recognise today - that Mervyn Peake had handed me the key to the castle.

It was my father who first alerted me and my siblings to the seethingly dysfunctional Groan dynasty. Perhaps it was because we were a dysfunctional clan ourselves (though on a far less operatic scale) that Peake's lavish trilogy struck a chord with us. I remember spending most of a summer holiday in a "Dormobile" on the Isle of Skye reading, with the rain pouring outside. Our eyes streamed from the cigar-smoke our father used to defy the midges; we were attacked by a herd of cows; our parents bickered endlessly.

But my brother, my sister and I were far away from the claustrophobic hell of our Bedford van. We'd escaped into the labyrinthine stone empire of Gormenghast, with its ivy-clad Tower of Flints which "arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously to Heaven. At night the owls made of it an echoing throat; by day it stood voiceless and cast its long shadow".

It was a place of hierarchy and ritual and pomp, peopled with freaks, rogues, ghosts, demons, frauds, lovers, fantasists and eccentrics, with names like Prunesquallor, Fluke, Opus Fluke, Perch-Prism Shrivell, Sourdust, Nanny Slagg – and Steerpike.

Was there ever a more ingenious, chilling villain than Steerpike, who worms his way into the heart of Titus's beautiful, wayward sister, Fuschia, and pollutes the core of the fragile dynasty? Here is a man who "if ever he had harboured a conscience in his tough narrow breast he had by now dug out and flung away the awkward thing".

His toxic charisma had us all mesmerised. We returned home from Skye. Our parents went back to work and we returned to school, and we forgot the horrible holiday as fast as we could. But Gormenghast – that magnificent edifice spun from thin air by a tortured genius - lived on. For me, it's evidence of how far it is possible for the human imagination to go. I'm pushing 50 now, but in some ways I have never left Gormenghast. Why should I?

Liz Jensen's new novel, 'The Rapture', is published by Bloomsbury