Titus Alone – Mervyn Peake
This blog has to date been a Game of Thrones free-zone. In truth, I am not a fan of the fantasy genre. True, I have dabbled with Tolkien but haven’t the enthusiasm to take up George Martin’s tomes – what is it with fantasy writers and the middle initials of R.R? My most recent dabble with the genre has been Peake’s astonishing Gormenghast trilogy of which Titus Alone is the third and final instalment.
The book was first published in 1958 when Peake was seriously ill with what transpired to be dementia which killed him nine years later and was poorly served by an unsympathetic editor. The 1970 version, faithfully and tirelessly restored from manuscript fragments by Langdon Jones, is a more satisfying affair and if you venture to read the book, make sure you get this version.
The eponymous hero, Titus Groan, the 77th Earl of Gormenghast, had left his ancestral and stultifying home after a cataclysmic showdown with Steerpike, the archetypal rager against the machine, which concluded the second book. The book charts Titus’ journey into the outside world – a strange and hostile, authoritarian and totalitarian society, diametrically opposed to the tradition-bound world of Gormenghast, a land of which the modern folk know nothing. The modern world has cars and flying machines, factories run on mass production lines and concentration camps – Peake witnessed Belsen at first hand as a war artist.
Unlike the earlier two novels, Titus takes centre stage but, frankly, I don’t think he is depicted strongly enough to take this pivotal role. If Steerpike was the main character of the earlier books, then Muzzlehatch, Titus’ mentor, protector and guide, is the dominant character in this book. The landscape is dotted with the usual Peakean mix of grotesque and comic characters and the book leads us on to a set piece battle between Titus and Muzzlehatch on the one hand and the femme fatale, Cheetah, and her mad scientist father on the other. The goodies win through, natch, but at some cost.
The book contains some real comedy moments – the court scene where Titus describes to a disbelieving and incredulous court the demise of his father – the destruction of his library drove him into madness – is a fine piece of comic writing and the language, as you would expect from Peake, is beautiful and poetic. But it is undoubtedly a lesser work and the ending is quite odd. Having spent the whole book trying to escape the modern world and rediscover Gormenghast, he sees it in the distance but, in the end, turns his back on that too.
It is hard not to conclude that this book is the product of a tormented and troubled soul and its theme is the rejection of both the old ways and the new ways. Take that route and all you are left with is isolation.
If you were going to dip into Peake’s works, I would recommend Gormenghast, the second novel of the three. Having finished the trilogy, I think I will put the world of fantasy behind me!