Review: Titus Alone by Mervyn Peake (Book 3, Gormenghast)

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Titus Alone by Mervyn Peake book cover
Titus Alone (1959) is the third book in Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, and is a significant departure from the previous novels. Where both Titus Groan and Gormenghast take place in what appears to be a medieval stronghold, Titus Alone thrusts the titular hero out into a hyper-modern world, leaving behind him the host of extraordinary characters that inhabited his homeland. This new world is home to an equally bizarre menagerie of characters, and a range of technologies; from the mundane automobile to the volatile death ray. In this new world Titus is pursued by two faceless and hugely symbolic policemen as he wanders the streets of a nameless city, travels through the dark tunnels of the Under-River, and partakes in a disturbing courtship with Cheeta, one of the new characters.

This shift in setting is jarring at first, and the reader is forced to acknowledge, as is Titus, how backwards and irrelevant Gormenghast is in this overwhelming world of technology; the castle’s antiquated rituals seeming even more absurd in comparison. Whilst writing Titus Alone, Peake’s mind was being cruelly degraded by Parkinson’s disease and this led some critics to suggest that the novel’s change of pace reflected a mind losing control. However, the plotting is tight, and the theme of madness provides a constant undercurrent. Indeed, in reading the novel as a meditation on madness one is drawn to Titus’s inner conflict, unable to determine whether his life in Gormenghast was in fact a delusion; a fantastical interlude from the world he inhabits in Titus Alone. At one point Titus loses a small piece of flint, his only physical link to Gormenghast, and this becomes both symbolic and tremendously poignant. Ultimately though, Titus Alone is commonly held to be a coming-of-age story, a young man forging his way in a harsh and uncaring world, leaving the pampered existence of his childhood and early adolescence behind him. Indeed, the world is not only harsher but bursting with a sexuality that was notably lacking in the previous novels, and the recurring theme of animals breaking from captivity and enjoying a new freedom reinforces the idea of Titus’s burgeoning adulthood.

Although the novel is tighter and less verbose than Peake’s previous work the writing retains his humour and deft blending of caricature with realism. Many though, will find the short, trite descriptions a little disappointing in comparison to the luscious passages that spilled over many pages of the previous Gormenghast novels.

Though it is difficult to pick the intentional from the slack, there are problems with Titus Alone when read through any interpretation. It was the vibrant cast of characters that breathed life into the castle of Gormenghast, and sadly the later creations in Titus Alone lack the same charm. Moreover, Titus himself, in comparison, is rather a dull character. Although this provides an accessible bridge into Peake’s world for the reader, one can’t help but feel a little disinterested, and mournful of the devious Steerpike’s early demise – a character far more compelling. There will always be debate about the completeness of the novel, and Peake’s mental state when writing it: one can choose to read it as either a half-finished, semi-coherent effort from a great writer badly affecting by a debilitating illness, or as a dark and masterful depiction of the thin line between fantasy and reality, of the fragility of sanity and the hopelessness of mental decay.

A strange and, at times, compelling read. Having finished the book I still can't make up my mind how to interpret it. There are suggestions of something exceptional, but also messy and dull passages. It would have been fascinating to see where Peake intended to take Titus over the series of books he had planned, and where Titus Alone fitted into that.


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2 comments:

Rose City Reader said...

Great review! Thank you for sharing it with me on Rose City Reader. I added your review to my post.

bibliofreak said...

I'm really pleased you enjoyed the review, and thanks very much for adding the link to your own piece.