Mervyn Peake – Titus Alone

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Gormenghast, the previous book by Mervyn Peake and sequel to Titus Groan, ends with Titus riding off from the castle on a horse intent on discovering what lies beyond his Earldom. I planned to read Titus Alone, the third book of the trilogy, over Christmas 2016, having read the second book earlier that year. The reason for waiting was because Gormenghast was one of the best books I have ever read in terms of storytelling, scene setting, character composition and command of the English language and I wanted the experience to stretch out.

Stretch out it did. Time gets away from you, and here we are in a very different world to the world in 2016. I was collecting together all the books I had on my shelves with bookmarks marking where I had stopped, stalled or just plain given up reading. The Gormenghast trilogy was among them and I decided it was time to revisit.

Titus Alone was originally published in 1959 and went down like a lead balloon with critics expecting the same sort of sprawling gothic tale as in previous books. However, the book is written in a much more clipped style and the plotting if there is any can be described as linear at best and seems very sketchy in places.

The reason for this stark contrast between two books which I consider to be among the best fantasy books I’ve ever read and this one which felt like a dated bit of science fiction tomfoolery is often touted as being Peake’s mental and physical decline leading up to his untimely demise in 1968.

It is almost as if the book had been written by another author inspired to continue the series as a trilogy, it is so different in its tone. I was surprised that Titus has sex with at least one of the (typically for the time) love-struck characters who is perhaps old enough to be his mother and describes how he wants to suck on her breasts. This erotic content seems incongruous in a story I felt was akin to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland albeit devoid of any real magic.

For most of Titus Alone the titular character wanders through an ill-defined land in which no-one has ever heard of Gormenghast and who simply don’t believe it when they’re told that Titus is of noble stock. The land is inhabited by a series of neurotic characters plagued by the surveillance of small flying craft and floating globes. People drive cars, pilot aircraft and there’s even mention of some sort of spacecraft called ‘Molusk’. It’s a far cry from the gloomy corridors of the castle. It is a land in a grubby science fiction world of industrial processes and science as opposed to the spider-webbed gothic whimsy of Gormenghast.

Star of the book for me, and perhaps the only character invested of any real understandable depth, and that includes Titus himself I’m afraid, was the rudder-nosed private animal collector Muzzlehatch who sees his entire collection of animals wiped out in some spiteful attack by the scientists who are the ruling elite of his society. Despite Titus having an affair and then dumping a woman he still loves, Muzzlehatch consistently supports and tries to mentor Titus in his journey of self-discovery.

This self-discovery takes Titus through many hardships, pursued by two shadowy helmeted characters who perhaps have been dispatched by the castle to get the Earl back. Titus circles all the way back under his own steam (and a parachute drop) to a familiar rock which blocks his view of the castle. He only has to take a step to the side to see the old home he has been pining for a lot of the book (making me wonder why he ever ran off in the first place). Instead he decides to turn away from his past life and once more seek adventure elsewhere. It’s a confusing turn of events for a confusing book, which I found quite fitting.

I’m sure this book is laden with metaphor and allegory, but the conciseness and lack of any inkling of artistic wordsmithery is not what I wanted after the dark sprawling splendour of the first two books with their poetic passages and ponderous day-dreaming quality. Like so many readers before me I was a trifle disappointed.

However, perhaps the greatest metaphor at play here is hiding in plain sight. This is the difference in style and pace between books. Since Titus is without the castle rather than within, does this reflect the difference between the historic insular gloom of the rambling castle and the bright technology-driven hyperactivity of an outside world looking to the future?

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