Titus Alone – Mervyn Peake

Gormenghast #3

Titus Groan leaves Gormenghast, to find that the world is an even weirder and more frightening place than the castle.

Titus Groan (the first book) is always the one that has stuck in my mind. I recall that on seeing the BBC DVD (based on books I and II), I was surprised by some of what it contained, and only on my recent re-read of Gormenghast (the second book) did its contents slowly come back to me. I was unable to recall any of Titus Alone, and I now think it was for the simple reason that I never actually got around to it (though I thought I had read the entire trilogy).

It’s also possible that I just don’t remember it. Books I and II have a solidity and consistency that book III lacks. Peake, having dramatically taken Titus from the lands he knows, seems just as adrift as his hero. The book starts well, with mystery and promise. And it ends reasonably well. But I found most of the rest to be a muddled pastiche of discordant scenes and settings. Without Gormenghast’s walls to hold them together, they tumble apart in their separate directions, and the narrative is a jumbled climb around a pile of disparate ruins.

The tone is changed as well, and while that suits the plot, the voice is suddenly harsh, and sometimes coarse. Gormenghast’s characters were intriguing and compelling precisely because of the weird society and order that bound them together. In Titus Alone, strange characters are simply strange. There is little logic, less structure. Physical distances are not so much plastic (as in Gormenghast) as inconsistent. There’s more obvious social commentary and satire, but it doesn’t always feel intentional, as if Peake mixed in layers of meaning unintentionally, making for something of a muddle. For instance, in the final scenes of Cheeta’s party, Muzzlehatch criticizes ‘the scientist’ at length. While it appears to have purpose, it’s not clear to me that Peake necessarily meant it as commentary, rather than color.

The characters’ relations to Titus himself didn’t really make sense. Despite ragged appearance, incredible origin, ordinary features, and no great charisma or intellect, he acquires several protectors who devote themselves to his wellbeing. Some, like Anchor and Old Crime, seem designed for deeper meaning, explication, or attachment, but it never comes.

All in all, to use one of Peake’s own images, I found the core of the book to be an intricate mass of interesting threads and knots and starts but relatively little knitting. Only at the very end does the story pick up, with the penultimate scenes at the Black House strong and evocative. The very final scene doesn’t really fit the remainder very well, and is left unexplained. Given that Peake intended two more books, it’s hard to see why he created this scene with so much effort, and then did so little with it. Even for a writer who so often understates key scenes, this seems wasteful

Most of Titus Alone is far from understated, and some of Peake’s images and scenes are striking. Some are moving, some funny. Overall, though, there simply too little holding the story together.

I’ve always thought of Gormenghast as an unspecified and unreachable location in Britain, or at least Europe. I understand that the fourth book, Titus Awakes, written by his widow, upholds the idea that Gormenghast is at least on Earth. But as I read this third book (the last written by Peake himself), I was struck by the notion that perhaps the three books are best explained as a forgotten colony world – explaining the vast empty reaches, the uncertain geography, the rigid tradition and isolation, and the uneven technology. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been reading so much Jack Vance, but it seems to me that Gormenghast could easily be an in-depth exploration of some of the settings on his worlds. (Or, given the timing, that he created a broader setting for Peake’s detailed locale).

At any rate, worth reading for those who really enjoyed books I and II, but of a wholly different order than those are – wilder and less coherent. Now to decide whether to read book IV, but on whole, given the reviews by Gormenghast fans, I think I’ll give it a try.

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